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Valentina Lisitsa on Searching for the Rachmaninoff Affinity

When Valentina Lisitsa came to Stockholm to play Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, it was a welcome fact not only for all her fans but also for anybody well aware of the enormous challenge this concerto means for any performer. In 2013 Lisitsa released her Complete Rachmaninoff Concertos on Decca and therefor this was a rare chance for Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell not to talk to her about YouTube but… Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Patrick Jovell: Tell me about your relationship to Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Valentina Lisitsa: Well, basically I think Rachmaninoff had the same problem I had. Stories tell that he learned pieces very quickly and he would fake his practice and was easily procrastinating tasks and would rather go and skate with his friends than indulge in hard work. With me, it was the same when young as I was very advanced and what took other people three months to learn I did in three days. It was easy for me to be on top of the class, so between exams and exams, I could basically do nothing. My family didn’t have a clue thinking I was practicing while reading books for example.

Valentina Lisitsa and Patrick Jovell in front of a portrait of Sergey Rachmaninoff at the Stockholm Concert House.

Valentina Lisitsa and Patrick Jovell in front of a portrait of Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

PJ: You were both emigrants from the East, Russia and the Soviet Union.
VL: Yes, the same situation with Rachmaninoff and me happened when we emigrated to the West – strange to talk about him like this – but he came from a very protected life in Russia with a good position and didn’t have to work really hard and could focus on just to create.
When he comes to the West, he realizes he has to work and consequently play concerts. So he came to the West without having much repertoire. The same problem as with me. All my education was competition driven and then you cover your base with this kind of competition repertoire and stay with that because succumbing to a competition life other repertoire is not needed. I was coming from a shelter situation where you go from competition to competition. So not until I got real management I found myself working as a kind of ambulance as you get your breaks playing concerts for people who have cancelled on short notice. This is very stressful because you can never say I never played this or that piece. You can never risk they won’t call again. So step by step I built a repertoire of concertos which now has grown to a large number, however not meaning I always play them.

PJ: Your Rachmaninoff Complete Concertos (incl. the Paganini Rhapsody) is a tremendous project which makes one think in terms of a project reflecting a lifetime. How many of the concertos did you play since an early age?

VL: Only one, the second concerto was a part of my competition repertoire, a work I literally can pull out of my pocket and play at any time and now Rach 3 is going the same way as I have played it so many times.

PJ: We have all these stories about pianists working a whole life to prepare this enormous work. How was your relationship to the third?

VL: I was answering this young boy who told me that he was practicing Rach 3 and found it so difficult as it made him so emotional. This makes me think of a picture/caricature of Liszt sitting playing at the piano but his head is going all the way up over the clouds or another story about the great singer Chaliapin, who apart from being a fantastic singer also was a brilliant actor who was able to convince anyone about anything. At the same time, he could split his person and go privately nasty. We are here talking about a double personality. One person who suffers all emotions and one who is the cool observer. That is what this piece does to you. You become two persons – it’s not bi-polar though (laughs).

PJ: So you mean that the difference between the second and third is huge?

VL: The second is the most perfect in terms of composition. Not too long and not too short, popular melodies and also a bit boring. As a performer, you cannot risk breaking out from this construction. It is dangerous to get too over-sentimental or overly fast. The third is like life. You never know where it takes you, it always comes differently no matter what you plan. Different orchestras, different conductors and so on. Every time you relive the piece in that sense.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no 3, introduction:

PJ: The famous story about Gustav Mahler conducting the third with Rachmaninoff as soloist in New York in 1909 tells about how great respect Mahler had for this concerto forcing the orchestra to lengthy and rigorous rehearsals on the orchestral parts. What can we learn from this?

VL: Well, this concerto is much more give and take. More interactive, which is great as you feed on what the orchestra does. For instance, take the last quiet moment – reminiscent of the first movement – and everything depends on what the woodwind does, you cannot change it, it depends on what they give you.

PJ: You are a very dynamic performer and you have done a tremendous journey through the Rachmaninoff concerto cycle including the Rhapsody. The first concerto is a youth work, the second a masterpiece of compositional balance. Yuja Wang has mentioned that she sees an improvisational base in the material in the third concerto. Which was your base for approaching this monumental work?

VL: The problem is when people are talking about Rachmaninoff that we actually talk so much about style, our traditions tell us how Bach is supposed to sound or how Beethoven and Mozart are supposed to sound. We feel how they should sound even though we have never heard them. With Rachmaninoff we have a unique case; we have a great composer who was arguably one of the greatest pianists, playing with top orchestras, he was a good conductor working on a level where he easily could communicate what he wanted. So let’s be Sherlock Holmes and just assume that he was in a position where he could add what he wanted or deduct what he didn’t want. With this in mind, his own recordings are very much a proof of what he wanted. He changed things often, substituted dynamics, chords, phrase endings and so on.

PJ: What about the cuts done in performances which were evidently done in the third concerto’s youth?

VL: It has to do with the work length. Of course we have the lengthy Brahms’ B-flat major concerto and the pressure to fit a certain size for recording. Rachmaninoff said that when they for this reason made cuts in his second symphony it was like cutting his body and flesh, yet everybody was doing it. His music was often felt like being too long.

PJ: Can we interpret this as disposition of too much emotion or what?

VL: Perhaps, people were not ready at that point to accept it. Nowadays when we live in a higher tempo, we are used not to modify or doing cuts.

PJ: Stephen Hough once wrote about musical declamation and how to achieve a climax in romantic music through doing the opposite.

VL: We should listen to Rachmaninoff’s playing and we will see his formula as easy as 1-2-3, very specific way of phrasing, specific way of building structure connecting and achieving climax on certain notes. We find everything in his recordings. It happens often when I play with great maestros and I ask them to start the first movement in Rachmaninoff’s tempo, that I get the reaction ¨Oh no, he plays it too fast¨. It is Alla breve and that is what Rachmaninoff does. Why do we discount what the composer wanted and played himself? This gives a totally different direction to the entire piece.

Lisitsa rehearsing Rachmaninoff Concerto no 3 in Budapest

PJ: Tell me of your affinity and psychological relation to the work. We have a notion that when Rachmaninoff is played by pianists from the Russian tradition, there is a certain specific understanding and transmission of cultural and emotional contents taking place, like priests transforming the secrets of the mighty tradition?

VL: It has much more to do with the musical language I think. He borrows his musical language from orthodox church music, very Byzantine. Constructions derived from the oriental branch of Eastern Christianity. Long wavy phrases reflecting the slavic language. We write letters differently, our style of language is different. People in Russia make fun over the German language with long phrases and English is very straight and direct which clearly tells Who did What. In Russian it is not so clear. The Russian language tends to endings which close, one after another. So in this sense, it has nothing to do with emotions but language. The emotional side comes from people’s notion about Rachmaninoff. In the US, for example, he was treated as a Hollywood composer, he never wrote for Hollywood but film composers were asked to write in the style of Rachmaninoff. He was stigmatized for being the grand composer writing popular music. With that came also a notion in performance. The Hollywood idea of dramatize Russian literature like War and Peace or Doctor Zhivago epic saga theme emphasising the Russians to be sad and sentimental. This is not genuine. In that same way, the playing style of Rachmaninoff became seen as gloomy, sad and sentimental – the only thing missing would be a fur hat with a Russian star (laughs). A perfect caricature of the slavic soul.

I remember in music school and music history class our teacher played three versions of the G-minor Prelude for us asking us to guess who played which version and the pianists were Rubinstein, Richter, and Rachmaninoff. We were young and thought Richter was the pianist crashing and banging on the piano, Rubinstein is the more refined with a sort of feminine approach, Rachmaninoff with his big hands with the absolutely biggest sound. We were very surprised to realize that it was Rubinstein was playing in the American style and banging like crazy – which we thought was Rachmaninoff – while Rachmaninoff’s playing was the least interesting to us, too subdue and too light, we thought Rachmaninoff was Rubinstein.

Hear Rachmaninoff play:
Travel in Time and Meet Sergei Rachmaninoff

PJ: So you mean that the actual idea about Rachmaninoff is a construction?

VL: When young people ask me how to listen to Rachmaninoff then we first have to go through this mental barrier, sit down and actually listen to his playing and sound. We have to readjust to the style that is coming out. First it seems dry, light weight and it’s not emotional. That is a shock to people right? People tell me that he plays the third too fast, but in comparison to what? When people splash their hearts out in the piano and displaying their intescticles out through the piano like having a constant session going on with your psychiatrist over and over again. Like watching the movie Shine over and over again. But Rachmaninoff belonged to the Russian nobility shared a lot in common with the British; men do not cry, you don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, everything is inside – so his music is a tension of what’s inside. When you understand this, you start looking at him totally differently.
We can hear Martha Argerich play Rach 3 so wonderfully and so exciting and then there is Rachmaninoff himself who doesn’t project the same emotions, it even sounds irritated like he is upset. It’s angry and everything is inside. But when he smiles at you just slightly you feel so happy, like he made your day.

PJ: Many young pianists competing in competitions play the third concerto. Do you think there is a different sound concept these days? Being a repertoire work it no longer seems so hard to play with a sort of ease and not with an aim to create these enormous monumental type interpretations (Horowitz/Ormandy & Ashkenazy/Fistoulari for example). Is it good that the concerto has become so popular and that so many pianists are playing Rach 3 these days?

VL: Well, it’s not good because it is not played correctly, not in Rachmaninoff style. People are doing it like they are doing Tchaikovsky or Chopin… Rachmaninoff style is not only the tempi. Tempo is the first thing we can tell, what is truly different about him is how he phrases. We have clear directions how to play when we learn Bach or Chopin. The most telling recording of how he phrases is not his recording of the third but rather the second movement of the first concerto. I give it as a task to people who ask me how to do it; go and try to play with him. And there is where style happens. His style is totally different from what we think of Russian music and Russian performance, what we despise in Russian playing, that everything is late. I will tell you why. Western pianists are trained to play chamber music with strings, in Russia everything was going from singing and singers with breathing is notorious for being late. There Ashkenazy’s style is painfully Russian as it adopts to this – taking big breaths and then letting everything go with great emotion, a vocal style. When we listen to Rachmaninoff he is doing the opposite thing, his downbeat comes before the beat when we measure it. We pianists have limited tools at our disposal, we have a percussion instrument so we play with weight and gravity but we really play it with our time machine, so we stretch sometimes. And when we hear Rachmaninoff in this example, he stretches his downbeat so it gets outside the sonic construction. Actually, if we listen to singers in popular music from Russia and the West from the 1910s and 20s they are doing the same way. It is totally different from the operatic approach. We were growing up and there was of course Horowitz and everybody was crazy about him and those who could copy him and Horowitz was painfully copying Rachmaninoff in the third concerto. Phrases with accents, very active starting points before the beat. In Horowitz case, it also coincided with accents, and everybody was copying this. The misconception became rule just like what we said about tempo which is not fast but Alla breve.

PJ: What about the Russian concept of “Intonatsiia”, whereas you use more time when you need to go far on the keyboard?

VL: This is the concept of opera which works wonderfully in Mozart but not in Rachmaninoff, you think of an interval of a stretch, the big interval takes you more time in duration. Good opera singers though don’t need longer time to reach the right notes in all registers.

PJ: Were you aware of these facts when you started working on the Rachmaninoff concertos project?

VL: No, it was natural for me to study the way he was playing as opposed to referring to which teachers I learned from. I would put on headphones and play along with him. I think our perception of timing is very different from what it is in reality. Only when you play simultaneously easy melodies, you can discover where you are early or late and experience what he does. I studied for a long time not with an aim to say I copied Rachmaninoff because that is impossible, but more like we are like lenses in cameras. Different lenses and different cameras and the same object will always look different.

PJ: How many times have you performed the third concerto?

VL: I didn’t count but maybe 25-30 times.

PJ: What has happened during this journey?

VL: In the beginning you are so much involved, busy, it is such an immense piece of music… you are in the thick of the battle. You go up in ranks in the army so to speak, you star as an infantryman you are fighting in drenches, you get shot, you don’t know if you are going to survive, and if you survive to the end, it is already a victory. Then you can end up leading a small group of people of a batallion and if you make it to generals rank, you can watch the battle from a distance and send an army of 200 people if needed.

PJ: Ever since the rise of the movie Shine in 1996 and the idea about Rach 3 being the Mount Everest for pianists, the idea has also been that this climb shall be done by big strong male performers preferably Russian and with big hands. With recordings of you and Yuja Wang and many other virtuoso female performers, this idea seems extremely old fashioned.

VL: I thought maybe that the general opinion about Brahms’ concertos and particularly the B-flat was even more male in that sense… Playing piano is easy so let’s put it this way; we want our audience to believe that it’s very difficult. Musicians using their lips and embouchure cannot practice more than two hours in order to function, also, string players have to be very careful about natural position and so on in order not to make music making painful. We pianists can just sit down like in an armchair and play with gravity we have a little help with our hands, mechanical rebound from the instrument so basically very easy to play regardless of gender. The problem is on the perception side and what people want to hear. It also has to do with cultural things, we can historically see a difference in audience. All those crazy women who listened to Liszt and at that same time Clara Schumann was consertizing and yet people recommended her not to play great works like the Appassionata, but the audience was female. The problem with gender happens in studies when little boys and girls start playing an instrument and it was expected that boys will be boys and girls will be girls and they all play all these exciting pieces and girls will be nice and womanly. Gender roles in classical education like in Soviet music schools. When there was a boy that played in a feminine way, this boy was usually promoted because he was “musical” but if a girl played in a masculine way – like I did playing virtuoso pieces – I was labeled unmusical. Good technique but unmusical. So I was crossing my gender. Now as an adult, I don’t get opinions like that anymore but in school and at competitions. Because there are expectations. I even had arguments with my teacher about how I should portray disastrous music or something terrible by having a beautiful sound. I am still undecided about that.

PJ: Thank you for enlightening us about your thoughts and work. We hope to see you soon again in Stockholm!

Valentina Lisitsa – Live at the Royal Albert Hall


Kathleen Supové Redefining the Pianist as Art

Kathleen Supové is one of America’s most acclaimed and versatile contemporary music pianists, known for continually redefining what it means to be a pianist and keyboardist/performance artist in today’s world.

After winning top prizes in the Gaudeamus International Competition for Interpretation of Contemporary Music, she began her career as a guest artist at the prestigious Darmstadt Festival in Germany. Since then, Ms. Supové has annually presented a series of solo concerts entitled The Exploding Piano. In this series, she has performed and premiered works by a list of established and emerging composers that’s a Who’s Who of contemporary music for piano. She has especially championed music of compelling virtuosity and audience connection. In recent seasons, she has developed The Exploding Piano into a multimedia experience by using electronics, theatrical elements, vocal rants, performance art, staging, and collaboration with artists from other disciplines.

Piano Street talks to Kathleen Supové

Patrick Jovell: You are currently touring with something called the DIGITAL DEBUSSY PROJECT. What can you tell us about that and its background?

Kathleen Supové: Digital Debussy is something I came up with about two and a half years ago. I had noticed that almost every composer I talked with, from any background (classical, indie, jazz, noise), would include Debussy in the list of 2-3 composers that were influential to them. He was the one common denominator!! This combined with my own feverish love for Debussy and my memories of pieces of his I had played as a child. It just seemed like a natural way to start thinking: what would music sound like if Debussy were alive and composing today (and had access to all our technology)? So I asked a group of composers if they would like to write something for piano or piano + electronics that would reflect their personal answer to the question! I got a tremendous array of works from a dozen composers (so far)!

PJ: You are a classically trained pianist. What specifically made you open your mind to contemporary music?

KS: I think I can site two things from my early life: first, the teacher I had as a teenager, Elesa Scott Keeney, gave me a lot of what we Americans call “light classics”: Gershwin, “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue”, “Malagueña”, etc. It was a point in my studies where normally one would be playing Bach Inventions, easier Beethoven Sonatas. I think it opened up my sensibilities to contemporary American harmonies, which are more rooted in French music, folk music, jazz, blues, etc. This already loosened me from the whole Austro-German thing. Second, in college (Pomona College in Claremont, California), the music department was very oriented toward contemporary music. One of my professors played Schoenberg’s Suite Op. 25 in class, and I flipped. I was so taken by the fact that you could put new sounds and materials into old dance forms!! After that, I realized that this was music where you could forge YOUR OWN performing tradition. By then, I was at The Juilliard School, where people were all playing the same music basically!! And trying to play it like everyone else had been playing it for 50 years. (And not that it wasn’t a real education!!) But I could see contemporary music as being so exciting against that backdrop.

PJ: There is an ongoing discussion in music media right now how classical music has to find new ways to produce itself in order to attract new audiences. How can old music become more attractive to new audiences and thus the future?

KS: Or new music, for that matter!!! This is something we think about a lot, and the more I think about it, the more I’m not sure I have the answer!!! (laughs). The verdict is out on whether “crossover” will have a lasting effect. I guess in general, I would say that demystifying the concert experience seems to have an effect. People actually listen to concert music, they honor it, and find it interesting if they can get to it! I’ve seen this with colleagues of mine playing for young professionals at NYC clubs like Le Poisson Rouge. I’ve also seen it with colleagues playing for formerly incarcerated youths working on getting their high school diplomas (this happened at a New York midtown office building where the students meet; my husband and I used to volunteer there). The best we can do is always try to PRESENT and REPRESENT the music in the most vivid possible ways, have some surprises that you can only get at the live show, and just keep doing it over and over.

PJ: Can you tell us about the steps you take when collaborating with composers writing material for you?

KS: I am mostly a hands-off performer. I want to let composers create the pieces in whatever way they see fit. With the exception of the Digital Debussy project, I generally don’t present them with a concept, and I certainly try not to tell them how to write or what to write. It has happened so many times that the composer has come up with something I never could have dreamt up!! But having said that, I try to be available for whatever they may need from me: tryouts of material, discussion, etc. I think the one thing I have worked on is being able to spot something that would be truly unplayable, but I’m also a person who loves the (eventual) thrill of taking on something that seems impossible and making it possible.

PJ: There is a clear orientation toward superstardom in the classical music world. In some cases to an extent that the star will overshadow the music itself and everything around it.

KS: Word! I think you’re talking about the “real” classical world, like touring pianists, violinists that play very traditional classical stuff night at night, year after year, yes? And…yes! But read the next part of my answer…

PJ (continued): In other genres the performers act anonymously. In your line of performing you have rather become the artefact yourself. Can you give us your thoughts on the relationship between the performer and the music?

KS: I have mixed feelings about it. It sounds, above, like I’m complaining about classical musicians. I’m thinking that I don’t object to their being superstars, I guess I have more of an issue with them playing the same repertoire over and over, some of them seem so dynamic and contemporary in every way except the music they play!

I think that being some kind of cultural icon can also get people’s attention and draw them in to actually experience the music! It’s probably a fine line. We also live in a multisensory age: I think it’s impossible to ignore the visual aspect of experiencing art, even pure musical art.

One of the most touching compliments I ever received was when I was in Rome performing a new piece. I was wearing this really wonderful mini skirt that has Andy Warhol-Mona Lisas on it. It caused a bit of a stir, people found it amusing, but a friend of the composer said to me something like: “yes, but the thing is: once you start playing, you forget all about it and just think of the music.” I would like to try and live up to that ideal.

Video from a performance at the Google Headquarters in New York City:

More about Kathleen Supové

Kathleen Supové isn’t ordinary in any way. From her sunset-tinged red hair to her penchant for doing almost anything on stage, she has striven to set herself apart from traditional musicians. She sees most musicians as gatekeepers of tradition, and she doesn’t want to be that way. Her unconventional ideas began when she was a child and started to pretend she was a one-person television variety show. Because she was a fantastic pianist, she would consider herself “the entertainment” that occurs on such shows during on-air commercial breaks. Ms. Supové continued to play recitals where she would, as with her “paranoid” persona, come on stage in unusual ways. In one such recent performance, her clothing was described by a critic as “hooker-chic vinyl and leather,” which is a far cry from standard, black concert attire. To Ms. Supové, everyone who’s on a stage at any time is playing a role; she commented in a recent interview that musicians most often don the mantle of “librarian,” which she found disagreeable.

Even after she ceased her play-time concerts, she continued on the path of irreverence and unconventionality. Her father brought her to a local teacher named Elesa Scott Keeney. Keeney was prone to showy displays on the piano and, as Ms. Supové describes her, wasn’t wearing “old-lady dresses” the way most doddering piano teachers of that era were. She even thought Keeney might have had a secret life. Keeney developed not only Ms. Supové’s classical chops but also her appreciation for light-hearted pop and show music.

Ms. Supové says that her studies with Keeney were seminal in her development as an unconventional performer. She began to eschew the masterworks of the classical and romantic periods to concentrate on avant-garde compositions, the more unusual, the better. At this point, she has completely abandoned anything that is not avant-garde. In fact, she champions works that might never be played were she not to intercede. To Ms. Supové, this kind of co-creation is an essential part of her musical makeup. Her favorite compositions have paired her with computers, pre-recorded speeches, doctored pianos, and even Indian table drums. Like a bizarre, female Glenn Gould, she mutters nearly incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness observations about string theory.

All of this, of course, can threaten to overshadow the music itself and make the performance all about the performer. Traditional pianists speak of developing a rapport with the composer and his or her intent. Ms. Supové will, of course, take it a step further and the music has become the ultimate tool for her self-expression. Interestingly, her artistic persona has not damaged her critical reception, which has been largely enthusiastic. Critics hail her interpretative brilliance and desire to be more inclusive than reclusive on stage. Even when she’s gigging with her art-rock band Doctor Nerve or doing free-form hip-hop with young, urban performers, she stays true to her mantra of inclusion.

In 2004, Ms. Supové released Infusion on the Koch International Classics label, featuring four contemporary solo works for piano and electronics. It is available through CDBaby, iTunes, and other digital sales outlets. Other recordings can be found on the Tzadik, CRI, Innova, New World, Neuma, Bridge, Centaur, OO, and XI labels.

Ms. Supové has an undergraduate degree from Pomona College and a masters degree from the Juiliard School. Her teachers, in addition to Keeney, have included Karl Kohn and Russell Sherman. Ms. Supové lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her husband, internationally acclaimed composer Randall Woolf, and a lovable, if painfully shy, black cat named Frankie.


That Fascinating Dash of Blue

Since the early 20th century, jazz always had a significant impact on classical music and classical pianists. Composers found the rhythms, the blue quality in melody and harmony, as well as the spontaneous improvisation immensely fascinating and irresistibly modern.

Gershwin brought jazz into the classical concert venues

Even though composers like Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and even Soviet composers used jazz and blues in their works, it was Hollywood and Broadway which would enable jazz music to enter the classical concert venues and the key composer was George Gershwin. Gershwin’s symphonic works like An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F and the opera Porgy and Bess were influenced by French composers. In turn Maurice Ravel was strongly impressed with Gershwin, commenting, “Personally I find jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard of George Gershwin’s works and I find them intriguing.”

…but Ravel rejected him

In the mid-1920s, Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period of time, during which he applied to study composition with the noted Nadia Boulanger who, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel, rejected him.

Ravel (at the piano) and Gershwin (to the right, apparently more interested in what Ravel is doing with his hands than smiling into the the camera) in New York 1928

Ravel (at the piano) and Gershwin (to the right, apparently more interested in what Ravel is doing with his hands than smiling into the the camera) in New York 1928

They were afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. Maurice Ravel’s rejection letter to Gershwin told him; “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”. The orchestrations in Gershwin’s symphonic works often seem similar to those of Ravel; likewise, Ravel’s two piano concertos evince an influence of Gershwin.

Rhapsody in Blue – an experiment in modern music

Challenged by the question “What is American music?” and a comission by bandleader Paul Whiteman for an New York afternoon concert named “An Experiment in Modern Music”, Gershwin wrote the “American Rhapsody” which later was re-named “Rhapsody in Blue”. The version that was heard then was for a 24-piece jazz band, not for full orchestra which was written in 1942 and eventually became the most popular version. The opening clarinet glissando suggests a sound effect quote from a number of piano pieces by Ravel such as Jeux d’eau, Gaspard de la nuit or Alborada del Gracioso.

A performance by classical pianist with serious jazz skills

Let’s hear pianist Kirill Gerstein play the original 1924 version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Gerstein, a renowned international classical performer is also a trained jazz pianist from the famous jazz music school Berklee College of Music in Boston before attending the Manhattan School of Music, earning both his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Music degrees by the age of 20. In this particular concert Gerstein returns to his old Alma Mater in March 30, 2012 to perform togheter with students and faculty members at Berklee College of Music.

Gerstein plays Rhapsody in Blue (Jazz band version) at Berklee

Do you hear the jazz influences in Ravel’s music?
Grimaud plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G

How did George Gershwin play the piano himself?
Hear a live capture of I Got Rhythm from 1931

Read a recent interview with pianist Kirill Gerstein:
He got rhythm: Piano virtuoso Kirill Gerstein embraces classical, jazz… all that is unexpected

Reader Poll

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Piano Vintage – Italian Excellence Bringing Old Steinways Back to Life

One of the most interesting exhibitors at the Cremonafiere Exhibition’s piano part – the so called CremonaPianoforte – this fall was a company and workshop called Piano Vintage. The company performs a type of restoration dictated from the work philosophy and experience of the “Steinway Academy”. The instruments on display at the Cremona exhibition were vintage Steinway grand pianos carefully restored into its original state maintaining the unique identity of each instrument. This is achieved by applying particular techniques that diversify and characterize each sound board according to its original type.

The greatest risk for a restorer is to insist on a certain type of sound quality result for the project on hand, but which is completely alien to the core identity of the instrument. Therefor Piano Vintage’s work consists in understanding the constructive details and the logic of every minute step towards a precise expressive sound finale. Being able to renew the original
sound with innovated techniques aimed at giving back its internal energy, Piano Vintage is able to bring back life to old Steinways while insuring a quality that meets the most demanding expectations.

Interview with Andrea De Biasi

Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell had a chance to talk to Andrea De Biasi, who is heading the workshop located in Pescatina in the Italian Verona province.

Patrick Jovell: It has been very interesting and inspiring hearing a large number of accomplished pianists trying your restored Steinway pianos during the exhibition. My spontaneous reaction is the freshness of sound as well as the balanced sonority character. How did the project and specifically the collaboration with the vintage Steinway instruments start?

Andrea De Biasi: The Piano Vintage project wasn’t born from restoring Steinway pianos, built in particular periods, but it is a necessary consequence determined by the level of deterioration of the original sound performance. I will explain myself better: because of its structural system and mechanical strength, in relation to one another, a piano is destined to lose its original sonority over a period of 30 to 50 years. Practically speaking, in as much as we are able to put an instrument in conditions, favorable for its perfect preservation, the sound that is generated from the soundboard undergoes an evolution with time. It manifest initially with loss of freshness and energy of the sound force, finding a balance and a good natured sound in its mid-life, but with an energetic load that gradually depletes, resulting in the end in a rigid sound and a loss of character. Naturally this evolution doesn’t take into consideration the deterioration of the materials, the unfavorable environment and the mechanical parts that generate the sound input and are a disturbance in the sound perception of the soundboard.

PJ: I would like to ask you about your clients. Who is asking for your services?

ADB: For Piano Vintage, with a new soundboard built on the original one, the market is in evolution because in Europe there are truly very few laboratories that take on work of this kind and in Italy we are the only one. As regards ordinary restoration, our clients are pianists who want to recuperate, in the best way possible, the sound of the piano in order to have an instrument capable of top class performances such as with brand new instruments. I would say even better from certain points of view, because the Vintage restoration is certainly that of exclusive, non-standardized, high-performing instruments.

PJ: Which are the reactions from professional pianists trying restored Steinway pianos?

ADB: The first reaction is astonishment when the year of conservation is revealed to them because pianists do not notice the age of the piano due to the freshness of its sound. At the same time they are fascinated by the beauty of the sound that has an image and imprint clearly different from new Steinway pianos, but at the same time very similar. For us, here at Piano Vintage, this certainly confirms our objective from which our work originates.

PJ: The domination of modern Steinway instruments today works as a sort of hallmark for how concert grand pianos should sound. What has happened to the Steinway sound during the last 100 years from your point of view?

ADB: Steinway is the inventor of the modern piano and his project was the result of an intuition, talent and musical sensibility abreast of the times but already projected into the future. Everyone knows the famous collaboration between the great pianists of the past and the house of Steinway, always attentive to technical interpretative developments of the pianist. From our point of view, and we are not alone, the Steinway sound is standardized at ever increasing levels of excellence but at the same time the instruments are homogenized. From the perception point of view they seem to be pianos very similar and the most beautiful or special is more difficult to identify. This factor is certainly positive from a business point of view and it is the result of the productive Steinway system, still handcrafted, but an industrial craftsmanship that uses technology in certain phases where it was once the work of expert craftsmen. In particular for the construction and assembly of soundboards, jumper wires and cast iron frame made by numerical controlled machines that are capable of improving with special software the construction parts beginning from the measurements and sounding echo, of the initial constructive elements – shaft and cast iron frame.

From my own personal point of view a piece of humanity was taken in the constructive phase that determined the difference of one instrument from another favoring a majority precision that excludes however the natural intuition for solutions that is man’s prerogative.

PJ: There has always existed a firm bond between the development of instruments and how pianists play them. Pianists 100 years ago did not play the piano in the same way pianists do today. Does this affect your work? I mean, you are actually recreating instruments for living pianists and not the dead.

ADB: We merely attempt to enhance the sound that these instruments, built in the past, already possess because we are convinced that if we offer pianists the possibility of playing instruments unlike those of today can be a stimulation for an interpretative experience and research with different horizons and maybe even more stimulating.

PJ: When you are restoring Steinway concert pianos, do you have to take acoustical questions into consideration? Concert halls today require a different set-up when it comes to overall sound production?

ADB: In reality it’s not the environment or the eventual use that influence the restoration process, even though it is taken into consideration. It is the personality and the characteristic sound of the piano that have to be enhanced . It would be risky restoring a piano that would play better only in a certain environment or lose its identity. The restoration process is always guided by the instrument itself, step by step using carefully selected materials and optimized in the best way possible. We have learned the following at the Steinway Academy: an obsessive attention to detail linked with a determined constructive method leads to the realization of the best sound possible for that instrument and not the best sound that we imagine because that doesn’t exist and above all each pianist has his own ideal sound that is the result of his cultural baggage of artistic and technical studies not to mention his talent and individual sensitivity.

PJ: Your work tickles our imagination and there is a feeling of entering a time machine when playing your instruments. What can we – as pianists – learn from playing restored instruments?

ADB: I believe that it will be the Vintage restored piano itself that will guide the pianists on this journey in time and past sound and what they will learn will be their own personal discover as if on a journey in a country never visited before.

We would like to offer this opportunity to make an ancient sound trip but which is actually in the present.

Visit the Piano Vintage’s website:


The Bigger Picture: A Personal Perspective on Practicing Routines

In the third and final part of the series on building a career as a professional pianist, Alexander Buskermolen gives a personal perspective on practicing routines at the piano with practising tips by Dutch pedagogue Jan Wijn.

The previous parts:

Part 1: Master Teacher Wijn is Growing Flowers and Plants

Part 2: Hannes Minnaar: The Path to Becoming a Concert Pianist

I remember watching the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition when I was about five years old. Deeply impressed I told my mother I wanted to be a pianist. It still took me some five or six years before I started my first piano lessons. Now, 16 years later, eight different teachers, several masterclasses and with a Master degree in Music on the wall, I try to summarise all of my experiences. What stayed with me the most after thousands of hours of practising and hundreds of hours of lessons? What knowledge is essential in becoming a skilled and confident pianist? Let’s find out!

Assuming pianists from all levels and backgrounds aim for the same goals, generally technical perfection and musical freedom, maybe it’s wise (and fun!) to have a look at how the pros have established their skills and expertise. Technically speaking, I’m still often baffled by the simple fact that today’s concert pianists can play full recitals without missing a single note. So, how do they do it?

Before I get into the practical insights of studying an instrument, I just want to mention the following. What you need to remember is that most of today’s professional performers have started playing their instrument at the age of four or five. The lucky ones have had excellent teachers throughout their educational path, who provided them with essential knowledge on key points in their development. The flexibility and eagerness of the young mind is part of the reason for their steep learning curve.

Ok, back to you and me. How can you intensify your daily practice and general musical approach in such a way, that it will result in (more) clean playing and (more) musical freedom, maybe even deeper musical understanding and well founded interpretations. First it comes down to a proper reading of the score. Not just the notes, not just aiming for ‘the right’ tempo.. A thorough reading and recognizing of all articulation notations, even the suggested fingerings. They all contribute to a better understanding of both the technical and musical requirements.

Practice tips

For example: staccato markings help you tremendously in quick and efficient jumps and general movements of positions, simply because you can (and should!) let go of the keys as quickly as possible. By landing on your next chord/position, you’ve saved precious time.
Another example: playing fast runs as required in for instance a Mozart sonata or Czerny etude. I’m sure you’re aiming to play these runs as smoothly and as clean as possible. First, choose a solid fingering as a basis for your technique: try avoiding thumbs and 5th fingers on black keys, simply because they’re short and require your hands to make time consuming movement.

After choosing your fingerings, play your semi quavers –or fast quavers – in groups (normally per four) and focus on linking these groups. Also, use syncope rhythms to create an equal quality of sound throughout the run.

A practical tip by Jan Wijn (Piano Street, Frebruary 28, 2013) regarding runs: When you keep making the same mistake during a run (or jump or other technical challenge), focus on the note or group of notes prior to the mistake.
Mistakes are the consequence of some kind of bad preparation. In a way, it’s all about the right focus for the right challenge.

Also, actively look for inspiration by your personal musical heroes. This will put some fire in your daily work but will also help you determine your personal sense of style and musicality.

A great suggestion by Jan Wijn: You need to find out when you should work on technical details or when you should simply play through the entire piece to get a sense of proportion and get used to playing non-stop for 30 minutes or more. Recording these ‘playing through’ sessions will give you an even better perspective on where you stand with this composition. Very confronting, but very helpful.

Another tip by Jan Wijn: playing slow, at least 30% under the concert tempo will help tremendously in getting a clean execution of the piece. My basic rule is: if you play half tempo, play four times as musical and well phrased. This will help you understand and feel the music better, and will have significant effect in learning the piece by heart.

Memorize and analyze

Jan Wijn on memorizing a composition: Many pianists will find it difficult to play through certain pieces without so called memory slips. I always advise my students to do more intensive mental practicing. Sit down in a chair and bring up the entire composition in your mind. If there are any sections in the piece that you can’t visualize or imagine the movements of your fingers and hands that go with it, this is a section that you’ll need to study more closely. Also, don’t neglect the left hand! It’s often to blame for these memory slips.

Essentially, you need to analyze your scores on how to deal with every challenge. During a practice session, altering the score in terms of articulation, dynamics, tempo, register of the keyboard, everything is allowed if it helps you to get a grip on that specific challenge. In other words, strip it down to the core problem, fix it and only then incorporate all the original aspects that you’ve previously altered.

What’s between the notes?

To end my part of this quick summary on tips for practicing, I want to share the following experience. Whenever I heard a musician talk about “the story between the notes” or “the composer’s meaning” I could only vaguely relate to their experiences. When listening to a good performance, I do get carried away into a completely different world. For me it’s about atmosphere and personal associations with sounds, colors and gestures. Becoming a professional pianist myself, I felt the need and responsibility to go deeper into this personal ‘language’ that is linked to the composer whose work I was playing. In other words, what makes Beethoven typically Beethoven, Schumann typically Schumann..?

These questions don’t end with a technical analysis, though it is the start. It’s about understanding what needs to be said musically on a deep level. It’s like getting to know a new person in your life: only by asking this person many questions, having conversations and spending sufficient time with him or her, at some point you can say you really know them, even relate to them. With the score in front of you, it’s about knowing which questions you need to ask in order to get to a fundamental (and still very personal) interpretation of the piece. Don’t look for right answers first, look for the right questions. It is my conviction that this process can be learned and will increase your overall musicality tremendously. Just stay open minded, inspired and curious!

PS: I’d love to read about all of the challenges you face during your musical activities. Please post a comment!

Alexander Buskermolen,
Piano Street Guest Writer


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