Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

We had classical records at home. I loved to listen to them and dance around to them – it was a crucial growing up time for me, like a refuge And there was an old broken down spinet in the house and I loved to play on it. I had favourite albums growing up – the Saint-Saens organ concerto, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, oh and the Verdi love duet, that was one of my favourites, the one with Pavarotti. My parents were not musicians, though my father played the guitar, but they were music lovers.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

György Sebők, the great Hungarian guru of the piano, whom I encountered at my last year at Oberlin Conservatory, sort of randomly when he gave a recital and a masterclass. He had a totally different value system and way of thinking about music. There were so many things about Sebők that were crucial to me, but one of them was this urge to find a kind of balletic parallel to phrases, to find a way to move at the piano that exactly mirrors the essence of the phrase. It was very important to him, as a Hungarian pianist, that notes that are up should be “up”, and notes that are down should be “down”, if that makes sense….there was a way that he used to demonstrate this. There was a naturalness and a simplicity that he was after that I really adored. He had a beautiful way with Mozart which really opened up the music up for me. I knew that I always loved Mozart but I didn’t really know why: he used to unpack the simplest phrases of Mozart, to find a tremendous sense of play, a sense of constant exchange, little surprises that had to be dealt with one way or another or reacted to. I could talk about Sebők for hours!

There was another teacher from that period, who was almost the opposite to Sebők. He was a ‘cello professor at Oberlin and one of things that he talked about was “inhabiting” the music, almost like method acting in theatre. He coached a friend of mine and I on the slow movement of Beethoven E-flat major ‘cello sonata. We loved to argue, as many young musicians do, and he made us meditate on separate things: he made my friend meditate on “filling out” each note right to the end. He made me think about the saddest thing I could imagine, which for me was the idea of not playing the piano. He had an incredible emotional investment in every moment of the music.

These two approaches were quite different, one was incredibly European, the other totally American, but they worked because they were both after the same things

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

Trying to do too much! And balancing writing and playing. I would say the greatest challenge is just to play well night after night and to practice well. And having a life on top of all of that!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

There is a quote from Vladimir Nabokov, when asked what was his favourite novel, he replied “the one I’m about to write”, which I think is the best answer to this question! When I did the Ligeti Etudes it was a very charged moment in my life, it was music I really believed in, and it was fun to work on that music that hadn’t been that much recorded at that time.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I do a lot of Bach, a lot of Mozart and Beethoven, some Schumann. And I’ve been doing with a great deal of pleasure, especially for me, a lot of Renaissance keyboard music. And through Sebők I am a big Bartok person. And Ligeti and Ives too

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

Each project comes from a kind of notion, for example with the music history programme, I felt we all know the story of Western classical music from classes at school, although in the classical world the focus tends to be between 1650 and 1950 and of course there are many hundreds of years that are shunted off to the side. And the story is longer than that and has many beautiful elements. To my mind it is like an epic story or an epic poem, and I felt it would be useful, as in a time lapse photo, to watch it go by and feel the pull of time and see all the new ways in which each new gain or vision of music is also a loss – an incredible cycle of destruction and creation. I tried to find a way to do it in an evening’s span. I was very constrained – in the selection of pieces and how long each piece should be, so it was kind of a mental exercise.

When I did Goldbergs Variations and Ligeti Etudes that was interesting – Ligeti is all about disorder and chaos, and a new mathematical order to the world, whereas Bach is the opposite: at the end of the Variations it is all about order and clarity

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

This is a rather complicated thing to say but the times when I have felt in the moment of the performance I have brought the notes on the page to life in a weird way which is outside of me – that is the kind of success that I am after

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

For pianists make sure that the left hand is not subservient to the right, that the harmonies get their due. One of the things that bothers me most about young musicians today is the sense of the metronome working behind everything with no sense of rubato. Without it the music just begins to sound like a diagram. But when you say rubato they always think you mean slowing down, but of course it also means speeding up.

 

Jeremy Denk begins an Artist Residency at Milton Court Concert Hall on October 12th. For further information and to book tickets please visit the Barbican’s website

 

Jeremy Denk is one of America’s foremost pianists. Winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award, Denk was also recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Denk returns frequently to Carnegie Hall and has recently performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Cleveland Orchestra, as well as on tour with Academy St. Martin in the Fields.

In 16-17, Denk toured extensively throughout the US, including returning to the National Symphony led by Sir Mark Elder, and performing with the St. Louis, Vancouver, and Milwaukee Symphonies. He also toured the UK in recital, including appearances in Perth, Southampton, the Bath Festival, and a return to Wigmore Hall. He returns to the BBC Proms this Summer playing Bartok 2 with the BBC Symphony. He has also recently appeared with the Britten Sinfonia, with whom he will perform at the Barbican next season–where he is artist-in-residence at Milton Court. Denk also recently made his debut at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Philharmonie in Cologne, and Klavier-Festival Ruhr, and continues to appear extensively on tour in recital throughout the US, including, recently, Chicago, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Miami, Philadelphia, and at New York’s Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in a special program that included a journey through seven centuries of Western music. Next season, Denk returns to the San Francisco Symphony with Tilson Thomas, and Carnegie Hall with Orchestra St. Luke’s, and continues as Artistic Partner of The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with multiple performances throughout the season, and a new piano concerto written for him by Hannah Lash. He also makes his debut on tour in Asia, including recitals in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Seoul. Future projects include re-uniting with Academy St. Martin in the Fields for a tour of the US.

Denk’s upcoming releases from Nonesuch Records include The Classical Style, with music by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and the complete Ives violins sonatas with Stefan Jackiw. He also joins his long-time musical partners, Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis in a recording of Brahms’ Trio in B-major. His previous disc of the Goldberg Variations reached number one on Billboard’s Classical Chart.

In 2014 Denk served as Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival, for which, besides performing and curating, he wrote the libretto for a comic opera. The opera was later presented by Carnegie Hall and the Aspen Festival. Denk is known for his original and insightful writing on music, which Alex Ross praises for its “arresting sensitivity and wit.” The pianist’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, The Guardian, and on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. One of his New Yorker contributions, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” forms the basis of a book for future publication by Random House in the US, and Macmillan in the UK. Recounting his experiences of touring, performing, and practicing, his blog, Think Denk, was recently selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress web archives.

In 2012, Denk made his Nonesuch debut with a pairing of masterpieces old and new: Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Op. 111, and Ligeti’s Études. The album was named one of the best of 2012 by the New Yorker, NPR, and the Washington Post, and Denk’s account of the Beethoven sonata was selected by BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library as the best available version recorded on modern piano. Denk has a long-standing attachment to the music of American visionary Charles Ives, and his recording of Ives’s two piano sonatas featured in many “best of the year” lists.

Jeremy Denk graduated from Oberlin College, Indiana University, and the Juilliard School. He lives in New York City, and his web site and blog are at jeremydenk.net.

 

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I have two musician parents and had a musician grandmother. I grew up in a house where music was quite literally everywhere, and I think that was probably the single most important influencing factor. I really do believe in this idea that music is a language and you feel comfortable in the language that you hear from the beginning of life. I heard music from the beginning of my life, and I think I just wanted to speak that language

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

You go through a musical life and you’re exposed to so many people and it’s not easy to narrow this down. But probably studying with Leon Fleischer was the most formative experience in my life, beyond growing up in the house I grew up in.

I had grown up hearing his recordings long before I met him, and he was a huge influence before I even knew what he looked like. And then I met him and spent four years studying with him. He’s one of those rare musicians who is equally eloquent as a player as a teacher – a musical philosopher. Hearing music described by him and seeing the unbelievable integrity with which he approached music, I think that really marked me.

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

It’s all hard! I don’t mean that in a negative way, but basically you spend every day touching these masterpieces but you never come to some end point where you can say “that is just the way I want it” because you’re always looking for more in them. That is exactly what is so wonderful about them too, but it is simultaneously what is very difficult. So I guess maybe the challenge is finding a balance between being very driven and determined and ambitious (and I don’t mean ambitious in a career sense), but to also take a real joy in playing these works.

There’s a wonderful quote from Schnabel that over the years he taught, relatively many students who could convey sorrow in their music making, but only a couple in all of those years could really convey joy. It’s a huge part of music’s expressive vocabulary and hugely important not to lose sight of that.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I have certain love for Schumann’s music. Not that I love it more than other pieces, but I feel a kind of closeness to it, that it speaks to and for me in a way that it is different from other works.

And of course I feel unbelievably pulled towards Beethoven – who couldn’t be?! – so I can’t say I have any real favourites. But this is the music that is most important to me in my life at the moment.

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

The first thing is that I have to love the music that I play. I have to really want to play it. And then I start thinking about recital programmes, how a good programme would be to put together. What programmes work well, how much repertoire can I handle in a season without becoming overwhelmed, how much do I need to feel there’s enough variety

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

I have many. I have had a very long, very very happy association with the Wigmore Hall, which I think is a really very special place. I love playing at the Concertgebouw, in the big and small halls. I’ve lived in NYC for 16 years now so Carnegie Hall has a special resonance for me as well.

I played at Milton Court (London) in November (2016) and it was a fantastic pleasure. This is another small-ish hall in London which is totally different in vibe, has a different audience, with an excellent acoustic

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

The first thing is that as you work – and as a young musician you have to work hard – you must never lose sight of what made you fall in love with music in the first place. You have to find a way, and it’s a question of hours where you really strive to improve, but you never move away from that aspect of music which drew you to it. You should never let the work become a distraction or be dutiful. That I think is incredibly important and not easy to achieve.

I think the other main thing that you have an incredibly profound responsibility to try to understand the mentality of the composer. It’s very difficult and you will never do it perfectly: notation is so abstract, but that does not absolve you of the responsibility of trying. You have to really, really try to look for what this person is trying to communicate – if you choose to play music which is not your own music, you have a responsibility to do more than just play the notes.

How do you feel a musician should approach this?

I think a close interrogation of the music is necessary and it takes many forms. Even though in Beethoven piece to piece he changes enormously, you should not play the piano sonatas without knowing the quartets and symphonies. I really believe that

Understanding structure, the way the music is put together, the way it functions psychologically is unbelievably important – I don’t think it’s that important for the audience, but it’s especially important for anyone who wants to play music. This is abstract music, not a literal reflection of the life of the composer, but I do think especially when talking of the music of the past, because the world has changed so much, trying to understand the world these composers lived in – and it will only get you so far – remains a real responsibility.

Talking specifically of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959 (which Jonathan Biss will perform at his concert in London on 2nd May 2017) do you feel the slow movement of this sonata is a reflection of the composer’s mental and physical state?

All this is intensely subjective, but I would say yes. When I play the second movement I really do think it’s a composed hallucination. There’s no other piece by Schubert or anyone else that is like it. The are little moments in his earlier music, but in the late music alongside the lyricism, which is so incredibly beautiful, there is this sense of real terror, and I think when you know this is a person who was months away from death, it’s very difficult not to think there is a connection [in the second movement]. The warmth of the finale is really astonishing in contrast to that.

Tell me a little more about your Late Style project. What drew you to this examination of composers’ late music?

As with all my programming this is music which is important to me. Beyond that, it really has interested me that there are so many composers who were already writing great music but still at the end of their lives moved in new directions. For example, with Beethoven because the late works are so special, had he stopped at Op.80, we’d still say he’s one of the greatest, but he still found a new language in later life. This is also true of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and figures as diverse as Britten, Bartok, Shostakovich and Gesualdo. I am just fascinated by this idea that the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is finite, limited, seemed to have focussed so many composers’ imaginations in a very specific way. Either age and/or coming to the end of life it seems you reach the point where you just say what you need to say, you don’t worry about how it will be received. All of these works are very different but I think the link is that these people have the freedom to say what they need to say.

Jonathan Biss performs late works by Schumann, Chopin, Kurtag and Brahms at Milton Court on 27 March, and Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A, D959, and Schwanengesang, with Mark Padmore, on 2 May. Further information here

(Interview date 28 January 2017)

Jonathan Biss’ biography

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My parents were great music lovers and the gramophone and radio were central to my early exposure to music.  My musical guardian angel was my maternal uncle, Benjamin Spieler, who studied clarinet at Juilliard with Prokofiev’s friend and colleague Simeon Bellison (principal clarinettist in the NY Phil) and pursued studies in flute, oboe, and clarinet and saxophone at the Paris Conservatory and bassoon at Columbia in New York.  He discovered that I had absolute pitch and arranged my musical education forthwith, chaperoning me to Fontainebleau to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.  It is impossible for me to express adequately my debt to him.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Nadia Boulanger and Sir Clifford Curzon when I was young; Felix Galimir and Rudolf Kolisch later on..

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Let the listeners decide!  I have particular commitment to Viennese classical repertory, French music, and contemporary music, though the works I perform span the Elizabethan masters to the present.

What, for you, makes Mozart’s piano concerti special/significant in the canon of classical music?

They are operatic scenes, incorporating a breathtaking span of emotions that unfold under the guide of a masterful dramatist who perhaps is equalled only by Shakespeare.

What are the particular pleasures and challenges of Concertos 3 & 4 which you performed with Aurora orchestra as part of their Mozart’s Piano series at Kings Place?

The solo keyboard parts are written not by Mozart, but by expatriate composers living in Paris in the middle of the 18th century, together with C. P. E. Bach; Mozart supplied orchestral accompaniments, thereby transforming these movements into concertos.  It is fascinating to see how in doing this Mozart prepared himself for the task of composing instrumental concertos from scratch.  These are therefore works of apprenticeship.  From here Mozart develops the techniques of solo and tutti within aria form, transforming its structure to the domain of the instrumental concerto at the moment that he chafes against the static nature of opera seria and wants to have dramatic development WITHIN arias, not just BETWEEN them (in the recitatives, where the action typically happens in opera seria).

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are many.  Hearing Gilels’ and Richter’s first recitals in New York.  Hearing Horowitz’s after his return to the concert platform.  Hearing Rudolf Serkin’s Hammerklavier sonata and Emperor concerto.  Hearing Curzon in solo and concerto repertoire.  Hearing Haitink conduct Bruckner 8 and Mahler 9.  And there then are my own experiences on stage—constant excitement, an endless learning curve, reveling in the exalted danger of risk-laden performances.

What advice would you give to anyone learning Mozart’s piano music?

Learn the grammar and the aesthetic, learn to discern the myriad character changes inherent in the fluid discourse, learn what is to learn, and then walk onstage and do what you must do to communicate this dizzying sensual world to an audience that will be forever changed by the message you bring to them.

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

Engagement with the musical narrative, character, drama, colour.  Be an actor—do for music what Meryl Streep does for the screen and the stage.

Mozart’s Piano, Aurora Orchestra’s monumental new five-year project offers audiences the rarest of opportunities: a complete cycle of the concertos, staged live in concert in the beautifully intimate surroundings of Hall One at Kings Place. Further information here

Pianist and Conductor Robert Levin has been heard throughout the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia. His solo engagements include the orchestras of Atlanta, Berlin, Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Montreal, Utah and Vienna on the Steinway with such conductors as Semyon Bychkov, James Conlon, Bernard Haitink, Sir Neville Marriner, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen. On period pianos he has appeared with the Academy of Ancient Music, English Baroque Soloists, Handel & Haydn Society, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood, Sir Charles Mackerras, Nicholas McGegan, and Sir Roger Norrington.

Renowned for his improvised embellishments and cadenzas in Classical period repertoire, Robert Levin has made recordings for DG Archiv, CRI, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, ECM, New York Philomusica, Nonesuch, Philips and SONY Classical. These include a Mozart concerto cycle for Decca; a Beethoven concerto cycle for DG Archiv (including the world premiere recording of Beethoven’s arrangement of the Fourth Concerto for piano and string quintet); and the complete Bach harpsichord concertos with Helmuth Rilling, as well as the six English Suites (on piano) and both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier (on five keyboard instruments) as part of Hänssler’s 172-CD Edition Bachakademie. The first recording in a Mozart piano sonata cycle has also been released by Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.

A passionate advocate of new music, Robert Levin has commissioned and premiered a large number of works.  He is a renowned chamber musician and a noted theorist and musicologist. His completions of Mozart fragments are published by Bärenreiter, Breitkopf & Härtel, Carus, Peters, and Wiener Urtext Edition, and recorded and performed throughout the world. (source Rayfield Allied)

 
 

Richard Goode plays Schubert’s last three piano sonatas at Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 25th May 2016

“….the most delicate nuance, significance everywhere, the keenest expression of the particular, and finally the whole suffused with a romanticism…..And the heavenly length…..”

SchubertThis quote from Schumann actually refers to Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony, but the phrase “heavenly length” is often used in relation to Schubert’s late piano sonatas. The final triptych, drafted in the spring of 1828 and completed a few months before Schubert’s death in the autumn of the same year (extant manuscripts suggest a preliminary sketch and then a full final version), are big works, each with four movements, meticulously structured with cyclic motifs running through each individual sonata and the set as a whole, revealing Schubert’s innate sense of musical geometry and bold treatment of the traditional sonata form. These are works in which one sees the entire arc of the work mapped at the very beginning, neatly concluded at the close of the finale, and it takes a particular performer to tackle both this musical architecture and the sonatas’ length.

Some pianists, and scholars, feel these sonatas can be legitimately “shortened” by omitting the exposition repeat in the first movement. In the C minor (D958) and A major (D959) sonatas, this repeat adds only c5 minutes to the length, while in the final sonata in B flat (D960) observing the repeat creates a first movement of c20 minutes, which is as long as an entire early to mid-period Beethoven sonata. Personally, I always feel somewhat cheated myself, and on behalf of the composer, if the exposition repeat is omitted in performance or on a recording. But I suspect some pianists omit the repeats because they feel the audience cannot cope with such a long programme, or perhaps because the performer wants to be out of the hall and heading home before the pubs close. This misjudges audiences’ expectations, in my opinion. Those of us who choose to hear Schubert’s last three piano sonatas in concert are prepared for a long evening – that is the great pleasure of this music when played well.

richard-goode-2013-steve-riskind-450sq
(photo: Steve Riskind)
I have enjoyed Richard Goode’s recordings of Schubert’s  piano sonatas and his recording of the penultimate sonata, D959, remains my benchmark. Thus I went to his concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall (part of the International Piano Series) with a great deal of excitement and anticipation, helped in no small part by the fact that I met a pianist friend there who like me is very fond of Schubert’s piano music.

Occasionally, very occasionally, I go to a concert where from the opening notes I can tell it will be a perfect evening. This year there have already been a few (Pavel Kolesnikov playing Debussy Preludes at Wigmore Hall, Steven Osborne at St John’s Smith Square, Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards’ at Milton Court); these really are the “wow” moments of my concert-going life, performances so outstanding, exhilarating, spell-binding, magical and above all memorable, that to write a review of the event afterwards has felt like a heavy task because I could never put into words exactly why the concert was so wonderful. I deliberately chose not to review Richard Goode’s concert for Bachtrack.com (and yet here I am writing about it now) because I wanted to immerse myself in the sound, to listen to every note, every idea, every nuance, every shading and colour. I didn’t want to have to get up the next morning, with the memory of the music still resonating in my mind and imagination, and “explain” the concert in a review.

I’m not going to describe each sonata in detail – there will be other reviews no doubt for that. In fact, what follows is a series of responses to what I heard, notes I made in the programme during the concert, and thoughts shared between myself and my concert companion.

Heavenly length

Richard Goode observed all the exposition repeats, yet at no point did the sonatas feel long. Some pianists feel a need to muck around with the pulse and rhythm in Schubert in an attempt to highlight aspects such as the rapid emotional voltes faces or extraordinary harmonic shifts which colour Schubert’s music. In fact, by maintaining a clear sense of pulse and rhythmic vitality the longer first and final movements moved forward apace, yet never hurrying nor pushing the tempi, and the works actually felt short, even with all exposition repeats intact. In all three sonatas, the finales were vibrant and colourful – in the D958 the tarantella became a witty dance, in the D959 and D960 one felt Schubert’s urge to say more, so much more, that the ideas were still tumbling from his mind and pen.

Schubert’s soundworld

Goode can do Beethovenian robustness and muscularity when required (the C minor Sonata contains a number of obvious “hommages” to Beethoven, while the references are more subtle in the D959 and D960), but he has a keen sense of the ethereal qualities of Schubert’s writing too. Thus his fortes and fortissimos were rich and orchestral, never strident, while the softest end of the dynamic range was delicate yet still focused. At times the sound shone or glowed from within, thanks to Goode’s superlative clarity of tone, touch and articulation. Schubert’s magical and daring harmonic shifts were highlighted, Goode lingering over them briefly before moving on to the next one, so that they became fleeting and elusive rather than obvious.

Simple but never simplistic

There’s an awful lot of baggage, theorising and debate surrounding Schubert’s late music, in particular the extraordinary Andantino of the D959, a slow movement quite unlike anything else Schubert wrote. That Schubert was dying of syphilis and the debilitating side-effects of the cure is known and documented; likewise that he was living in a city ravaged by war and social upheaval. Whether these sonatas are his response to his illness or his social situation, or are his “last words”, a farewell, a valediction, is open to debate, but I get frustrated by pianists who try to read too much into the music and allow their interpretations to be overly psychological, clouded by the psychobabble. Goode’s approach to this music is straightforward – he gives us what is on the page but what we hear is enriched by his long association with this music and his evident understanding of it.

Some pianists take the Andantino at Adagio and turn it into a funeral dirge. Goode opted for a lilting tempo to highlight the simple melancholic folksong qualities of the opening melody. The middle section opened like a Bachian fantasy, increasingly interrupted by the frenetic trills and triplets before the full savagery was unleashed. In the slow movement of the D960, the tempo was restrained, but it never dragged. The result was a movement of extreme concentration and contemplation whose atmosphere shrank the vastness of the Royal Festival Hall to the intimacy of Schubert’s salon. Compare this to the expansiveness and breadth of the first movement which unfolded like a great river plotting its final course.

This for me was an example of how Schubert’s piano music should be played: unfussy (yet with a clear understanding of the importance of the music’s bold structures and harmonic landscape), witty, robust, melancholy, joyful, intimate and expansive. Richard Goode returns to the Festival Hall in 2017 in a programme of Beethoven – a concert I greatly look forward to.

Just to add that Goode played the entire programme from the score, with a page-turner (his wife in fact): at no point did this detract from his ability to communicate this wonderful music.

 

 

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Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

It was a combination of things. In one regard, I took piano lessons since the age of six and, at least in my own memory, was rather unremarkable as a student. By middle school, however, I was playing certifiably classical music, though not well. By high school, when I hit the more advanced work of Chopin I started to see the creative possibilities of classical music—how I could really express through it—and then a kind of riptide dragged me from Chopin to Rachmaninov to Prokofiev to Copland to a whole world of modern and classical music. Totally obsessed, it was then that I started to practice, study, and really hustle to prepare for conservatory. On the flipside, I was bullied pretty relentlessly growing up, and the piano eventually served as a kind of escape. Not only could I retreat into my practice regime and not really have to navigate the hallways of my high school, but my talent itself—you know, this idea being special or exceptional at something—worked as a kind of shield or barrier from the harassment. And I guess it almost worked.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

The first pianist who really inspired me was William Kapell, an American virtuoso who died young, in a plane crash, in the 1950s. His playing had such personality and fire, and he had such strong convictions as an artist and such a complicated inner-world, almost debilitatingly nervous as a performer. I needed an idol who was both astonishing and complex, when in classical music everyone else seemed so perfect and unflappable. I should add that, while I’ve worked with dozens of teachers in my lifetime, all of them great artists, it was really my first teacher, a local piano instructor in Barre, Vermont, who let me truly explore music as I wished until I grew to love it on my own terms. He allowed me to play in the truest sense of the word, and as a musician I owe everything to him. He received my book’s dedication.

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

I tend to wrestle with time, and always have. If I’m not practicing or reading or working on something, I’m apt to spiral into depression and guilt over what I didn’t get to and how that’s a reflection of my own deeply personal failure. This probably stems from a sense that I started late as a musician. I mean, I don’t even really know if I started late, and evidence probably shows that I actually didn’t start late, but it’s a perception I have and I battle it all the time. Even at Indiana University, I told myself that I had a tremendous amount of catching up to do, even though I really had an astonishingly accomplished number of years there. So I might also owe my life in music to this impulse to absorb and perform and push forward, but still, it’s a challenge and can feel kind of miserable in the day-to-day. I tend to believe that everyone else has it all figured out and that I’m the only one who can waste a whole morning drinking a cup of coffee.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I love the recording I did of my book, 88×50, which I don’t think a lot of people know about even though it’s on iTunes, streaming on Spotify, and is pretty much anywhere online. I spent months recording it at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York, and the result is really fun and full of surprises. I also like the life that my live recording of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes has taken since I released it for free on the web over five years ago, though I think I play the piece quite differently now. Also, Autumn Lines, is a very personal speaking-pianist piece that I released a few years back. Frankly, I’ve found that it’s too traumatizing to do live, so I’ve stopped performing it, nor will I really listen to it or watch live footage from concerts of it, but people seem to like it and I do like it, too. It’s just an intense composition from an intense period in my life. I’m proud of it, I just don’t like being around it. In terms of performance, most recently I performed a concert of music by Cage and Cowell at the open-air Maverick Theatre in Woodstock New York, where Cage’s 4’33” had its premiere in 1952. That was an incredible honor and a huge career highlight for me. Also, this week I organized a twenty-four pianist performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, featuring mostly new music pianists, which was an epic and totally shattering experience in all the best ways.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I tend toward modern music by Americans, and love exploring the wide range of whatever that means. That said, I also like when a program pushes me out of my comfort zone, either backwards or forwards.

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

It really depends on the series, the space, and sometimes the specific requests of my hosts. This season I learned a program of music by Luciano Berio, another by Henry Cowell, and for this festival coming up in London, I learned Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari—all simply because my presenters asked. The great thing is, I’ll probably play this music for the rest of my life.

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

Probably the Rothko Chapel in Houston Texas. The space itself… the air… it has a kind of epsom salt effect on a person, just pulling stuff out that one doesn’t even know is there. I’ve played three concerts at Rothko Chapel, and would like to do a fourth! They consistently present inspiring and fearless programming for free to the public, so I’m proud to call it home.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

There are certain pieces I come back to, like the Cage Sonatas and Interludes. I’ve played that for eight years now—not constantly, but coming back to it once or twice a year—and each year it feels a little more settled and a little more internalized. It’s like seeing an old friend and jumping right back into a conversation, but then being like, “Hey, what’s different? Did you do something with your hair?” Something’s always a little different when I come back to it. I finally think I play that work with total assuredness—no traps or doubts or anything like that—which makes me think that perhaps it takes eight years for me to truly know a piece! Honestly, though, I find myself totally enrapt and obsessed with whatever I’m working on at a given time. In the days before a concert, I feel totally consumed with that music and its world, and after, I feel a little lost and desperate. In terms of listening, I only occasionally listen to classical or concert music. My brain buzzes too much with it on. I’d rather listen to bluegrass or artists outside of my field.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Nonspecifically, I’m taken with musicians who have a firm sense of their own creative identity, an unshakable passion for their craft, and the humility to understand that their journey is their own, and they have no obligation to mirror anyone else’s life or standards. I have countless examples of these kinds of people in my life, and aspire to their grace every day, people who seek to move their listeners rather than impress.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Gosh, that’s really tough to answer. Every concert on my fifty-state tour from about ten years ago felt like a miracle. The good ones and the disastrous ones, they all still beat the odds in that I was creating a life in music when for all intents, people… experts…had told me that there were only certain ways to do it, certain avenues to take, and of course all were supposedly closed to me. So the experience of just getting out there and doing it and having people actually respond…well, yeah it was simply miraculous.

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

That there’s a place for anyone in music. Truly. Everyone has a seat at the table. One has to envision that place, though, be open to it shape-shifting over the years, which it will, and put in the work to build it, simply carving into that identity, that little niche, every day. Some days will feel super tough and other days effortless, but faith and tenacity and a great deal of devotion—those are the ingredients to a life in music. Not Hanon, I’m afraid.

What is your present state of mind?

Anxiety, worry, dread, fear, embarrassment, doubt, wonder, joy, gratitude… a regular morning.

Adam Tendler has been called “an exuberantly expressive pianist” who “vividly displayed his enthusiasm for every phrase” by The Los Angeles Times, an “intrepid…outstanding…maverick pianist” by The New Yorker, a “modern-music evangelist” by Time Out New York, and a pianist who “has managed to get behind and underneath the notes, living inside the music and making poetic sense of it all,” by The Baltimore Sun, who continued, “if they gave medals for musical bravery, dexterity and perseverance, Adam Tendler would earn them all.”

Tendler has performed solo recitals in all fifty United States, including engagements at Columbia University, Bard College, Princeton University, New York University, Kenyon College, Boston Conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory, Portland State University, University of Nebraska, University of Alaska and Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, as well as artistic landmarks including Houston’s Rothko Chapel and James Turrell’s Skypace in Sarasota, where he was the space’s first musical performer. 

Tendler’s memorized performances of John Cage’s complete Sonatas and Interludes include a sold-out concert at The Rubin Museum in New York City and a featured solo recital in the “Cage100” festival at Symphony Space on what would have been Cage’s 100th birthday, listed by New York Magazine as one of the Top 10 Classical Music Events of 2012. In 2014, Tendler performed Cage’s 31’57.9864” in an appearance with the John Cage Trust at Bard College’s Fischer Center, presenting a realization of Cage’s 10,000 Things, and in 2015 he performed music by Cage and Henry Cowell, including Cage’s 4’33”, at the famed Maverick Theatre in Woodstock NY, where 4’33” had its premiere.

Tendler’s memoir, 88×50, about the year he performed solo recitals in all fifty states, was a 2014 Kirkus Indie Book of the Month and Lambda Literary Award Nominee. His premiere recording of Edward T. Cone’s 21 Little Preludes will appear in 2015, and he is developing an album of piano works by American composer, Robert Palmer. He also maintains the blog, The Dissonant States.

A graduate of Indiana University, Tendler presides over a private teaching studio in New York City, and in 2013 joined the piano faculty of Third Street Music School Settlement, the country’s first community music school.

adamtendler.com

Concert planners, performers and even audiences often like to find a common thread which runs through a programme, and so Jeremy Denk’s Chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall could be said to have darkness and light as its main focus, opening with Scriabin’s demonic “Black Mass” piano sonata and closing with Beethoven’s otherworldly Op.111. The middle section of this philosophical musical sandwich was Bartók’s Piano Sonata which offered a contrasting respite with its wit and humour.

This was Jeremy Denk’s debut recital at the BBC Proms (he performs with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall on Sunday 30th August), and he is a pianist I have been curious to hear live for some time. A musical thinker, I have enjoyed his articles on music and his blog on the life of the performing pianist.

Read my full review here
(Picture credit: Michael Wilson)