American pianist Beth Levin in conversation with Max Derrickson on her upcoming recital programme at Merkin Hall, New York, and new recording of Liszt and Mussorgsky.


[MD]: It’s a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you, Beth! Thank you. You’re a well-known concert pianist with an extremely impressive career. Particularly, your musical heritage with some of the most famous pianists on the 20th Century as your teachers (Marian Filar, Leonard Shure and Rudolph Serkin) could be plenty enough for an interview. But if you’ll allow, let’s focus on a specific recital and recording that you are recently doing (in 2022), which includes two very important, and extremely difficult, piano works: Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Anyone familiar with these works likely knows that they are “bears” to perform – technically, and no less so, musically. And you decided to perform both on one program. Would you talk about your choice of performing these two virtuosic works together?

[BL]: Thank you, Max. Lovely to explore the works with you! I think that the Liszt Sonata was really new territory for me and that appealed to me. I had learned the Mussorgsky many years ago and am just now revisiting it. The juxtaposition of the new and the old felt right. Let me say that I’ll be opening the recital with Portrait Miniatures: Three Women by Andrew Rudin which is very much a modern work and a wonderful departure point for the rest of the program. Friends had been urging me to play the Liszt Sonata for quite some time and up to now I resisted it. Suddenly the time seemed right to open the music. From the first read-through I was utterly and completely hooked. Playing through Pictures had more of a nostalgic feel and a reminder in some ways of my Russian/Ukrainian roots (my grandparents on both sides are from Odessa). The music elicits reactions from me as a musician – timing, color, character – that surprise me and I hope will translate to the listeners.

In terms of the pieces being difficult, I never like to admit to it. I play for weeks before I realize that I had really better isolate and practice those octaves!

I recorded the pieces this summer and that was a marvelous education into the music and into the preparation behind the performances.

[MD]: Roots in Odessa! Odessa’s like the breadbasket of the world of music! But we can return to that momentarily, as well as to the recording you made this summer. But before we get there:

Your programs are always, for me, so challenging and thoughtful… and brave. I have you to thank, actually, for introducing me to Andrew Rudin’s excellent and modern music. It’s intriguing to me that you’re beginning with his three Portraits. Each are under three minutes long, and I gather that they each have a sort of inside joke to them – for example, his dedication of the second portrait to Rose Moss was written for her as a parting gift to her after a summer at the MacDowell artist’s retreat in New Hampshire – and titled To a Wild Moss Rose, which plays (pun-fully and musically) on one of Edward MacDowell’s most famous piano miniatures, To a Wild Rose (Edward, of course, the founder of the MacDowell retreat). How do you see Rudin’s miniatures as departure points to Liszt and Mussorgsky? And, can you say more about your history with this fine composer’s music?

[BL]: Originally, I planned to play Andrew’s work in between the Liszt and the Mussorgsky, and he laughed and said he didn’t mind being sandwiched in the middle of two giants.

But I think starting with Portraits makes more sense. They can be likened a bit to the portraits that Mussorgsky paints in Pictures. And I like that the program will begin here and now and work its way back in time which will give the program a path to follow. The Liszt by itself is a vast arc and so the pieces will be arcs within arcs. I simply want the audience to come on the adventure with me.

I have played and recorded Andrew Rudin’s work over the years and am very honored that his piano sonata was written for me.

[MD]: I really like the arc idea in your programming here – it sounds like a fun adventure! Regarding the Rudin Portraits, I admire that you are adding this contemporary piece to fit in with Liszt and Mussorgsky on your recital at Merkin Hall in October (2022). You also added a contemporary piece on your last CD, playing Carosello: Disegno per piano No 3 (2005) by Swedish composer Anders Eliasson, in between Handel and then Beethoven’s colossal Hammerklavier Sonata. Do you have a particular philosophy about performing new music? Also, do you have a particular model, or philosophy, about choosing programs?

[BL]: Sometimes it’s as simple as working on a piece such as the Hammerklavier or the Liszt Sonata and wanting to experience something utterly different. The Rudin for instance is a lovely change from the Liszt when one is practicing and I think it may work that way for listeners as well. The pieces take over your life for a while and it’s good if you love the music you are working on. A program has to feel right and get one excited – but I’m not sure that I have a philosophy about choosing one.

Finally, I really enjoy playing the works of friends – scores that arrive in the mail and are fresh and newly printed, a reminder of when the Liszt and the Mussorgsky were just written.

[MD]: I can completely understand about a piece of music taking over! And so, your method of balancing that out is to play something entirely different. But importantly, I think, as you said, the three short Rudin pieces are a wonderful balance to the weightiness of the rest of your program for your concert audience.

I can imagine your glee over getting fresh copy in the mail… there’s something really very delightful about that. Opening the package, feeling the score, first glances and first impressions, and all that wonderful stuff. Do you recall your first impressions of Pictures at an Exhibition? Of Liszt’s Sonata?

[BL]: I do remember opening the score to the Liszt Sonata in January and feeling many emotions at once. It was as if the whole work had been in the back of my mind for years just waiting to move to the center.

I had to talk to a close musical friend about it and I remember making immediate plans to play it. I had never performed much of his piano music and barely knew anything about the sonata. But I was instantly committed to learning it.

Pictures at an Exhibition had been sitting on my shelf for years – I went to it mainly questioning how it would feel to work on it again.

I’m surprised at how differently I seem to be approaching the portraits. A kind friend who has heard both versions said he thought I was taking more time now and going deeper into the character.

With both the Liszt and the Mussorgsky there is the chance to explore so many artistic facets and create a musical world. But some days I just stare at all the octave passages and technical high jinks! haha.

[MD]: Looking at the score of the Liszt, and seeing those technical high jinks, some might faint, I think! Perhaps in another interview, we can talk more about relationships with pieces of music – they become such a part of the performer’s life at a certain time – the performer devotes so much heart and psyche to a work, and the score becomes a sort of whiteboard for notes and suggestions, and a reflection of our relationship to the music. Life can get tangled up in a piece of music. We can explore some of that, too, when we talk more about your revisiting Mussorgsky.

In the meantime, though, considering those challenging parts of any piece of music, how do you approach conquering them? What’s a typical practice/routine response for you? How have you been tackling the Liszt?

[BL]: The desire to simply play is so strong perhaps because of the extreme expressiveness of the Liszt Sonata. I start out playing a page or so extremely slowly but then the musical sweep takes over and I just have to ride the waves. But in many passages first I practice slowly, evenly, and within a strict context. Speed often comes on its own – you can’t really push. In the octaves I worked out the shapes inherent in the writing and those also seemed to come at their own pace.

I worked on the Liszt this morning and it was just that combination of how I will ultimately perform the work with a few moments of “Whoa Nellie!”

Having the recording as a deadline was very helpful, I think. Playing for friends was crucial as well – their suggestions and the mere act of playing through.

[MD]: I think Liszt would have appreciated hearing some “Whoa Nellies!” along the line. And … I can only imagine how delightful it must be to be the friend who gets to listen to your putting one of these masterpieces together.

Some deeper specifics about the Liszt: Liszt dedicated his Sonata to Robert Schumann as a thank you in reciprocation for Schumann’s dedication of his solo piano work Fantasie in C major, Op. 17 (1839) to Liszt. Liszt completed his Sonata in B minor (in 1853-4), however, after Schumann had been committed to a mental asylum following his attempted suicide. It thus arrived at the Schumann household sans Robert, and finding Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, both virtuoso pianists. As Brahms played through Liszt’s Sonata for Clara, she famously found it rather awful, lamenting that she had “to thank him for that!” – but we should report that it didn’t take long for the Sonata to find its place as one of the great, and one of the most unique, solo piano works of the 19th Century. Nonetheless, it’s considered a thorny piece in several regards. Besides its technical challenges, another of those thorns is its rather difficult-to-categorize, some say genius, hybridization of structural form – somewhere between a true Classical sonata and a Liszt-ian tone poem. How do you approach this structural uniqueness/ambiguity? Does the arc of the piece let the Sonata dictate its own path?

[BL]: I lean more to the idea of the work as a tone poem and yet I can see how he structured it as a sonata within a sonata. The “Andante sostenuto” can be read as the slow movement. Apparently, Liszt said very little about the new form of his Sonata but it certainly influenced composers far into the future. His exquisite themes flow so perfectly and inevitably into one another that you almost feel like he’s taking your hand and saying “just follow me.” I think one can be very free and expressive in one’s interpretation exactly because the structure is so solid. I know that he transcribed Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy for piano and orchestra and may have been very influenced by that same idea of freedom and fantasy within four movements … sort of a Garden of Eden within marble walls.

[MD]: I really do love your description … and it makes sense to me, that Liszt sort of left the mystery out of the mix…. clever and again by half…. yet his Sonata carries you along the way, whatever the overall form is. The Garden of Eden within marble walls is a lovely metaphor. I think, too, that inside the Garden also lives a serpent…

About Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: You mentioned above that your “grandparents on both sides are from Odessa.” We won’t confuse Ukraine with Russia, though to be sure, there are connections. Nonetheless, did you feel, and, or do you feel now, that you “hear” the Mussorgsky a little more deeply? And were your grandparents musicians, may I ask?

[BL]: Do you mean was there something in the borscht that gives me the inside track into Pictures at an Exhibition?

Seriously, I know that my parents grew up in households where everyone either played the violin, sang or played the piano. Music was a strong element in the lives of my parents and grandparents. But I realize that doesn’t make me an expert on Mussorgsky. I do feel certain instincts for Pictures and I try to be careful about assuming that every instinct is a correct one. I do employ rubato, color, timing and phrasing in ways that I think match and enhance the music and I hope that others will enjoy my interpretation.

[MD]: I think borscht can do a lot of things… but I appreciate the wisdom, and humility, regarding your instincts. Mussorgsky feels, to me, powerful and raw and immensely musical. And so, I’m not sure that one can get too far afield from his intentions once immersed in a performance, do you know what I mean?

About the piano version: I (and probably most listeners) have been mesmerized by Pictures since I first heard them … first in Ravel’s orchestral version. It was surprising to me, when I first heard the original piano version, how exceptionally well they still sound without all the bells and colors of an orchestra. The music is extremely hardy!

Now that you’ve been close to the piano version twice around, do you think Mussorgsky had an orchestration in mind when he was writing Pictures – or do you feel he was truly thinking of the colors of the piano? Are there any really favorite moments for you?

[BL]: A bit of background: one of Modest Mussorgsky’s best friends was Viktor Hartmann, an artist who tragically died of an aneurism in 1873 at the age of 39. Two weeks after Hartmann’s death his friends and supporters organized a major exhibition of his works at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. About a year later Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition. Completed in only twenty days, Pictures was originally a set of short pieces for piano in which Mussorgsky depicted himself walking through the exhibition and contemplating Hartmann’s works.

I think Mussorgsky was writing a piano piece – period. He was thinking of the piano as an orchestra at times – complete with bells. But I don’t think he was thinking of orchestration. He knew that the piano is a great chameleon and can recreate almost any vision.

One of my favorite “pictures” is “Il Vecchio Castello”” based on an architectural sketch by Hartmann. The melody is so expressive and the rhythmic underpinning so graceful. Also, I appreciate the way that each “Promenade” is so different from one another. “Tuileries” was inspired by a now lost crayon drawing of the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. It is so delicate and I love playing it. “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” is another favorite – my only desire is not to leave too many feathers on the ground!

The weightier movements such as “Gnome” or “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” require the power of a huge sound. I enjoy how Mussorgsky will contrast heaviness with something frothy in the following piece – from an oxcart to a tulle tutu.

A favorite arrival point for me is the “Sepulcrum Romanium Catacombs.” After much activity this piece is slow, austere and as cavernous as a tomb. It may have been an expression of Mussorgsky’s feeling of loss for his friend Hartmann. The music is exhaled in long breaths and marks the point at which “Baba Yaga” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” take over and end the work.

[MD]: When one hears a fine performance of this work, I think it’s easy to hear that Mussorgsky was treating the piano like an orchestra at times – which serves to remind us of the extraordinary talent and intellect that Mussorgsky possessed.

I love your image of stray notes falling off the keyboard like little chick feathers! And I think it illustrates part of the work’s true genius – it’s ability to evoke emotions and images. Each “picture” is a little masterpiece. “The Old Castle”… what a beautifully expressive tune. And I completely agree that the balancing of heavy and light, the pacing, and the overall direction of Pictures is really a masterful compositional achievement.

There are, as we know, only a few of Hartmann’s artworks left to see from that exhibition. And only several of the one’s that Mussorgsky immortalized still exist. I think I’d really love to see the Polish Oxcart and The Old Castle. Which would you really love to see? And do you think seeing them would inform your performance differently?

And… do you ever get lost in there… in the Exhibition? That you just want to linger a little while longer at a particular “picture”?

[BL]: I’d also love to see the Polish Oxcart and The Old Castle. Not seeing the images isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can allow your own imagination to flourish. It reminds me of haiku – better to simply let the words paint a picture … in this case let the music describe the art. Mussorgsky’s great skill as you said becomes so apparent exactly because he is a master at bringing Hartmann’s portraits to life. I think he even goes beyond that and creates an aura, a world in which the art can exist.

I think that I do linger here and there in the music when it seems right. I would love the audience to get lost inside the music.

[MD]: Are there any “pictures” that you find particularly daunting to play?

[BL]: The final two, “The Hut of the Baba Yaga” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” have a few thorny places and they occur in great speed. Speed often magnifies difficulty but what would great music be without challenges?

[MD]: I completely agree with your assessment about Mussorgsky creating a world beyond the art – thinking of the “Unhatched Chicks,” for example … in Mussorgsky’s wildly wonderful music for that, it rather looks as though Hartmann’s illustration was created secondly, for the music, not the other way around.

Regarding the challenges of the last two “pictures,” now I’m feeling a little guilty … I think you mentioned that you never like to admit something is difficult … did I just trick you into that?

But speaking of challenges, what about the Liszt Sonata? Are there any particular passages that you find really tough?

And, though the Sonata is a work that really shows off virtuosity, it also really shines with radiant poetry. Which passages do you find breath-taking?

[BL]: Haha – that’s what makes you a wonderful interviewer! No, I think that dwelling on technical issues such as virtuoso octaves can be insignificant.

The genuine task is to present the work as a whole, get inside it, portray what Liszt had in mind, and give a performance. If I miss a few notes or octaves, so be it – that pales in comparison to the actual fulfilment of the work. On the other hand, you need an expressive, flexible and physical technique, but more as a tool, not as an end all. That is probably true for any art. When I’m confronted with a few difficult passages I do laugh at myself knowing that they are merely reminders of imperfection on a path to art.

If I get swept away in the Sonata it is where the music melts into pianississimo. For all its grandeur, the poetic passages are truly the ravishing moments in the music. The final “Andante Sostenuto” is so moving and the final three chords are like a prayer.

I hope that the audience feels the emotion of the piece and that I simply express what is there.

[MD]: I hear you well on that, Maestra. I think we all have heard when a performance is flawless, technically, but at the cost of being soulless. I’ve never heard any of your performances suffer from that, Beth! And I guess the only thing I can respond to about those beautiful moments, and those last three, heart-stoppingly blissful chords is, “Amen.”

Before we start wrapping up our lovely conversation, could you tell us a little more about the recording session that you had for the Mussorgsky and Liszt? And do you know when the CD might be issued?

[BL]: I recorded with old friends Philip Valera (audio engineer) and Mark Peterson (producer) whom I knew at Boston University when I was studying with Leonard Shure and they were both budding organists. We had an easy rapport and were able to kid around when we weren’t doing the more serious work of recording Liszt and Mussorgsky. But I think that is so important when you begin a recording session – the ability to laugh creates a relaxed atmosphere for everyone. There were a few snags: the microphones were nowhere to be found when we first met at ten in the morning on a Wednesday in late May. And the weather in Wilson, North Carolina was extremely humid. The Steinway was freshly tuned but the piano keys were actually damp in Kennedy Hall at Barton College. Not to mention my hair!

I don’t yet have a release date for the recording by Aldilà Records. They produced my last CD of the Hammerklavier sonata, Handel and Anders Eliasson and I was so happy with their dedication to detail. Through the years I guess I’ve learned: if a conductor calls, call back. If a record label wants your mastered CD, just be grateful.

[MD]: The recording engineers that I’ve known are a band of very lovely, smart, laid-back and capable people… and funny. That has to help the recipe in cooking a recording! But … damp keys?? What on earth do you do about that? (Let’s not even touch the hair subject.)

Adilà Records has produced some really great recordings! I hope we see yours very, very soon.

Allow me, now, to pull way back, and ask you: you have a few years of an illustrious career informing your approach to performing – how might you characterize your playing of these great pieces today, in comparison to when you were, let’s say, in your twenties?

[BL]: I think that I rehearse differently now which affects performance – slower, more thoughtfully.

I have always tended to be a bit wild at the piano but after years of playing I have more control of things. Coaching with the conductor Christoph Schluren influenced my playing – as it relates to phrasing, mostly.

I think the wisdom from my teachers sort of synthesized for me at some point and now when I look at a score I bring to it more than I did.

I wish I could say, “I’m much smarter now.” Haha – I can only hope.

[MD]: It’s a wonderful realization to recognize your own personal musicianship as a monument to the other great musicians, friends and teachers who shared their talents in the service of the expression of art. Of course, their expertise is wrapped in the gold leaf of your great talents, too. Thanks for that beautiful sentiment, Beth.

And thank you for your time and generosity of soul that you’ve shared with me in this interview. Good luck with your recital, and I can’t wait to hear your CD!

[BL]: Thank you so much, Max, for your wise questions. I have enjoyed looking at aspects of the Liszt and the Mussorgsky with you as a guide!


Beth Levin performs Mussorgsky, Liszt and Rudin at Merkin Hall, New York, on 27 October. More information

The Innocent Ear was a radio programme, broadcast on the Third Programme (which became BBC Radio 3) in which listeners were invited to “preserve [their] ‘innocence'” by not trying to guess the composer, and by approaching the music with fresh judgment, freed from prejudice”.  The music played would be identified afterwards, thus freeing the listener’s mind of preconceptions and encouraging a closer, more concentrated or deeper way of listening. (One of the main aims of the programme was to introduce lesser-known music/composers to listeners through this impartial approach.)

I quite often do this kind of listening late at night, to BBC Radio 3’s Night Tracks and Unclassified programmes, where pieces often segue into one another, without any interjection from the presenter. I find it encourages deeper listening, though this may also be related to the time of day and setting (I’m usually in bed by this time with the lights turned low or even off). I have also found myself listening to, and enjoying music by composers I thought I loathed!

Our listening is shaped by our personal taste, experience and maturity, and by external influences such as broadcasts, reviews, recommendations, shared playlists, music heard on tv or film soundtracks, current trends (composers and performers come in and out of fashion very regularly), and much more. More often than not, the concerts we choose to go to are based on both personal taste and the extrinsic influences mentioned above.

But what if we were to apply the innocent ear approach to concerts? There would be no programme (even words like ‘sonata’ or ‘quartet’ suggest a specific genre and structure, at once setting up preconceptions about what will be performed); no words of introduction, either in writing or verbally; just the music. How might the listening experience change?

The programme note remains a mainstay of the traditional presentation of classical music; alongside that we now have the “presenter” (especially evident at the BBC Proms) who can, but not always (and the best ones don’t), become a filter between audience and music, explaining why we should “appreciate” certain pieces, impose meaning where meaning may not exist, and attempt to connect the music to the context of our times, rather than the time in which it was originally created. This kind of presenting can become really distracting, irritating or problematic when the presenter sees it as their role to place their own personal stamp on the concert, rather than allowing us to listen without prejudice. What is worse, is the gushing adulation of certain artists or composers, and a deluge of post-performance superlatives, leaving the listener little space to reflect on their own response to the music.

And in the midst of all this, the score, and the sounds which the text produces when brought to life by the musicians, often seems secondary to what this or that piece of music is “about”.

Do we need to be told how to listen? And do we also need to be told what the “meaning” of the music might be (this especially applies to contemporary music, in my experience)?

Without a programme note or verbal introduction, the music has to impress purely on its sonic content, to be effective and affective, and any meaning ascribed to or drawn from it will be personal to the individual listener. In this way, listeners open their minds, and ears, to the experience of the music, without prejudging its merits based on when or by whom it was composed. In this way, works are appreciated for their intrinsic musical power, rather than extrinsic factors, such as the reputation of the composer or biographical or historical contexts.

Music does not have to have “meaning”, but rather it should be meaningful – as it undoubtedly is, for a multitude of reasons, and we each take our own personal meaningfulness from it.

Minimalist music has proved that fewer notes can still be powerful and arresting. Perhaps a similar “less is more” approach should be applied to programme notes, introductions and the presentation of classical music?

“Music doesn’t have to be understood, It just has to be heard” – Hermann Scherchen, conductor


A few of my late-night, ‘innocent ear” discoveries:


Friday 30th September, 7.30pm, at St George’s Hanover Square, London W1

Poppy Beddoe – clarinet

Matthew Taylor – conductor

A special concert in memory of conductor, Artistic Director and producer Tom Hammond, who died suddenly just after Christmas 2021 at the age of 47, will be held on 30 September at St George’s church, Hanover Square.

Organised by a group of Tom’s close friends and colleagues, the concert will feature music by Tom’s favourite composer, Jean Sibelius, as well as works by Mozart and Nielsen, and pieces by composer friends Bernard Hughes, James Francis Brown and Matthew Taylor, who will also conduct the concert. The soloist is clarinettist Poppy Beddoe.

Programme:
Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C minor
James Francis Brown Lost Lanes – Shadow Groves
Bernard Hughes 3 Pieces for Tom
Sibelius Impromptu for Strings
Matthew Taylor Romanza
Nielsen 3 Pieces Op.3, orchestrated for strings

Conductor, soloist, orchestral players and publicist are offering their services free of charge, and proceeds from the concert will be donated to Future Talent and London Music Fund, two charities which support young musicians, especially those with limited financial means, to reach their full potential – a mission very close to Tom’s heart.

Tickets cost £10-£30 and can be booked via this link: www.ticketsource.co.uk/thmemorial

Thank you for your support of this concert


A passionate and thoroughly engaging conductor, Tom Hammond always put *people* first – the musicians he was leading, the audience to whom they were performing, or the composer whose notes they were illuminating. He was a champion for increasing access to music for people from all walks of life, firmly believing in its power as a tool for social change, community spirit, and pure enjoyment.

Despite claiming he ‘couldn’t play it’, Tom would spend hours dissecting each score at the piano, whilst delving into published letters, biographies and anecdotes to find out what made a composer tick so that he could convey that understanding to others. Amongst his orchestras are now many converts to the same composers Tom loved.

Tom’s conducting took him around the UK and internationally. On several occasions he was proud to lead the Palestine Youth Orchestra, with whom he visited Jordan, Dubai and Oman. One of the world’s true driving forces, Tom also founded the chamber ensemble sound collective, the Hertfordshire Festival of Music as Co-Artistic Director, and the recording company Chiaro as a producer.

Alongside seemingly endless energy and a zest for life, Tom’s encouragement for all music-makers leaves thousands of people with awakened curiosity and so many wonderful memories.

For press/media enquiries, please contact Frances Wilson frances_wilson66@live.com

“I wish I’d kept up my piano lessons!”

How many people do you meet who express this regret, that they’d continued childhood piano lessons into adulthood?

At my piano club, there are people who have played all their life; others who, like me, gave up, often in childhood or their teens, only to return to the instrument later in life; and those who have taken up the piano from scratch as adults, setting themselves on a path which brings pleasure and frustration in equal measure. For all of us, there is a huge sense of personal growth, self-determination and fulfilment.

The idea that once one reaches adulthood it is “too late” to take up the piano – or indeed any other instrument – is nonsense. The body and, more importantly, the brain is still receptive and highly malleable, and research has amply demonstrated that the brain remains “plastic” (able to adapt and change) throughout our life. Learning a musical instrument stimulates almost every part of the brain, especially those areas associated with memory. Contrary to common misconceptions, the adult brain continues to carve new neural pathways throughout life, and learning an instrument stimulates this and improves cognitive function.

Dismiss any idea that it is “harder” to learn an instrument as an adult. Unlike children, who may be compelled to learn an instrument by their parents, the adult learner makes the personal choice to pursue music and has the motivation, intent and self-discipline to stay the course.

It takes a degree of courage to decide to learn, or return to, an instrument, and to take lessons with the teacher and the first few lessons can be extremely daunting, but find the right teacher and the activity is an extraordinarily fulfilling experience. No dull exercises or drills or exams, but a stimulating flow of ideas and inspiration, exploring repertoire and honing one’s skills, while life experience and maturity bring a special dimension to lessons and learning.

I first started to learn the piano when I was about five years old, took all my grade exams, and then abruptly stopped playing when I left home to go to university (to study not music but Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature). I hardly touched the piano for 20 years, but when I returned to it, I did so with an all-consuming passion. I took lessons with master teachers and attended masterclasses with leading concert pianists. I set myself the personal target of learning and preparing music at a very high level to fulfil the requirements of professional musical qualifications (two performance diplomas which I passed with distinction) and organised and performed in my own concerts. Today the piano is my life – and my work – and it has put me in touch with so many wonderful, inspiring and interesting people. I certainly intend to go on playing the piano and engaging with the literature and those who play it for as long as I can.

It’s never too late!

To coincide with the release of her new recording of Mozart Piano Sonatas Vols 2 and 3, I caught up with pianist Orli Shaham to find out more about her influences and inspirations and why one of her most treasured possessions features Snoopy the dog…..

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

It was my parents and my older brothers who inspired me to start music more than anybody else. My parents listened to a lot of music, and my older brothers were just enough older that they were beginning to be accomplished at instruments when I was coming into consciousness. I just really wanted to be part of that and be able to play with them and do the same sort of things that they were doing. That was very much the source of the initial inspiration. I also went to an untold number of conservatory concerts to listen to my brothers perform, and then also heard the 49 other pianists or violinists who were on the same program. That was hugely inspirational too.

A big part of my influences are the people in my life who also love music and who also play music. For me, that’s changed over time from being my elders to being my children and my students. I find them all incredibly inspiring.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Ultimately, it’s always the last project you just finished that you’re most proud of, because on some level you feel like it’s better than everything you’ve done before. I have certain highlights throughout my career that I think back on quite fondly. At the moment, I’m riding high on recording the complete Mozart sonatas. That was a monumental mountain to climb. I loved every minute of it, and I learned so much from doing it.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I would say whatever I’m doing at the moment, which this year has included a lot of Mozart, and a lot of Clara Schumann and her compatriots. With any luck, we keep getting better at all of them – that’s the hope.

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

That’s a really tough one because you have to choose repertoire quite far in advance. I have to project what I think I will feel like playing 18 months from today. Eighteen months is a long way to plan for your emotional state. These days, 18 minutes is a pretty long way.

I’m so lucky to be a pianist; I have so much repertoire to choose from. I have a list that I haven’t even begun to skim the surface of, of pieces that I would like to play. So I just go down that list based on what I think would work best next.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have a favorite concert venue to record in, but I’ve never actually performed there. It’s Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. I love recording there because there’s something about the atmosphere of the building that makes me feel like it’s all about whatever I’m creating on stage (and also there’s an enormous painting of George Washington and the rear end of his horse looking down on me from high above the stage). The hall has an incredible sound. For pianists, performing or recording at a venue is intricately tied up with the venue’s piano. I really love the instrument at Mechanics Hall, as well as the technician who takes care of it. Any time I sit down at that keyboard, I’m inspired to experiment.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

That’s a very long list. One that I happen to be thinking about recently was with David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony. I played John Adams’ Century Rolls in Carnegie Hall. The way schedules worked out, the composer couldn’t come to hear any of our performances before that; the first time he could come and hear it was at the Carnegie concert. I was only the second pianist to play that concerto at the time, and there was a great deal of nervous energy.

The orchestra did a magnificent job, and David was incredible. Everything worked, and it was fabulous. When John came on stage for his composer’s bow, he leaned in to me and said, “You got it, you really got it.” There’s really no better feeling as a performer, than for the composer to say, “You got it.” That’s what it’s all about.

I should add that I’m very much looking forward to playing John Adams’ second piano concerto, Why Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? in Finland next season, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the self-same David Robertson conducting.

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

Being a mother of infant twins was a big challenge. We’ve made it through to the other side – those twins are about to turn 15. Things are a lot a lot less intense than they were 15 years ago around this time. I think it’s true for many parents, certainly for a lot of mothers, that it’s tricky figuring out how to keep your commitment to music while also juggling a commitment to family, both of which are all-consuming.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I do things that have to do with music, like teaching and listening to repertoire other than what I’m working on, which is very inspiring. I also specifically do things that don’t have to do with music. I’m inspired by books I am reading, or TV shows I am watching, or meditation or cooking, that really allow me to get inside my own head in a different way than when I’m getting inside a composer’s head.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The not so trite answer is that we musicians don’t have such a definition, because we never think that what we’re doing is good enough, so it can’t possibly be considered a success. Knowing that there will never be a feeling of complete and total success, I set very specific goals for myself, and if I can make those work for an entire performance, then I feel it’s been a success.

Those are often really small things. I had a shoulder injury a few years ago and one of the things that I’ve been working on is maintaining a certain level of muscle relaxation in my upper back, even in performance, from the beginning to the end. That’s no small feat. It has nothing to do with the actual music making, and it has everything to do with the actual music making. When I achieve that, I feel a huge sense of pride, because I know that’s something I wasn’t able to do before.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

My biggest piece of advice is that whether other people give you the opportunities you’re hoping for is completely out of your control. But whether you feel that you are constantly improving is entirely in your control, and that way of approaching things will sustain you through the lulls and heartbreaks of a career.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

There are really two sides to that question. One, how do we get the next generation to understand that classical music is for them? That’s in part why I started Orli Shaham’s Bach Yard, to get to children at the ripe old age of three or four years old. The other side of it is making sure that what you’re presenting to the audience is relevant to their lives in some way. That may have to do with repertoire choices, it might have to do with venue choices, perhaps programme lengths, and the way that you introduce a programme to an audience and explain to them how it connects to them. It’s all about humanizing the musicians and the composers and making people feel that this is something that is actually designed for them and that they can partake of whether they’re three or 30 or 99 years old.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

It’s the question of what’s in it for them: What’s in it for your audience? What’s in it for the students? What are they going to get out of that and through their lives? What’s in it for a subscriber or a single ticket buyer? Why are we actually doing this? Because we in the industry get so caught up in the fact that we love it so much, we see what it’s doing for us that we forget to think about the perspective of the people we’re trying to offer it to.

What is your most treasured possession?

I have two favourite possessions. One of them is the Steinway B that’s been with me since 1997, 25 years. I don’t know how I would get it out of the apartment if there’s a fire.

My other favourite possession is the cartoon that Charles Schulz made for me in 1997 – also 25 years ago. It’s a one-panel strip where Schroeder is playing the Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata and the final bar line is missing, so the notes are all falling on the ground with their stems up. Poor Snoopy is trying to walk across the floor and the note stems are pricking his little feet, and he’s saying, “Ouch!”

 

Volumes 2 and 3 of Orli Shaham’s recording of the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas are available now on the Canary Classics label.


A consummate musician recognized for her grace, subtlety, and brilliance, the pianist Orli Shaham is hailed by critics on four continents. The New York Times called her a “brilliant pianist,” The Chicago Tribune referred to her as “a first-rate Mozartean,” and London’s Guardian said Ms. Shaham’s playing at the Proms was “perfection.”

Orli Shaham has performed with many of the major orchestras around the world, and has appeared in recital internationally, from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House. She is Artistic Director of Pacific Symphony’s chamber series Café Ludwig in California since 2007, and Artistic Director of the interactive children’s concert series, Orli Shaham’s Bach Yard, which she founded in 2010.

Read more

 

Image credit: Karjaka Studios

 

**STOP PRESS** Join Paul Roberts and pianist Charles Owen at Kings Place on Sunday 9th October for an exploration of the literary inspiration behind Liszt’s greatest piano works. London Piano Festival co-founder Charles Owen performs the visionary music springing from Liszt’s intense identification with Biblical texts. Details/tickets here


In the introduction to his new book, pianist Paul Roberts recounts a conversation with “an elderly and much celebrated piano teacher” when he was just starting out as the inspiration for a lifetime’s fascination with literature and language and the essential connections between literature and music: “I introduced myself. I cannot remember quite how the topic came about, but within a few minutes we were talking about Liszt’s great triptych of piano pieces known as the Petrarch Sonnets, inspired by the love poetry of the 14th-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. “Oh!” I enthused, “those poems …!” She entered her studio. “We don’t need them,” she said, and closed the door. I was deflated. And dumbfounded.”

Paul Roberts feels that music comes from sources beyond simply itself – from, for example, the composer’s life experience, the influence of others, and, in the case of Liszt, poetry and literature, and that as pianists we do the music, and its composer, a disservice by not paying attention to these external sources of inspiration. In his engaging, eloquent and highly readable text, Roberts explores what he believes to be an inseparable bond between poetry and the piano music of Franz Liszt, and how literary inquiry affects musical interpretation and performance. For Roberts, an appreciation of the poetry which inspired or informed Liszt’s music gives the pianist, and listener, significant insights into the composer’s creative imagination, bringing one closer to his music and allowing a deeper understanding, and, for the performer, a richer, more multi-dimensional interpretation of the music. It also offers a better appreciation of Liszt the man: too often dismissed as a superficial showman, in this book Roberts reveals Liszt as a man of passionate intellectual and emotional curiosity, who read widely and with immense discernment, all of which is reflected in his music. As Alfred Brendel said, “Liszt’s music….projects the man”.

Poetry and literature were meat and drink to Franz Liszt, who performed in and attended the cultural salons of 1830s Paris where he knew writers such as Victor Hugo and George Sand. He was familiar with the writing of Byron, Sénancour, Goethe, Dante, Petrarch and others, and his scores are littered with literary quotations which offer fascinating glimpses into the breadth of his creative imagination and what that literature meant to him. For the pianist, they provide an opportunity to “live inside his mind” and open “our imaginations to the wonder of his music”.

Perhaps the most obvious connection between Liszt and poetry is his Tre Sonetti del Petrarca – the three Petrarch Sonnets. They began life as songs which Liszt later arranged for piano solo, and included them in the Italian volume of his Années de pèlerinage. Liszt and his lover Marie d’Agoult spent two years in Italy and it was here that Liszt was exposed to the marvels of Italian Renaissance art and architecture and the poetry of Dante and Petrarch.

The poetry of Petrarch was central to Liszt’s creative imagination and in his triptych inspired by the Italian poet’s sonnets, we find an extraordinary depth of expression and emotional breadth. In the chapter ‘The Music of Desire’, Roberts explores Petrarch’s sonnets in detail and demonstrates how Liszt translates the passion of the poet into some of the finest writing for piano by Liszt, or indeed anyone else.

Perhaps because I have studied and performed these pieces myself, a study which included close reference to Petrarch’s poetry, it is here that I find Roberts’ argument most persuasive, that the pianist really needs this literary context and understanding to bring the music fully to life. He shows how Liszt responds to the ebb and flow of emotions in Petrarch’s writing, in particular in the most passionately dramatic of the three sonnets, No. 104, “Pace no trovo” (I find no peace), where the poet veers almost schizophrenically between extremes of emotion, from the depths of despair to ecstasy.

Subsequent chapters explore other great piano works – the extraordinary B-minor Sonata which Roberts believes is firmly connected to that pinnacle of nineteenth century European literature, Goethe’s Faust, the existentialism of Vallée d’Obermann, a work which exemplifies the Romantic spirit, and its relationship with Etienne de Sénancour’s cult novel Obermann, the “aura” of Byron and his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage which pervade the Swiss volume of the Années alongside Liszt’s personal experience of the majestic landscape of Switzerland and the Alps. The final chapter explores the Dante Sonata and Liszt’s reverence for The Divine Comedy at a time when Dante’s poetry was being rediscovered by English and European Romantic writers like Keats, Coleridge, Shelley and Stendhal. Throughout, Roberts conveys the power of literature to awaken and inspire the Romantic imagination and sensibilities, and demonstrates how this might inform the way one performs Liszt’s music – from the physical cadence of poetry to its drama, narrative arc and emotional impact which had such a profound effect on Liszt and which infuses his music in almost every note. Here Liszt finds a new kind of expression in which, in his own words, music becomes “a poetic language, one that, better than poetry itself perhaps, more readily expresses everything in us that transcends the commonplace, everything that eludes analysis”.

A useful Appendix explores the influence of other poets such as Alphonse de Lamartine and Lenau, with analysis of other pianos works, including Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, the Mephisto Waltz, the two St Francis legends, and Mazeppa, inspired by a poem by Victor Hugo.

In this book, Paul Roberts reveals the essence of Liszt literary world, providing the pianist with valuable insight and inspiration with which to appreciate, shape and perform his music.

Reading Franz Liszt: Revealing the Poetry behind the Piano Music is published by Amadeus Press, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, USA.

Photo of Paul Roberts by Viktor Erik Emanuel


This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

Make A Donation