Pianist, Beth Levin weighs in on Competitions


Beth Levin is more than a pianist. She not only concertizes, records, presents symposia and teaches, but devotes quality time to arts commentary. At La Folia.com, she critiqued Schumann’s Kreisleriana in tribute to an era she embraces in her spread of LIVE performances and recordings.



(Imported photos and video produced by Randolph Pitts)

And not surprisingly, even her FACEBOOK entries rise above run-of-the-mill social networking updates. They’re engaging snippets of poet laureates, distinguished authors, great composers, golden age piano pedagogues and memorable musical performances.

With her inquisitive mind in high gear, I thought to tap into her thoughts about piano competitions since she’d once been an entrant at a celebrated European venue.

1) What are your feelings about piano competitions? Of what use are they in today’s cultural universe?

I think the desire to be heard is very strong in almost any talented young person and a competition can be an excellent goal and outlet for those artistic ambitions. But a teacher should be careful in judging the personality of his or her student- if she might be scarred by losing and not able to take it in stride I would say not to enter that pupil. I remember being so perfectly prepared by my teacher for a Philadelphia Orchestra Young Person’s audition. I won and it fueled many years of study, performing and the love of playing.

As an aside I went to the Leeds Competition on my honeymoon! Not something I would recommend.

2) Did you have to enter a competition along your journey as a performing

I don’t think competitions are necessary to a career. I remember at Music from Marlboro a very promising cellist deciding not to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition simply because losing was too great a risk. Today he has a flourishing career and achieved it without a competition. Each case is different. If one has a burning desire to enter then it is the right thing to do- otherwise I think one can find alternate paths to a career.

3) What is the best way to expose your art to the public? Are LIVE piano recitals a thing of the past? (Being so costly to present, etc.)

Personally I like to both perform LIVE and record. Recital series seem to be shrinking but New York City has a few intimate (and economical) halls and there are excellent piano festivals around the country. Chamber music is a large part of my musical life and performing it LIVE is always a thrill. Nothing can replace a LIVE performance.

4) How do you feel about Mp3s and Mp4s as vehicles for your music?

Mp3′s and Mp4′s can be very useful in certain cases and provide another way to be heard. But I think it is still worthwhile to make a good CD.

5) Would you prefer to play LIVE than make recordings?

Playing LIVE and recording are two sides of the same coin. Presenting a recital program in several venues and honing it; then recording it down the road makes sense.

(Beth revealed a lighter side, by inserting a colorful quote of Sergiu Celibidache, distinguished former conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. He said, “Recording was like going to bed with a picture of Brigitte Bardot ;->”)

Our conversation steered quickly back to the serious side of music-making and its career challenges.

6) How can a gifted musician survive economically given the competitive cosmos of pianists who win competition after competition and still find themselves spinning wheels looking for more contests to enter?

I think that having a full musical life is more important in the end than making a huge living from it. Luck may play the largest role in that particular sphere. But if one can keep learning, studying, teaching, playing and loving their art- the benefits will come. Competitions should never become the reason for making music.

7) What is your current creative undertaking?

I’m preparing a recital program to play and record in Munich and Vienna in the Fall of 2014. The repertoire is Kreisleriana of Schumann, the C minor sonata of Schubert D.958 and an unpublished work, Versione, by the Swedish composer, Anders Eliasson.

8) Can you provide background on why you have chosen particular repertoire
to perform/record?

I think my main influences, Rudolf Serkin and Leonard Shure contributed greatly to my love of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, etc. The recording I made of the Goldberg Variations was a complete anomaly. I’ve always been a kind of big, romantic player.

9) What do you see in your future as far as playing, teaching, and

I hope to keep recording, performing live and perhaps even to a greater extent in the future. I hope I will teach more and more in older age.

Many thanks for the chance to think about these important topics.


Beth Levin’s Website

Her album, A Single Breath: Beethoven’s Last Three Piano Sonatas is listed among others.
Beth Levin, pic, A Single Breath

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Piano Technique: Spot checking for relaxed arms, wrists, and hands (Video)

I think of a whole arm/wrist/hand continuum when playing the piano, and I urge students to alleviate tension anywhere in the spectrum by lifting arms off the keys with a feeling of buoyancy. In this gesture a pupil can monitor the sensation of hanging, dead weight arms in space, and then gently practice lift-offs and drop-downs on the keys. (without a crash landing)

In this sample video, an adult pupil works on refining her C# minor staccato scales through various tension-relieving steps. Thinking “horizontally,” as well, she focuses on not pulling downward on the thumbs, causing unwanted accents. Visualizing a horizontal “plane” of staccato rendering, though vertically “bouncing” from note to note, promotes definition and evenness.

In segment two, the student creates a very well-shaped set of contrary motion scales in Triplet 8ths Legato, internalizing a rolling feeling that reflects in her supple wrist approach.

For staccato playing in the C# minor Arpeggio, she has learned to “snip” a well-shaped legato.

All these romps through C# minor can benefit from Spot Checking for arm/wrist/hand relaxation. In addition, preserving a physical/musical image of what advanced fluid playing will assist present and future practicing.

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Going into the Finals at the Alaska International Piano-E-Competition, and thoughts about COMPETING

Neither memory lapses nor occasional note slip-ups impeded any of the five selected Piano Finalists from forging ahead to the Chamber Music and Concerto Rounds of the Alaska-based E-Competition.

My two particular favorites, Marianna Prjevalskaya and Alexey Chernov honored Schubert with gorgeous performances of the composer’s A Major (D.959) and C minor Sonatas (D. 958), respectively. Each savored the singing tone in their renderings, cradling an awareness of Schubert’s huge body of Songs (Lieder) that thread through his works.

Without pounding or over-exaggerating in forte sections, the pair, of Russian origin, projected rich, resonating sonorities, while swelling and tapering through limpidly spun phrases.

As communicators, they were formidable.





A diverse variety of listeners absorbing these same performances might have differing opinions but their responses can provide opportunities for lively exchange.

Nonetheless, shrouding any competition, are doubts about catapulting solo musicians into the sports arena as contenders vying for a prize when the art form may not fit comfortably within this setting.

In this vein, Seymour Bernstein eloquently summarized his reservations as they applied to the Van Cliburn International Competition in 2013, but his words resonate perfectly into the present.


“….This is my conclusion: The word “competition” must be eliminated. Any number of high profile competitions are rich enough to expose phenomenal young artists to the world for one reason only: they ought to be heard as models of human achievement on the highest level, and they ought not to have to compete with one another.

“The worst aspect of competitions is the assumption that jury members are qualified to judge who is the best among the competitors. This is impossible given each person’s varied tastes. I, myself have adjudicated at major competitions where a pupil of mine was among the competitors. While I was not allowed to vote for that pupil, my colleagues knew that I taught that contestant simply by reading the bios of the competitors. As a result, some jury members will want to support me and my pupil, while others, compelled to uphold fairness at all cost, may vote against my pupil.

“In addition, I have known jury members to support a competitor who studies with a close colleague. Finally, jury members are not beyond the possibility of falling prey to sexual attraction. Considering the human factor, visual attractiveness may override objective listening.

“Considering these factors, let’s vote for abolishing all competitions. Let’s have these performers share their artistry with us for no other purpose than to inspire us with their accomplishments, thereby spreading the essence of the divine art of music to a world sorely in need of it. Let’s all write to the competition board and suggest this for future Webcasts.”



My opinion:

Shirley Kirsten 2
I think music competitions exist to propel careers forward.

If there is no other way to advance soloists to the world stage given the lack of priority of music in the schools and in our daily lives, then these very musically talented individuals have to rotate through competition after competition, racking up wins that accord so many sponsored engagements. They cannot otherwise afford to subsidize their own performances.

It’s not 1972, when Murray Perahia, for example, had only to win the Leeds Competition to spawn a successful long-term career. Now pianists are jumping through hoops trying to rack up top tier awards before moving to the next adjudicating venue.

I don’t think this feverish pursuit of contest after contest promotes a healthy environment for musical growth and development, and unfortunately, many of my teaching colleagues are promoting the competition loop with students as young as 4 or 5.

It’s nearly impossible to convince a child that performing before judges is for pleasure when there will always be a “loser” at the end of the day. Children watch TV, sit in front of computers, and know that the World Series, Superbowl, and World Cup Soccer Tournaments have “winners.” And these winners are rewarded handsomely with money, fame, prestige and more. (Add “power” to the mix)

By the same token, we can’t extract children from a universal, commercially hyped environment and isolate a piano competition as if it’s been pureed like soup for healthy consumption.

So this is why I’m opposed to music competitions, sharing the essence of what Seymour Bernstein well-articulated.

Finally, when our culture embraces learning for its own sake, and values music study in the same way it embraces record-breaking Olympic conquests, then we will have reserved a space for richly talented musicians to humanize and enrich our lives without their having to vye for “first place.”



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Awe-inspiring playing at the Alaska International Piano-E-Competition

e-competition semi-finalists

This is the first Internet channeled “e-competition” that features a crop of well-trained adult pianists. The preceding Yamaha Disklavier sponsored events were youth based and originated in the Midwest–(Minnesota to be exact)

With current Disklavier technology flying high, the newest venue for pianists to dish out their talent with satellite assistance, is the great state of Alaska.

Such a pianistic convergence with Classical emphasis notches up the cultural level of “the Last Frontier,” trumping Iditarod or dog sled madness.

The international lure of E-Competition has also grown with each passing year through media pumped “LIVESTREAMING.” The cyber beam can easily steer a crowd of sports fanatics to an out of bounds concert hall, which is a mouse click away from the soccer championships.

Reminder: It takes just as much finesse to play the piano beautifully, as to land a Gold Medal at the Olympics or be tagged the Most Valuable Player at the World Cup.

And speaking of the “winner’s circle,” a pianist of Russian heritage but representing Spain, delivered a knockout performance during the Recital Round, Day 2.

Marianna Prjevalskaya graced the stage of the Davis Concert Hall, (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) earning herself a ticket to the Semi-Finals!


Bio: (abridged)
“…As a recitalist Ms. Prjevalskaya performed for thrilling audiences in the US, Europe, Korea, Japan and beyond. She gave acclaimed performances at prestigious venues such as the Grosser Saal Mozarteum in Salzburg, Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome, Teatro Goldoni of Florence, Minato Mirai Hall in Yokohama, Auditorio Manuel de Falla in Granada, Palau de la Música in Valencia, Auditorio de Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Fundación Juan March in Madrid, Chopin Museum in Valdemossa in Palma de Mallorca, Steinway Hall, Weill Recital Hall and Yamaha Artists Services in New York. She appeared at important festivals such as Bearcat Piano Festival in Cincinnati, Texas State International Piano Festival, Norwich and Norfolk Festival in UK, Salzburg Festival, Festival Russo in Rome, Bologna Festival, and Divertimento Festival in Poland.

“In addition to her role as performing artist, Ms. Prjevalskaya serves as the Artistic Director of the Open Piano Competition (London), where she was as a jury member in 2012. In November 2014 she will be adjudicator at Albacete National Piano Competition in Spain.

“Ms. Prjevalskaya earned the Master of Music degree and Artist Diploma from the Yale School of Music, Artist Diploma from Indiana University South Bend and the Bachelor of Music degree from the Royal College of Music in London, where her principal teachers included Irina Zaritskaya, Kevin Kenner, Alexander Toradze and Boris Berman. At diverse festivals, she has studied with renowned pianists such as Liliya Zilbernstein, Emmanuel Ax, John O’Conor, Leon Fleisher, Choong-Mo Kang, Richard Goode, Peter Frankl and Piotr Paleczny, among others.

“Having grown up in Russia and Spain, Ms. Prjevalskaya benefited from early lessons with her mother, Tatiana Prjevalskaya, starting at age six and continuing into her teens. Currently, she is pursuing the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore under the guidance of Boris Slutsky.”

The other big attraction (in my humble opinion) is Sweden’s Peter Friis Johansson.

His Schumann Kreisleriana was riveting!



More about the Competition:

(click the sub link CONTESTANTS to see program listings)

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Piano Technique: Executing Tremolos as occur in Beethoven’s Sonata “Pathetique”

I’ve picked up various ideas about practicing tremolos from the piano forums as applies to the Alla Breve section of the “Pathetique” Sonata No. 8 (movement 1) and extracted a valuable tutorial from a colleague who posted it to you tube.

Beethoven tremolos

At first I concurred with pianist/teacher Benjamin Steinhardt that rolling the C broken octave (or tremolo) forward, for example, might best benefit the execution of it in fast motion. But I came to the conclusion that it’s not mandatory in any sense to ride up the key. (on the C broken octaves)

In fact, there are no hard and fast rules about playing tremolos since physiology of the hand, and octave span of individual players are varied.

Here’s what I found most relevant to playing the alla breve section of Beethoven’s Sonata “Pathetique” with its redundant bass tremolos.

First I played solid octaves, and thought in TWO while simultaneously playing the melody. (Musically, I thought of 2 beats per measure not 4 as comported with the composer’s metrical indication)

Naturally, I aimed to shape the bass octaves and treble line in a musical and dynamic way.

This preliminary better clarified how my hands would work TOGETHER when I unraveled the bass octaves.

In this regard I recommend separately playing the octaves while SINGING the melody above.

OR one can play the melody separately while singing the bass line.

This is a more parceled approach to the whole tremolo permeated section which should help advance the learning process by increments.

By far what’s most important is arm and wrist relaxation, and making sure the thumbs don’t tighten but drift naturally with the hand. Little dips of energy to sustain the tremolo over many measures are also helpful.

Here are thoughtful suggestions uploaded by colleague, Benjamin Steinhardt:

And a supplement contributed by Jackie Sharp


My Additional Beethoven “Pathetique” extract:

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Seymour Bernstein: From Maine with Love

When Seymour packs his bags for the summer, escaping Manhattan’s stifling heat, he takes along his soulful music and fistfuls of almonds.

The maestro, known for his beloved book, With Your Own Two Hands retreats to an awesome, cabin-like sanctuary that sits on a cliff overlooking the ocean. (It’s his daily source of inspiration.)

Bernstein’s Paradise found feeds his commune with the piano (a resonant Kawai grand) and the neighbor chipmunks who are wooed to almonds dispensed by soft inviting hands.

Here, “Junko” is fed generously, trusting his benefactor to the last gulp and pouch storage.

J. is a descendant of “Belinda” who had an album of music dedicated to her.

Belinda the Chipmunch

Seymour has memorialized his furry and feathered friends in numerous colorful musical collections sold the world over. birds_book_one1raccoons_book_one1

And with nature’s bounty surrounding him, he bestows a personal musical gift in gratitude: a divine rendering of Bach-Kempff’s Siciliano.

How the chipmunks, raccoons, birds, and butterflies are soaring with pleasure to undulating waves of sound.


Seymour’s affinity with all living creatures:



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Pianist, Christyna Kaczynski-Kozel, a local “classic” with an International profile


Christyna Kaczynski-Kozel is a credit to many nations. She’s spun around Canada and the Continent, savoring ties to great music mentors, one of whom was a towering figure in the conducting world. In a thread of scintillating and informative conversation, Christyna paid tribute yesterday to her most influential teacher, Sergiu Celibidache.


About the conductor: (WIKI)

“Sergiu Celibidache (Romanian: 11 July [O.S. 28 June] 1912 – 14 August 1996) was a Romanian conductor, composer, and teacher. Educated in his native Romania, and later in Paris and Berlin, Celibidache’s career in music spanned over five decades, including tenures as principal conductor for the Munich Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and several European orchestras. Later in life, he taught at Mainz University in Germany and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania….”


Christyna’s abode, high up in the Kensington Hills, overlooks the Golden Gate span over the East Bay.


It’s a glittering musical sanctuary dotted with her husband, Michael’s contemporary art.


His paintings partner with stunning Italian lithographs, like this eye-catcher.


Naturally, the living room centerpiece that upstages all, is a magnificently resonant Hamburg Steinway which richly expressed the Baroque ornamental landscape of composer Domenico Scarlatti. It was Christyna’s appetizer to an engaging interview.


The Sonata in B minor, K. 27, just happens to be the opener of a program the pianist will present at the Berkeley Piano Club on Saturday, June 28th at 4 p.m. (2724 Haste St) Mozart, Chopin and Debussy selections will round out the recital.

Without further ado, Christyna’s riveting words and demonstrations at the Hamburg in “concert” with her precious reminiscences of Celibidache follow a nostalgic flashback to a performance rendered by her very gifted musician parents. (The late, Mary Maltaise, Contralto, and Czeslaw Kaczynski, Pianist)


Part 1–A Conversation with Christyna Kaczynski-Kozel

Part 2

Christyna’s concert reminder:
The Berkeley Piano Club
Saturday, June 28th, at 4 p.m.
2724 Haste
Berkeley, CA
Tickets purchased at the door
Or reserve a seat by e-mailing Christyna:

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