beth20levin
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I’m not sure. It might have been the mighty Lester upright in the basement of our home on Lenape Road in Philadelphia. I went there at an early age and started to play. It became sort of my place to be myself, play, compose and have fun. The piano bench was filled with music and I remember reading through the Bach Preludes and Fugues and being completely hooked for all time on this music and its beauty, energy and emotion.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Simply put, my teachers and colleagues, especially composers. I had a range of teachers from Marian Filar and Rudolf Serkin in Philadelphia to Leonard Shure in Boston and then Dorothy Taubman in NYC. Each one imparted his/her own sense of a musical world and specifically how they approached music and the instrument. Most recently I have worked with the German conductor Christoph Schlüren and he has also had a strong impact on my playing. Music from Marlboro was a great influence as has every chamber music experience since then, including the formation of my own groups — Vista Lirica, The American Arts Trio and Trio Borealis. I think solo playing and chamber music playing work on each other and benefit each other. Having composers write music for me has been a great joy and the interaction with living artists such as David Del Tredici, Yehudi Wyner, Andrew Rudin, Scott Wheeler, Mike Rose, Amanda Harberg, Scott Brickman, Roger Stubblefield, Mohammed Fairouz, Bunita Marcus and others is a very vital, essential source of inspiration.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
The recital for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society of the last three Beethoven sonatas was special to me and the recording of those pieces for Parma Recordings is one of my favorite CD’s. I’m proud of the newest recording, “Bright Circle” for Navona. I performed the program of Schubert, Brahms and Del Tredici several times and recorded it in the summer of 2016. One performance of it that stands out in my mind took place at Bargemusic in NYC. Playing “Ode to Music” by David Del Tredici for the composer was really fun and enlightening. I thought he was going to hate what I was doing — as I was playing the piece in his apartment I thought he might start tearing out his hair — but he surprised me by jumping up and declaring he loved it. Of course he had much to add after that, but he was in general agreement with my interpretation.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
Possibly Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Chopin. But I feel like an actor who fulfills the role given her. If I’m playing Gaspard de la Nuit, I put everything into making it work — whatever it takes. Other people seem to identify me with late Classical and Romantic music. But I’m happy in other eras and styles as well.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I’ve just started working on Op. 106 of Beethoven and the Schumann Fantasy — and looking for one other work to go in between the two mountains.I usually sit down and read through say the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and then instead of learning them, go completely off track. Other people’s suggestions influence me and friends have been suggesting the Hammerklavier for a long time.
Do you have a favorite concert venue to perform in and why?
I don’t have a favorite — although I thought Alice Tully Hall was lovely. Almost any stage makes me happy.
Who are your favorite musicians?
I probably have a penchant for the older musicians — Schnabel, Leonard Shure, Clara Haskil, Dinu Lipatti, Sofronitsky, Richter, Yudina on and on. Some of my favorite singers were Callas, Victoria de los Angeles, and Jussi Bjorling. I like the cellist Steven Isserlis very much and the pianist Radu Lupu.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
One of my best memories is of the Beethoven concerto in C minor, no. 3, with Milton Katims and the Seattle Symphony. But another great and very recent memory is of the Mozart D minor concerto with Mark Peterson and the Wilson Symphony Orchestra in NC. A concerto performance may be the most dramatic experience in a sense.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
First find your voice at the instrument. That may be the most important idea. Work at melding technique with expression so that technique is always serving the music and not the other way around. Put everything you experience in to your playing — your sense of nature, of listening to other instruments, especially the voice, your feeling for color, love and imagination. At the same time study the score tirelessly. Look for the long line and find the structure of the work.
What is your most treasured possession?
One is a letter from my first teacher Marian Filar, who lived through the Holocaust and performed widely after the war. He was a wonderful Chopin interpreter. His letter was very sweet and inspired. I remember him dancing around the room to show a dance rhythm of Chopin or playing recordings of Gieseking, his teacher, and giving so much of himself in lessons.
beth-levin_bright-circle_navona_2017_cover-artBeth Levin’s latest disc Bright Circle is available now on the Navonna Records label. Details here
(Original interview 2014, updated spring 2017)

What is your first memory of the piano?

It is more of a feeling, I remember being struck by the beauty and loving the patterns of the keys.  I don’t remember a time when there has not been a piano near by calling me to play.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Inspire is the right word and it was probably the music which did it. It had always been my long term intention, however, I also wanted to know about the workings of the instrument so trained as a technician first.  One day whilst tuning a piano I realised that I was ready to move into teaching.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Beyond my lovely students from whom I learn continually I have had 6 teachers and they have all been significant in their own way.  If I had to pick one I would say Tim Barratt who snapped my playing, and practising into shape and guided me through the teaching diploma exams.  I also learnt more than expected, musically, during my time tuning for Steinway.  The sheer volume of high quality music I heard daily still runs through me.  I used to practise at Steinway over the weekends, helping myself to the concert fleet model Ds and receiving helpful passing comments from the likes of Alberto Portugheis and Charles Rosen.  When out on the road tuning I often had to wait for rehearsals to end, for me it was fascinating to listen in.  I am a better musician than I might have been as a result.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

This is an interesting one and the first thought that comes to mind is this……. when I was around 15, a piano teacher told me that I did not have a good enough ear to consider tuning pianos as a career.  By 22 I was tuning for Steinway covering Wigmore Hall and BBC Proms Concerts.  As a result I will never discourage a student but rather guide them in what they need to do to achieve their goals.  For me it is also important to keep myself musically stimulated through attending concerts, lessons and meetings with other musicians, taking the best from these experiences and passing it on.  I find trusting my intuition to be a very open and reliable way of working.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

They are probably the individual breakthroughs that students make after some time of careful work.  These delight me, no matter what the level, because of the personal feeling of success it brings the student.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

As well as the joy music brings, there is so much to be gained, on a personal level, from learning something later in life.  It is wonderful to watch adult students begin to trust and rely on the process, accept their mistakes and move away from their natural tendencies to be over analytical and critical.  The challenge for me is to lead by example!

Tell us how you developed the Music Me Piano Practice Books and how you think it will benefit piano students and teachers:

Music Me Piano is a piano practice note book available in three versions.  They developed out of a practice-a-thon my students took part in which highlighted a vast difference in achievement between the two week event and normal termly lessons. We realised that the speed of their progress during normal term time was hampered, not by the difficulty or time requirements of what I was asking them to do, but by their ability to divide up their work and use their practice time smartly.

During lesson time student and teacher plan what needs to be practised day by day for the week ahead.  Students benefit from very clear weekly targets which set in motion a positive cycle of achievements.  Their self-efficacy and enjoyment is increased but they also develop really powerful learning skills which translate to any subject.

Teachers benefit because they are working with more motivated students who are placed in a greater position of responsibility.  Teachers ensure, through the Reference Section, that the student has all the information needed to practise their work correctly.

A happy by product of all this is that lesson planning is a much more fluid process done in conjunction with the student.  The book opens up a discussion between teacher and student on the topics of practice and all the different areas which need to be covered to develop into a rounded musician.  The book can be used when you are teaching exam syllabuses and is also incredibly inspiring to use when lessons are not following the exam curriculum.  Providing a tool for teachers to connect all aspects of theory, form and musicianship through the piece being studied. A great way to set your own syllabus tailored to your student, and a super way to teach and learn!

What do you expect from your students?

The same as I expect from myself……..To give it their best, remain open and never ever say “I can’t”

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

As long as you approach them in a level-headed way when the time is right they are valuable learning experiences.  Also, I really feel music should be shared, so developing performance skills is important

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Actually they are not that different.  Follow the sound you are making, you can learn so much this way.  Don’t confine your musical education to the time spent in front of the piano, live it, music is everywhere.  Go to concerts, you need to experience many different styles, lines, tones and colours before you can go in search of what you want to create.  Observe yourself.  Play from the heart.  Know the value of deliberate practice, there is no quick fix which will give comparable results!

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

For me it is important to do both because developments in one area fuels the other in ways I may otherwise have missed.  Without stretching myself I would soon lose true empathy for my students; my best teaching and breakthrough moments with students come when I am working through difficulties of my own.  As well as that, performance needs to be taught and students learn much from watching.  I make sure I perform to all my students and parents during termly concerts.  We are all human, we all make mistakes, some people are just more practised at letting them slip by.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

Alfred Brendel, tone colour and mastery of every nuance and line.  Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, I was blown away by his playing last year, I think it was one of those special concerts where music, pianist and venue work perfectly.  Mitsuko Uchida, Maria Joao Pires, Krystian Zimmerman, especially the Schubert Impromptus.  I think it is good though to keep listening to new pianists and new music in new venues.

If you would like to know more about Music, Me, Piano please visit www.musicmepiano.co.uk

For more information on lessons, book presentations and book details please contact Roberta on info@robertawolff.co.uk or via her website www.robertawolff.co.uk

 

Review of the Music Me Piano practice notebook

Jeffrey Biegel, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career? 

There was a piano in the house – an old Estey upright. I gravitated to it after my sister’s piano lessons. Like a magnet, I was drawn to the piano.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing? 

In piano playing, my teachers, of course. Aside from Morton Estrin and Adele Marcus, I would have to say Josef Lhevinne, Artur Schnabel, Rachmaninov and of living pianists, Murray Perahia among many others.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

The greatest challenge in any career is to maintain a steady flow of employment. Fortunately, with standard repertoire, new concerto projects written for me, plus recordings and teaching, there is a nice flow and momentum to keep evolving as a musician.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I would have to say in 1983, performing my debut with orchestra, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, with the Juilliard Philharmonic in Lincoln Center; same concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC; Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra; and performances of concerti with the following composers in the audience: Keith Emerson, Neil Sedaka, Lowell Liebermann, William Bolcom, Richard Danielpour, Charles Strouse, Marjorie Rusche and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love playing everything actually. I never know which is best, however.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I normally base the repertoire on new works being premiered and recorded, and the concerti asked for that particular season. next season includes Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Saint-Saens Concerto no. 2, Grieg’s Concerto, and Rachmaninov Concerti nos 2 and 3.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

I enjoy everywhere I perform – each venue has its own magic.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Too many to list!!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Too many to list!! In the pop world, David Foster, Keith Emerson, Neil Sedaka (and I can’t get Pink’s song, ‘Just Give Me a Reason’ out of my head – liking it!); pop/classic pianists, Victor Borge and Liberace; classical world – everyone! I always enjoy listening to other pianists and hearing their interpretations of music we all know and love.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

If I must narrow it down, it would have to be my New York recital debut on April 14, 1986, in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for the Juilliard William Petschek Piano Debut Award–an annual honor given to a pianist. I remember looking out through the backstage to see all of my family, friends and colleagues go to their seats. It was like getting married to the instrument, formally, in New York, in front of everyone I know.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

I would suggest creating and maintaining a network of musician friends, and friends in all artistic capacities. You never know when you might collaborate in special projects in performance, audio/video recording etc.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am now at work for a recording project in the fall of 2014 featuring the following works:
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
Ellington: New World A-Comin’ (1945, orchestration by Maurice Peress; solo cadenza by Sir Roland Hanna)
Keith Emerson: Concerto no. 1 (1977)
Neil Sedaka: Manhattan Intermezzo (2010; piano part enhanced by Jeffrey Biegel)

Additionally, I will record Lucas Richman’s “Piano Concerto: In Truth” during the 2014-15 season; orchestra tba; and will learn a new concerto based on the famous rock group, The Monkees, to be composed by Dick Tunney out of Nashville. That will be premiered with Orchestra Kentucky in January 2015, along with Peter Tork’s “Moderato ma non troppo” for piano and orchestra. Kenneth Fuchs will be composing a Piano Concerto for me, which will have its world premiere in 2015-16 with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts with Kevin Rhodes conducting. For the Dicterow-DeMaine-Biegel trio, I will be learning Suk’s “Elegie”, and Dohnanyi’s “Quintet” for our January debut in Fort Worth, Texas. Also, the world premiere of Jeremy Lubbock’s new composition, “Moods–a duet for Piano and Strings” will take place in February 2015 with the orchestra of Moravian College in Pennsylvania.

 
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Still alive, performing and recording.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A peaceful world, allowing us to travel anywhere, anytime, without religious or political boundaries.

What is your most treasured possession? 

A photo of pianist Josef Lhevinne to his student (and my teacher) Adele Marcus from May 26, 1928 – Adele changed the date to 1938 to make her younger!

Jeffrey Biegel’s biography

My review of Jeffrey Biegel’s CD ‘A Grand Romance’

 

 
 

 

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano/composing/conducting, and make it your career? 

Not just a single person has inspired me. I’ve had some great piano teachers before and during my time at university. My last lessons were with Mikhail Kazakevich from Trinity College of Music. I found it amazing that every piece I wanted to learn he was already able play from memory, while looking at me, and could really shake the grand piano playing Liszt. It was a really relaxed environment where I was able to not just ask questions, but also have discussions about the music and I learnt an incredible amount from this. I discovered during this time how to really uncover and convey the music’s narrative as opposed to just learning the technical aspects of a piece.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Unsurprisingly, especially for the people that know me, I relish the spotlight and the idea of putting on a grand performance is always on my mind. However, I do a lot of lounge jazz playing, and I love having an audience who are doing other things and where music isn’t the main focus. I feel completely free to explore music and try new things without the pressure of the spotlight. It’s really easy to make the space a performance for myself.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love the intense emotion and raw power of the late romantic Russians (Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, etc). I think this is in part due to my style of composition, as I love creating piano works in their style and I can never resist learning a challenging piece of music. However, I’ve always loved the simple beauty and lyricism of Chopin, so I always try and have a piece of his on the go.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Musicians like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Leonard Bernstein I really aspire to, as they are greats in more than just one field. However, for specific pieces, composers and genres I have my favourites. Jazz Trio playing – Brad Mehldau, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto – Olga Kern, Conducting Stravinsky’s Firebird – Valery Gergiev. The very long list goes on.…

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

My first time as a concert pianist, I was performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This was such a fun piece to learn, and even though I was nervous before, the moment I started playing I relaxed into the music and for 15 minutes the audience didn’t exist, it was just the music and me. It was over way to soon, and I felt such an incredible rush I wanted to do it again straight away. However, I wasn’t fully satisfied and I think I will always be looking for bigger and better things to get involved in. After the concert, I was told there where children dancing at the back, a success in my opinion!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Always have a performance to work toward otherwise it’s really easy to put practicing to the side. Keep an open mind to new pieces of music you are introduced to, I know my taste in music has dramatically changed over the last few years. Join in everything!

What are you working on at the moment? 

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for a concert later this year, and Blumenfeld’s Etude for the Left Hand, Op.36 for my birthday party/jam night next week – I want to be able to finish a drink in my right hand before the piece is over!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

I would love to have my hand firmly in the three things I love, which is Performing, Composing and Conducting. My idea of perfect happiness is centre stage in a grand concert hall abroad with the Berlin Philharmonic performing and conducting a piano concerto I have composed.

Ho Wan Jeremy Leung 梁皓雲

www.howanjeremyleung.com

Interview date: September 2013

 

The music of George Gershwin remains perennially popular with performers and audiences alike, and his life and work are vividly illustrated in ‘Classic Gershwin’, a new words and music production with actress Susan Porrett and acclaimed Gershwin interpreter, pianist Viv McLean.

It is a mistake to think of Gershwin purely as a composer of “jazz” (a term he in fact disliked, preferring the term “swing” to describe his jazz-inspired music). His musical tastes and influences were wide, from Bach to Stravinsky and Schoenberg. He was particularly influenced by the French composers of the early twentieth-century, notably Maurice Ravel, who in turn was most intrigued by Gershwin’s work. Gershwin’s great skill was his ability to manipulate different forms of music into his own unique musical voice.

‘Classic Gershwin’, the third words and music collaboration between Susan Porrett and Viv McLean, takes the audience on an exhilarating, foot-tapping journey through Gershwin’s life and music, from his early years in Brooklyn to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood to his tragically early death from a brain tumour in 1937. Just as in ‘Divine Fire’, Viv and Sue’s moving concert focusing on the life of Chopin and his relationship with Georges Sand, the text of ‘Classic Gershwin’ offers just enough information to continually pique the listener’s attention and brings Gershwin to life with the clever and eclectic interweaving of words and music. Each nugget is illustrated with sensitively-chosen music selections, including Someone to Watch Over Me and the rarely-performed Three Preludes, to Swanee, the song which marked Gershwin’s elevation into the realms of established composer and song-writer, after Al Jolson heard Gershwin play it at a party.

The first half of Classic Gershwin closes with Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin’s hommage to bustling metropolis of Jazz-Age New York, the city of his home, complete with wailing sirens, honking car horns and the rattle of the subway. The second half focuses on Gershwin’s later life, his growing success and fame, and his work in Hollywood. The description of his failing health (the result of a then-undiagnosed brain tumour) was told with great poignancy, and the concert closed on a tender note, a fitting contrast to the sparkling bravura of the Rhapsody in Blue.

The great appeal of this words and music concert, aside from the wonderful music, played by Viv with great precision, exuberance and musical sensitivity, all underpinned by his pristine technique, is its ability to offer just enough information in the text to keep the listener wanting more. Viv demonstrated that pieces driven by rhythmic vitality and syncopation can still have the most exquisite tonal palette and a magical dynamic range, and the music provided the most delicious interludes, complementing the text at every turn (the musical selections are made between Viv and Sue). The overall effect is a glorious and intriguing celebration of Gershwin’s life and work.

This was the world premiere of this new words and music collaboration and it was rapturously received by the audience at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, SW London. Highly recommended.

My review of ‘Divine Fire’

Franz Peter Schubert
Franz Peter Schubert

Schubert wrote two sets of Impromptus (D899 and D935). Composed in 1827, his post-‘Winterreise’ annus mirabilis, a year of fervent creativity, the Impromptus remain some of his most popular piano works, particularly the first set and the third of the D935 (a set of variations based on the ‘Rosamunde’ theme from his opera of the same name). The first set tend to be performed more frequently and I have occasionally heard both sets in the same concert, with a selection of the Moments Musicaux slotted in between them.

The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece. In fact, all of Schubert’s Impromptus are tightly-knit and highly cohesive works, and the longest lasts over ten minutes. Schubert did not invent the term “impromptu”: Jan Vorisek, the Bohemian composer living in Vienna, published the first impromptus in 1822, and the term was assigned to Schubert’s works by his Viennese publisher. When he sent out his second set of Impromptus, Schubert numbered them five through to eight. Schumann posited that Schubert may have had something much larger in mind when he composed the D935 set, and even suggested that the key sequence of the four pieces formed a piano sonata in all but name. Certainly the F minor Impromptu (the first of the D935 – the set ends with another F minor impromptu) has the grandeur and scale one expects from a piano sonata from this period but all four works also stand alone, each distinct in their own right.

I have lived with Schubert’s Impromptus since my teens, and have muddled through all of them and learnt two of them properly (the E flat Impromptu from the D899 formed part of my first Diploma programme). For me, the works are continually interesting for their range, depth, variety, individual characters and specific musical challenges. They each display in microcosm many aspects and distinctive characteristics of Schubert’s large-scale piano music (sonatas and fantasies for example) and are extremely rewarding to play. They work well in concert programmes, performed either as a complete set, or as separate pieces, and remain perennially popular with artists and audiences alike.

The entire D935 is a much more substantial set of pieces than the first set, and this is especially true of the first F minor Impromptu. Organised in sonata-rondo form, the tone of this impromptu moves between an almost-Beethovenian drama and assertiveness in its opening section and the more flowing, melodic duet of the central sections.

In terms of learning and playing this Impromptu, I would suggest the following based on my current study of the work:

  • The piece is organised in distinct sections (and one will tend to learn it sectionally). Keep in mind the overall structure and narrative of the piece to produce a cohesive whole and be alert to the bridges between each section
  • Be careful not to over-emphasise the forte, fortissimo and fz markings: remember this is Schubert not Beethoven. I feel the dynamic contrasts are not as black and white as one would expect in Beethoven.
  • Bars 13-19 (and also 126-133): here you want to try to recreate a sense of the underlying chords and chord changes. This section must not sound too dry. Aim for a “shimmering” touch with a sense of string articulation. (Extract 1)
  • Bars 30-38 (and also 144-152): don’t begin this section with too much power or heaviness (remember – it’s not Beethoven!). Hold back to allow for a real climax into bars 30/31. Keep the touch light and the RH semiquaver arpeggios delicate.
  • Bars 44-64 (and also 159-177): after some discussion and experimentation with my teacher, I try to keep this section light and rhythmic (there is a danger of making the textures too thick here because of the chords). Although Schubert marks it sempre legato, the staccato markings suggest that one should continue in this vein throughout this section. This gives the chords a wonderful dancing lightness. But be sure to observe all the legato markings very diligently. The RH semiquavers at bar 56+ should just shimmer over the LH chords. (Extract 2)
  • Bars 69-112 (and also 182-225): this is the emotional heart of the piece – plaintive duetting fragments in treble and bass, accompanied by gently rippling semiquavers in the RH. The accompaniment must not intrude, but it is also important to retain a sense of the underlying harmonies and chord changes. Keep the hand soft and the wrist flexible: some of these broken chords are awkward (in particular, bar 204) and at no point must these semiquavers sound “notey” or dry, especially in the forte sections. Meanwhile the duet (played by the LH only) should sing, with careful shaping in the fragments. (Extract 3)
Extract 1
Extract 1
Extract 2
Extract 2
Extract 3
Extract 3

Download the complete score

Further reading

Charles Fisk – Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas

John Daverio – Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann and Brahms