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Liszt and the Keyboard – An Illustrated Lecture

Whatever else the world may debate about Franz Liszt’s life and work, one thing is generally conceded: he was the first modern pianist. Entitled ”Liszt and the Keyboard”, master musicologist Dr. Alan Walker gives us an exciting 47 minute journey describing Liszt being the root of modern piano playing.

Liszt’s influence was not that of imitation but of rational solving technical problems. Liszt became a standard of definition with a playing out of biceps, forearms and fingers. Walker says; ”All subsequent schools were branches of his (Liszt’s) tree. Anton Rubinstein, Busoni, Godowsky, and Rachmaninov – all those pianists who formed what historians latter dubbed “the golden age of piano playing” – would be unthinkable without Liszt.”

Alan Walker’s Illustrated Lecture

Walker’s lecture shows how Liszt’s reforms at the keyboard might be best understood by returning them to the biographical context from which they first emerged. Liszt’s period 1838-1847 is referred to as ”Years of Transcendental Execution” and music examples with a lineup of pianists such as Gekic, Bolet, Laplante, Watts, Suk, Solomon, Rosen, Tyron, Lortie and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter with pianist Lambert Orkis provide audible and enjoyable references to Walker, the storyteller.

Piano Street has previously covered the release of English-Canadian Alan Walker’s three volume biography on Franz Liszt that took him 25 years to comlpete, and it’s hard to find equal substantial, penetrating and thrilling storytelling within this field of study. Walker’s mastery and publications also cover Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin, as well as pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. During the pandemic, Walker has published two lectures on Chopin in addition to this lecture on Franz Liszt.


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On Being a Pianist in Kenya – Against All Odds

It is hard enough to train as a classical pianist, even in a Western country with good access to instruments, sheet music and advanced tuition. If you happen to live in Kenya, where nothing of the above is easily available, the many obstacles make it almost impossible. Yet, there are people with an absolute determination to learn. Piano Street has talked to pianist Cordelia Williams, whose new documentary film depicts a new generation on track to break the ‘glass ceiling’ of classical music in Kenya.

Cordelia Williams recently spent six months living, performing and teaching in Nairobi, Kenya, where the Guildhall School in London had asked her to scout out piano talent, with a view to setting up some kind of future scholarship or assistance for the most promising pianists.

Working with the cinematographer Lemuel Agina, she interviewed some of the young people she met and coached, about the obstacles they face in trying to learn classical music. The most obvious hurdle for any aspiring Kenyan pianist is the complete lack of qualified piano tutors. As one self-taught pianist, Teddy Otieno, pointed out, ‘maybe if I get a lesson this year, I will have to wait two or three years to get another one, and I find during those years I have been making small mistakes’.

Piano Street: The young people you taught in Kenya have picked up almost everything they know about the piano from the internet. What do you think your presence there as a real-life teacher meant to them?

Cordelia Williams: What I felt was really valuable in this situation is the fact that I was engaging on a one-to-one basis with each pianist: mentoring, guiding and supporting their own interests and progress. Learning from the internet is of course difficult, but also lonely – all musicians need support, feedback and someone to believe in them and invest in their talent. Honestly I just feel honoured to be able to provide that to a few promising pianists who are otherwise totally self-driven.

PS: How has your stay in Nairobi affected you as a pianist and teacher?

CW: Working in depth with pianists like Teddy is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done, I think because the strength of their desire to improve is so refreshing and invigorating. They went out of their way to learn as much as possible from me and visibly devoted their complete attention and energy to absorbing the new ideas I presented them with. It is such a pleasure to work with someone like this, and that humility in the face of music’s depth is something I want to emulate in my own career.

Cordelia is now planning to visit Nairobi three times per year to carry on coaching and mentoring the most promising pianists she found. She hopes that she will also be able to find summer school places for some of them — by common consent among those interviewed, the most valuable opportunity for a young Kenyan musician would be the chance to travel abroad and take part in focused and concentrated music-making and learning. The long-term goal is to offer scholarships for undergraduate study abroad to the most promising pianists in Kenya.

On Being a Pianist in Kenya: Documentary


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The 17th ”Chopin and his Europe Festival”

The 17th Chopin and his Europe festival opens in Warsaw this Saturday and traditionally, accomplished musicians from all the world will arrive in the Polish capital: top pianists, virtuosos of all instruments, grand conductors and legendary ensembles. Following the same tradition, we will see and hear performances by winners of the Chopin Competition: both those who have enjoyed their theme for years and those whose great career is only starting.

Hear Eric Lu’s recital on 22 August:

In accordance with its title, the Festival showcases Fryderyk Chopin’s œuvre in the context of ‘his’ Europe, understood in four perspectives: Europe contemporary to him, pre-Chopin Europe, Europe after the great master’s death and, finally, the Europe of our time. For this reason, aside from works by Chopin himself, the repertoire played at the Festival also includes the music that inspired him, works by composers younger than him, and the reception of Chopin’s œuvre in music contemporary to us.
Among the pianistic highlights is a night with Chopin’s both piano concertos interpreted by Nelson Goerner and Orchestre des Champs-Elysees under Philippe Herreweghe, very special chamber concerts by the winner of the Wieniawski Competition, Alena Baeva with Vadym Kholodenko, while winner of the Chopin Competition, Rafał Blechacz, will perform with violinist Bomsori Kim. Moreover, other artists invited to this year’s festival include Benjamin Gosvenor, Alexandre Tharaud, Jos van Immerseel, Alexander Melnikov, Angela Hewitt and Isabelle Faust and such ensembles as the Belcea Quartet and Sinfonia Varsovia.

Of course, the program includes winners and laureates of past Chopin Competitions: Yulianna Avdeeva (the 2010 winner), Rafał Blechacz (the 2005 winner), Janusz Olejniczak (6th Prize, 1970), Kate Liu (3rd Prize, 2015) and Eric Lu (4th Prize, 2015).

The great musical festivity in Warsaw lasts from 14 to 31 August.
Hear and see the festival here:

YouTube livestreams: Chopin and his Europe




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Tonebase – Catching the Magic Moment

Interview with tonebase’s piano executive Ben Laude

In late 2019, tonebase Piano was launched, with the aim of giving amateur pianists access to high level music education through premium online content featuring great artists. Since then, education has been trending even more in a digital direction because of the pandemic. Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell has talked to Ben Laude about the challenges he faced building tonebase’s piano platform, but also about how to forge a unified music education, reconciling our physical and virtual realities.

Piano Street: Dear Ben, thank you for letting us interview you! From what I know you are responsible for the piano at tonebase. But you are not alone. I could count fifteen people working in your team. Among the founders I find Chris Garwood who is a guitarist. Can you tell me how it all started and how it has developed?

Ben Laude: First of all, thank you Patrick and to everyone at Piano Street for the resources you’ve been providing us pianists for decades now! I used to frequent the forums back in my conservatory days, mostly looking to pick fights with people about whose Rach 3 recording was the greatest (it was Horowitz and Reiner from 1951, I was convinced).

I joined tonebase in medias res about two years ago with a simple mandate: build the piano platform. The model I had at the time was tonebase’s original pilot classical guitar platform, which had been launched in 2017. Our three founders met at Yale, where two of them (Chris Garwood and Igor Lichtmann) were pursuing their master’s in guitar. They took their ‘Music and Business’ course more seriously than most, it seems, and ended up with a germ of a business plan. They connected with a comp-sci/econ double major whiz kid (Abhi Nayar), and the three of them officially founded tonebase in the summer of 2017. Their savvy and initial success led to getting involved with some Silicon Valley investors, with whom they secured funding to expand to another instrument. Piano was the obvious choice.
At the time I was hired, I was busy teaching and performing, and continued to assist David Dubal in curating his NYC piano performance series (a gig I had going back to my early grad work at Juilliard). I figured it was time to put the doctorate I earned in piano to proper use, and had started applying to tenure-track jobs in higher ed when the call for a tonebase ‘Head of Piano’ fell into my lap. It seemed a bit too good to be true, as I’ve had a second passion for media production dating back to high school, especially video editing. I’ve always enjoyed Bruno Mosaingeon’s interviews at the piano with Glenn Gould and wished more films like this existed with more pianists.

Ben Laude performing in concert

My first six months at tonebase were a mad scramble to recruit as many high calibre pianists and professors as I could and coordinate productions on various repertoire and pianistic topics. Garrick Ohlsson was one of the first major artists to say ‘yes’ – he and I met for coffee in New York the summer of 2019 and got lost in conversation about piano. He was clearly a great fit for our longform style of in-depth tutorial videos, and I owe a lot to him for being willing to contribute lessons to our launch. The next big challenge was organizing our post-production workflow with my teammates – editing the video and adding corresponding scores and workbooks to the platform. (I watched Ohlsson teach Chopin’s First Ballade and Third Scherzo over and over again for so many hours while editing those lessons, that I must have learned both pieces by osmosis – they’re now in my active repertoire and I can’t account for that based on practice-time alone.) We launched in late 2019 with about 30 videos and to-date we’re approaching 300 released, plus dozens more in our backlog waiting to be processed and released.

Garrick Ohlsson preparing for filming momentum.

2020 was a bittersweet. It started off in January and February with some unforgettable productions, including two extended sessions with Leon Fleisher, just months before he passed. While Covid led to a higher demand for streaming services, it also became quite difficult to continue productions as before. I also began to direct my energies towards developing foundational musicianship content, beginner courses, and live programming, while continuing to pursue new collaborations with great concert artists and professors where possible. 2021 couldn’t have arrived soon enough. Our subscriber count has by now risen to over 5000; among our active users, about 40% are ‘serious amateurs’, 40% teachers/professionals, and another 20% or so younger students. We’re aiming to keep pace with our expanding base as we grow, and continue to provide a really exceptional and unique product to pianists of very different backgrounds. There’s also some major concert artists who will be added to our roster soon, including a few based in the UK/EU, and I look forward to producing with them later this year (hopefully in person, fingers crossed). We’re still a young platform, and I’m excited to see where we can go from here.

PS:You are a Juilliard trained pianist and you also function as a tutor, also on tonebase. Which key questions on piano playing and interpretation have you nourished through the years and which come out in your function as a Masterclass moderator?

BL: While at Juilliard I grew fascinated by one of the core questions, or mysteries, of piano playing: that is, what is the relation between physical technique and musical expression. The more I investigated the problem, the more I discovered that musicianship training – i.e., deeply internalizing musical relationships in one’s mind, ear, and voice – can foster better interpretive ideas while also contributing directly to overcoming physical obstacles. In my tonebase lessons, I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of integrating music theory and aural skills into our practice at the keyboard, and we’ve been releasing more and more practical musicianship content for our users’ benefit.

These musicianship subjects are often taught in isolation, especially in the American conservatory systems I’m familiar with, so that your typical piano major will sleep through music theory class on Monday, mumble through solfege exercises on Tuesday, and show up on Wednesday for a private lesson. This results in an unfortunate separation between the intellectual comprehension of harmony and form, the aural recognition of musical relationships, and the physical realization of these principles in performance. (I should also mention a vital fourth element, the study of music history and culture, which takes place on Thursday and is forgotten about by the weekend!) It is no wonder why so many one-sided musicians have emerged from this state of affairs. How often have we encountered a pianist with “great technique, but nothing to say” or with “great ideas, but no chops,” or those who have great ears or analytical minds but never applied them at the piano?

Producer and tutor. Ben Laude is also featured in instruction videos at tonebase.

The remedy, I have found, is a kind of well-rounded musicianship training where playing the piano is treated as a means for developing your musical personality, rather than as an end in itself. I don’t claim to know the best way to get there! But, I have familiarized myself with some traditions that I believe can help a great deal – for one, I’ve always found Nadia Boulanger’s method of keyboard skills training, with solfege and harmonic analysis mixed in, to be very useful. (The first time I ever performed Bach without a memory slip came after painstakingly working through the Fugue phrase-by-phrase, singing one voice while playing the others, then switching.) Committing to such training transforms our connection to the instrument, and over time a kind of holistic awareness starts to develop, which is just awesome. It becomes nearly impossible to play a given figuration or progression on the piano without hearing its component elements and knowing something about how they relate. Scores can be processed faster and memorization becomes much more rapid and reliable. Furthermore, these new sensitivities instantly inform how passages might be played, conjuring all sorts of possibilities about voicing, texture, phrasing, rubato, etc. Physically, the instrument begins feeling more like an extension of your arm, hand, and fingers, relieving tension and promoting facility.

There’s much more to this, but these are the basic contours of a kind of “musical fluency” at the keyboard that I believe all pianists should develop more thoroughly (including myself!), and which I hope to spread through tonebase.

PS: The line-up of artists and pedagogues on tonebase is impressive as are the productions in question. The technology used is a proof of your ambition to give the viewer the best possible chance to get into the contents of the Masterclasses. One easily thinks about carefully directed momenta in order to secure the core message. As a “stage director”, how do you manage the different artists and personalities which all have their own fields of expertise and own articulated artistic/pedagogical universes?

Leon Fleisher teaching pianist Rachel Naomi Kudo Brahms’ B-flat major Piano Concerto.

BL: Pianists can be temperamental, particular people, and each of the artists on tonebase has a singular vision at the instrument that has been honed over decades. I’m lucky to work with one pianist at a time, since their perspectives often rub against each other. In some cases, they appear to be in direct opposition. For example, Leon Fleisher preached a rhythmically-strict, architectural approach to building phrases; Jerome Lowenthal insisted on a rhythmically flexible, narrative approach to interpretation. Who is right? Both, and neither, I suppose. What matters to me is that both have the floor, and are given a platform to demonstrate and defend their perspectives at the instrument. Then, it’s up to viewers to watch, absorb, and find what resonates with them. Pianistic wisdom comes in many varieties, sometimes contradictory!

Ben Laude in interview and Chopin session with Emanuel Ax.

In terms of stage direction, I do my best to steer and structure lessons without leaving my fingerprints all over them. Some artists, like Boris Berman, preferred to work more carefully with me in advance to develop a carefully articulated lesson plan. In other cases, artists were more comfortable speaking extemporaneously about their piece or topic. Garrick Ohlsson, for example, had a marvelous ability to spontaneously manifest highly structured lessons on the spot with very few retakes. One of the trickiest parts of the job has to do with building an ideal viewer in the mind of the artist. Professors are used to the give and take of engaging directly with a student in person, so speaking to an anonymous future student inside a camera can be alienating. If I can manage to make artists comfortable and be themselves, they forget about the artificial environment they’re in and their personalities shine through.

After filming session series with Boris Berman.

PS: This last year’s Pandemic situation has shown a necessary increase in consulting digital resources in music education. Institutions are now much more open to include such alternatives in their regular curricula. How do you predict the future for tonebase and similar resources on the Internet?

One of the Scarlatti takes with Claire Huangci.

BL: I should say that I’m familiar enough with dystopian literature and film to be suspicious of the rallying cry to thoroughly digitize education. It has seemed inevitable since the advent of the internet and streaming services, but brick and mortar educational institutions were too thoroughly entrenched in social life to be uprooted like Blockbuster Video. Nevertheless, education had been trending in a digital direction when 2020 arrived. It seems like the pandemic just sped things up by a decade.

The original mission of tonebase was about connecting amateur pianists to the otherwise insulated worlds of conservatory and concert hall. Therefore it relied on the coexistence, and separation, between offline institutions and online individuals. The amateur’s relative isolation from centers of high level music making and education was the problem we were solving by making the wisdom of great artists accessible and affordable. But what we found even before the pandemic was a widespread general interest in such premium online video content, from more amateurs on the periphery to professionals at the center of these institutions, plus many students and teachers in between. Now that the pandemic has created a situation in which everyone is isolated, including from their own institutions, there has been a need for virtual experiences of all kinds. Some are surrogates that will disappear once social restrictions are lifted, but it seems like others are here to stay. I see lots of potential for tonebase and other online resources to become staples of music education in the post-Covid future, both in institutional settings and private teaching.

Screen capture from a digital workshop with Simone Dinnerstein.

You might think a subjective, sensuous discipline like music requires the flexibility of “offline” learning and would find less use in incorporating digital resources into the classroom or studio. Yet what I’ve found in observing tonebase’s appeal is that it’s precisely the elusiveness of music education that increases the value of any given artist’s video lessons. Whereas it might be interesting to hear the same calculus concept explained by five different math instructors, ultimately they’re each trying to communicate the same bit of knowledge. This is never quite the case with piano instructors, as there’s a wonderful lack of consensus about even fundamental principles of technique and interpretation. There are no axiomatic proofs to musical understanding or scientific laws to piano technique, there are only more-or-less-successful approaches developed and passed down through lineages of mentorship. Under the right circumstances, piano teachers should embrace this healthy relativism and utilize our video archive as discussion material during lessons. Having students weigh different approaches will help them think critically about piano playing, find solutions faster, and ultimately foster original artistry to a degree not possible if you only had access to the perspectives of one or two professors.

On the other hand, often the point of a lesson is not to encourage an exploration of different viewpoints, but to focus on solving a student’s specific problems without the distractions of a second opinion. Even here, a digital resource like tonebase offers a lot of promise down the road. Private teachers often wonder what goes on during the 167 hours between lessons with a student, and having trusted, high quality video lessons and training videos available for the student to watch and practice along with could be a game changer. Teachers could be spending valuable lesson time working on the particular problems a student is facing while they entrust tonebase’s virtual instructors to do the job of introducing or reinforcing concepts and skills in the interim. Along these lines, I believe piano departments and music school libraries will find great value in making tonebase available to both students and faculty as a versatile teaching and training resource.

Discussing the piano concerto repertoire with Jon Kimura Parker.

Of course, in-person learning environments bring benefits that can’t or shouldn’t be reproduced by digital technologies, such as direct feedback from instructors and social interaction with peers. Music, as Boris Berman exclaims in a tonebase lesson, is “the art of sound,” and there’s something irreplaceable about experiencing sonic vibrations in person – making, sharing, and commenting on music together in the same space. Feedback can be digitally mediated to a degree, and tonebase has been increasing its live workshops and developing community feedback channels. But ultimately, the power of digital resources utilized in combination with in-person instruction remains unrealized, especially in music. The goal is to make tonebase a constructive force in reconciling our physical and virtual realities and forging a unified music education that draws from the best of both worlds. (And if all hell breaks loose and the machines do try to take over, I would expect the humanizing forces of music education to tame the robots and for tonebase to help keep our priorities straight!)

Emanuel Ax on Learning Chopin in Lockdown

tonebase recently visited the 7-time GRAMMY Award-winning pianist at his breathtaking home in the Berkshires for an extended interview and recording session.


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The International Chopin Competition in Warsaw – Preliminaries Are On!

The live streamed preliminary round of the 18th Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition has started. Until 23 July, the Chamber Hall of the Polish National Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw will resound with the music played by 150 young pianists from all over the world.

Who will qualify for the 80 entries in Round 1 this fall? This is certainly a good opportunity to learn who the artists are and see the calendar of the auditions.

The performance of the contestants is assessed by the Preliminary Round Jury composed of 11 eminent pianists and piano teachers: Ludmil Angelov, Philippe Giusiano, Alberto Nosè, Piotr Paleczny, Ewa Pobłocka, Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń, John Rink, Marta Sosińska-Janczewska, Wojciech Świtała, Stefan Wojtas, and Dina Yoffe.

The auditions are held in two daily sessions: the Morning Session starting at 10am and the evening one, starting at 5pm.

Watch the performances here:

Chopin Competition – Preliminary Round – Videos

UPDATE 2021-07-23

87 pianists qualified to the 18th Chopin Competition in Warsaw. The auditions for Round 1 will commence on 3rd October until the 20th. Read more at nifc.pl


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