“The loneliness doesn’t worry me……I spend most of my life alone, even backstage…….I’m there completely alone. I like the time alone….”

Stephen Hough, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs

The pianist’s life is, by necessity, lonely. One of the main reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that we must practise more than other musicians because we have many more notes and symbols to decode, learn and upkeep. This prolonged solitary process may eventually result in a public performance, at which we exchange the loneliness of the practise room for the solitude of the concert platform.

Most of us do not choose the piano because we are loners – such decisions are usually based on our emotions, motor skills or the aural appeal of the instrument. For me, as a child – and an only child – the piano was a companion and a portal to a world of exploration, fantasy and storytelling. It remains a place to retreat to and time spent with the instrument and its literature can be therapeutic, rebalancing and uplifting. For many of us, being alone is the time when the sense of being at one with the instrument is strongest.

In addition, there is time alone spent listening to recordings – one’s own (for self-evaluation) and by others (for inspiration and ideas on interpretative possibilities, or purely for relaxation) – and time simply recovering from practising and refocusing in readiness for the next session. Many pianists tend to be loners – the career almost demands it and self-reliance is something one learns early on, as a musician – but that does not necessarily make pianists lonely or unsociable.

To me it’s always about connection – connecting with parts of myself, with the thoughts and feelings of the composer, and ultimately sharing with an audience. It’s travelling through time and space to experience other eras and cultures…..I can’t think of anything that makes me feel less lonely!

Stephen Marquiss, pianist & composer

 

The life of the concert soloist is a strange calling, yet many concert pianists accept the loneliness as part of the package, together with the other accessories of the trade. The concert pianist experiences a particular kind of solitude (as noted by Stephen Hough in the quote at the beginning of this article). The solitude of travelling alone – the monotony of airport lounges, the Sisyphean accumulation of airmiles, nights spent alone in faceless hotels. Dining alone, sleeping alone, breakfast alone, rising early to practise alone. And there is the concert itself: waiting backstage, alone, in the green room, and then the moment when you cross the stage, entirely alone….. The pianist Martha Argerich has described the “immense” space around the piano that has always made her feel alone on stage. But it is this aloneness, this separation, which the solo pianist exploits for the purpose of captivating and seducing the audience, drawing them into his or her own private world for the duration of the performance.

I suppose being an introvert in a ‘public performance’ profession has been my greatest challenge. It isn’t straightforward, of course – I seem to have a deep need to communicate music to an audience and get their reaction, and I love to be appreciated, but there are many other aspects of being ‘on show’ that don’t come naturally. I’m very interested in people, but I’m quite a private person and need lots of time to myself.

Susan Tomes, pianist and writer

The traditional positioning of the piano on stage, so that the pianist sits side on to the audience, heightens this sense of separation and aloneness. In a concert, the pianist must navigate a path between private, subjective feelings and public expression in a curious display of both isolation and exhibitionism. The power of performer, and performance, is this separateness from the mass of audience. Some performers may exploit this to create a sense of “us and them”, while others are adept at creating an intensity or intimacy of sound and gesture during which the audience may feel as if they have a private window onto the pianist’s unique world, in that moment.

emanuel-superjumbo

Up there on the stage, one can feel more alone than anyone would ever care to be, yet it can make one better than one thinks possible because one’s ego is constantly being tested when one plays. To meet a Beethoven sonata head on, for example, it stops being about you – how fast you can play, how technically accomplished you are. Instead it is about getting beyond oneself, becoming ego-less, humble in the face of this great music, developing a sense of one-ness with the composer…..

After the performance, when the greeting of the audience and CD signing is over, the pianist may happily retreat to his or her solitary practise room or studio. Many of us long for this special solitude and actively relish the time spent practising alone.

The internet and social media has, for many of us, been a huge support in relieving feelings of loneliness and separation. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms enable us to connect with pianists and other musicians around the world, allowing us to preserve our solitude, while also engaging meaningfully with others when required.

An earlier version of this article appeared on the Pianodao blog

 

(Picture: Emmanuel Ax in recital at Carnegie Hall, photo by The New York Times)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest review by Patrick, a musicologist residing in the Midwest

img_0058Daniil Trifonov was annoyed. He walked out on stage with a pained expression, the cheery look of his youth victim of the trials, presumably, of a professional career. After two cursorily rude bows to the audience (which wrapped around the stage entirely), he jumped straight onto the bench, staring – grimacing – at the keys. Kinderszenen contained all of his trademark complexity of line and texture brought about by Trifonov’s utterly unique use of microdislocations – employed continuously throughout the whole set. This technique is the heart of his genius, allowing him to achieve extreme contrasts in texture, voicing, and phrasing of line. Can you think of any other pianist that developed the dislocation to such a degree? While it may seem like a product of his Russian education, is there another Russian pianist today that pursues the same innovation in performance technique? I doubt Trifonov learned in America either – I was certainly never allowed by my teacher to engage in such excesses. Neither can it be said that he is reviving some past performance practice – older Soviet pianists certainly employed dislocation to add emphasis to moments of arrival, but not in the pervasive manner employed here. Furthermore, the traditional type of dislocation – pressing the bass notes before the treble to create a sense of arrival – is decidedly not what one typically hears at a Trifonov concert. He must be taking a lesson from chamber music and vocal accompanying practice. After all, it is somewhat common among good accompanists to delay the bass arrivals until after the attack of the vocal notes fades into resonance. And this type of dislocation, with the bass (and also middle voices) delayed until after the treble, is what makes Trifonov’s artistry so special.

Back to the program: Kinderszenen was a feast to the ears of line and color. Dramatic passages were dispatched with great energy and aplomb. It must be said, however, that Trifonov’s typical lyricism seemed to be dulled this evening – perhaps a result of whatever annoyance was bothering him. The slower passages did not quite have that feeling of magical cessation of time, often miraculously whipped up by the pianist through an ingenious combination of tempo manipulation and textural contrasts. While these techniques were still very much present, there was the deadly feeling of impatience imposed over them. Notwithstanding, I cannot register a complaint, as what may have been lacking in the slower passages were more than made up for by the fire and drama brought to the climactic passages, especially as the recital progressed. The next piece, Schumann’s Toccata, testifies to Trifonov’s brilliance in program construction – after the lapidary miniatures of Kinderszenen, the audience was ready to be whipped into a frenzy, and the ploy worked – numerous people gave a standing ovation to the second piece on the program. The sound world of the Toccata (and of the Schumann in general) is very interesting. It seems to me that Trifonov has entered into a new phase of his career where he is exploring the mid-range of the piano. The Toccata was a great illustration of this, as the soprano and bass voices were hardly ever brought out in favor of a gritty voicing of the middle voice chords filling out the texture (another thing I would never have been allowed to do). This technique robs the Toccata of its flair as a dramatic showpiece with a thundering bass, but gives it a new lease on life by revealing its wacky side (I cannot help but now see a connection to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, occupying the place of finale in the other half of the program). As for the Kreisleriana, the masterwork of the first half, I can firmly declare that Trifonov is peerless in this work. No one other recording or performance that I have ever heard contains even half of his kaleidoscopic conception and range of texture, timbre, and tempo: my companion at the concert (a violinist herself) said that at several points she forgot that she was listening to the piano (an instrument she never took to that much) and instead thought there was a chamber ensemble on stage! Can you think of higher praise for a pianist than that?

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Cartoon of Trifonov by @pianistswkitten

After a massive standing ovation for the first half and the pause, Trifonov sprints back out the bench and dives into his selections from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. These selections were not chosen in their original order, but arranged for maximum effect – the creepily gorgeous opening prelude leads us through a luscious set of figural fragrances and fabrics before ending with a fugue containing a stormy finish. After this piece, the audience not only stood up to clap, but starting to yell bravos as well – something I have never heard before in the middle of a program – obscuring even the start of the Stravinsky! Even more so than the Schumann works, Shostakovich provided a canvas for Trifonov’s deeply original creativity – the range of sounds coming from the piano was tremendous, but equally matched by a phenomenal sense of dramatic pacing and climactic energy. The metaphor of Trifonov as a chamber ensemble with independent-minded players never seemed more apt. The final work on the program – Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the highlight of the concert – must be heard to be believed. No longer can Petrushka be considered an empty virtuoso vehicle, indeed so much life was added to it that many parts simply did not resemble what we are used to hearing. On top of all the qualities emphasized above (including some marvelously voiced chords and textures), it was Trifonov’s undeniable genius at rhythmic shaping that brought the piece to life. In short, the rhythms were so powerful, the syncopations so strong, the polyrhythms so present, that one could hardly avoid falling out of your seat – indeed Trifonov seemed perilously close falling off the bench has he was what could only be called dancing on the bench. And the music was dancing too, in every nook and cranny of the piece Stravinsky’s vision of the Russian countryside came to life. For the first time, that old wild smile began to appear on Trifonov’s face.

After tremendous applause that began before the piece even finished, the audience was treated to two encores (desperate attempts to garner a third through yelling at the pianist proved unsuccessful). The first was Nikolay Medtner’s Op. 38/8 “Alla Reminiscenza” played at a breakneck speed, building up to a tremendous flourish. Let it be known that I would graciously donate an arm and a leg to hear Trifonov perform the whole set. The second encore was a delightful piece by Prokofiev bringing the nearly 3-hour concert to a close. The concert showed once again that Trifonov is the premier recitalist of the age – it was only marred by a phone endlessly ringing during the Kreisleriana, which, after being supposedly shut off, went on to ring again exactly 30 seconds later.

Concert date: 26 March 2017, CSO Chicago

PROGRAM

Schumann – Kinderszenen

Schumann – Toccata, Op. 7

Schumann – Kreisleriana

Shostakovich – Selections from 24 Preludes and Fugues

Stravinsky – Three Movements from Petrushka

Medtner – Alla Reminiscenza from Forgotten Melodies [ENCORE]

Prokofiev – Gavotte from Cinderella [ENCORE]

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

It was my parents’ choice. One day they took me to the school of music and I had no say in it. I was even made to play violin for a while. Soon, however, it was established that violin and I were not made for each other.

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

Rather than influence there was a fateful moment in my life when I met a musician who taught me and trained me to play the piano and by doing that determined my future life. Later on I became her husband. Her name is Aliza Kezderadze.

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

Art is my profession, career is my occupation. There are two types of challenges and threats. The external ones should sometimes be ignored, at other times confronted. What comes from oneself however is different. The general principle I followed was not to chew more than I can swallow. In other words “less is more”!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

These are two separate disciplines. Performance is, among other things, an act of a moment. On the recordings, all are my favourites and none is my favourite. All because of a tremendous effort that documenting music requires, none because I never listen to any of my recordings. Recently, I recorded two Beethoven Sonatas (available on IDAGIO idag.io/pogorelich). It seems I was able to express what was not expressed in that music before.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

My loyalty goes to the composer I am occupied with. I do not have favourites.

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

I learn new pieces and I also play pieces I have played in the past.

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

There are various. Some of them are also blessed with spectacular acoustics like Teatro Cólon, Buenos Aires or Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Generally I am fascinated by musicians of traditional folk music, particularly singers. My favourite pianist is Art Tatum, a taste shared by Rachmaninoff who reportedly never missed an opportunity to attend his performances. I also like Oscar Peterson.

I have never heard them in concert but people of African origin have rhythmical pulse unique to them. Music sounds so spontaneous when they play.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It actually took place after one of the very noisy successes. There was a reception and it turned out that the host, a very prominent and powerful person, had celebrated his birthday by participating in the organization of the event. The entire society of the city was in the concert hall and a good many very well known faces at the reception. There was also a piano in the room and all of a sudden someone pointed to the piano with an inviting gesture, where it became clear that I was expected to accompany the “Happy Birthday to you” tune. I was mortified as I realized that I had never played the tune. So I bravely stood up and said “I am sorry but I do not have this piece in my repertoire”. The host was elated as no one in the room could imagine that I actually did not know the music. Everyone thought that it was cute and witty and they all applauded again.

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

Unfortunately there are not as many oranges in the world as there are glasses of orange juice we drink. Equally no advice of general character is good unless it is tested in practice. With all the best intentions of all of us and each of us, life is a lottery; however general principles are the same as I believe are implied in any professional activity. Self respect, modesty, determination being led in life by a clear heart and mind, could advance a person anyway. One must never forget that life is a struggle and one has to be ready.

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

Happy to be where I am, god willing; otherwise I would love to be in Somerset on a sunny day. Although I have lived in the UK for almost 20 years, I have never been there. The name to me as a foreigner evokes fairy tales, as it is acoustically reminiscent of summer and sunset. The name sounds so musical to me.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

The idea of perfect happiness is not seeking it on purpose.

What is your most treasured possession?

 I believe it is my imagination.

What is your present state of mind?

Right now I am sitting and observing half packed bags, being packed for a month long stay with concerts in China and Japan. As I can see the clothes, prepared for three distinct types of weather, very cold, moderate and hot and humid, I am trying to comprehend it.

Such is the life of an artist…..

Ivo Pogorelich’s new recording of Beethoven Piano Sonatas, No. 22 in F major op. 54 and No. 24 in F sharp major op. 78 are available exclusively on IDAGIO

Ivo Pogorelich was born in Belgrade in 1958, the son of a musician. He received his first piano lessons at the age of seven and went to Moscow at the age of twelve to study at the Central Special Music School and then at the Tchaikowsky Conservatory. In 1976 he began intensive studies with the renowned pianist and teacher Aliza Kezeradze, with whom he was married from 1980 until her untimely death in 1996. Mme. Kezeradze was able to transmit the spirit and matter of the school of Beethoven and Liszt, originated in Vienna and than carried through to the Conservatory of St. Petersburg, flourishing towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th. Century. Ivo Pogorelich won the first prize at the Alessandro Casagrande Competition at Terni (Italy) in 1978 and the first price at the Montreal International Music Competition in 1980. In October of the same year he entered the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw where, when prevented from participating in the final contest as a soloist with the orchestra, a fierce controversy resulted in the renowned Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich, a member of the jury, protesting and leaving the competition, joined by other members of the jury panel, with the words “He is a genius”. This event drew the attention of the whole musical world to the young pianist.

Ever since his debut recital in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1981, Ivo Pogorelich has created a sensation with his performances in all the great concert halls throughout the world; starting in the U.S. and followed by performances on all four continents. He has received invitations to play with numerous major orchestras such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, all the London Orchestras, the Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, New York Philharmonic Orchestras of the U.S. and major orchestras elsewhere. Wherever and whenever he plays, his stunning interpretations of the music confirm the originality of his talent and intellect. The New York Times once wrote “He played each note exactly, with such a feeling, such expression, he was an entire orchestra– it was as if he played 200 years ahead of our time”. In this spirit Ivo Pogorelich is known today as a poet of the instrument.

More about Ivo Pogorelich

 

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

I started piano aged 6 and didn’t show much interest in the first few months but a family trip to London when I was just 7 included a night at the Proms, with Malcolm Sargent conducting the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique which just blew me away. When I got back home they couldn’t get me off the piano ! As far as a career was concerned I really had no idea what was entailed … I just drifted into it…one thing led to another. 

Who or what have been the most important influences on your career as a musician?

My teachers to start with: Marjorie Clementi, who sorted out my technique when I went to her aged 13 and who taught me to listen to myself for the first time. Gordon Green, who taught me how to practise in so many imaginative ways, and whose infectious love and enthusiasm for music overall was very inspiring. He really was a great human being. When I was a student Alfred Brendel’s early recordings were a great inspiration, and also the playing of so many pianists… Richter, Rubinstein , Kempff and Curzon to name a few of the most important.

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

Recording all the major Schubert works for Radio3 in the 1980’s and more recently recording all the Beethoven Sonatas for Deux-Elles. Playing at the Proms was a great experience , but very challenging!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto at the Proms in 1989, and my recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas

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

Beethoven and Schubert for sure. Mozart’s Concertos, Brahms, Dohnanyi, and Debussy.

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

I’ve started to play themed programmes in the last few seasons….The piano and nature for example this year including Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata and shorter works by Liszt, Schumann, Dohnanyi Ireland and Debussy all inspired by nature. Next year The piano and Art …works by Liszt, Debussy and Granados culminating in Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Also a lot of all Beethoven programmes when recording the sonatas. Now all Schubert programmes in preparation for recording his works.

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

S0 many! – but Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall for concertos…. The clarity and immediacy make it so exciting. For solo it’s difficult to beat Kings Place. For chamber the warmth of sound in the Wigmore is very special

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Too many to list….but for listening I’m still as obsessed by Wagner now as I was when I discovered his music as a teenager. Haydn Quartets are an endless treasure trove…..

Who are your favourite musicians?

Again, where to start ? Just recently I heard two stunning performances from very contrasting pianists whose work I love and admire…….Richard Goode and Martha Argerich

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Taking part in the final concert of Kathy Stott’s Piano 2000 festival at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester…all the Rachmaninov Concertos in one evening. I played No.2

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

Fidelity to the score and the communication of the music without personal interference. Meaning is more important than style, yet a sound knowledge of style is also necessary. An interest in all the works of the major composers, not just the piano music.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Apart from playing Schubert and Beethoven, walking on the hills of Scotland and the Lake District, cooking, watching films, and listening to Wagner

 

With an extraordinary career spanning over 4 decades, Martin Roscoe is unarguably one of the UK’s best loved pianists. Renowned for his versatility at the keyboard, Martin is equally at home in concerto, recital and chamber performances. In an ever more distinguished career, his enduring popularity and the respect in which he is universally held are built on a deeply thoughtful musicianship allied to an easy rapport with audiences and fellow musicians alike.


Read more about Martin Roscoe here

An attitude still prevails today that classical musicians, and perhaps mostly especially pianists, exist in some kind of gilded cage or ivory tower, where, separated from the humdrum demands of everyday life, they hone their art and craft in glorious seclusion. For those looking in from the outside, the life of the classical musician may seem extraordinarily special and privileged: one has the opportunity day in day out to engage with the most sublimely beautiful and profoundly emotional music ever written, and share its wonders with others in concert.

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Liszt’s music salon at his home in Weimar

Some years ago, several years before I started this blog, I interviewed a concert pianist in his home in leafy suburbia. Apart from the fact that he had a special piano room separate from the rest of the house, his existence, at first sight, was not dissimilar to mine. There was evidence of family, children and pets; he answered the door in his socks, and spoke about his “work”(conjuring magic out of that big black box of wood and wires) as if it were any other nine-to-five job. He lived in an ordinary street, in an ordinary suburb of London. I think, naively, I had been expecting his music room to be a Lisztian salon, rather than an office, and he an effete artist detached from the real world. His very ordinariness was something of a surprise to me. I have subsequently realised, from my many interviews and interactions with classical musicians via this blog, my reviewing and my own experience as a musician, that this “ordinariness” – treating one’s work as  “normal job” – is a way of protecting oneself against the exigencies of life as a classical musician. Because in order to succeed in this fast-paced and highly competitive profession, one has to be prepared to put in the work, hard work, every day, while also maintaining a healthy degree of perspective about what one does. In addition, one has to deal with the cynics out there who do not regard music as “a proper job”.

For the professional musician, work (and “work” often simply means “practising”) shapes every hour and is the cadence by which one sets one’s life. Without it, one can feel directionless, without focus. Yet practising, four to five hours every day, can also be a form of captivity. When one is wrestling with something new and tricky, when the same page of the score confronts one day after day, it can feel as if one does not move forward in the night.

In addition, there is all the painstaking work to be done away from the keyboard, reading, analysing and annotating scores, marking up fingering schemes which once learnt remain embedded in the memory and the fingers forever. Note-bashing is simply no substitute for the hard graft of learning new work in depth: working, with pencil and score, cutting through the music to the heart of what it is about. Living with the piece to find out what makes it special, studying style, the contextual background which provides invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted. The endless striving to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time. There is new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revised, overhauled, finessed, or just simply kept going, a vast catalogue “in the fingers” which can be made ready for some kind of performance within a matter of days, depending on one’s schedule. On top of that, one must attend to the “business side” of the profession – contacting promoters, agents, concert organisers, updating one’s website, creating publicity material, general admin  – all of which is time-consuming and can seem like an irritating distraction from the real work of studying the music.

The life of the concert pianist can be tough, restrictive and lonely, the grinding solitary hours of practise only intermittently relieved by work with colleagues. Then there is the traveling, living out of a suitcase in cheerless hotel rooms, sometimes a different place each night, playing an unfamiliar instrument in a foreign concert hall of uncertain acoustic. Having to produce a faultless performance every time, even if one is tired, jet-lagged or, worse, ill, on a strange, and possibly inferior, piano. Never having permission to be less than perfect; always feeding the artistic temperament. The pressure to achieve matched only by the pressure to sustain – and always, the uncomfortable knowledge that one’s reputation is only as good as one’s last performance. No wonder some musicians reach burn out to decide to take a sabbatical (Kissin, Aimard, and now Anderszewski) or even leave the profession entirel. The punishing schedule (trans-continental travel and 200-plus concerts a year) has been blamed for the late John Ogdon’s mental breakdown.

Only a very small minority of professional musicians can be considered “well off”, financially, when measured against other professions (doctors, lawyers, accountants, for example). The Lang Langs of this work are definitely a rarity. The rest work hard to maintain a reasonable standard of living, and many teach to supplement meagre concert fees. There are mortgages and bills to be paid, tax returns to be made, cars to be serviced, parents’ evenings to attend. (The fact that one is playing Chopin at Wigmore Hall to pay for new curtains may feel like an insult to the music and the musician’s craft. But recall that Chopin himself wrote his most heavenly pieces and sent them off with crotchety notes to his friend and factotum Julian Fontana, demanding the best prices from his publishers because he had bills to pay.) Without the safety net of working in a “normal” profession, where one might enjoy in-work benefits, things like pension plans, health insurance and savings need to be taken care of and factored into one’s financial planning. Injury is perhaps feared the most by musicians as it can mean loss of work – and when one is self-employed regular paid work is crucial.

Professional musicians are often envious of the freedom that amateurs musicians enjoy – being able to play whatever repertoire they like, whenever they like, without the pressure to produce specific programmes for concerts and to satisfy the demands of promoters and agents. Simply to enjoy the music for what it is….

So why do we do it? Why do we submit to the demands of the job, forgoing many of the trappings of a “normal” job (social life, holidays)? Because it is a huge privilege to be able to play this great music, works that rank alongside Aristotle and Shakespeare in their magnitude and importance. One feels like a conservator, taking responsibility for them, sharing them with others. It is a cultural gift – a gift to oneself, and a gift to those who love to listen to the piano. All the falseness of ego disappears when one lays oneself on the line before a full house at the Wigmore or Carnegie Hall. To meet a Beethoven or Schubert piano sonata head-on, for example, it is not about you, how fast you can play, how technically accomplished you are. It is about getting over yourself, becoming ego-less, humble before the greatness of the music, getting under the skin of the music and developing a sense of oneness with the composer. There are so many things in these wonderful works to be explored and understood, things which have the power to continually surprise and fascinate. That’s why we do it.

Further reading:

Give me a break: classical musicians who step away

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