Chamber music and pianists: seamless interaction, ensemble, and musical growth

Most piano students don’t get ample opportunity to play piano trios, quartets, quintets, etc. because they’re consumed with learning solo repertoire and developing their technical/musical skills. Thankfully, the ongoing Cliburn International Piano Competition, in progress, fills this common void by reminding us that chamber music is integral to the development of a well-rounded musician. It underscores that pianists are not accessories to an ensemble weighted toward string or wind players. (Both Murray Perahia and Richard Goode enjoyed years of chamber music making well before their solo careers blossomed. Perahia was a regular, collaborating with the Budapest String Quartet on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, while Goode was a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.)

My own ensemble experiences date back to my adolescent years when I was a dual piano/violin student, savoring participation as second fiddle in a string quartet coached by Boston Symphony Principal violist, Eugene Lehner. (Merrywood Music Camp in Lenox, MA)

Simultaneously, I was assigned a keyboard role in the Gigue movement of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg 5 to be performed as the Camp Finale. A blog about my errant entrance “at the recapitulation” might have caused most players to cringe at any further group interactions, but I carried on, finding myself many years later, immersed in the Beethoven “Ghost Trio” with an insecure page turner (food columnist of the Fresno Bee) who advanced two pages forward while my nursing infant at a glitzy dinner party scowled for a feed. Ironically, the lavish home was enlisted for a shoot in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Birds with Tippi Hedren, which added a hauntingly perfect cloaking of our ensemble. Immersed in eerie tremolos and diminished harmonies, we were at one, in an ebb and flow of undulating phrases.

… such a musical encounter nicely flowed into a few more chamber music opportunities that interspersed my solo repertoire studies. I played the Mozart Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, K. 478 at the 92nd Street Y, coached by Yuval Waldman while my unreliable page turner snored through the Development section. Randomly occurring misfortunes such as these inspire pianists to draw on a repository of thorough preparation and increased Mindfulness.

Singular focus and sensitive interplay among players also apply to performing a Mozart piano Concerto which is the epitome of a chamber music framing. I was lucky to play the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 17 in G Major, K. 453 at the NYC H.S. of Performing Arts Winter Concert. And having had a number of prior interactions with musicians in quartets and quintet settings amplified my understanding of a needed responsiveness between music-makers. One can certainly apply the study of Bach counterpoint to chamber music preparation, with voicing so paramount to both, but unless a player is in the center of forces within the ensemble environment, he/she cannot fully appreciate the requirements of a cooperative, collaborative undertaking.

The Cliburn Competition, in progress, recently showcased 12 semi-finalists who each performed a selected Mozart Concerto that preceded the official Chamber Music Round. In the Concerto segment, the Fort Worth Symphony seemed over-sized for music that should have had a clearer, more transparent, ensemble inspired dialog between soloist and orchestra. Even the full dimension D minor, K. 466 came across sounding like a late Beethoven symphony in tutti (orchestra) sections. The added acoustical reverberation of Bass Hall contributed to the drowning out of crystalline keyboard passages as pianists labored to compete with woodwinds, timpani, and audibly loud streams of string choirs.

The official “Chamber Music” round at Cliburn with six surviving Finalists, was in full bloom during the last two evenings. It produced notable performances of Antonín Dvořák’s Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 featuring the magnificent Brentano Quartet. (My connection to the second violinist, Serena Canin, is through her uncle Stuart Canin, my violin teacher at the Oberlin Conservatory.) He was the brilliant first violinist of the Oberlin String Quartet. Years later, Canin relocated to the Bay area to become Concertmaster of the San Francisco Orchestra. Serena’s father, Martin Canin, is the distinguished pianist/teacher, and emeritus Professor, the Juilliard School. Without doubt, less than six degrees of separation hallmark the music world.

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At the Cliburn event, pianists, Kenneth Broberg and Georgy Tchaidze rose to the occasion in the Dvorak chamber work, while Daniel Hsu delivered a heart-rending reading of Cesar Franck’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor. His uniquely sensitive solo opening seamlessly flowed into an ethereal collaboration, inspiring Brentano to pulsate with more passion than usual. It’s clear that quartet members respond in kind when a pianist is fully engaged and intertwined with them–one who is attuned to structure, harmonic rhythm, counterpoint, thematic motifs, and dynamic give and take.

Daniel Hsu’s interaction included all the aforementioned.

June 8, 2017

http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/performance/finale-2

Finally, pianists should not seal themselves in a vacuum of solo repertoire study, but should branch out and add a significant amount of chamber music experiences to their musical journeys.

Both solo and collaborative undertakings complement each other, enlarging and enriching a musician’s universe.

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An Ear-grabbing Cliburn 2017 Piano Competition!

I couldn’t tear myself from my big Mac, savoring a big serving of tantalizing musical artistry via Medici TV. The sparing LIVE performances that I’d ingested through the opening days of the celebrated Fort Worth-based Cliburn event, had been other worldly, though a few pyrotechnically efficient players, had, for me, not risen beyond note-perfect playing.

Of course, such an aesthetic judgment is deeply personal and subjective–even validated by Cliburn Jury Chairman, Leonard Slatkin in a pre-recorded message to competitors that’s been aired publicly during intermissions, or at a weighty interval of jury tabulation that produced a quarterfinals roster. The original list of 30 Preliminary entrants had been whittled down to 20–a number that will shrink at the Semi-Finals juncture, and further dwindle down when Finals competitors are announced. (The Cliburn event runs from May 25 through June 10)

http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/

This year Anderson and Roe, two creative, powerhouse pianists, known far and wide for their duo collaboration, have added a touch of class to the competition–interspersing in depth comments that reveal their Juilliard-based immersion in music history, theory, and performance. What a pleasure to have two education-spreading messiahs at the helm, enriching the listening experience. In the visual universe, multi-cam views of the keyboard provide an eye-catching view of the performers’ hands, wrists, and arms in varied choreographies.

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Do I dare go out on a limb and cherry pick a few of my favorite competitors to date, with an avowed disclaimer that I may not have heard ALL 20 who made the cut from the Preliminary round. (In short, I’ve been revisiting Preliminary Recitals and the most recent round contenders at the quarterfinals level)

For me, a handful of players have possessed unique gifts of artistry and communication that were transformative during their ENTIRE recitals. (A reminder that logging onto the Cliburn Competition site, will produce recent and past performance videos of all competitors)

MY SHORT LIST may expand as the competition unfolds:

Yuri Favorin: A Bravissimo for today’s recital!

http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/performance/-30

What I posted on Facebook about Favorin in the afterglow of this evening’s remarkable performance was probably an understatement:

“…Russian pianist, Yuri Favorin, played beyond words to describe in today’s Cliburn quarterfinals. It’s going to be tough to outshine this uniquely gifted pianist.. Without doubt, he produced a jaw-dropping performance of challenging program offerings. And talk about the BREATH.. he had total mastery–breathing through tough transitions– from impassioned, bravura passages, to tender, lyrical sections. A good example for all of us who are eternal students of the piano, or any other musical instrument. And to add kudos to his artistry/accomplishments, he was appointed to the Moscow Conservatory faculty at the tender age of 29. He’s now turned 30, perhaps the Millenium’s new 20.”

A Facebook Friend corroborated Favorin’s “MATURITY” as unique among the crop of competitors, to which I wholeheartedly agreed.

My bubbling enthusiasm could not be contained in a follow-up post:

“The Rachmaninoff/Corelli Variations were just amazing.. I’m still hearing the Variations right now as Favorin permeated my very being through his abundantly communicative playing.. and structurally, he was right there, with threads going through all the variations. This fellow has enormous dimension and depth.” (synonym: MATURITY)

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Quite a captivating surprise: The artistry of 20-year old pianist, Martin James Bartlett. His playing from Scarlatti to Prokofiev, had a fresh, spontaneous energy, yet grounded in thoughtful musicianship. He possesses immense tonal variety and projection. Definitely a big DISCOVERY in this competition, and one that will be talked about to its very conclusion. Keep an eye on this young man!

http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/performance/-20

Another favorite:

Yekwon Sunwoo, age 28

Sunwoo’s most recent performance at the Cliburn 2017 can be located at the website.

Here’s a flashback to his Cliburn 2013 Preliminary Recital: It’s sheer musical poetry wedded to impeccable technique:

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A Very sensitive and lyrical pianist followed Yuri Favorin:

YuTong Sun (age 21)

His Chopin canvas was particularly beautiful

http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/artist/yutong-sun

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Not to overlook competitors, such as Daniel Hsu, age 19, and Alyosha Jurinic
28 years old, who have risen above collections of fast paced notes, to “sing” poetically from phrase to phrase. Their talents and gifts are treasured regardless of the flow of rounds and results.

Peaks in performances, as well, can be intermixed with occasional valleys of technical imperfection, making it often humanly impossible to please every jury member. Interpretations being be varied and controversial add another ingredient of complexity in assessment.

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A convergence of musical talent is by no means the equivalent of a sports event where points are deducted for fouls, or spills on the ice. Note errors of course, are a reality in all endeavors, but an efficient note-wise performance will not necessarily produce expressive or memorable playing. Therefore, selecting a so-called “winner” in a musical universe, can appear to be an oxymoron.

Many commentators, like the sagacious pianist, Seymour Bernstein, assert that it’s basically unfair and unjust to place musicians in a COMPETITIVE environment on any terms. And there’s additional doubt harbored about the wide age range of participants in numerous concours–where a 19-year old’s performance, for example, is juxtaposed with that of a 30-year old.

Finally, while many pianists, teachers, and others may hold differing opinions about placing pianists on a stage of comparison, we can at least collectively wish that all “entrants” will enjoy an ongoing journey of musical growth, development and enrichment as their lives unfold.

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Two-timing scale practice

I appreciate two-timing piano students who practice their scales with acutely sensitive ears. They are made keenly aware of what it takes to repeat a faulty step-wise sequence that’s been thrown out of rhythmic alignment along a 4-octave route. (Auditory memory is a vital ingredient through repetitions that require retrieval of a consistent underlying pulse.)

In a journey from 8ths to 16ths to 32nds, many pupils will underestimate the end game tempo, losing technical control in the final spill. To avoid a pile-up in the speed zone, they will put on the breaks, losing their initial framing beat. Ironically, a good proportion of two-timers who find themselves in such a jam will “think” they’ve doubled-up in the 32nds range, only to discover by a teacher’s real-time demonstration, that 16ths to 32nds were out of synch. (A metronome can be just as helpful in clarifying rhythmic disparities.)
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Ways to deal with rhythmic disorientation

I prompt students to back up by “half” from what they can realistically manage in 32nds. After a few retrograde repetitions in this practicing mode, they can revisit 8ths and then move forward in doubled sequence to peak destination. In most cases, a pupil comes to grips with what he can safely control at the 32nds level, knowing that the underlying pulse will increase through incremental learning stages.

A recent lesson sample illustrated rhythmic disproportion and remedy. (It’s excerpted at the juncture where a student zoned in on 16ths to 32nds in a D-sharp minor Harmonic form scale) A brief second segment focused on a “rolling into” effort in a more fast-paced staccato-rendered scale in Melodic form. It was a confidence-building effort that represented a “rite of passage” for this pupil who realized that she could, in fact, play brisker 32nd notes without faltering. Breathing, pacing, mindfulness, and lack of PANIC all kick into controlled, peak tempo playings.

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A Happy Day for a 9-yr. old piano student playing on her first recital

Maeve, aka “Liz” was welcomed into the universe of music sharing in the beautiful Oakland Hills of California. What better backdrop, cloaked in nature, as breezes wafted through branches, shaking out leaves in graceful patterns. The images, extracted from the East Bay’s gorgeous panorama are in Maeve’s mental repository, as they feed relaxed energy down her arms into supple wrists. Many Russian piano teachers draw on the “weeping willow” tree model, in particular, to inspire fluidity of movement. Graceful approaches to the keyboard that are in synch with phrase contours do not happen by chance. They are nurtured along by mentors with great care.

Maeve has learned in this spirit for a bit over a year’s time, having been exposed to the singing tone and how to physically produce it. From the very start of lessons we have integrated composing, ear-training, theory, structure, with an underlying MUSICAL framing. Sound is imagined before it can be channeled into the keyboard in physical motion. This very sensitivity begins from day 1 continuing in increments through developmental phases.

Maeve’s own journey has been logged in videos from late February 2016 to the present. These can be found on You Tube under “LIZ’s” piano lessons.

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Today was a Rite of Passage as all first recitals are. Can we remember our own? In my day, there were no cell phones, camcorders, computers, etc.–perhaps just old-fashioned home movies generated by what would be considered antiquated hardware—Nothing like the mega-technology of the 21rst Century. I have no personal recollection of playing in a group recital at my humble music school on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. Not even a Brownie camera captured my first Diller-Quaille, two-note “Ding-Dong” piece that required my Russian teacher, Mrs. Vinagradov to accompany me to make the music sound full and resonant. That’s why I hungered constantly for our rich harmonic collaboration, having to wait for too many years before I was allowed to play with TWO hands–ADD in the White NOTE obsession of this era’s teaching, and delayed exposure to the Bass Clef which instilled fears of moving forward.

Thankfully the state of the teaching art is different today, more progressive than regressive, breaking down inhibitions of the past associated with MIDDLE C fixated madness and black note avoidance.

The fortunate beneficiaries of this new learning/teaching consciousness are Maeve and many of her contemporaries.

Today’s recital revealed the fruits of collective labors. Maeve was poised and determined to SHARE the pure beauty of the music she had so thoroughly learned. It was her entry into the world of giving and receiving that will propel her studies along with heartfelt commitment.

A big Thank You to the host of the group recital, Betty Woo, on behalf of the Music Teachers Association of California, MTAC.

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Flashback: Maeve’s First Piano Lesson (parts 1, 2 and 3)

There are many more sample lessons with Liz on You Tube.

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The Importance of Analytical Practicing

Needless repetitions that are unfocused, without attaching an analysis of what requires improvement will impede a piano student in the advancement of a composition. And while a tricky, isolated passage or complete section of a piece may have been carefully learned by layers in slow tempo, the very same area of the piece can develop finger traps, stumbling zones, and voicing problems as the tempo is inched up.

This is when the teacher patiently intervenes to clarify what retro-baby steps must be taken to smooth out shaky measures so the march toward more brisk playing is an attainable goal.

Unfortunately, many students will say, “You must have told me about that same problem in those measures a 100 times, and I just haven’t paid attention.” Added to such a pupil’s self-humiliation, is the belief that he/she is being LEFT BACK or is not up to the challenge of GOING FORWARD at the pace expected. EXPECTATION is the pupil’s self-made burden that inhibits progress and growth.

To bring a self-punitive, guilt-ridden pupil back to reality is to reassure him/her that even the most advanced players BACK UP, and revisit passages that can become riddled with unexpected glitches. The difference is, they usually have the insight from experience to apply an objective, methodical approach to extricate themselves from the doldrums of despair.

In so many words, there’s always a way dig oneself out of a pit if presence of mind and thoughtful analysis are applied.

Today, I worked with a student who’d been nicely upping his tempo in Fur Elise, until he reached the “stormy” tremolo framed section through measures 61-77. At this point, he lost the thread of the melody through the chords, and muddled a few measures by over-pedaling them. The arms and wrists also needed enlistment in a way that prevented tension and tightness. (Some of the movements were jerky inhibiting a GROUP flow of notes in horizontal procession while shaping of lines through dynamic swells was inadequate.)

Naturally, I reminded the student that unfocused repetition would not accomplish the improvement he desired.

Rather than extract footage from today’s lesson, I chose to make a short video that zoned in on the crux his problems in order to aid practicing during the week. These lesson supplements are always valuable for both pupil and teacher.

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A Jet-setting adult student makes time for piano

No need to say Play it Again Sam, to Sam P. who’s been a super dedicated piano student ever since he approached me for lessons in Berkeley, nearly 4 years ago. And if we factor in a significant interruption of instruction due to Sam’s Acrosonic Console having been shipped to London when his company transferred him to Europe in 2014, he’s left with about 3 solid years of study. Along the way, we’ve doubled up on lessons to accommodate his rigorous travel schedule that includes departures to India, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Amsterdam, Dubai, etc, with a Tanzania Safari thrown in.

Sam has a meticulous approach to practicing. He relishes a deliberate and thorough journey through his assigned compositions that includes parceled, layered learning and he has no affixed deadline in his explorations. Most of all, he appreciates the process of musical discovery; how it spills over into other life activities, such as Chess for which he has a passion. He observes “patterns” in his pieces that have a direct tie-in to the game.

I had a chance to interview Sam about his piano studies after he landed back in London from Abu Dhabi. Since he’s working on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” a crown jewel piece for many students, I decided to separately include excerpts from his most recent lesson that focused on rhythmic unity between sections. Viewers will notice Sam’s earnest and methodical approach to this composition, that also infuses an awareness of the singing tone and how to produce it. He’s been working assiduously on relaxing his arms and wrists, while shaping phrases within a vocal model. For a time, Sam took singing lessons, until his travels made it nearly impossible to focus seriously on voice AND piano. I’m glad he gave the PIANOFORTE top priority!

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Alessandro Deljavan is a uniquely gifted pianist

Sometimes winners of piano competitions are not true messengers of great musical artistry. They might succeed in pleasing a panel of judges who often reward interpretive conformity and convention bundled in pyrotechnical displays, bestowing the Gold medal upon the least offending contender. Yet such a career launch may be short-lived once the round-by-round environment is no longer a convenient safety net. A truly creative musician must ultimately emancipate himself from a competitive framing and develop an unbridled, form of individual expression.

Alessandro Deljavan is one of the few young pianists of his generation whose participation in the renowned Cliburn Competition brought singular adulation from audiences far and wide, but did not attach a Gold, Silver or Bronze Medal. His BIGGER THAN LIFE talent, LIVE-STREAMED from Fort Worth, Texas, in 2009 and 2013, drew a chorus of praise from pianists, teachers, and listeners around the world who enthusiastically mouse-clicked their way to his scheduled offerings. Yet, when the Italian pianist did not make the Finals, global sighs of outrage were funneled into Discretionary honors that would not soften international waves of disappointment.

Fort Worth arts critic, Gregory Sullivan and others summed up the reaction to Deljavan’s playing during the course of the Cliburn rounds:

“Deljavan’s performance was revelatory in every respect. Everyone in the hall knew that they were hearing something special-something wonderful from the very first notes. At the end, the spontaneous eruption of cheers was so different from the perfunctory ovation that any decent performance is awarded, that being part of the thrilled crowd was a unique experience in itself.”

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It’s no surprise that Deljavan is a virtuoso and poet of the piano without needing the rubber stamp of Competition juries. (Yet, he’s amassed a generous serving of first place awards at International concours)

With a mellifluous singing tone, deft technique, and immaculate phrasing, his deeply probing art serves the music and composer.

(I must admit to having shed tears listening to this Concerto excerpt) Deljavan’s riveting emotional connection to a score comes through in all style periods.

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I had a rare opportunity to converse with Alessandro who was in the Silicon Valley area (CA) performing chamber music with violinist, Daniela Cammarano, and cellist, Eugene Lifschitz. The group will showcase the works of Beethoven and Brahms at the School of Music and Arts at Finn Center, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View, CA. Sunday, April 16th, 2017 at 3 p.m. Otherwise Deljavan is jet-setting around the world giving concerts to appreciative audiences.

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Alessandro shared his thoughts about the role of chamber music in the development of a pianist, along with providing a profile of his earliest exposure to the piano, journeying into the present.

LINKS:

Deljavan’s OFFICIAL WEBSITE: (Click “MEDIA” for more performance samples)

http://alessandrodeljavan.welltempered.com

Discography:

http://alessandrodeljavan.welltempered.com/#discography

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/alessandro-deljavan-is-a-cliburn-winner-for-me/

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