On March 23rd, I had the pleasure of seeing a recital by Joel Schoenhals, a pianist I’ve happily gotten to know this year. He’s embarked on a couple remarkable projects: performing all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in 8 programs over 4 years, and now the Bach Partitas and Brahms short pieces on 4 programs over 2 years. This concert was the last of that latter series.
I’d encourage you to check out the write ups that he has linked on his website about learning the Beethoven cycle (here and here). I love his dedication to the music and sharing it in both intimate and large environments.
I also appreciate that he has focused on presenting complete and unedited performances of these concerts online. He sure doesn’t make many mistakes-whatever that term even means!-but the musicality and personality from doing it live is so engaging. I’ve never done studio recordings where every mistake can be rerecorded and spliced in, but I love the magic, the humanness of live performances.
Check out the back catalogue of all of his recitals. What I love about Joel’s playing is that I’m always drawn in to what he’s doing that it never occurs to me to question or criticize his playing. I’m not actively thinking about reviewing or analyzing his playing as a musician myself. There’s something in his playing that invites trust in the work that he’s done and the performance journey that we’re on together. The music exists and for whatever period of time that he’s playing, it needn’t exist any other way.
This was especially evident in the Brahms Ab Waltz that he played as an encore. You can check out his performance of the whole set here.
In this final section, I study what it means to perform beyond analysis.
In light of my last couple of posts about listening and recordings, I thought I would point you towards this interesting article I had on my 'to read' list for several months, that just happened to fit the subject perfectly. It's called "Learning from Listening" and the author holds some of the same opinions I do, and some differing ones. Taken as a whole, I thought it would be worth sharing several excerpts, annotated with some of my own commentary.
There are many benefits in listening to the repertoire you are working on, on disc and in concert, as well as “listening around” the music – works from the same period by the same composer, and works by his/her contemporaries. Such listening gives us a clearer sense of the composer’s individual soundworld and an understanding of how aspects such as orchestral writing or string quartet textures are presented in piano music, for example.
I've always had problems with "you have to", when it comes to interpreting music. As in, "You HAVE TO know the Beethoven quartets to understand his piano music" or "You HAVE TO know Schumann's love letters to Clara to play the Fantasy". In a blind listening, no one can say definitively that 'yes', I clearly know and understand Beethoven's late quartets. But I like this "listening around". Especially when it's expanded to other composers of the time period. Composers always notate their music with certain assumptions that performers would understand the written symbols. Seeing and understanding works of the time could give a fuller picture of what was implied or taken for granted in musical notation.
Conversely, hearing a performance which I may dislike is never a waste of time. When I heard Andras Schiff perform Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (in A, D959), a work with which I have spent a long time in recent years, I found myself balking at certain things he did to the music – not that anything was “wrong”, it was simply not to my taste. But one thing I took away from that performance was his pedantic treatment of rests in the first movement (Schubert uses rests to create drama, rhythmic drive and moments of suspension or repose) and this definitely informed my practising when I next went to the piano to work on the sonata.
I confessed in my last post that I don't really care for Martha Argerich. Obviously, many people, including many musicians I love and admire, do care deeply for her music making. I don't necessarily dislike her music, and there are moments in her performances that I like but...On the whole her playing doesn't excite me. But I would be remiss if I ignored her completely. If great artists value her work, I should try and pinpoint what her attraction is to others, and perhaps add some lessons into my own playing. Just because I want to discover my own artistic voice, does not mean I'm excluding any opinions from outsiders!
Most of us are limited by our own imagination, experience and knowledge and great performances and interpretations can broaden our horizons, inspire us and inform our own approach to our music. But listening at concerts, and particularly to recordings and YouTube clips does have its pitfalls too.
There may never again be a time when performers will make a living off of recordings...But all the same, unless you are watching videos from an artist's personal page, or from the official page of a record label, please do not listen to recordings on YouTube. We want to ensure that videos are monetized for the proper people who created the content, and that is very difficult to do on YouTube. (My own videos have received copyright claims for being performances of Menahem Pressler, and Lili Kraus, and while I'm flattered, I clearly am not either). We can be sure that whatever money is coming in through streaming is getting to the right people if we use Spotify or Apple Music.
Recorded performances capture a moment in time and while they can certainly inform our playing, they can also become embedded in our memory and may influence our sense of a piece or obscure our own original thoughts about the music. This may lead us to imitate a magical moment that another performer has found in a note or a phrase – a moment over which that particular performer has taken ownership which in someone else’s hands may sound contrived or unconvincing.
What a magical way to say what I've tried to convey so often. Perhaps we can take general approaches to artistry, but not exact interpretations. But how often do we try to get inspiration from how someone else has interpreted a piece. Much better to focus on people as unique individuals, rather than gods of detective work.
The other problem with recordings is that some performers may take liberties with the score to make certain passages or an entire piece more personal. This tends to happen in very well known repertoire, where an artist will put their own mark on the music to make it their own, while not always remaining completely faithful to the score. They might take liberties with tempo or dynamics to create a certain “personal” effect. Thus, some recordings may not truly represent what the composer intended, yet these recordings have become the benchmark or “correct” version.
I suppose I have made similar arguments before. However, I don't like the term "composer's intentions" and always recoil when I hear it, no matter the context. In the New Year, I will deal with this term extensively!
So when we listen we should do so with an advisory note to self: that recordings and YouTube clips can be helpful, but we should never seek to imitate what we hear. It is the work we do ourselves on our music which is most important, going through the score to understand what makes it special, and listening around the music to gain a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions so that our own interpretation is both personal and faithful.
And here we come rather full circle. I recently discovered the Mendelssohn Octet. What an INCREDIBLE piece of music. I don't know why I never listened to it, I've known about it for at least a decade, but just this weekend I decided to give it a listen. This music spoke to a part of my musical soul, and woke that soul up in such a way that I didn't want to play this exact music in particular, but I just wanted to make music. So yes, listen to artists that inspire you, listen to works of great composers, but have the right intention. Be inspired not to copy them, but to follow them in making beautiful, inspirational and artistic music.
Sometime in the midst of my master’s degree, after I had read Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age, I came up with a study that I think might demonstrate the effects that listening to recordings has on individuality in one’s artistry. At this point in time, I was very frustrated with the general state of piano playing. So many people seemed to love Martha Argerich, and I didn’t get it (I still don’t get it but that controversy is for another post). All this I ruminated on in my last blog post.
As I entered my doctoral degree, I thought I might have the chance to work the study into my program, but as graduate work goes, I got too busy, ended up going another direction in my research and lost the chance to have plenty of student pianists nearby to test my hypothesis. I thought it might be relevant to share the general outline of the study. Maybe someone will one day take it up and test it!
The procedure is simple enough: have two groups of pianists, likely undergraduates though their technical capabilities by no means need be similar. Each group would be given a score of some obscure work, likely from the early classical period, with relatively intermediate technical challenges. The score would make no reference to composer or style. I would recopy the score on notation software myself and include only the essentials: notes, rhythms, tempo indication, and meter. Dynamics, articulation, phrasing, metronome marking would all be absent.
The test group would be given free rein to practice and prepare the score for performance in a given time period. The only stipulation is that they may not consult with any other person in their preparation of the score.
The control group would also be given free rein to practice and prepare for performance in the same time period. They also may not consult with any person in their preparation, but, they are given a recording of the score which they must listen to every day. In the recording, which I would make with an attempt to sound stylistically appropriate, they would hear distinct choices in terms of tempo, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, rubato, etc.
All participants would, after the same amount of preparation, record a final performance. These recordings would be sent to adjudicators. These professional musicians would be aware of the score, plus an edited score representing the distinct choices I made in the recording. Adjudicators would be asked to grade how closely each group adhered to distinct, observable and (relatively) measureable interpretive choices in the recording.
My hypothesis is that the control group would make interpretive choices similar to the recording, more often than the test group would. As my goal in the recording is to not make controversial interpretive choices, I suspect that students in the control group would, without realizing, adopt the logical interpretive choices that I had made. While the test group may also make several interpretive decisions similar, given stylistic conventions, inevitably, something such as exact metronome marking, or articulations in a melody, or dynamics, will vary given complete freedom.
Upon further thought, it may make sense to make one controversial interpretive decision in the recording and see how many of the control group go along with it.
Secondly—What I would include in the score could change. I think it’s important to have as blank a score as possible, so that people’s artistry would be observable on a nearly blank slate. Perhaps I wouldn’t even need a tempo marking, “Allegro” for instance. That would be one way to see who in the control group would resist the pull of recordings enough to question what they were hearing. For instance-imagine having no tempo marking for the opening of Mozart’s Sonata K 545, and hearing it played adagio. One could feasibly, if you never heard this work before, yet intimately understood the style, not question the choice of tempo at all.
Thirdly, it would be interesting to run this study with proficient high schoolers making up both groups, as well as only graduate students, even run it with only professional musicians. Then compare the rate of variance at all 4 levels. What if, on the whole, the control group’s interpretations adhered to the recording at the same rate greater than the test group, whether or not we are dealing with high school musicians, or professional musicians?
I think the results of such a study would be fascinating. None of this is meant to discredit professional musicians, or students. The simple aim is to observe the roots of our artistry, and to find one way of explaining how our general sense of style in interpretation might have a fundamentally different basis than that of artists when the composers of the classical canon were themselves writers of ‘new music’.
I discussed my trepidation about being affected (or infected) by the sound of other interpretations in posts about Liszt and Beethoven. I fear making decisions in my playing that aren’t derived from my own authentic voice and so often I try to avoid listening to recordings of pieces that I’m working on.
But that’s hard to stay true to…
I often want to check tempos that others have performed at, especially when the composer writes a specific metronome marking. Was anyone else successful at getting up to speed when I can’t seem to?
I’m a Suzuki piano teacher and a huge part of our system hinges on listening to the pieces before learning them.
Someone might say of my own playing “well it sure sounds like you’ve never listened to a professional pianist play this”, or put a nicer way, “perhaps you should listen to _________ or _________ for some inspiration.” No one has said the former to me, though who hasn’t heard the latter in one way or another?
It has been suggested that listening to recordings is a source of information, a way to solve problems in interpretation. By not listening to recordings that others have done, I’m forsaking my duties as a performer, akin to not studying the basics of performance practice and historical styles.
But who says those professional artists have the right answers? Nowadays, being so easy to put a recording out to the world, who even says these artists are truly professionals, or even artists?
Besides objective, tangible things like tempo markings, areas such as phrasing, rubato and degree of articulation can and will vary from performer to performer, hall to hall, piano to piano. It’s the combination of these varying elements that gives performers their own unique voice. At some point, artists ought to be able to make these choices for themselves.
There is a difference between listening to recordings by others, and knowing the performance style of the time a piece was written in. Very few would ever suggest I not do the latter, so if I do that well, why would I ever need the former? How am I to know if a professional recording I’m listening to has made intelligent decisions?
As I’ve written before, this was one of my goals in pursuing contemporary music. There is great freedom in not having an aural basis to your interpretation, or I should say, an aural basis besides the one that you create for yourself. A piece rarely, or never, played by anyone else can be approached with a completely blank slate and who knows how varied the result might be when intelligent musicians approach a score they’ve never heard before.
I had this experience recently, at a recital by pianist Angelina Gadeliya. Amidst a beautiful program with Bach, Beethoven and Liszt, she performed two works by Richard Danielpour, one of which was just commissioned by her, the other being his Piano Fantasy, a piece I have played a few times over the last 3 years. This was a sort of dream piece for me, a friend of Danielpour’s had introduced it to me in 2010 and I bought the score but between being intimidated by its virtuosity and not having a good program to fit it on, I only learned the piece the summer of 2014.
It’s a gorgeous piece, a set of variations on a Bach chorale, and it has everything, an organ-like opening, a toccata, something of a nocturne, a fugue, and right near the end, the chorale itself, whose phrases are punctuated by various interruptions, and cloaked in a Debussy-esque harmonic aura. More than anything, it’s a true show-piece full of beautiful expression.
I’ve only known of a few other people to perform this piece, and Angelina’s recital was the first opportunity I had to hear it performed live by another person. I hope everyone gets the experience at least once, to hear a piece you know so well, which you’ve only ever heard performed in your own voice, come to life by another person’s artistry.
That may not always be a pleasant experience, but for me it was. Every artistic goal—the scope and large-scale architecture of the piece—that I have had in performing the piece was present in Angelina’s playing, yet clearly this was not an exact aural image of my own playing. It’s like if you had two canvases of the same pointillistic painting by Georges Seurat side-by-side; standing back ten feet, the images look exactly the same; when you stand just 5 feet away, you notice an incredible amount of variety as you see the construction of the dots more closely; 1 foot away, the paintings look the same again because you’ve zoomed so far in, it’s hard to compare individual differences.
Examining the score from a distance, her interpretation and mine were relatively close to one another. Examining the score under a microscope, we played the same notes and rhythms. But our own voices came out upon that middle examination. More than one hears contrasts between artists in the standard repertory, not having any outside influences brought about a variety of musical decisions. The colors evoked by voicings in individual chords. The balance with a texture. The pacing of dynamics. The sweep of rubato.
All this is not to say that I don’t hear variety between artists in standard repertoire. I do, and I love the artistry great pianists bring to old music again and again. But I know that without the persuasion of recordings, I am going to inevitably bring a different voice to music than I would with them. In my next post, I’m going to tell you about a study I’ve always wanted to do, where I think I could prove this point.
himself probably heard these same bells. I like to at least think they were the exact same bells, but certainly he heard some very similar. And quite possibly they were rung the exact same way in his day as that day I heard them: by a rope pulled by a church employee.
Given how much the world has changed in the 200+ years since Mozart lived there, it was quite a wondrous realization that such a sound could connect myself to such a famous figure.
That moment, and that thought, have inspired me since, especially as I explore traditional repertoire again. This music, truly ‘classical’ music connects figures through time in the same way these bells did. In performing the music of Mozart, I have a direct connection to the artistic passions of a man who lived hundreds of years before, who history has decided to remember. But I’m also connected to people who have played this music since. Great artists who have turned simple notes on a page into beautiful, magical art in sound. The excitement one feels sharing a passion with a friend is amplified when you get to share it with a host of people through time.
I’ve been finding this concept inspiring, but also humbling.
This music has survived for so many generations for good reason, and I must try to do it justice. There is a certain amount of social capital involved by joining the tradition of performing classical music. So many beautiful artistic ideas have been cultivated with these scores and I have a responsibility to do justice to this artistry.
But the time which it has survived through is also present when I play it. These bells I heard in Salzburg rang during war, and were heard by all sorts of figures and events that history would rather forget. The music of Mozart has been played and enjoyed by contemptable people as well. The responsibility of playing this music and accepting the history it has is not just a matter of artistry, but also of reconciliation, of a wish to do good in and for the world.
This is one aspect of studying and performing music which contemporary works cannot share in. Non-canonical repertoire simply does not have the accrued temporal history to carry such baggage, both good and bad. As I stated in my previous posts, this is precisely what I was looking for in pursuing the study of contemporary music. But I don’t know a person who doesn’t have some curiosity to understand history. The classical canon gives performers the opportunity to connect through time with sound to history, to worlds long forgotten, and to try and change the world we live in.
Faure-like introduction leads to a larger Liszt-like section.
That was it, but the juxtaposition of Faure and Liszt made me want to see the score. I sought it out, and a recording, and was enamored, but feared it was too difficult for me to learn at that point. Plus, I was already dreaming about performing too many other obscure works that there was no room to fit another into my program. The year after I had to consider having enough standard works for masters auditions.
The years went by and I always to work on this piece. But during my masters, other points of focus, whether for technical study, or to fill gaps in my repertoire list of important composer’s I’d ignored to that time. Then of course through my DMA I was focused on contemporary music.
I began to look at it in the spring of 2016, solidifying it more or less that summer. After having no time for solo repertoire during the 2016-2017 year, I revisited it this summer and knew that I needed to not just perfect my playing of it, but find concert programs I could include it in. I’m looking forward to finally, 10 years after discovering the piece, performing it. It’s extra appropriate that I would get around to finishing the piece this year, just as the 150th anniversary of her birth rolls around (doubly so as my home and native land, Canada, also celebrates the same landmark).
I’m not sure why this piece has always stuck with me as a special, and unjustly neglected one. I don’t particularly agree with Hinson’s assessment of Faure-influences. The opening resembles Chopin-esque piano writing more than anyone else, and the harmonies are not so advanced to suggest a later composer. I understand the Liszt reference because it has several vertical textures towards the end, big orchestral chords and octaves.
But it’s not a referential piece. It can’t really be mistaken for Liszt or Chopin. It has a unique melodic expressiveness, and the virtuosic moments aren’t unnecessarily so. The music sings, the harmonies float forward, and there’s plenty of room for one’s own voice through rubato and phrasing.
I’m of course drawn to the piece for the same reasons I was drawn to contemporary music, which I expanded on in my last post. Namely, I’ve wanted to develop my artistic voice in the context of works without an established performing tradition. I’m still weary of working with commonly played pieces for fear that I will not think critically about my interpretation but rely on reproducing what I’ve heard others do in past performances and recordings. (I’ll write about this problem in a future post.) Amy Beach’s Ballad was especially exciting, more than most contemporary music, simply for its rather traditional, romantic approach. So few pieces this standard are played so rarely, I’ve always treasured it as ‘my little secret’.
But of course, I want more people to know it; it surprises me how few of her works are well known. I’ve heard some perform her shorter character pieces, and a few songs, but most else gets ignored. Her Piano Concerto, Op. 45 is an incredible work with lots of power and virtuosity, on par with any of the commonly played romantic piano concertos. Her songs take the expressive tradition of German lieder to the English language, without wordiness bogging down the lyricism or needlessly dense piano parts that you find amongst many English art song composers from her time (I’m thinking Roger Quilter style here). Plus, there’s some great chamber works and large solo piano works from later in her life.
Working on this piece has been encouraging to hear and see demonstrative proof of my growth as an artist. When I first looked at this score, I thought it was rather difficult. It’s not without its challenges, but the Ballad is manageable, technically. It does test the innate musicality and poetry of a performer, and I’ve been pleased to listen to recordings of myself with it and to hear the singing shapes that I’ve been aiming for. Even a few years ago, when I had the mechanical facility to play this piece, I still would have had difficulty doing the artistic things I wanted. I’m grateful that I never tainted this piece by working on it when I was younger, and now would have to undo bad habits and learned weaknesses.
This year I am focusing on as much traditional repertoire as I can…but music I’ve heard almost no one perform ever, attempting to bring as pure an ear to these pieces as I can. Theoretically, this will be the best space for me to solidify my own artistic voice, which in future years, I will be able to apply to all sorts of music—contemporary or standard, well known or obscure-without fear of being an imposter.
This last week I’ve teased a few clips of the Beach Ballad. Check them out in the videos below. Keep an eye out in the next few months as I will be sure to release an exclusive complete performance of the piece. Best to ‘like’ my Facebook page, and sign up for my mailing list to make sure you don’t miss it!
**This post contains affiliate links. While I may receive a small compensation if you purchase any of the products mentioned at no extra cost to you, the words used to promote them are completely genuine and offered regardless of any personal earnings**
I thought I should share how I was drawn to play music like this…
This situation is different. First, I’m drawn to the beauty of the music and text. The same holds true for the other crazy, abstract music I play, and the other spectacle-like performances I’ve done, such as ones on toy piano.
This was not always so!
I used to hate contemporary music. I remember when my college teacher assigned me this piece the summer before my sophomore year. Dutifully, I purchased the score but could not bring myself to work on it. Visually I was intimidated: there are sections without meter, sections with weird changing meters. Aurally I was insulted: there are chords built out of difficult collections of intervals and where was the tonal center? I had no idea how to grasp it. This isn’t even getting into the horror I later looked at the music of serial composers, like this one, with. What awful, kerplunkity music. How are you even supposed to know if I’m playing the right notes or not?
What I always was interested in, however, was rarely heard music by older composers. I spoke a little more about this in my Influential Books series post on Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age. That book opened my eyes to this brand new way of playing the piano that I was so attracted to.
I tried to approach music with fresh ears in graduate school. I ran into some trouble preparing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Bb minor, from WTC 1. I came to the realization that I (and really anyone who plays it) was counting the Prelude in 8/8 meter, rather than the marked 4/4. Which is to say, I played it so slowly, that the eighth note, rather than the quarter, was the actual beat. This seemed wrong. So I moved to a slow quarter note pulse, which brought out an angsty, raging piece. It sounded fast, but in reality, I was just counting the piece in the proper meter. The dramatic moment near the end with a pause over a diminished 7th chord became an even greater moment of discord and emotion.
I was very lucky to have my teacher at the time who let me play that way, so different than anyone else has, and even helped me make my case a little more convincing, even if he himself wasn’t convinced! But I knew I wouldn’t always be lucky, and I knew that I had a lot to learn about being a convincing, artistic performer.
I realized that I needed to mature. But to get the best of both worlds, I found a solution: I could pursue the kind of playing I was after if I focused on music without an established performance tradition. Enter the Doctorate of Music Arts in Contemporary Music at Bowling Green State University.
I was honored to receive one of the limited spots in this program in 2011. I had learned to accept the accessible contemporary music by this time, and was eager to learn more. It’s a difficult program, full of academic work, which challenges your mind, and your time management skills. The program has high standards but is infinitely supportive of all the various projects the students are into.
I think the defining moment was when I was approached that first fall semester by a senior saxophonist, asking me to play Charles Wuorinen’s Divertimento for his recital several months away. That’s that jagged, ugly serial music I mentioned earlier! I wasn’t keen on the idea but I figured I had to give it a shot, I was here for that kind of music.
I agonized over the score for a couple weeks but inevitably we got together for our first rehearsal, on the slow opening section. I was astounded that, though not without coordination difficulties, it actually worked! The harmonies had logic and direction when played together, and these rhythms fit to create a brand new sense of time. I discovered that there is a cognitive appeal to this music and that playing it accesses some part of the brain that isn’t challenged in the same way through tonality.
From here it was an easy and enjoyable slope to discovering and appreciating all kinds of contemporary styles. There are some I love more than others, and a few I to this day dislike. But my love for the music led me to perform something as extroverted as the Rzewski, linked above. And, I feel much closer to my goal of having an established, mature sense of artistry.
Now that I’ve been a graduate of my program for 2 years, I’m making an honest effort to finally bring myself back to standard repertoire. I’ve played some canonical music over the last 6 years since I came to Bowling Green, whether collaborating, or revisiting solo repertoire I’d learned before, plus I learned a few new things here and there.
But this year is all about brand new, standard repertoire. I’ve had a difficult two years. Making money right out of grad school is a tremendous distraction. And just over a year ago my wife was diagnosed with cancer and we spent the next 10 months fitting our normal lives around her treatments (luckily all is well now!). It’s been difficult to actually focus on the joy of music, instead, music was a job.
I feel I am not alone. Real life is hard, and it's so easy to forget about the things you're passionate about.
I will expand more in the next couple months. This blog series I’m calling “Artistic Messages”, because I’m interested in surveying the artistry I’ve discovered, and the artistry I’m still after. Hopefully some of this will resonate with and inspire you. I am working on some exciting things, and hope to give some exciting performances yet this season which I will expand upon in the upcoming posts.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act