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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


/david
 
     

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.


/patrick
 
     

Beethoven Celebration in Retrospect

For Nikolas Sideris, editor-in-chief at Editions Musica Ferrum, the Beethoven year 2020 was more than just a great anniversary. It also represented the final stage of a mega project started seven years earlier – the Mount Everest of all LvB 250 homage projects. In cooperation with Susanne Kessel, a pianist from the city of Bonn, 250 composers from 47 countries were invited to compose piano pieces referring to Beethoven and his work, in such diverse genres as new music, jazz, pop, film and more. The premieres of the piano pieces were held in Beethoven’s birth city, Bonn and in other cities as well. Radio recordings (WDR) and CD productions accompany the project. All 260 pieces have been published by Editions Musica Ferrum in ten volumes. Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell talks to Nikolas Sideris about how this gigantic and thought-provoking project turned out.

Piano Street: Since we last met for an interview in 2016 on your project ”Beauty and Hope in the 21st Century”, you already then mentioned a mega project you had entered with pianist Susanne Kessel to be completed 2020, as a part of the LvB 250 celebrations. Tell me how it all started?

Nikolas Sideris: Yes, I remember when we first met in 2016. Thank you for that initial meeting and interview. I met Susanne Kessel through a common friend and composer, Nickos Harizanos. He introduced us and then we immediately hit it off, feeling, both, that we were a great fit for each other. I had just published Nicko’s “Monographs II” which is filled with graphic notation and that was the evidence needed to persuade everyone that Editions Musica Ferrum was ready to tackle such a gigantic – and exciting – project. Soon the pieces for the first volume started coming in, which is when all practical issues came into play and the real adventure started for me. The rest is… history.

PS: Your project contains 260 pieces in ten volumes and 250 composers have submitted compositions. How did you manage to find and engage all these people and what was required in order to qualify as a composer?

NS: For the anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven in 2020, pianist Susanne Kessel invited composers from around the world to compose piano pieces which refer to Beethoven and his work. Since 2013, she issued personal invitations to composers of new music, jazz and film music. The premieres of the piano pieces were held in Beethoven’s birth city, Bonn and in other cities as well. Radio recordings (WDR) and CD productions accompany the project. All the pieces are published from Editions Musica Ferrum and are available for the international music world.

PS: In December the last volume 10 was published. Congratulations! In volume 8 though, the pieces were written by young composers. Can you tell us a little bit about this encouraging idea, the people involved and their pieces?

NS: It contains 18 new pieces and 2 pieces from older volumes which were composed by composers younger than the age of 18. Volume 8 was perceived early in the process of the project by Susanne Kessel who was keen to include as many people and genres as possible in the project. The voice of the young should not be excluded from such a wider project. So around 2018 both she and a composer and dear friend, from volume 1, David P. Graham started scouting for young talents in various music schools worldwide. As with every volume, we ended up with a variety of styles, ideas, and nationalities true to the spirit of the project. From Germany, to the UK, to Estonia, to Japan, to China, and elsewhere.

PS: From April 2020 you presented a ”250 pieces for Beethoven Marathon” which started on April 1 and ran until December 15. Every day a new composer and piece was introduced. Can you tell us a little about this initiative and how it took place?

NS: Volume 9 (second to last volume) went to print in the end of January, and it was supposed to ship in the end of February to both London and Bonn. London to reach the Editions Musica Ferrum warehouse, and in Bonn to reach Susanne Kessel and be present on the 13th of March on the official publication date of the mentioned volume.

Unfortunately things did not go as planned. By the beginning of March the signs were rather negative in terms of the Corona-virus and as thus the concert on the 13th of March, in Bonn, was cancelled, but Susanne herself was present to offer a glimpse of a few copies that arrived there in time. The rest of the copies never left Greece. They were stored in a secure warehouse, until the lockdown and traveling restrictions were lifted. A lot of further concerts were cancelled, or suspended, and it was unclear on what will happen for the remaining of 2020. So Susanne threw the idea of making an Internet based “250 piano pieces for Beethoven Marathon” where all pieces were to be presented, one per day. With photos, links to the recordings of each piece and links to the individual sheet music of each piece, both the recording and the score for purchase digitally. The Editions Musica Ferrum website was updated to host digital individual files and serve automatic sales, while bandcamp is hosting all the recordings of the pieces for this project that have been recorded. The pieces are presented by volume, and in the same order as they appear in the printed score and on the 26th of April, the 2nd volume resumed the marathon.
https://www.facebook.com/250pianopieces/

PS: Such a marvelous way for the public to get acquainted with the material! As a pianist and/or piano teacher, is it possible to get guidance on the difficulty level of the pieces or which is the best way to get a feeling for what to pick or start with from such a grand project?

NS: This is something we are starting to work on and it is something that I’m keen on adding in the Musica Ferrum website, as extra information for all works. It is missing and I do feel that it is vital, not only for this massive project, but for all the other works as well.
We are also planning to release an extra volume, or collection if you will, with a choice of some of the more approachable, yet educational works in the near future.

PS: You are fortunate to have the whole view on the production of pieces. Can you tell me the different paths the composers have used to strike a connection to or being inspired by the project theme Ludwig van Beethoven?

NS: This has certainly been a wonderful trip and happened all the way until volume 10 came out! In order to answer this question one needs to consider how different each composer is. So the same material can result in drastically different results. For example quite a few composers took inspiration from some of Beethoven’s works, which we also have been able to list. But the approach of each one resulted in such a different work that it becomes difficult to tell the initial inspiration in the end. In particular, from the top of my head. I can remember the 3rd movement of the Tempest Sonata in D minor. One composer counted all the notes, used the same rhythm and order, but changed the pitch series completely, resulting in something rather unexpected. Another composer used the main rhythm to use, playing inside the piano with timpani mallets and so on. Other composers used his name as a starting point. BEetHovEn (H being B natural in German). Some took away parts of his letters, or his philosophy, his life and so on. And this is the magic of this project. It is such an open project that you can expect anything really, while at the same time having this guarantee that there is a link to Beethoven, being the Master that he was.

PS: The whole project started seven years ago from a basis with you being an editor-in-chief AND a composer. With this massive output and vast relationship with the material, how and in which ways have your personal views on Ludwig van Beethoven changed or become nurtured during this period of time?

NS: This is a very interesting question, as it links works already well known (to me and to everyone) and the new filters provided by the contemporary composers. It’s a fascinating theory and actual fact that my understanding of Beethoven’s music and life changed vastly through the 250 piano pieces for Beethoven, and through the playing and thoughts and whole leadership of Susanne Kessel. It’s with newly found interest I started looking again with works that I’ve already performed, or heard, and paid attention to different aspects of the old works, in comparison and connection with the new works, leading me to form new thoughts and establish new ideas about them. It’s a life changing project and one that changed me completely.


Musica Ferrum kindly offers three free scores from the collection to all Piano Street members. Login to your account and visit this page to download the scores:
https://www.pianostreet.com/members/free/250-for-beethoven-scores.php

List of Beethoven works functioning as musical and thematic inspiration for composers of the project:
http://250-piano-pieces-for-beethoven.com/noteneditionen/werkliste/

The composers:
http://250-piano-pieces-for-beethoven.com/en/composers/

Project Webpage: http://250-piano-pieces-for-beethoven.com/


/nilsjohan
 
     

State Of the Art Innovations – The 102 keys Stephen Paulello Grand Piano

For more than 30 years, Stephen Paulello has systematically studied all the components of the piano, including the instruments of previous eras. But as a pianist dreaming of more complex and expressive sonorities, he doesn’t content himself with a cult of the past. Instead, he has often used his findings to challenge generally accepted ideas. His unique grand pianos are constructed to order in his workshop-laboratory 100 kms south of Paris, where there is also a recording studio. Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell has interviewed Stephen Paulello about his visions and achievements.

Piano maker Stephen Paulello

Piano Street: Many a professional and famous musician have spoken of you, and your instruments are frequently used for recordings. Vienna has ordered one Opus 102 instrument from you. What can you tell us about this ”sounding” part of the Stephen Paulello, for those who cannot come and visit your workshop in Villethierry outside Paris?

Stephen Paulello: An Opus 102 was sold to a Viennese dealer who would like to sell it to a great concert hall or recording studio in Vienna. The Opus 102 has a great equality of sound in all registers, a great power, a great dynamic, an infinite variety of colours, great clarity, very deep bass, very bright treble, an exceptional sustain that allows a true legato. However, it is difficult to describe the sound of a piano in words. It is better to come to us and taste this instrument. This experience usually does not leave one indifferent.

Stephen Paulello - 102 keys grand piano

PS: Instrument makers are artists with an additional dimension. They do not only know what they are looking for sound wise, but they also know how to achieve it in terms of construction. All artists are driven by an initial source or inspiration. Which was your trigger in wanting to create your own piano brand?

SP: I made my first concert grand piano (2m87) thirty years ago. At this time, I was a concert pianist and piano teacher and there was no question of creating a brand but of making an instrument that would allow me to do what I could not do with usual commercial instruments. I used to play this instrument for my concerts and recordings and often lent it to some of my friends. In 1996, I developed a new way of stringing pianos – “hybrid stringing” – by creating my own plain steel wires, which are now marketed all over the world. In 2004, I decided to give up my career as a pianist and piano teacher in order to devote myself to the manufacture in very small series, extremely meticulous, of non-standard instruments. I wanted to rethink piano building in all its details.

PS: The construction of your grand instrument with 102 notes stresses the use and importance of parallel oblique strings and a barless frame. What can you tell us about this specific relationship including the extra 4th?

SP: Our three piano models (SP190, SP230, SP300) have 102 keys: 9 extra notes in the low register (a sixth) and 5 extra notes (a fourth) in the high register. Several reasons led me to add notes to the usual 88-note keyboard:

    The evolution of piano making ceased when the range of the keyboard stopped expanding. Extending again the keyboard, is a symbol that piano history moves ahead again
    The additional notes, especially in the low register, enriches the whole piano sound.
    Today’s composers have at their disposal an instrument that broadens their scope. Until today, more than 10 works were written especially for Opus 102, including extra-notes.

Regarding the barless frame, the aim was to avoid the change of sound quality that is usually noticeable around each frame bar. Removing them brings additional homogeneity and equality to the whole. Parallel strings significantly increase the legibility, intelligibility and articulation of musical phrases especially in the lower-middle and bass ranges. I made them oblique so as to allow as long speaking lengths as those of a cross stringed instrument.

In the piano workshop

PS: Many a discussion on piano construction and re-thinking comes down to the wooden case – quality and best sound design – as well as the strings. Which are your thoughts on this?

SP: As I mentioned earlier, I have developed another way of stringing pianos by producing and marketing SP strings. The plain strings of our pianos are covered with an electrolytic nickel coating. The bass strings are spun with nickel-plated soft iron and nickel-plated bronze. The soundboard, the bridge, the striking line, the action, the keyboard deserve according to me a priority attention before taking care of the wooden case and external finish, even if we worked on it as well.

One recent recording made in Studio Stephen Paulello is an album of Bach Toccatas played by Laurent Cabasso, who says of the instrument:

– The first time I tried Stephen Paulello’s Opus 102, I was immediately struck by three things, three qualities which we rarely encounter together in a piano: an exceptional length of sound, perfect clarity of the registers due to its parallel strings, and a clear, bright tone… A tenacious doubt often plagued me whenever I played Bach on the piano. This sensation is radically different on Stephen Paulello’s instrument, which brings a remarkable clarity to the polyphony and the tone, so essential to this music.


/patrick
 
     

Lowell Liebermann’s Personal Demons

In this exclusive digital encounter with the praised and enigmatic composer Lowell Liebermann on his premiere recording as a solo pianist on the Steinway & Sons label, Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell meets the pianist behind the composer and the composer behind the pianist.

Clearly, Liebermann’s latest album release is in a way an attempt to measure a time span and it’s not only a 60-year celebration but a very personal way to – and by means of the piano – let us follow the composer’s ways into his musical universe. The album contains music “he wish he wrote” and also offers music that he actually has written. Liebermann follows Stravinsky’s dictum; “my music is about the notes themselves and nothing more”, but it still leaves us with the question about the communicating qualities of the composer’s music.

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Personal Demons – album content:
Liebermann: Gargoyles, Op. 29
Kabeláč: 8 Preludes, Op. 30
Liszt: Totentanz, S525/R188
Liebermann: 4 Apparitions, Op. 17
Schubert: 13 Variations on a theme by Anselm Hüttenbrenner in A Minor, D. 576
Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica
Liebermann: Nocturne No. 10, Op. 99


Piano Street: Thank you for letting us talk to you about your latest recording “Personal Demons”. Your album contains composers rooted in tradition yet with a strong urge to develop contemporary concepts. They are all solitaires, I wouldn’t say misfits, but persevering despite a lack of understanding in their times. Schubert, one of many working in the total shadow of the great LvB, Busoni, the omni genius without a homeland, Kabelac, rejected by the Czech communist regime and Abbé Liszt, exploring inner, spiritual development and thus new harmonic territories – away from the extravagant superstar showmanship of his early years. In a way the mentioned composers carry personal demons too (Busoni “cannibalizing” on Bach for example) and suggest that this is a way how music can develop through time.
Lowell, you are a pianist and have therefore played vast amounts of music. If you were to extend your list of fascinations – not necessarily demons – which would these be and why?

LL: You are right that the composers on this album are all, in one way or another, outliers, and that is part of their attraction. There are certainly other composers, more mainstream, who have had an even greater influence on my development as a musician. It was Bach who first made me fall in love with music. I was actually first exposed to Bach’s music through “Switched On Bach,” the synthesized versions by Wendy Carlos that have held up remarkably well, I think. But perhaps the most profound influence on my musical growth was Beethoven. My first composition teacher at Juilliard, David Diamond, had me follow a Beethovenian model of keeping sketchbooks and rigorously working out musical materials. And my piano teacher, Jacob Lateiner, was a Beethoven specialist. It was through working on the Beethoven Sonatas with him that I first fully appreciated the interconnectedness of every element of those scores: that the articulations, dynamics, etc, were inseparable from the musical content and development, and not to be altered at a performer’s whimsy. And then there is Ravel, who set a standard of musical perfection that is something to strive for.

Liszt’s Totentanz

PS: Let’s turn to the macabre part on your album and Liszt’s Totentanz, a work he re-wrote as a solo piece from originally being composed for piano with orchestra.
The work is variations on the gregorian chant Dires Irae (the Day of Wrath), a theme used by many a composer. For instance, it appears in Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody where it merges with the original theme. You also wrote a Variations on a theme by Paganini for piano and orchestra along with three piano concertos. What do you win or lose when composing for piano with orchestra compared to piano solo?

LL: Of course, when composing with orchestra one gains all the orchestral colors and an enormous amount of creative flexibility that comes with all those added instruments. And I think there is also a special dynamic in the dialogue between a solo piano and orchestra that creates a unique kind of musical tension that also opens up all kinds of possibilities.

PS: What did Liszt gain in the solo version?

LL: Going from the orchestral version of Totentanz to the solo piano version is a very special case, I think. I think the piece gains a certain kind of austerity in the piano solo version that is entirely appropriate and beneficial. At this point, I prefer the solo version. Liszt made a cut in the coda in the solo version which takes some getting used to one is familiar with the orchestral version. Several pianists have reinstated this cut, transcribing those few measures themselves. I can understand the impulse to do so, but I prefer to leave the work it as Liszt saw fit.

Performing own compositions

PS: It’s a joyous favor being able to talk to a composer who is also the performer and history has given us so much amazing music from creators with this combination of function and skill. On the album you give us two of your own works; the immensely popular Gargoyles Op. 29 and your chosen 10th Nocturne Op. 99 (out of eleven, first Nocturne composed in 1987). This poses the question about person vs. persona. When performing your own repertoire, which works do you choose and – to add an even more pathologic dimension – are you interpreting the work or are you performing/projecting yourself?

LL: The composing and performing are two very different functions that require different focus and utilize different parts of one’s brain and psyche. There is a real danger in performing one’s own works that one thinks one knows them better than one in fact does. The kind of learning that you need to do as a performer is much different from the knowledge and memory you have of a piece from having written it. A very high percentage of the memory needed for performance is muscle memory rather than intellectual memory. And so, when learning one of my own pieces for performance, I have to forget that I wrote it, and approach it as if it had been written by someone else. And that includes studying all the dynamic and expressive markings anew, because one can forget one’s own intentions and get sloppy. And this also brings up what I think is a bit of a cliché, that a composer’s music is a direct reflection of their personality, or a reflection their emotional life at the time of writing the piece. This is simply not true. A composer can write a tragic piece at the happiest point in their life and vice versa. It is often more like acting via music rather than writing an autobiography in music.

A desirable pianistic style

PS: You are one of the few contemporary composers who can out the big names and take place in traditional pianist recital programs worldwide. What makes your music so desirable for pianists? Would you mind if I ask for a pianistic self-analysis?

LL: I’ve always felt that it is important for me, as a composer, to keep in contact with the act of performance. It informs my writing in so many ways, even just experiencing the sheer physical joy of playing certain things. I think keeping awareness of the fact that music is an act of communication in real time is very important, and it is easy to lose track of that when one has one’s head buried in the notes. One aspect of my music that, perhaps, has helped its popularity is that, no matter what is going on harmonically, my music is almost always melodically based. My music mixes tonality (usually not in a traditionally functional sense, though), atonality, octatonic or other synthetic scales, etc., basically anything that I feel fits the material at hand. Some critics have called my music neo-romantic (a label I disagree with) and I think what most of them are reacting to is the fact that it is melodically based. It’s just an element of music that I find has to be there to keep my own interest.

Composing for flute

PS: Melodic quality must be a key for any composer but after a look in your works list we very often see works for or/and including the flute. What is your story with this instrument?

LL: My very first commission for flute was a Sonata for Flute and Piano, which was commissioned by the Spoleto Chamber Music Festival for Paula Robison and Jean-Yves Thibaudet back in the late 80s. That piece “took off” in a really big way and started to be played all over the world. One flautist who included it in his repertoire was James Galway, who asked if I would orchestrate it for him so he could perform it with orchestra. I told him I would much rather just write a new Concerto for him, and that led to the commission for my Flute Concerto. Things escalated from there, and there were further commissions from him and other flautists: a Flute and Harp Concerto, a Piccolo Concerto, Flute Trios, etc. The flute community as a whole is one of the most enthusiastic groups of instrumentalists out there, who are constantly on the lookout for new pieces and perform them frequently. They share information and share new pieces. Flute works have indeed become an important part of my catalogue but, contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, I do not play the flute myself.

The post-pandemic period

PS: We wish to congratulate you on your 60th birthday which took place on February 22! In terms of time spans and trajectories and in reference to composers in retrospective, will you now enter a new compositional period?

LL: I think those questions of composer’s “periods” are best left to musicologists after a composer has died, and I’m not intending to do that for a while! What I can say is that, although I don’t know what period I will be entering, I do feel that there will be some sort of tectonic shift in my composition, not so much because of this particular anniversary, but because of the circumstances we have all been living through. At the beginning of the present pandemic, all of my commissions were put on hold, which enabled me to focus on my piano playing and this new recording “Personal Demons”. But this has meant that I have not actually written anything new for the better part of a year, the longest amount of time I have ever spent without finishing a composition. Now that there are flickers of light at the end of the tunnel, the commissions are being rekindled, and I do now have to start writing again. But I think the time away from writing will have a natural effect of reassessment. How that will manifest itself, I can’t really tell until I do start writing again, which should be any day now…


/patrick
 
     



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