A Singular Force…..

I haven’t blogged in a while, but I wanted to share my memories of Vera Tisheff, my first principal piano teacher, who continues to teach, mentor and inspire new generations of musicians. This video is part of an ongoing series featuring Vera’s students. At the end of each interview, Vera Tisheff herself offers her own recollections of these particular students. I was fascinated and also moved by her interesting perceptions of my as a child. The title of this series, “A Singular Force,” couldn’t be more appropriate. Enjoy!


An interview with Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)

(The death of Pierre Boulez today undoubtedly will generate thousands of tributes, posts and career retrospectives. Here is a full transcript of my August 2000 interview with the composer/conductor, which has not been available for some time. I preface it with an introduction that explains how it came about.)

Launching in March 2001 just before the dot-com bust, Andante.com generated lots of buzz. It aimed to be the ultimate gathering point for classical music news, feature articles, reviews, webcasts, and research material, along with its boutique historical CD label. After a promising start, the site experienced technical and financial problems, and considerably scaled back its agenda before ultimately shutting down in early 2006.

My first freelance project for Andante was a interview with Pierre Boulez that took place in London in late August 2000. The interview’s complete contents were posted as three separate installments, as presented here. I found Mr. Boulez a charming and very open interview subject, and I think he enjoyed himself, even when I disagreed with him on certain points! Andante’s founder Alain Coblence also was present during the interview, and his comments are indicated by the initials AC



Pierre Boulez: Composer/Musician’s musician


Jed Distler: Zubin Mehta claimed that Messiaen knew every note he composed.


Pierre Boulez: I don’t think you can know. I played a lot of Messiaen’s works with him being there. He had a very good ear, that’s for sure. But to say that in a complex chord he can hear everything, simply no.


JD: Neither can I. Sometimes I’ve played wrong notes in his dense, fast-moving figurations. When I play back the tape, I can’t quite hear where I made the mistakes.


PB: If you have a chord of 13 pitches for instance, and you have one pitch wrong, in the middle especially, that’s very difficult to hear. If you have two different coins, you can very well tell the difference between two coins, but if you have a hundred coins, you are really lucky to make the difference.

JD: The first time I played the piano part to your 1946 Flute Sonatine, I thought it would take me forever to learn the notes. By my twentieth performance, however, it had become much easier. Do you have the same experience conducting your own music?


PB: Yes I do. My own pieces that seemed very difficult twenty years ago, I don’t say that they are simple now but they are much easier to grasp.


JD: Are they challenging to perform?


PB: Yes, when I conduct a piece of mine for the first time I get accustomed to it. To change some tempi and to bring some freedom to the music needs experience. You don’t that the first time. It’s like clothes, only after you wear them and then you feel well in them.



JD: You’ve been leading orchestras for nearly 45 years. How have orchestras changed in terms of assimilating the kind of music for which you’re known?


PB: Stravinsky and Bartok are no more a problem. You have instrumental or ensemble difficulties, but you have them also in Brahms and Mahler. With Schoenberg, it depends on the piece. Some Schoenberg works are completely assimilated by orchestras, others less so because they are more rarely performed. If you do Ewartung, you have to work, really, because it’s a difficult piece, it’s not in the repertoire.


JD: It doesn’t play itself…


PB: Mahler doesn’t play itself. But Mahler is easier now than thirty years ago. When I do Berg’s Concerto, Altenberg Lieder, anything by him, there are no problems. There are some moments in Lulu, which are difficult, such as making accelerando over 15 to 20 pages of score. It’s very difficult to have that kind of progression.


For me, what still has to be acquired is degree of precision you need from an orchestra. This is not only because I am obsessed by precision, but also because the orchestral sonority changes completely. The clarity is suddenly there. You can really hear the score as it is written. Sometimes with a piece of Stockhausen, Berio, or myself, the precision is not in the head before looking at the score. You have to be demanding. If you have sixteen violins playing a quintuplet, they have to really be thinking a quintuplet. The kind of tempo modulation you have in Elliott Carter’s music, well, it has to be very precise otherwise it’s not effective. This type of precision is still not really in the habits, shall we say.



JD:.. probably because most musicians don’t encounter these rhythmic challenges in every day life.


PB: You have the right explanation. My InterContemporain in Paris absorbs this type of thing much, much quicker than orchestral musicians, for instance. The Violin Concerto of Ligeti had no problems for them at all by the second or third rehearsal.



JD: When you play a work of yours for the first time, are you surprised with what you hear?


PB: No. Or if I am surprised, I am surprised in the bad sense! Or if you have simply miscalculated, it’s that the balances are not right. Generally, I’m not surprised by the flow or by the form of the piece.


JD: At the same time, speaking of form, you’ve revised many of your major works over the years. One such work, Repons, had its long-awaited release by DG least year. How did advances in digital audio and computer technology affect Repons and lead you to revise it since it was premiered in the 1980s.


PB: It was composed in 1981, and revised in 1984. But after 84 I did not change anything did not revise anything. But the hardware itself completely changed. It was transferred three times from one piece of equipment to another. The problems in technology are that the instruments, let’s call them that, and are changing constantly for the better and sometimes not for the better. One says that equipment goes quicker, does more operations. That’s true in principal, but sometimes there is something you could do better with the old equipment, and you can do it with more difficulty with a new piece of equipment. For instance, there are programs that can be stored easily and then you can access a program in an easier way. And sometimes you have more difficulty doing that now on some pieces of equipment than twenty years ago. And that’s really amazing, but we are obliged to transfer the new technology each time. What started nineteen years ago with IRCAM’s 4X program is in its third generation. So that’s the problem, if you want to keep things made with the older equipment.



JD: Would you consider having DG issue a DVD audio or perhaps a super digital audio version of Repons? That might result in capturing more of the overall effect of the live performance.


PB: It’s still very difficult to really capture its effect on disc, because you cannot be surrounded by the sound. The recording is a little bit like having a picture of a mobile by Calder. You can see that it moves, but you don’t have the real thing. But there is a recording of Repons to be heard on earphones.




JD: I remember you recorded Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” with the New York Philharmonic in the 70s, for quadrophonic. The orchestra was seated around you, and you were….


PB:…constantly shifting! Yes. That was really very difficult to conduct.



JD: Do you think there’s still commercial potential for four-channel sound?


PB: I think it is plausible. The more we will go, we will have many loudspeakers because the recording will be so compact that you can have for example, six parallel tracks going to six loudspeakers. And it will reconstitute exactly in a room what happens in reality. And I think progress will go in this direction. Or to put six permanent tracks on a CD.





JD: Going back to your early piano pieces Notations (1945) and orchestrating them, how did it feel to encounter your younger self?


PB: When you are young you have ideas, but you don’t know how to develop them. You have plenty of resources but you don’t exploit them in the real sense like you exploit the mind. I began to develop the orchestral Notations when I was I was in charge of the Ring at Bayreuth, and couldn’t really compose. So therefore I thought why not take this material from far back and try to get something out of it.


JD: What made you decide to make these available again in their original piano form?


PB: I had given the manuscript to one of my colleagues in Messiaen’s class. I did not remember even that he had these pieces. When I came back to Paris in 1977 there was a radio broadcast about the students of Messiaen in the first years of his class, around 1943, 44, 45. The colleague wrote to me, “Do you agree that we use your Notations for the broadcast? ” And I said “of course” but I would like to know about the pieces. Could you send me at least a photocopy of the manuscript?” And that’s how I rediscovered them.


JD: In Le Marteau Sans Maitre, did you come up with the idea for the instrumentation which was so radical at the time?


PB: I don’t remember exactly. It was an influence of non-European musics, Balinese and also African music. The beginning of the second piece is very much under the influence of central African music with all this wood percussion and xylophone.



JD: Have you seen changes in the performance tradition of your own music?



PB: Well, there is no tradition in this sense! But I certainly have my own evolution. I have more distance. I can manipulate the material much more easily. Therefore I think I have changed myself. When I know people who have worked with me for a performance, then I can be confident because they do how I feel it. For a pianist or a violinist, of course I ask for what I want. But for a conductor, there is a different relationship between a conductor and myself. A conductor knows that I can do as I ask him. A violinist knows absolutely that I cannot do it and that makes for a different approach. I can give advice about the tempo, about the quality of sound that I want. I cannot really give advice about fingering. For a pianist, yes.


JD: Do you, or have you, played your own piano sonatas in private or in public?


PB: Yes, I perform them, but not very well. At one time I could play piano much better than now. I have no time for practicing. At least when you are conducting an orchestra you don’t need to practice [laughs]. That’s the big superiority. But if you want to play piano, you have to practice, and therefore I did not play all my piano music For instance, the 2nd movement of the 2nd sonata I could play.


J: Well it’s a slow tempo….


PB: Yes, exactly. That I could play. The full movement of the first sonata I could play when I wrote it in ’46. But after that I completely abandoned the practice of piano. I studied piano really seriously until “44. So ’46 was not that far off, I could play still.


JD: Do you compose at the piano?


PB: Never. Because we had a very hard training at the Conservatoire in Paris, in the Messiaen class. We had to take the dictation, and with all kinds of classes around. Horn class. Piano class. It was really very difficult to concentrate. But once you had this training (makes gesture), pfffffff! That is, if you are gifted. You learned to listen without sound, and being very much aware.


J: But do you think composing at the piano limited Stravinsky?


PB: Stravinsky says something and he does something. That’s different. I have read pages and pages about him,   About the opening of the Symphony of Psalms. He said “if I had not composed at the piano then I never would have discovered this chord.” Maybe it’s true. But you can discover any kind of chord, if you know in your head what is going on.




JD: What do you think about the resurgence of tonality as the 21st century begins?


PB: You have the right question. I mean, music is so complex you don’t perceive anything anymore. Or you perceive the wrong things. How do you reestablish the connection between structure and perception, to speak in quite abstract vocabulary? Of course the easiest way to reestablish perception and structure is to go back to tonality, because everything is solved already. But I find that’s the wrong answer to the right question. And that’s a lazy answer.


J: But what about Schoenberg’s quote that there are plenty of pieces still to be written in C major?


PB: I think he said that with a kind of dry humor…


JD: And then Terry Riley responded by writing….


JD and PB: “In C!”


JD: What do you want to compose that you haven’t written yet?


PB: Oh, many things. I hope to have time only to do it. But certainly I will go back to vocal literature.


JD: I was going to ask you about that because you’ve been focusing mostly on instrumental music.


PB: Yes for a long time. I would like to write for choir and orchestra.


JD: What about an opera?


PB: Ah! That’s the big success of my life! (laughs)   I had two encounters which were very important : one with Genet, I knew him quite well. And then he died. Then I met Heine Muller. I was really on the right track with him, we had three important meetings. And I was really expecting that he’d give me the first sketch of a play. And then he died! And of the same disease: throat cancer. So I don’t dare to ask for a third man.


JD: When you’re not writing music, conducting music, writing about music or doing interviews like this, what do you do for fun?


PB: Well, I don’t think I like fun! [laughs] I must say simply that. No, I try always to be busy with something, reading a book for instance. Or going walking, that I like very much.


JD: We’re in a lovely city for walking, in London.


PB: Yes, but I like walking in the woods especially. That’s better still!



JD: How can one learn to compose in the computer age?


PB: First, I think you have to learn by yourself. You learn through analyzing scores. Not because you have read analyses written by other people. That can be an introduction, but in the end you have to learn how to analyze the scores yourself. You have to learn how to be confronted by the scores of other composers. Then you learn how to compose. But that’s a very personal, individual task, and nobody can really teach you that.


JD: Do you know every note of your music?


PB: No. But I recognize it!







Pierre Boulez: Composers past and present







JD: How is your Mahler cycle for DG progressing?

PB: In February 2001 I record the Third Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. The Second is foreseen, but a little later, with the Chicago Symphony. As for the Eighth, we still don’t know. We have another heavy project too, Schoenberg’s Guerre-Lieder. And I think Guerre-Lieder will come first. The Eighth has been recorded more times than Guerre-Lieder, so maybe that’s less necessary than to have a new Guerre-Lieder.


JD:But I think that some people would say that it is necessary to have all the Mahler Symphonies by Boulez in one handy package!


PB: Yes, that’s true, but I’m not in a rush to do that! And before doing the Eighth I will certainly record the Kindertotenlieder and the Fahrenden Gesellen.


JD: One more Mahler question. Many years ago you recorded the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth. Do you find any of the completed versions; Deryck Cooke’s for instance, feasible?


PB: No, and that’s a definite no. At home I have the reproduction of Mahler’s the sketches for the Tenth. And they’re so sketchy that you can not really write anything with that. Deryck Cooke may have been a musicologist, but I’m sorry, he was not a composer. Certainly he did a good job, in a way, but his version has no invention. It is a caricature; it does not have any validity for me.


Alain Coblence: What do you think of composers, who do a sort of juxtaposition, you know the piece that Berio wrote based on Schubert…


PB: That’s different. That’s like for instance, Van Gogh reproducing a tableau by Millet. That I find justified because that has no pretense to authenticity. That’s an invention on something that is already there. I compare it to when you have elements of Greek vase. You reconstitute the jar, and you leave the things which are not there, you know, paint it in a kind of gray or a background color. That is when you see the form, but finally you don’t touch the Millet, and for me that’s absolutely right. Compare, for instance, the unfinished third act of Lulu. That’s a very different case than the Mahler. Berg’s partitur was written until the end. There were just two moments where the voices were not completely written out. There’s the quartet in the London scene, and there is a very short quartet where only one voice part was written out. But you can deduce the remainder from the orchestral part. Also, in the Paris scene, you have some voices not written into the chorus part, but you can reconstitute that. That’s quite easy, because you have the rest.

But the only one who could authentically complete the Mahler Tenth, and already it was too late, was the early Schoenberg. I mean the Schoenberg of Pelleas and Melisande could have done it. You see the style of Pelleas and Melisande is very close to the style of Mahler in some ways.   But the Tenth Symphony was written in 1910, 1911, and by that time Schoenberg had already written his Five Pieces for Orchestra Op. 16. He had gone further.


JD: It’s like the Schoenberg of the Piano Concerto returning to Guerre-Lieder, perhaps. Or the difference between the quasi avant-garde style Gyorgy Ligeti used in “Atmospheres” and his recent interest in Central African music, like in his Piano Etudes….


PB: I find even in the Ligeti the rhythmic material is more interesting than the rest of the material.


JD: Have you talked to him about that?


PB: Yes, he knows my point of view (laughs). That’s true. You cannot say that the melodic material is surprising. But the rhythmical material is really, extremely, extremely new. The way he develops for example, the 3rd movement of his Piano Concerto, or the Violin Concerto’s 4th movement. That’s really for me the most interesting piece where was influenced by the fractals. He takes a small cell and multiplies it, reducing, expanding and so on.




JD: You’ve been conducting Bruckner for the first time. Tell me about that.


PB I was discussing programs with a representative of the Vienna Philharmonic. You know, their own musicians are representing them. They choose a program with the conductor. And then they asked me “have you ever conducted Bruckner, or have you Bruckner in your repertoire?” I said, “no, I don’t think so”. ” Oh, you have never conducted Bruckner”. “No, until now I have never conducted Bruckner.” “Would you like to do that with us?” And I said, “if I do, it’s with you, because you know Bruckner better than me. I have the possibility to learn from you.” It was very funny because they asked me “what symphony”. I said, “I would like to conduct the 8th.” And they told me that when a conductor asks to conduct the 8th symphony, we ask him to wait until he is older. “But with you, we cannot do that!” (laughs)


JD: Well, when Solti was approached about conducting Bruckner he said “no, no, no. I’m too young, wait until I’m 50.”


PB: But why I chose the 8th is funny. I remembered hearing Klemperer in London doing the 8th, and it was very impressive. I told that to Lotte Klemperer, his daughter, whom I know very well. A little later, she called me. “You did not hear the 8th symphony with my father, you heard the 5th symphony!” Then I looked at the score, and I remembered, that’s true.


JD: It came back to you….


PB:…. Especially the fugue in last movement. The 8th I heard later with Barenboim.


Alain Coblence: Did Klemperer did the 8th?


JD: Yes, he did. There’s a Cologne Radio Orchestra aircheck from the fifties.. Then he recorded the 8th just before he died, but he cut that last movement to ribbons. I don’t think it’s a very good recording. But Klemperer was a big supporter of yours, and loved your work. Did he ever conduct your music?


PB: No, but he came to my rehearsals. I remember I had never met him never before. One day I was in my hotel, at 8:00 in the morning and I had a rehearsal with the BBC Symphony at 10. The telephone rang. And you know, I knew his voice, great character as he was, and he said (imitates Klemperer) ” ja, ich kommt hier”. At first I thought it was a joke from another musician. Not at all. Klemperer had actually called me to attend the rehearsal.

When I conducted Parsifal in Bayreuth, Klemperer came especially to hear it. We had dinner after the performance. “How can you conduct that? The theatrical aspect is so impossible.” Klemperer did not like Parsifal’s ceremonial aspects, its kind of pseudo religion and so on. And he hated the idea of Bayreuth as a shrine, the adoration, and also because of its Nazi past


JD: But one thing that’s always fascinated me about Parsifal, and I think this ties in with the specific electro/acoustic requirements of Repons, is that Wagner wrote Parsifal after having had the experience of hearing The Ring in the Festspeilhaus. Certainly Parsifal’s orchestration, especially the frequent overlapping entrances and shimmering string writing, seems tailor for the venue. Did you take that into account in your performances?


PB: My time in Bayreuth was a very big experience. I would not have performed Wagner in any other house after that, because I think that’s a unique theater, not only for the vision but acoustically also.


JD: But you did Tristan und Isolde in Japan…..


PB: Well, that was a Bayreuth production, and because Wieland Wagner asked me to do it. We had a lot of projects planned when he died.



JD: Another atypical but fascinating addition to your recent recorded repertoire is Scriabin. You’re the only conductor who’s truly balanced the murky opening chord in Prometheus, so you can really hear every pitch. It’s like reading the score.


PB: Scriabin is a very interesting person. There is a lot to say about his kind of mysticism, and the indications he writes in the score in French are really grotesque.   But you have to go beyond that. I discovered Scriabin in a though his brother in law. Once he spoke to me about Scriabin, and I said, “well, Scriabin, I don’t know anything, I know only about his fantasy of colors and something like that.” And he told me “well you should know more about him” and he gave me the last sonatas to read. They were a completely unknown quantity to me. Specially the last five sonatas.


JD: I think the sonatas are cases where the music sounds much simpler than they it is notated.


PB: ….With double sharps, or double flats or so on.


JD: That’s true, but I’m thinking more of the rhythmic notation. I’m thinking in the 5th sonata the subdivisions don’t seem to go with what one is actually hearing, unlike, say, Stravinsky.


PB:   Yes, yes.


JD: Improvisation has figured in some your musical structures. At one time, composer/instrumentalists like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt were famous for their extemporaneous playing. Do you think improvising is something that is still valid?



PB: Not very much, because you do not have a standard grammar. In the time of Bach or Beethoven there was a grammar. A relationship with chords between themselves, the structure between the chords was already completely absorbed. You had the kind of material at your disposal, which was completely available from this point of view. Not only material but relationships within the material. And not only the relationship with chords, but also the relation between melodic and rhythmic There were all kinds of relationships which were taken for granted. You don’t have that any more. Jazz can be more or less improvised, because it still has a background of harmonic conventions. Of course jazz utilizes complicated harmonic relationships.   But the relationships between chords are very often given.   There’s a common vocabulary with many established patterns, and it’s possible to improvise on that.


JD: What about free improvisation?


PB: You can improvise with dissonant chords, or chords which are not related, or parallel chords. That’s true. That can be a source of inspiration. Even Beethoven improvised maybe to excite himself, but he wrote the piece. And that was more important. I don’t think you can improvise his Op. 106 (the Hammerklavier Sonata)!


JD: Well, I know that the composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski improvises within the Hammerklavier, and even the Appassionata! I don’t know if I would agree with it, but he has the authority within himself to do so. He also improvises in his own work.


PB: His own music is less complicated than the opus 106.


JD: Certain things perhaps. You know my first experience of your Second Sonata was Rzewski’s performance, when I was a teenager. And it was my first experience of him as a pianist. It was quite something….


PB: Oh no, no….Rzewski’s a very good pianist, but what he composes, especially at one point when he was in a kind of political protest…


JD: You mean, his “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”….


PB: ….. it was rather really simplistic, I found. I met Rzewski in Darmstadt, in 61 or 62.


JD: I have his recording of your First Sonata.


PB: I remember he performed a piece of his at this time, which was very well written for the piano. After, he went through a period that was, for me, rather puzzling.


JD: There are only two American composers for whom you’ve devoted a complete CD. One is Elliott Carter. The other is Frank Zappa. Tell me about the Boulez/Zappa connection.



PB: It came in a very simple way. Zappa asked me to meet him. I had heard of him of course, especially in 68, 70, with the scandals about the cover for his recordings and so on and so forth. And I thought, if he asked me to meet him, it could be interesting. You never know. I met him, and found the man extremely sympathetic and interesting. Zappa wanted to break out of the kind of milieu for which he was known. I didn’t know it then, but was very much in very much admiration for Varese. Varese was the first composer Zappa discovered who struck him so much that he became Zappa’s icon. Zappa told me “I’ve written some scores for orchestra, and would you consider to look at them?”. I was just finished with the New York Philharmonic, and beginning with IRCAM and the Ensemble InterContemporain. So I told him, “you know I don’t really conduct orchestras for the time being. If you want me to conduct a work for orchestra, you have to wait for quite a long time. But if you want to write something for the the Ensemble InterContemporain, then I will perform it immediately.” And so he said, “well, I will compose for the Ensemble!” About a month later he sent me scores.

I then organized an American program with a work by Carter, a work by Zappa, and one by Ruggles. There may have been a work by Varese, I don’t remember exactly. It was a hard program from the point of view that I wanted the audience to take Zappa seriously, and not just as a joke. The reaction was interesting, as I expected. People who came for Carter said ” why Zappa?” and people who came for Zappa said “Why Carter?”. After that we recorded Zappa’s music, in his presence. He was really a very interesting character.


J; Did his music fascinate you?


PB: Yes. It was a beginning, what he gave to us. That was the first thing he’d composed like that. Then he had a project with the Ensemble Moderne, and everybody was surprised, and they tried to catch up with him. Unfortunately he died very soon afterwards.



JD: Leaping back fifty years, there were other composers beside yourself who were interested in expanding the twelve-tone vocabulary. Were you familiar with what Milton Babbitt was doing in the US?


PB: Yes, and I also knew him. But I find that’s really, for me, academic. Very much so. As much as I like Carter because he’s inventive, I don’t find that the music of Babbitt is terribly inventive to me. I did two of his works in New York.


JD: I heard one of them on the same program where you did Carter’s Double Concerto. That was the first either Babbitt and Carter’s music in concert. And my first live Ives Fourth Symphony was your performance with the New York Philharmonic. You haven’t gone back to Ives, though.


PB: Not very much. If I did, I would have to rewrite the scores.


JD: What was that like, preparing the 4th, with all its textual problems.




PB: That was a challenge. I’ve also played the Robert Browning Overture and the Three Places in New England. It’s music written by an amateur. You would have to rewrite things because it’s impossible to do justice to the ideas because they’re poorly written. He stayed an amateur all his life and he wanted to stay this way. It was a choice for him.


JD: Had Ives heard more of his orchestra music played, do you think he would have composed differently?


PB: Yes, and he would have abandoned the insurance business! If you read his diaries, Ives cannot stand the professional milieu of his period at all. He’s screaming all the time against them. He wants to be completely apart from that. In Ives’ melodies for voice and piano, that’s okay, or for small chamber pieces. But when he goes to another level, that’s when the music fails.


JD: There’s been much recent interest in the music of your contemporary Jean Barraqué, at least as far as recordings go.


PB: I knew him, of course, but I don’t find his music very interesting. His Piano Sonata is a caricature of my Second Sonata, which came first. But I am prejudiced!


Boulez on Recordings, Technology, and Education




JD: How concerned are you that recording producers and engineers accurately capture your artistic intentions both as a conductor and a composer. Or how have they succeeded or failed to do so?


PB: Before I worked for DG, I worked for CBS, for Columbia and I had a very good engineer, Andrew Kazdin. He told me “you make your balance and I will follow your balance.” Because I think it’s important not to have a kind of artificial product. He took lots of time at the beginning, placing mikes, listening to every section of the orchestra. Sometimes he’d take longer than usual. But after that, we could perform and everything went extremely quick and well. With DG I work with two or three recording teams and they are very careful about the sound. So we are on safe territory with them.


JD: Earlier, we were speaking of the NBC Orchestra’s demise because it had ceased to be profitable after the death of their music director, Arturo Toscanini. Yet, in a way, they didn’t die, because all 231 Toscanini/NBC broadcasts have been preserved. One striking development in the CD era has been the proliferation of historic material. I’ve even seen Pierre Boulez pirated discs! How else can younger listeners hear, for instance, how your mentor Hans Rosbaud conducted Berg, Webern and Stravinsky? It’s enabled a younger generation of listeners to get to know great performers of the past.


PB: I agree with you. The archives are fantastic. I wish we had archives like that for the 19th century. It’s very interesting for me to trace the origin and evolution of performing styles. At least for the last 90 years we have testimonies in sound. That’s really amazing to listen to.


JD: Do you think there’s validity in hearing, say, the first recorded performance of a Beethoven symphony, or a tape from the world premier of this or that 20th century work?


PB: I think there is some validity. Because that’s like looking at a book which is printed in the 18th century. It can be difficult to read, because the page is not distributed the same way as modern print, and so on, and from this point of view that’s very interesting. But what I would not like from this century or the next on is to be buried in archives. You have so many archives that you lose awareness of the time you live in. That’s the danger for me.

There was a broadcast on French radio, a performance of Brahms by Furtwangler. The announcer says, “that was recorded the 23rd of february 1941.” It’s not just a recording of Brahms; it’s become an immortal document. To me that’s like looking at an album of pictures. I think Proust said once: if you look at photographs then you are much more sensitive to the period than to the society classes. You know that these photographs were taken in 1880, and you don’t much care if that’s a librarian, a lawyer or an homme du monde. That’s very interesting this reflection of Proust, on how you can look at pictures. And I think in the same way, the sound of the 30’s for instance in a recording, is the sound of the thirties, the interpretation of the thirties. And then if you are in the 50’s it’s a different sound, different approach….


JD; It goes back to what we were saying about how orchestras have changed over the years…


PB: There is a recording of the Mahler Fourth Symphony with Mengelberg….


JD: Oh yes [mimics the opening measures] Dah……..dah…….dah…….big fermata, ….ya, dum, dum, ….


PB: (laughs)… and also with a glissando in the strings, and a change of position. You know, that would be unacceptable now. I also remember having heard Knappertsbusch, who was really a monument in his time. I heard the Parsifal he did in Bayreuth in 1951. The chord pizzicati are practically never together.


JD: I wouldn’t say “practically”, Maestro, I would say “never” together!


PB: Yes! [laughs]. But I suppose it was not disturbing at the time.


JD:   I think gets into the danger of saying, “Oh well, Mengelberg knew Mahler, ergo this is how you should conduct the opening of Mahler 4”. But authenticity, if you have to use that word, had more than one road. Bruno Walter was only a few years younger than Mengelberg and he conducts the Mahler 4th utterly differently. And he was even more a Mahler disciple than Mengelberg. Then again, Mengelberg’s 1939 Concertgebouw was a different kind of orchestra from Walter’s 1945 New York Philharmonic.


PB: Yes, and there is difference of personality. But that’s very interesting for me, this concept of authentic performance. I don’t find that there is any kind of authentic performance because everybody takes a work and transforms it automatically, even if he thinks he is close to the text. Even things like Rite of Spring can be taken very hard, or very mechanical, or much broader, although the rhythms have to be exact. There are other qualities of the sound, for instance, the attacks of instruments that can differ from one orchestra to the next.


JD: Home computers didn’t exist when I was a composition student. We couldn’t just push a button and transpose, for instance. Most composers today, it seems, regard the computer on equal footing with pencil and score paper. Do you feel that the computer is a required tool as much as a good background in counterpoint, harmony, and ear training


PB: The computer is an extension, but cannot replace the rest of the education. If you have to write counterpoint you have to write counterpoint, the computer will not do it for you. You have to invent something. The same for geometry or algebra, there are things you have to do yourself. That’s the problem with mathematics right now, I’ve heard from people who are involved with that, people don’t know how to extract a square root, they just push a button. They cannot go further because if they don’t know the basics of arithmetic then they will never be able to assimilate mathematical reasoning. It’s the same with music. You might be able to have a computer play a scale, but you’ll never know what is a scale then, or the function of a scale. Education risks becoming superficial because you get the results without knowing the process. And for me the process is much more important than the results, at one point. If you know the process and you’ve though about the process, then you can invent other processes. But if you have known only the result, you’ll be expecting that for other problems you have to solve, you will have the result before thinking of the process.


JD: A few years ago, I experienced your one-time assistant Tod Machover’s “Brain Opera” at Lincoln Center. It was an interactive project where people could push buttons, and talk or sing into microphones. The ensuing sounds were recorded, and then used within the context of the composition. What value does technology have in democratizing musical experiences as far as creative participation and input from a wider spectrum of listeners than we’ve had before?


PB: The first think to say is that I think creativity is not really in everybody. You have a kind of inventiveness at a very low level, more or less. You can make some noise, you can clap your hands, and you can pat a little piece of wood on this table. Now you can use technology the same way and it will seem more complex, but it’s really the same low level of creativity. The material in a program that produces sounds is not your creation. What is your so-called creation, to put these sounds one after another, or to super impose them – that’s not composing anything….


JD: I suppose we’d call painting by numbers…


PB: No, it’s not that it’s more like “do it yourself”….


AC: …with an element of something very primal.


PB…cheap! It’s using material a very simplistic way which is far from what I call creativity. But these kinds of interactive tools are very important for the learning process….


J…and audience development too, perhaps,


PB: You have interactive things for programs that are established for language learning: using repetition, correcting pronunciation, and so forth. Interactive programs can teach you about form in music, to help you recognize thematic material, familiarize you with instruments, their range, their possibilities of speed. But you cannot really learn to compose this way. You can learn how to juxtapose things if they are put side by side, or are repelling each other.



JD: The world wide web has given rise to new visual art forms, combining digital technology as well as traditional film and animation techniques, yet we’ve seen little in the way of music composed expressly for the web. Is the Internet as it stands today a serious enough medium for composers?


PB: For the time being it’s not really very convincing. First, the definition of the sound is very poor, and so is the image, like the images in silent movies. So there are still some things that are in the process of developing. I cannot say how far it will go.


JD: What is the potential of the Internet for education as far as music education?


PB: When serious people can at the extremes, use the Internet, then it will be very strong. There are a lot of games, some are so-called instructive games, but in fact they’re games only. I’m not terribly optimistic from this point of view, unless you have really people who don’t look at profits, but at education. Education should be the prime goal, with non-profit organizations. That’s very important to me.


Alain Coblence: This is what Andante is going to be doing basically. It’s going to be distributing musical courses completely free and rely on foundations and governmental support.


PB: That’s the only way to do it. Because I think otherwise profit is always heavy handed and the companies eliminate all that is not profitable. Which is their goal, after all.


AC: But the distribution, the breadth of the broadcast that the Internet can contribute is extraordinary.


PB: Oh, yes. I agree with the way of doing it. Television could be also a very strong tool for education. It is not.


AC: But that is because there are commercial requirements for television to be profitable.


PB: But you can have private channels now, if you have sponsors. Look, for example, at PBS in the States. Even public television is in a difficult position. They cannot find the money even for that.


AC: But it requires much more money than to distribute programs through the Internet.


PB: That’s true, yes.


AC: It’s multiplied by a thousand. So the Internet, in a way, is a hope in terms of the distribution of educational programs. It will be much easier.


PB: But look at American radio stations. How many cultural stations are there? Very little. Universities generally sponsor them, and radio does not cost as much as television. I read about David Sarnoff, who wrote that he had a mission to educate the masses through radio and television. It did not go very far, though Sarnoff was a very powerful man, with money.


JD: Sarnoff did a lot for culture, think of the Toscanini NBC broadcasts….


PB: Yes, but when they became too costly and not rewarding enough financially….pfoof!










An interview with Gilbert Kaplan (March 3 1941-January 1 2016)

I interviewed the late Gilbert Kaplan back in March 2001 when he was about to launch his radio show Mad About Music. His kindness, insight, humor and generosity made a big impression. My 2001 article based on that interview has not been available for many years, and is all but impossible to trace online. Fortunately I preserved my original draft, and I’d like to share it with readers and music lovers, in memory of this remarkable man.

A Conversation with Gilbert Kaplan (March 2001)

The word “amateur,” as generally understood, refers to one who engages in an art or science as a pastime rather than as a profession. It is often used in a disparaging sense, describing, for example, one that lacks professional skill or ease in performance. Yet the award-winning publisher, foundation head, and amateur conductor Gilbert Kaplan’s considerable achievements on behalf of Gustav Mahler’s music reflect the connotations of the word’s Latin source, amator, meaning “lover, devoted friend, devotee, enthusiastic pursuer of an objective.” These words characterize the passion and high standards Kaplan brings to his foundation’s Mahler publications, his performances of that composer’s mighty “Resurrection” Symphony (the only work he conducts), and a new public radio series he will host on New York’s WNYC 93.9 FM, Mad About Music.

Mad About Music is a monthly, one hour celebrity classical music and interview program that debuts on WNYC at 7 pm Friday April 6th, and repeats at 8 pm on Saturday April 7th. Kaplan’s guests select five key musical works and discuss why these pieces are important to them. “If you have a passion,” Kaplan explains, “you’re fascinated if somebody famous has that same passion. You talk to golfers, for example, and they cannot get enough of reading about a certain President’s golf game. Did that President, for example, like a sand wedge or a pitching iron in a certain situation? I think the same thing is true with music.”

During a recent chat at his New York office, Kaplan traced the show’s roots to the popular British radio show Private Passions, on which he had been a guest while conducting in England. The feedback was plentiful and positive. From that experience, Kaplan thought of a show that would focus on famous people who happen to love classical music.

He proposed the idea to WNYC, for whom he had hosted a 13-week Mahler series in 1997, providing background and commentary. The station accepted. In contrast to Private Passions, Mad About Music sets the hurdle for fame extremely high. Indeed, Kaplan’s guest list is a veritable Who’s Who of influential figures in media, government, business, and the arts.

The opening program features former President Jimmy Carter, who perhaps is the most musically well-rounded President since Harry Truman. ” I was astounded by the scope of Carter’s musical interests, the degree to which music just overlapped his life from the beginning, “said Kaplan, “and found his tastes to be quite eclectic and impressive.” Carter’s knowledge of Wagner, chiefly Tristan und Isolde, helped land him a top job in the Navy. By contrast, lighter fare such as Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince is inextricably linked with the most intimate moments in Carter’s marriage.

During his presidency Carter hosted concerts at the White House that were televised around the world, including a rare appearance by the mercurial pianist Vladimir Horowitz. In his interview with Kaplan, Carter recalls shipboard discussions with his Navy roommate as to whom was better in the Rachmaninov concertos: Rachmaninov himself, Arthur Rubinstein, or Horowitz. Could you imagine George W. Bush extolling the finer points of Brendel versus Pollini in late Beethoven?

Kaplan feels that what you learn about celebrities through their musical taste is very illuminating. “If most people were asked to give their impression of ABC News anchor Peter Jennings simply from seeing him on the news each night, they would say that he’s a cool customer, a bit formal. Yet you listen to his selections of music and discover he’s a hopeless romantic.” Jennings tastes run the gamut from barbershop quartets and Duke Ellington to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, plus everything in between. The only thing he can’t listen to is heavy metal.

As a father of four, does Kaplan better tolerate for loud, contemporary pop styles? ” It’s curious. When Columbia House released my recording of the Mahler Second in their record club, the person in charge of their classical division actually overlapped with heavy metal. I told him that that if he loved classical music than he’d have some idea what my taste is. I can’t listen to heavy metal happily. What heavy metal could he give me to hear that might be appealing to someone of my background and interests? So he sent me quite a few records. Out of them all I only found Metallica to my taste, quite a bit of it I liked. My son quickly scooped up the rest of the records!”

Asked if the celebrities’ repertoire tastes or recording choices might influence audiences, Kaplan says it’s entirely possible. “For example, President Carter talks about Doretta’s Dream from Puccini’s La Rondine. sung by Mirella Freni on a recording with arias that he loves. Carter even mentions that it’s track sixteen! And I was thinking I’d love to have this recording.” The President thinks less well of a Maria Callas aria on the same disc, where, as he says, she sings off-key.

WNYC will be broadcasting Mad About Music on the world wide web, a fact that pleases Gilbert Kaplan, who imagines the internet will come into its own as a disseminator of archival and historic recordings. Likewise, Kaplan’s interviews may well prove to hold equal documentary value. In addition to Carter and Jennings, Kaplan’s guest list includes luminaries like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and Citigroup Chief Sanford Weill. Putting together a roster like this requires a little detective work. Kaplan speaks to the powers that be in opera houses and concert halls, and asks his guests what other classical music lovers they know. And once in a while Kaplan will host a performing artist like Yo-Yo Ma, and find out what they like to listen to when they’re not playing music.

“Three very wonderful people have accepted invitations: Condoleezza Rice, our National Security advisor (and also a concert pianist), Katherine Graham from the Washington Post, Barbara Walters, who is probably the most formidable interviewer on television. That’s going to be a challenge.”

Kaplan may also want to explore the entertainment world for guests, like the comedian Phyllis Diller, who is an accomplished concert pianist, or film director and part-time clarinetist Woody Allen. And, of course, America’s most famous tenor saxophonist, William Jefferson Clinton. Has anyone said no yet? “One guest who I’d love to have and who’s been a personal friend for 30 years, Alan Greenspan, turned me down. I was surprised. But its his policy never to give one-on-one interviews even though I assured Alan that I wouldn’t ask him about interest rates! Little beknownst to the world, Alan is a Julliard graduate. He’s the ultimate Mad About Music guest because he’s really famous and he really knows music.”

Ten Notable 2015 Piano Releases

So many wonderful piano releases came out in 2015 that picking a top ten list is all but impossible. But here are ten that stand out, and they’re well worth investigating.

1. J.S. Bach: Partita No. 4, English Suite No. 1, other works. Rémi Geniet (piano) Mirare 268

The 21-year-old Rémi Geniet delivers some of the most supple, well-articulated and focused Bach pianism I’ve heard in many a moon.

2. Alexander Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas. Anna Malikova (piano) Acousance 12214

Anna Malikova’s slightly intellectualized organization of textures, lines and balances sheds fresh light on Scriabin’s sonatas. You won’t get over-the-top emotionalism or febrile necromanticism, yet you can’t deny this pianist’s mindful virtuosity and thorough penetration of these sometimes elusive scores.

3. Seascapes. Janice Weber (piano) Sono Luminus 92188

An imaginatively programmed and exquisitely executed recital of short pieces inspired by the sea, many of which are rarely heard.

4. Maurice Emmanuel: Six Sonatinas. Laurent Martin (piano) Timpani 1C1994

Among the few compositions that Maurice Emmanuel (1862-1938) did not destroy are his six piano sonatinas. Their refinement, sheen and expressive reserve make an indelible impression, as does Laurent Martin’s sympathetic interpretations.

5. Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!; Four Hands. Ursula Oppens (piano), plus Jerome Lowenthal (piano) in Four Hands. Cedille 90000 158

Ursula Oppens has re-recorded this monumental work that she premiered in 1976, with even more intensity, attention to detail, commitment and virtuosic force than before. She still owns this music, and has never played better on disc.

6. Edvard Grieg: Lyric Pieces (selections). Stephen Hough (piano) Hyperion 68070

A cannily curated selection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces shine through Stephen Hough’s Internalized, intimately unfolding and caring performances. Similar comments pertain to equally distinct 2015 Grieg Lyric Pieces collections from pianists Janina Fialkowska (Atma) and Edward Rosser (Connoisseur Society).

7. Peter Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker – Complete Ballet arranged by Stewart Goodyear. Stewart Goodyear (piano) Steinway & Sons 30040

There’s nothing remotely gimmicky or self-serving about Stewart Goodyear’s adaption of the entire Nutcracker ballet for piano solo. He channels awesome feats of finger work towards purely musical ends, while his tempos and transitions convey a strong sense of dramatic and balletic logic.

8. R. Nathaniel Dett: My Cup Runneth Over – Complete Piano Music. Clipper Erickson (piano) Navona 2013

One of the first composers of African descent to achieve a sophisticated and serious fusion of Negro folk music and spirituals with European art music traditions, Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) is an important and often overlooked figure. His piano music runs the gamut from early ragtime influences to the complexity and substance of his final works. Clipper Erickson’s masterful and passionate interpretations should generate serious interest in this significant body of work.

9. Liasons – Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano. Anthony de Mare (piano) ECM 2470-72

The 37 piano pieces in this collection by contemporary composers that use Stephen Sondheim’s songs as jumping off points represent a good range of how different generations of composers approach writing for the piano in the early 21st century. Anthony de Mare broaches these diverse styles with standard-setting command and mastery.

10. Legacy – The Collected Piano Recordings. Dinorah Varsi (piano) Genuin 15353

Here are 35 CDs and 5 DVDs devoted to Uruguayan pianist Dinorah Varsi (1939-2013) that comprise an impressive recorded legacy of studio recordings, broadcasts and live performances mostly new to CD, with a wide range of repertoire including mounds of Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy and Schumann, among much else. Because Varsi’s distinct and individual artistry stands out on many levels, it’s difficult to zero in on highlights. Genuin’s lavish packaging and presentation represents a true labor of love.

Between the Keys and more….

It’s all my fault. I allowed this blog to slide for the past four months. But now I’ll put things right.

The big news is that The Classical Network WWFM.org invited me to be their first Artist-in-Residence, and the host of a new weekly keyboard show, Between the Keys. This is a lifelong dream come true; I’ve always wanted to host my own radio show! Furthermore, I’m honored to be associated with a network whose diverse array of hosts and wide ranging programs truly create a vivid and illuminating forum for the classical music world.

Many luminaries from the keyboard world will stop by and visit for a conversation, and maybe even an impromptu performance. We’ve had quite a few shows with special themes, such as a tribute to Terry Riley who just turned 80, the wild world of contemporary harpsichord works, my musical mentors, and a RIchard Wagner piano party. I look forward to hosting two fantastic Italian pianist friends and colleagues Emanuele Arciuli and Carlo Grante when they play in New York this fall, and a centenary salute to a pianist who remains totally unclassifiable – the legendary Cy Walter. He was not quite jazz, not quite cocktail, not quite classical, but quite, quite wonderful!

You can listen to Between the Keys each Tuesday night at 10 with a rebroadcast each Wednesday afternoon at 1 live by clicking on http://www.wwfm.org.

And to get archived webcasts of past shows whenever you want to listen, go here: http://www.wwfm.org/webcasts_keys.shtml

I’d love your feedback, comments and suggestions!

Remembering Stanley Lock (1920-2000)

(Back in the spring of 2001 I was asked to speak at a celebration of my piano teacher Stanley Lock’s life. I hadn’t thought about this moving event in years, but just recently I stumbled upon my written remarks, and I’d like to share them with you. After all, many of us carry our mentors and teachers with us through lives; I know still do.)

Remembering Stanley Lock (1920-2000)

For many years Stanley Lock was a good friend as well as a teaching colleague at Sarah Lawrence College. But when I first met him in 1973, little did I know that just three years later he would be playing a decisive role in my musical life as the most important piano teacher I would ever have. I was 16 then, and had just applied for admission to Sarah Lawrence as an undergrauate. The woman who interviewed me recommended that I go to the music department, located in a mansion called Marshall Field. Maybe I’d be able to meet Professor Lock. I nervously knocked on his studio door. Within seconds after Stanley invited me in, Sarah Lawrence became my first choice school.
Stanley’s musical pedigree is rich. As an adolescent he made his orchestral debut with his hometown Detroit Symphony under its then music director Ossip Gabrilowitsch. At the Juilliard School Stanley studied with Olga Samaroff, who also taught Stanley’s friend, the legendary American pianist William Kapell. He worked with the redoubtable French pedagogue Marguerite Long during his Fulbright Scholarship year in Paris, and participated in Artur Schnabel’s master classes. For a brief time in the late 1940s Stanley actively championed numerous American contemporary composers on the scene. And, of course, from 1949 to 1991 Stanley graced the Sarah Lawrence College Music Faculty.
What was a piano lesson with Stanley like? First and foremost, he made you feel at ease. Once you sat down and played through the piece you had prepared, you weren’t a student anymore, but a fellow pianist, albeit one with less knowledge and experience than Stanley. He wouldn’t say “that’s too fast,” but perhaps “Boy, that’s almost breakneck speed, my friend” or “you really want to play it that fast?” Tone production was not a mystical, private enterprise, but something tangible that could be communicated. My dog-eared sheet music collection abounds with Stanley’s suggestions, many that he penciled in, be it an easier fingering for a tricky passage, or a mark that drew particular attention to dynamics or accents. It wasn’t about your doing Stanley’s bidding, but rather about discovering things for yourself. Sometimes the advice could be drastically pragmatic. Once I had to learn a difficult and rather mediocre student piece literally overnight, and, on top of that, it was poorly scored for the instrument and profoundly unidiomatic. Stanley’s advice, “Look, don’t worry, you’ll get it, just put the pedal down, or this fast section here, just dust the keys.” Not terribly professorial, but definitely a professional’s point of view. He could be easygoing on the surface, but believe me, nothing got past Stanley’s ears.
Nor was Stanley a waffler. He cut to the chase. We went together to hear Alfred Brendel at Carnegie Hall. There was some wonderful playing, but the Beethoven Diabelli Variations left a mixed impression. After the concert I hemmed and hawed. “Well, Stanley, certain variations were OK, but it didn’t quite project the feeling of…”
Without missing a beat, Stanley cut me off. “Jed, face facts. The man is dull.” (In fairness, the same recital also featured a hair-raising performance of Liszt’s Weinen, Klagen Variations where Brendel shed his Clark Kent suit and changed into Superman. When Brendel was on, his sound truly engulfed any given venue.)
One time Stanley and I sat through a student concert with a very talented classmate singing Poulenc songs. I enjoyed it, but Stanley expected more. He pulled me aside at intermission. “You know, you really can’t sing Poulenc until you’ve really gotten pissy-eyed drunk”

I haven’t yet spoken about what a wonderful pianist Stanley was. Or, more accurately, what a wonderful musician who happened to play the piano. The music ruled above anything else. Stanley’s rubatos and fluctuations of tempo were rooted in common sense, not in potential effect. His voicings and color shadings were clear, never quirky. Even in the softest passages, Stanley maintained a full, centered, and masculine tone. Private concert recordings, fortunately, back up my memories. Even plagued by arthritis during his “farewell” recital before he retired in 1991, he played beautiful things. I remember his Mozart D Minor Fantasia, with the poignant melodies not just singing but speaking. And breathing. Stanley used to tell me that Kapell was jealous of his Mozart. Then again, Stanley revered Kapell’s Rachmaninov Third, so it evened out!
Sometimes Stanley had students over for dinner, and we’d listen to recordings of his piano idols: Rachmaninoff, Josef Hofmann, Kapell, of course, the great Liszt pupil Moriz Rosenthal, Josef Lhevinne. My friend and fellow Stanley pupil Gordon Reynolds used to imitate his voice, which sounded like a suave version of Burgess Meredith. After plying us with more Scotch, we did our Stanley imitations for Stanley. Then Stanley imitated us back, and very accurately!
In 1996 I played a recital program on WNYC in New York. I hadn’t spoken to Stanley in a while. Later that day he called me at home. He had heard the broadcast, and said the nicest, most thoughtful things. I nearly cried. After we spoke, my mind flashed back to that first day in Marshall Field, the extra long lessons, Stanley accompanying Kitty Rowe and Paul Ukena in Stephen Sondheim songs with the composer present. Stanley knocking off Albeniz’s El Puerto with such insouciance (“boy, that’s one tough son of a bitch, no joke!”). These are good memories to have, and they fill me with joy.

Big piano playing, incorporated

Big piano playing defines most dead pianists, or, more specifically, the great Romantics like Alfred Cortot, Josef Hofmann, Josef Lhevinne, Sergei Rachmaninov and Benno Moiseiwitsch. Even Egon Petri, who was more of a modernist, but a big pianist, just the same.

Big piano playing means a kind of artistry that takes chances, projects across the footlights, and is not afraid of its own vitality.

Happily, we have a good number of big pianists today.

Two events of big piano playing are just about upon us in New York. One is the third installment of Carlo Grante’s Masters of High Romanticism series at Alice Tully Hall. On Tuesday February 10th at 7:30 PM he plays no less than four big Brahms variation sets, including the (really big) Handel Variations and the (really hard) Paganini Variations. After the extraordinary concentration, mindful virtuosity and effortless stamina that Carlo displayed in his December 15th concert devoted to all three Schumann sonatas, I have no doubt that his Brahms will be a special event.

The following evening at Spectrum (121 Ludlow Street) at 7:00 PM, Marilyn Nonken’s Voluptuous Virtuosity series devoted to virtuoso performers and provocative programs presents Thomas Rosenkranz in Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 (“Concord”). This is dense, complex, craggy, funny, simple and often moving music that demands as much from audiences as performers, and, in the end, leaves you uplifted and fulfilled. I haven’t heard Thomas in some time, which is why I’m especially excited about this concert. His debut solo disc comes out this spring, called Toward the Curve, and promises to be a formidable musical and audiophile experience.

As I’ve been slaving away at my latest ComposersCollaborative, inc. grant deadline, I’ve been playing some big piano performances on record to keep sane, no matter how insane some of the interpretations might be. For example, the fascinating and often controversial Russian pianist Maria Yudina’s Schubert Impromptus from 1964. Her almost aggressive, power tool version of the D. 899 No. 1 C Minor will catch you off guard and hold your attention. (check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8V964wP1Pw). I’m connecting anew to the nervous energy and gaunt textures of Alexis Weissenberg’s Rachmaninov’s Sonatas; he clarifies the often thick writing like lye cutting through grease, to quote my late colleague Harris Goldsmith. You can buy his amazing DG recording here:http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=151025. And Egon Petri’s brilliant Busoni Fantasia Contrappuntistica is included in a box set that I was fortunate to annotate several years ago; you can buy it here: http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=593827.

Looking forward to seeing you at the concerts, and watch this space about my upcoming performances and a new radio adventure…..

Piano Dreams: Liberace teaches me to play Boulez!

I don’t remember my dreams unless I write them down immediately after I wake up. Whenever I have a musical dream, I try to remember to write it down, but often forget to do so.

Fortunately, I did write down the most memorable piano related dream I’ve ever had, or at least remembered. It happened back in 1987, not long after Liberace died. Perhaps his demise triggered the dream, as well as the fact that during that period of time I often got hired to play the piano part for the Pierre Boulez Sonatine for Flute and Piano.

The dream went like this. I was backstage somewhere in Las Vegas, sitting at an upright piano. Liberace was going to coach me on the Boulez Piano Sonata No. 1. First he asked me to warm up with Satie, because that’s what he always did before making his entrance on stage in a Rolls-Royce, or flying, or whatever. Then Liberace started to point out certain measures in the Boulez:

(imagine Liberace’s voice)

“Now Jeddy, here, you really have to jump off that note quickly so that you can make the leap from bass to treble in one hand without losing the rhythm. Now, I gotta tell you, with my rings, I can’t really get this passage up to the written tempo, but, you know, Pierre always lets me do what I want!”.

It was a long and focused session. I didn’t want it to end, but then I woke up, and it was over. Boy, was I angry that I couldn’t fall back to sleep and continue with the dream, maybe have another lesson with Liberace, this time on Milton Babbitt’s Post-Partitions!

Please share your piano dreams with me here!

Sarah Cahill celebrates Terry Riley

I first met Sarah Cahill back in 1995, when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. I was sitting in the lobby of the music building, and she came out from one of the practice rooms. Somehow we got to talking, and it turned out that she was involved in a concert at the college that evening featuring women composers and performers. I hadn’t known about the concert before, but I decided to stay and hear it. While I don’t remember the program’s full contents, three things stuck out. One was Ilana Vered playing the bejeezuz out of a work by Laura Kaminsky. The second was Myra Melford digging into an Otis Spann blues. And the third was Sarah’s amazing performance of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Study in Mixed Accents. I was supposed to play the Crawford in concert a few months later, but after hearing Sarah’s interpretation I quickly dropped it from my repertoire.

Later on I realized that Sarah and I had many mutual friends and colleagues, and if I mention them all I’ll sound like a shameless name dropper. My new music organization ComposersCollaborative, Inc. presented Sarah several times in concert. In turn, she brought me out to Berkeley to perform, and has graciously invited me as a guest on her various radio shows over the years.

Happily Sarah’s New York appearances have become more frequent. She’ll be at Le Poisson Rouge Thursday January 29th for a special event celebrating one of America’s most significant and uplifting composers. A Piano Party for Terry Riley at 80 pays tribute to Terry’s influence with the New York premieres of new solo piano pieces written in honor of his eightieth birthday by Samuel Carl Adams, Evan Ziporyn, Pauline Oliveros, Gyan Riley, Christine Southworth, Dylan Mattingly, and Danny Clay, together works by the grand master himself.
The concert is a co-production between LPR and Q2 Music Presents. It will be recorded by Q2 music and archived at q2music.org.

To get the full scope of Sarah’s remarkable musical life and her contributions to new music, visit http://www.sarahcahill.com. And also check out her recent CD releases, including the hauntingly beautiful two disc set devoted to Mamoru Fujieda’s piano cycle Patterns of Plants: read David Hurwitz’s review here:

Hope to see you at LPR on January 29th!