When sitting on a long flight; having run out of podcasts or my latest digital book is done, I am drawn to the airline magazine section that shows the route map for the globe. It is fascinating how interconnected the world really is; you can literally be anywhere in a few hours time. This idea has been percolating in me and eventually led to this program. Steve Taylor’s piece “The Dove is Sad” became the center spoke. Based on a Ligeti etude, I started to see how the influence goes beyond the obvious. I chose a different etude to play, one that gave me the same sensation as Taylor’s piece; from there other connections fell into place: Mazzariello’s “Flight School” and “The Last Blackbird” by Justin Merritt were obvious. New works by Merritt, Laura Caviani, Reinaldo Moya, and Linda Buckley will toy with this same flight idea but each using their own unique specialties. Other pieces then bounced off of those strengths, leading to this program that resembles that very map I find myself staring at during my trip across the skies…coming to a venue near you in April 2017.
After spending the last year or so performing and recording the Prokofiev Flute Sonata with Linda Chatterton, I am reminded how much I “get” this composer. I spent a lot of my time in school, actually in each degree, playing Prokofiev. Six of the nine sonatas, one of the concertos, the flute/violin sonata, the cello sonata, and songs all have enterted my repertoire over those years. Obviously heaps of 20th and 21st century repertoire have been the hallmark of my career, but time and time again I turn to Sergei.
I am curious if the sarcastic and humorous (although veiled) qualities of his music resonate with me…hmmmm…my friends may heartily agree with that notion! But I think its more than that. Given that he was a gifted performer himself, I think most pianists would agree that his writing fits the hand very well. However, many would argue it can be taxing to perform with its over abundance of chords and agressive elements in many of the works. It seems to be a plus for me.
The 2nd Piano Sonata was my first big piece by this composer and it really unlocked for me a new sound world, a new rhythmic interest, and ultimately a new style of playing. His music stretched my understanding of harmony and melody in such a way that his music may have been the start of my interest in exploring new and alternative sounds. It is hard to pinpoint a time and place when this all began but in looking back-I have a strong hunch I am right.
This season I am returning to an old and familiar friend, the 7th Sonata. This warhorse (literally) has always engaged me when I turn back to it. But for me, the middle movement grips me the most. I know, I know that last movement is the part everyone loves and it is great for its technical display. But the true heart of this composer and his views of life through WWII and Stalin’s reign manifest beauifully in this lyrical, second movement. It’s got all the Romantic quailties of Schumann, with mood shifts and its melodies layered up and divided between the hands. But it is still quintessenitally Russian. The last minute or so of the piece sums it up for me. It is bleak, yet charming; haunting yet tender.
I am enjoying myself this summer preparing this work again. And just like with many friends you do not see on a regular basis, we still just pick up right where we left off.
I have always loved French music. Perhaps it traces back to the branch of my ancestry that was French. But hearing Debussy and Ravel always makes me smile. Naturally those were the first composers I heard and frankly, became obsessed with… still to this day. This past year was the first time I played an all French program: Debussy and Ravel (of course) paired with Fauré and Messiaen. I know there are lots of opinions about programming, have variety, blah, blah. And of course, I agree but this one was for me. You may be thinking: what does this have to do with the title of this essay? Well read on!
Olivier Messiaen is not generally a household name in terms of composers, even among professional musicians. My first experience with this composer came from hearing the Da Capo Chamber Players play the famous Quartet for the End of Time and I got a bird’s eye view turning pages. I was literally transfixed, in fact I probably was giving the pianist a fright by jumping up for last minute page turns! But in truth, I had not heard this type of sonority before. Now the pianist for the group was to become one of my teachers, Lisa Moore. She was a Paris student of Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s pianistic muse and second wife. And working with Lisa, I was exposed to a lot of the trick fingerings that Loriod had shown her and the incredible volume of finger exercises. These exercises transformed my technique, flexibility, and creativity in finding solutions. I continue to pass these on to my students and it still amazes me to see the results.
But the experience of the Quartet led me to start looking at the piano music. Of course most of what I started listening to seemed impossible like Vingt Regards. But I eventually stumbled on the Preludes and 4 Etudes. I checked them out of the library and learned a few of them. Years passed. But it was not until the first time I played the Quartet for the End of Time myself that it hit me. I had to devote some significant time to this composer. I started programming large chunks of his music on my solo programs including many of the Vingt Regards (though now less scary!) and the complete Preludes. Now after several years of co-existing with these pieces, I finally was working on my all-French program and had two Contemplations on that set list. At the same time I was awarded a large grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to record the pieces and release a CD on Albany Records of Messiaen’s Piano music. Well you can imagine what this means to me personally.
In preparation for my recording, I had read almost everything that scholars had written about the composer. And I felt so connected to his life that I needed to go and see the city that he called home. I was able to take my first trip to Paris and fell in love with the city: the pace of life, the food, and of course, the music. My explorations took me to Sainte Trinité where he served as organist for 60+ years. During my visit, the parish office clerk uttered the words “Ah, Monsieur Messiaen” and raised both head and hands to the heavens. His impact still being felt many years after his death. My walking/bus tours took me along his daily walking paths, his street of residence and by the many venues that would premiere his early works. I could feel a connection to the composer quite viscerally as I wondered Paris. It may seem like an Artist’s cliché, I know but there it is. As I work on the finishing touches of this recording project and continue to program his music. I can feel the Meesiaen Footprint on me…both his music and his wife’s technical insights that Lisa gave me. I know, of course, that the pianists (although few) who play Messiaen’s music regularly, may not have had these same experiences and some have had more direct connections but each artist must find whatever path will lead them to the most authentic performance possible. I think I found mine.
***UPDATE Albany Records releases “Contemplations: Music of Olivier Messiaen on January 1, 2015. Order here ***
As I am approaching middle age, I have been reflecting on my past training with great fondness. I was very fortunate to have several great teachers, each giving me what I needed exactly at the time I needed it. With the passing this past year of my maternal grandmother, who was the ‘family genealogist,’ my thoughts fall into this type of generational thinking. But just as one thinks of their family tree, where do I come from, how many generations can you trace back?- I was thinking of my musical family tree. In particular I want to write about my first principal mentor, Nancy Zipay Desalvo. In addition to being a wonderful soloist and teacher, she was the pianist for Dorothy Delay’s studio at Aspen/Julliard and has played with countless world-class musicians. Many years later, Nancy and I are still great friends. We often play two-piano concerts together and I make a point of seeing her when I am visiting Pennsylvania. In talking casually about what is what like to study with her, we have shared many great memories. But I have discovered in these conversations that much of what I learned from her, she in fact garnered from her principal teacher, Constance Keene at the Manhattan School of Music. Constance’s amazing recordings of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Mendelssohn are still viewable on YouTube. Of course, tracing Constance’s training, we find her the pupil of Abrams Chasins (who later would become her husband ) and he a pupil of the great Josef Hofmann. What a great lineage!
I studied with Nancy for 8 years and can honestly say, I could not be doing what I am doing today without her guidance. Growing up in a small town north of Pittsburgh, there were not many options for a professional teacher. Luckily at the time Nancy was teaching piano at the college in my town. And after successfully auditioning, my musical journey began.
A career as a pianist (regardless of fame) hinges on two key elements technique and musicality. These two elements must be addressed early on. I can remember the countless hours of technical work. Nancy was very forthright about how much practice was needed if I wanted to be a professional pianist: hours! Each day of practice started with an hour of scales, arpeggios, exercises and etudes. Oh the etudes… I remember asking Nancy which one should I play. Her response: start with Chopin Op. 10–all of them. And so one summer I learned all 12. Of course, the goal was not to perform them in public but to glean the technical and musical insight from each etude.
Musicality. What I learned from Nancy was how to listen to details in music and how to practice. As a youth, I was frankly all over the place musically. She taught me as Constance taught her. With a firm but loving hand. She did not mince words, telling me directly when something was not good. I know many of her current students may be ‘afraid’ of her strictness but I loved it! But the difference was that Nancy (and Constance I am told) took the time to show me HOW to figure out the musical or technical problems, how to create solid fingering, and the wizardry of solving these problems with creative solutions. I pass this same information on to my students…the tradition continues.
I was learning heaps of music during my 8 years with Nancy. Again, she told me to learn as much music as you can when you are young, to make your mistakes early, and go for it! For years, I was learning entire programs of music each semester, several concertos (Beethoven 3rd in three weeks for competition just to see if I could do it…and I did!) and chamber music plus accompanying everyone (it seemed) and their pet poodle. But I never thought of this as work. I loved to practice; I still do. My mother will still talk about the summers of 6-7 hours of practicing a day—driving my family crazy probably! Although now I don’t have the luxury of that kind of practice time, I still find the time spent to be rewarding. Both sides of my brain are stimulated as I try to solve the puzzles that this great repertoire throws at me.
So maybe this essay is just my public way of thanking Nancy and in turn Constance, et al for the guidance and careful teaching I received that can be traced back through many generations of great artists. I just hope I can live up to these standards and continue the tradition for my own students.
Curiosity has always been a driving force in my life: trying to figure out how something works, why it exists, and constantly questioning tradition.
Not surprisingly it was my curious nature that led my young self to a family friend’s piano at a dinner party.
I was hooked.
Music and I have been inseparable ever since.
Much of my youth was spent practicing scales and etudes and learning the works of the past. But I was always listening. Yes, to great recordings of Horowitz, Argerich, and Serkin, but also to rock and roll: the Beatles, the B-52’s, Doors, Monk, Big Band, and Madonna. Strange mix isn’t it? But somehow it makes sense.
Being a sort of musical chameleon, I found myself always changing for the better idea and a new experience. Naturally it led me (with the help of some great teachers!) to the world of living composers. They continue to amaze me. They are not afraid to take risks, get a little dirty, and create something unique and individual. I strive to reach that same ideal. Working with them, I have discovered new sound worlds, and what has been asked of me goes far beyond basic piano skill. I have had to grunt, scream, kick, play teapots, and perform in the strangest of places: bars, museums, open air spaces, abandoned mills, and printing houses.
“Breaking the rules” has led to a very unique career and enriching experiences. I continue to commission new, strange, bold, and unusual work with a no-holds-barred attitude. I can’t imagine doing anything else. This world continues to inspire me to try anything, create, explore, and grow.