Tag Archives: American pianist

Meet the Artist……Jonathan Biss, pianist

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

Meet the Artist……Robert Levin

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)


Luminous and illuminating late Schubert

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.

(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.



Meet the Artist……Adam Tendler, pianist


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.


Proms Chamber Music 6: Jeremy Denk brings darkness and light to Cadogan Hall

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)

Modest virtuosity: Murray Perahia at Barbican Centre

The London concert scene is alive with pianists and piano-talk at the moment. Hard on the heels of Daniel Barenboim’s acclaimed survey of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas, performed on a brand new bespoke piano with his name emblazoned across on the fall board, comes Murray Perahia, who like Barenboim is afforded the status of a demi-god, though more for purely musical reasons.

I’ve always admired Perahia. My parents took me to hear him in concert when he was a young man and I was a little girl. His discs of Chopin, Bach and Schubert are my go-to recordings for their musical insight, pianistic prowess and lack of ego. Perahia has worked with some of the finest musicians of the 20th century – Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Clifford Curzon – yet he wears his accolades lightly and one has the sense, when hearing him live or on disc, that he always puts the music first. He is the very model of a modest virtuoso.

Read my full review here

Meet the Artist……Tobin Mueller, pianist and composer


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

As a pre-teen, I taught myself the piano, after abandoning piano lessons in 3rd grade. Coming from a musical family, however, there was a great deal of musical osmosis. Two of my older siblings played guitar, and my initial piano style sounded more like fingerpicking than piano. Later, at age 14, I began accompanying my mother, who sang Jazz standards, and my style expanded as I help to arrange more and more of her music. But what inspired me the most happened on my sister’s deathbed, when she was 19. She told me to learn Joni Mitchell’s “River”, not just to play it, but to understand it. The act of playing the piano has always included an element of that moment.

Perhaps the most important psychological push that directed me to make music my career was the story passed down to me from my mother regarding my grandfather. In the days of silent pictures, Grandpa John had been a violinist for a beautiful movie house in Wisconsin. When talkies took over, he became the theater’s janitor. He would play violin at home, accompanied by his wife on piano, but she never appreciated his demanding expectations. So he took up the banjo and, on it, would write a special song for every family member’s birthday, as well as many holidays. But he carried a certain humbled sadness throughout the rest of his life, rarely playing the violin after that. My mother’s spin on the story gently encouraged me to do what her father could not: make music for a living. She urged me to follow my dream, but it was always implied that music should be that dream. The piano was the only instrument that seemed all mine, on which I played mostly self-composed or self-arranged music. I still sit at the piano and improvise for hours. When I am lost in my own music, I am most certainly living within my dreaming, in precisely the way my mother had intended.

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

It’s very difficult to hone my list of influences down to a few. Debussy, Chopin, Stravinsky, Bach, Copland; George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett; Joni Mitchell, Rick Wakeman (Yes), Keith Emerson (ELP), Bruce Hornsby; Stephen Sondheim. My musical career hasn’t followed an ordinary path, if there is such a thing. I played Jazz and 20th Century Modernism in college (1970s), while learning Classical music; was one of the initial developers of New Age piano in the late 70s-early 80s; began writing, performing and touring Musical Theatre in the 1980s; moved to Manhattan to pursue musical theatre writing/composing in the 1990s; wrote my last musical drama in 2005, the same year I recorded my first solo piano album.

When I became a solo piano artist in 2005, I went back to my roots. My music was labeled Jazz, but was really a Neo-Classical/New Age/Jazz hybrid. As such, I am able to synthesize all my favorite disparate styles under the eclectic umbrella of personal expression… I have my own sound and try to have everything I play fall into that genre-less category.

The most important musical influences often depended on the different projects I became involved in. For example, Astor Piazzolla influenced the score I wrote for a film shot in Bucharest, utilizing mostly Tango rhythms. Stephen Sondheim peered over my shoulder while I was writing my musicals staged in NYC. Dave Brubeck, a personal mentor, watched through my eyes as I choose voicings and worked out fingerings. Keith Jarrett’s sense of cool innovation also casts its shadow. But, I must say, the ghost of my sister is the greatest influence.

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

The first challenge was to find a place to thrive: I lived in a small town in Wisconsin (a northern Midwest state in the USA). I could become a big fish in a small pond, receive positive feedback and good press, but had little professional criticism (which you need to improve) and a limited market. I became friends with many fabulous Wisconsin musicians who still rank among the best I’ve ever worked with, but I needed to move to New York City, the center of musical theatre, if my career was to blossom. Or, so I believed.

Extended gigs in NYC, which eventually took up 6 months of the year, ended in my moving to the West Village and, then, getting a divorce. Dealing with that disconnect was difficult. Being an involved stay-at-home father had been a huge aspect of my sense of self. Now I was 1000 miles away from my kids. It was very lonely, depressing. I dealt with this sense of guilt and dislocation by working all the time.  And I mean nearly every waking moment. I slept only a few hours a day, wrote 1-5 songs a week, recorded whenever I could, constantly networked with others, and never rested. This was my late 30s, early 40s, and it became my most important growth period.

For the most part, nearly every project in my musical career involved something I didn’t know enough about yet, something I was intensely curious about, a style I hadn’t yet conquered, an intellectual or creative challenge. It is part of what drives me, this internal artistic restlessness. A desire to know more. An agitation to grow. An inability to say no to a request for something I might not be qualified for, yet. I have an aversion to repetition. It keeps me young (if I can use that term metaphorically).

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I always think my latest recording is my best. My 2015 double album, “Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller” is my best piano recording, technically, but might also be the best at striking a balance between my drive to sound innovative and the audience’s need for accessibility and conceptual clarity. “Impressions of Water and Light” extended my musicality tremendously, incorporating stylings of Impressionism. I think I learned the most doing that album. (I’m always proud when I learning things.) But “Flow” is the most difficult playing I’ve done, and, at least until my next album, is my favorite performance.

My three jazz ensemble recordings all make me smile. It’s hard to compare an ensemble project with a solo one. There are so many more memories, so much more energy that grows out of an ensemble project. The logistics and time required to organize players, recording sessions and post-production, etc., make those projects more like events, plus working with great musicians provides better stories. My latest Jazz recording, “Come In Funky”, which features legendary bassist Ron Carter, received good reviews, but I think “The Muller’s Wheel” had stronger sessions, and “Rain Bather” won more accolades.

I like all my instrumental albums better than those on which I sing. But that may be my own  sense of criticalness about my voice.

Two musicals also rank up there as my proudest work: a progressive rock opera “Creature”, based on the Frankenstein story; and “Runners In A Dream”, an intimate story of survival and imagination/madness set in the Holocaust. (You can see that I tend toward the dramatic and macabre.) I love writing about death, or cheating death, or finding meaning around death. But I also love to write about those things using beautiful and thrilling music.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I play my own works better than I play other people’s. I am far more comfortable doing so. Tackling Bach was humbling. Although I love the arrangements where I flip between Bach’s score and my own inventions in quick succession (seamlessly, I hope). But the second CD from “Flow” might be my favorite CD I’ve ever recorded. The two original piano suites on Disc 2 enabled me to use theme and variation over 6 movements, which I love. Yet, the piece I replay the most is “Joy” (based on “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), the first track from Disc 1.

My piano style favors Bill Evans style Jazz, or the constantly changing keys of Fred Hersch. As I get older and my hands and wrists hurt more and more, I prefer slower pieces. I have to prepare longer than I used to in order to play fast. Perhaps my best performances happen when I’m playing all by myself in my living room, however. I actually don’t like audiences that much anymore. I take more valuable risks when I am by myself.

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

At the height of my musical theatre career, I would write a show and get it produced in 9 to 12 months, sometimes going into rehearsals before every song was finished. The subject/stylings of the show came from internal curiosities and fascinations, but had to be backed by my financial team of producers. So there was a collaborative defining process that would occur before I would throw myself into the writing/composing process.

After 9/11/2001, everything changed for me. The New York Off-Broadway scene didn’t want serious musical dramas for several years after the terrorist attack. I lost my backers. I had to start over. My next show took over 3 years to mount, after a long succession of readings, etc. Then my health starting to fail and all of my choices were altered. I’ve had 16 collapsed lungs. The damage I’ve suffered from volunteering at Ground Zero, along with a genetic disorder, A1AD, began to affect me seriously when I turned 54 years of age, and has forced me to reduce stress to very low levels. My nerves sometimes swell, my muscles cramp, I have coughing spells, I tire easily. Live performances are few and far between. I try to do only studio work now.

Currently, I choose my next project as if it will be my last. What do I want to “say” if it’s the last music I leave behind me?

There is an interesting thread that runs through my last solo piano recording projects. It started in 2013 when I decided to finally do a Christmas album (after having it been requested/suggested to me for many years). “Midwinter Born” had 18 tracks, a long album, but I still had musical ideas that didn’t get included. I ran out of space. One of these ideas turned into a Jazz arrangement of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and formed the basis of my next project, “Impressions of Water and Light.” Thrilled with how fulfilling these two project became, re-arranging “Classical” piano music, it occurred to me how long it had been since I played any Bach. Over three decades! That’s how “Flow” began. It was not originally going to be a double album, but the idea of writing original music for a second disc, to show how Bach effected my own compositions, seemed a perfect balance. Plus, I hadn’t written anything original since 2012. While putting my personal spin on Bach, I realized Chopin was an even greater influence, thus my next project has presented itself. “Of Two Minds: The Music of Chopin and Mueller.”  I like the continuity.

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

Can I say “my living room”?

I prefer being a studio musician. I feel less pressure to be perfect, more freedom to experiment, and need to medically avoid stress. I’ve always preferred rehearsing to performing, so maybe I’ve always had an aversion to live performance. I get quite nervous before performances, intestinal upset and all that. My favorite moments are often in the rehearsal process. Most performances are a blur.

One of my favorite places to perform was The Grand Opera House in Oshkosh WI. Fabulously well-preserved, great acoustics, it also had a rich history of fabled hauntings and ghostly sightings. The Green Room was off a dark maze of tunnels and pipes. One time, while singing by myself on the Opera House stage, I let my emotions run away with me and began crying, for real, as I sang. It was one of the most emotional highs I’ve ever achieved while performing. But, at the end of the song, when I thought I had created a transcendental moment for the audience, I looked down and saw a string of mucus, illuminated like a glowing gossamer thread, coming from my nose. I deftly wiped my nose as I finished the song, hiding my embarrassment. But it taught me a very important lesson: It’s not the emotion you conjure up within yourself that is important, but the emotions you stir within your audience. Being self-consumed on stage can lead to a performance disaster.

Favorite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love performing songs from The American Songbook and giving them a peculiar Tobin Mueller spin. “Over the Rainbow”, “Impossible Dream”, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, “The Long & Winding Road” are masterpieces that should never be played the same way twice. The fluidity and unpredictability of the moment works well within emotional songs.

Right now I’m listening to Ingrid Fliter’s 2014 release, “Chopin Preludes.” But I might also mix in 1960s Bob Dylan, 1970s Chick Corea, 1980s Michael Hedges, 1990s John Medeski, 2000s John Scofield, recent Fred Hersch.

Who are your favorite musicians? 

Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Jacques Loussier, Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch; Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, The Brecker Brothers…

My favorite musician to play with is my Jazz collaborator and saxophonist Woody Mankowski, from Los Angeles CA (although we met when he lived in DePere WI).

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One of the most memorable moments that occurred while I was attending someone else’s concert occurred when I was a short-on-funds college student. My University had a special program in which students could attend concerts at the Milwaukee P.A.C. at greatly reduced rates. I bought season tickets to several concert series.  At one concert, Virgil Fox played all by himself at center stage on an organ specially outfitted for maximum visual drama. At the time, I wasn’t that familiar with Virgil Fox, and, in my arrogant youthfulness put him in a category with Liberace, someone more interested in showmanship than art. I had box seats, fabulous. Somewhere in the middle of his first set, he performed “Ave Maria” (Gounod/Bach). I was transfixed. I lost my peripheral vision. Really. The world fell away and only that man playing that music existed. No other performer has done that to me, except when I saw my daughter sing a duet with Hans Christian Anderson, “And my thumb”, as a three year old Thumbelina.

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

There is no destination achieved, no goals that sustain, only a never ending process. Your work will never stop. But that’s a good thing. At moments of depression, dislocation and discouragement, you can return to your music and continue to perfect your craft, and a sense of peace and direction will come. As you nurture your skills and breadth of knowledge, music will nourish, in turn.

Consider the perspective that the journey is not as much about you as it is about the music. Serve the music, and you will find your internal life expand. Sometimes music isn’t even about music. Rather, it is the sum of your experience, an expression of those who you have encountered winding their way through your fingers and hands. In that way, music ties you to something beyond your life, inclusively.

Remember, it’s called “playing” for a reason. Retain the childlike innocence and expressive joy that is at the heart of play. Never let the work overshadow the wordless spirit that is given voice through your skills and energies. But always honor the work; it is essential.

That said, I get the most satisfaction out of composing and creating my own music, feeling the thrill of creative improvisation, and getting lost in the music making process. My moments at my own piano, in my own living room, free of stress and critique, are my most cherished music moments. Never lose that intensely intimate personal relationship with your music.

What are you working on at the moment?

I will be reinterpreting and rearranging several pieces by Chopin, adding an equal number of original pieces. I may play a Chopin Prelude and then play an original piece in response. The accompanying booklet might incorporate some of George Sands words, not sure yet. The working title is “Of Two Minds: The Music of Frédéric Chopin & Tobin Mueller.” The more I explore Chopin, the harder it will be to trim down the pieces I will want to tackle. I think another double album might be necessary…

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

I’d like to be alive. And healthy enough to play. Breathing well enough to sing. And maybe live in a place with lower property taxes. Ha!

The last thing my mother said to me before she died, in a barely audible whisper: “make…history…not…money…” I figured it was code for “don’t worry about anything but your music.” She had to say it in as few words as possible. Perhaps she meant “history” in the personal sense. I will always be working on making that kind of history, thinking up things no one has done in quite the same way. Doing something new, for me, at least.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

“Perfect” anything is a phantom. Thinking that perfect happiness is a real goal can set you up for a life of frustration and disappointment. You might even regret being “merely” happy. Happiness is fleeting, like any emotion. Enjoy it as it exists. It is a byproduct of other actions and thoughts, not really a thing held in its own right.

Some people are born happy. Or not. I was. Sometimes things that sadden, such as the memory of lost ones, can bring deep joy. The paradox of joy that comes from carrying the weight of ghosts on your shoulders is profound. This sort of dual emotion is far more interesting than pure happiness, in my experience.

I’ve had my successes. But life more often follows a pattern of failure, recognition, redemption; moments of confusion and defeat, followed by growth and a sense of meaning. And, hopefully, self-understanding. Failure can introduce you to yourself and remind you that you are not the person you thought you were. Not yet, at least. It can open doors to a better you. Often, this is how honest art is born.

Risk, failure, and trying something new, more than happiness, are pieces of the larger narrative, even if happiness is the destination we all strive for. On that journey, making music is my refuge.

What is your most treasured possession? 

I thought long and hard on this. My beautiful mahogany grand piano? My favorite fedora? My home, my backyard gardens, my art collection? My personal discography? My family?… If I’m honest, I have to say: my new iPhone. It’s the one thing never far from my hand. Sadly. Although my grand piano and family might win in the long term.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Besides moments alone with my wife? Or my personal concerts for her after I’ve cooked dinner and she’s done the dishes? Hmm… Not sure anything beats those two…

I love creating something new. Mostly, that’s music. But not always.

Tobin Mueller’s latest album Flow: the Music of J S Bach and Tobin Mueller is available now. Further details at www.tobinmueller.com

Agony & Ecstasy: Garrick Ohlsson plays Scriabin at Wigmore Hall

© Paul Body

On the centenary of the death of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, American pianist Garrick Ohlsson concluded his two-concert “Skryabin Focus” at London’s Wigmore Hall with a recital of works which spanned the final two decades of Scriabin’s life.

It is hard to explain exactly what makes Scriabin’s music so compelling: far easier to explain why his music is not for everyone. It is the music of excess, ecstasy, tumult and passion. It is excessive, overripe, decadent, heavily perfumed, languorous and frenzied, lacking in structure and sometimes downright bizarre. The music of extremes, it is hyper everything, and as such it defies description or categorization. Its language is complex, often atonal and frequently almost impenetrable. For some listeners, and artists too, it is this “over-the-top-ness” that is off-putting; for others, myself and my concert companion included, it is this sense of excess and rapture that is so compelling. By his own admission, Garrick Ohlsson is a true Scriabin fan, the result of hearing Sviatoslav Richter perform the Seventh Piano Sonata. Ohlsson’s studies with a Russian teacher enabled him to regard Scriabin as “mainstream repertoire” and the composer’s music remains a mainstay of his repertoire.

Read my review here

Review: Scriabin Revealed – Garrick Ohlsson at Wigmore Hall

My first concert of 2015 was an all-Scribian recital by American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who, by his own admission, is a ‘Scriabinophile’, an obession which grew from hearing Sviatoslav Richter playing the ‘White Mass’ Sonata in the 1960s.

To mark the centenary of the composer’s death is Garrick Ohlsson’s ‘Skryabin Focus’ at Wigmore Hall, and the two-concert celebration opened with a recital held, appropriately, on the composer’s birthday, which in the Julian calendar (to which Russia then subscribed) is Christmas Day. This fact alone suggests we are dealing with an unusual personality, and as time went on, and Scriabin’s egocentric obsessions increased, he began to regard himself as a second Messiah whose music would have a purifying, unifying and life-changing effect on all mankind. Add to this his interest in spirituality, the theosophy of Madame Blavasky, the writings of Nietzsche, his synaesthesia (which is what originally drew me to his piano music) and his assertion that there was an aesthetic connection between musical harmony and shades of colour, and we have an extreme personality at work. This heady mix produced music which is languorous, sensuous, demonic, enigmatic, erotic, febrile and over-heated. Hyper-everything, his music is lush, gorgeous and inspired, always ecstatic. It is these aspects which many listeners, and artists, find off-putting, and the reason why Scriabin’s music is so rarely performed today.

Read my full review here

Meet the Artist……Beth Levin, pianist

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)