Getting Happy with Jenny Lin

When I first heard that Jenny Lin was releasing an album of show tunes, my response wasn't far from the kind of slapstick double-take you might see in, say, an old movie musical.

 Because Jenny is the kind of pianist that other pianists admire for her gravitas, a certain steeliness of mind and fingers that has explored many of the thornier corners of the repertoire.
Jenny plays Messiaen, Cage, Boulez, Pärt, Ligeti, Stockhausen...
Jenny has recorded (superlatively) the complete Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues.

So, show tunes?

You see, I know my show tunes. I was raised on the stuff. The stringent TV-deprivation of my childhood was waived for the annual viewings of Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. When I was a baby, MGM released That's Entertainment, a 50th anniversary compilation of the greatest moments out of its movie musical vault. I cannot tell you how many times, during the first 15 years of my life, my sisters and I watched those videos. Not to mention that a significant number of my childhood afternoons took place at double-feature matinees of old '40s musicals at the beautiful art deco Castro Theater in San Francisco, complete with a live organ show at intermission. In the extremely sheltered environment of my family's alternative reality, Gene Kelley and Judy Garland were superstars in the 1980s. Madonna who?

I also know what I love about show tunes. The gorgeous improbability that surrounds their very existence, the device of exploding a trivial conversation into a virtuoso song-and-dance number. The magic of lyrics and melodies that can express any silly thought at all with an elegance and eloquence that makes your heart soar. The genius of rhyming "bromofizz" with "trouble is" (Guys and Dolls).

I couldn't imagine that Jenny Lin would share my slightly unhealthy fascination with the American musical theater. But clearly there was something about these songs that had compelled her to venture, with her usual musical intensity and commitment, away from her usual musical haunts and down to Tin Pan Alley.

Jenny and I have been ships in the night in recent months. Her new album, Get Happy, has just come out on the Steinway & Sons label, and my new project, Exiles' Cafe, is next in the label's pipeline. So she has been warming the bench for me, in the Sono Luminus studio where we both recorded our projects (giant shout-out to Sono Luminus for their GRAMMY nominations!), and on a promotional circuit of CD release events around the country. But we hadn't met in person until a couple of weeks ago, at a holiday party thrown by Arkiv Music and Listen Magazine. It was a lovely evening, a chance for the Steinway family of pianists to get together and drink too many Manhattans, a sweet launch to the holiday party season.

And I found out that Jenny is not only brainy and sort of intimidatingly profound. She's also very funny, in a dry-witted way, and that she does in fact have her own very compelling reasons for making this record. And the record is, happily, really good!


The Indy 5: American Pianists Association finalists, Part III

Last in this space, I spoke with Sean Chen as he was preparing for his Premiere Series week in Indianapolis as a finalist in this year's American Pianists Association competition. A week of "dazzling" performances (with some cadenza controversy for excitement) now behind him, Sean is presumably back in classes at Yale, while Sara Daneshpour is taking a break from her classes at Juilliard to take her own turn on the Indianapolis stage this week.

Sara is 25, Washington DC-born and raised, and currently based in NY where she is working on her Master’s degree at Juilliard with Yoheved Kaplinsky. Already a presence on the concert circuit since taking a second prize in the 2007 William Kapell International Piano Competition, she comes to Indianapolis with a reputation for poetic, intense playing, as well as a humility and integrity that comes through in both her thoughts and her music.

We took a few moments during the Thanksgiving break for a quick On the Bench questionnaire:


The Indy 5: American Pianists Association finalists, Part II

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the final round American Pianists Association competition and Claire Huangci, the first of this year's finalists to be showcased on the annual Premiere Series in Indianapolis. From all reports and evidence, Claire's week in town revealed sparkling, sensitive performances (great dress too).


Next up on the Indianapolis stage is Sean Chen, a 24 year old Californian currently working on his Artist Diploma in piano at Yale - a competition veteran, self-described tech geek, and composer as well. He plays Beethoven 4th with the ICO this Sunday, November 11. I chatted with Sean by Skype about his far-reaching interests, the prospect of a career in music, and his upcoming visit to Indianapolis:
Sean Chen plays with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra on Sunday November 11 at 3:30pm. TICKETS


Kids Today: From the Top at Mondavi Center

Christopher O'Riley: From the Top
My friend Chris O'Riley is in town today. His über-popular NPR show From the Top tapes tomorrow night at Mondavi Center, and it features a couple of previous winners from the Mondavi Center Young Artists Competition, which I run here. As it happens, we're in the middle of national semifinals for same (just back from NYC and Portland regionals), and the Northern CA auditions will take place this Sunday. Which means that in the course of this week a few dozen ridiculously talented little pianists will pass through the Artists Entrance of Mondavi Center and take a turn on its stage.

Lara with (ridiculously talented) Grace Zhou
 Broadcast on nearly 250 stations nationwide to an audience of more than 700,000 listeners each week, every From the Top episode presents five high-caliber performances along with interviews, sketches and games, revealing the heart and soul behind extraordinary young musicians. Now in its twelfth year on air, From the Top is taped before live audiences in concert halls from all over the country, from Boston to Honolulu.Tune in pretty much any week of the year, and you will hear a few ridiculously talented little pianists. And I hear them on my travels, and here at home, and I'm amazed, time and again, at how many wonderful musicians are growing up in every town and city the world over. It's inspiring, and also a little overwhelming, and for those of us mentoring them, who know what the realities of the future have in store, for any ridiculously talented little pianist, there is a big job at hand. People have asked me why I direct a competition for young pianists. I've addressed the question in this space before, but I think that the core of my motivation - and Chris' too, I know - is to  support and shape a new breed of musician:
  • A musician who is aware of his/her role in society - From the Top does a beautiful job of training young artists to go out into schools and communities and work with their peers as "Arts Leaders", sharing their talents as arts advocates and educators

  • A musician who thinks creatively, flexibly, and openly, and has an ongoing sense of the wide potential for making and sharing music;
  • A musician who is prepared for the difficulties and realities ahead, with skills in career development, programming, outreach and education...
  • A musician who knows that perceptions, goals and desires will constantly shift within the trajectory of a life in music, and that change is most of the process;
  • A musician who is prepared for the bad times as well as the wonderful ones;
  • A musician who knows that practicing is only the beginning, and that everything else we learn and do in life is what ultimately makes our music what it can be-
 Chris O'Riley is a model of this kind of musicianship - versatile beyond belief, busy with new projects that span genres, audiences, and musical partners, giving his support and advice to young people, on the air and face to face. He believes as I do in shaping a diversity of artist-communicators for a future in which the place and space for our music will continue to change.
As a mentor to young people, there's nothing better than seeing growth happen, in real time. At times when I am confronting the puzzle of how to make the different pieces of my life fit into my one head, my one day, I realize how much it brings to me, every day.
 Here's a lovely quote from a 2012 Mondavi Center Young Artists winner, soprano Anush Avetisyan:
"My experience with the Mondavi Center's Young artist competition was one that has shaped and inspired my future dreams  as a singer, as a musician and as an active member of the community. Surrounded by passionate talents and nurturing leaders, this Young artist competition is truly a platform to express yourself and grow with those around you in the process. I will forever feel blessed to have had such an experience."
Amen, I say.

NPR's From the Top tapes live at the 
Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday October 25, at 8pm.


THE INDY 5: Into the final stretch at American Pianists Association

There is a strange secret handshake among American pianists. Quite a few of us, at some time in our early twenties, spent a very special week or so in Indianapolis, participating in an experience that stands out in our memories from the many similar weeks spent in similar situations, during that time in our early twenties when we were doing what is known as "the competition circuit". If you read my earlier post about piano competitions, you'll understand that that time in my early twenties was not my very favorite time. Stress and anxiety were permanent traveling companions on my competition journeys. But the American Pianists Association competition in Indianapolis was different. We learned a lot. We had fun. We made friends that have lasted all these years. Many of us have maintained close relationships with the force of nature that was APA's Artistic Director for many years, Aileen James, now a neighbor of mine out in California and a beloved colleague and advisor.

APA just is different. Among the sea of competitions that take a relatively uniform approach to the identification and recognition of gifted young pianists, APA's support is unique in many ways. For one thing, there's the prize, worth $100,000: a seriously supportive $50,000 in cash  and two years of in-depth career backing, APA-arranged concert tours and recording opportunities. For another, APA is the only competition that crosses the border between classical and jazz, with the APA Fellowship awarded every two years on an alternating basis to a classical or a jazz pianist.

More than anything else, though, APA stands out in terms of the breadth of musical experiences offered to and expected of contestants. Once the five finalists are chosen every Spring (from a preliminary recorded round), they begin a year-long APA journey, each finalist in turn invited to Indianapolis in the Fall to be featured in the Classical Premiere Series, an expense-paid week that includes a concerto performance with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, public solo recitals, and a three-day high-school residency. By the end of that week, they've played for, and with, a wide swath of the Indianapolis public, from subscription audiences to high-school students. The five return to Indianapolis the following Spring for Classical Discovery Week, which showcases them again in solo, chamber music, new music, and song performances, plus a concerto performance with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Joel Harrison, APA's President/CEO and Artistic Director explains it this way: “What distinguishes the APA is the innovative and unique way in which we conduct our competition by presenting finalists in a variety of genres in multiple venues throughout the concert season. In so doing, we actually mirror the professional world through our competition format.”

This year the first finalist to make her mark in Indianapolis will be Claire Huangci, whose Premiere Series week begins on Monday September 24 and culminates in her performance of Beethoven's 3rd with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra next Sunday, September 30.
Claire is a competition veteran: first prize in the 2010 National Chopin Piano Competition in Miami, laureate in the 2010 Queen Elisabeth International Piano Competition... She's already busy on the festival circuit, both in the U.S. and in Europe, where she's currently studying with Arie Vardi at the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover. She made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2003 and has since performed with orchestras in Stuttgart, Frankfurt, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and with the China Philharmonic. At 22, she's the youngest of this year's finalists; born in Rochester, NY, she entered Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School at age seven and did her undergraduate work at Curtis. We connected via Skype to talk about what's coming up during her visit to Indianapolis:


Exiles' Cafe Recording Journal, Day 2 and 3

I didn't get to post yesterday - it was a long 7-hour session, with some guests in the studio at the end of the afternoon. But it was a terrific day. We finished the big pieces before lunch, and spent the afternoon on a lot of lovely miniatures. And finished the whole project, a day ahead of schedule! Which means that today (Friday) I'm sitting with Dan Merceruio doing edits - actually watching him do edits, very very quickly!

This is going to be a lovely record, if I do say so myself. Here are some highlights from the past few days:

  • A superb piano, courtesy of Steinway & Sons, really just a perfect ride.
  • The unbelievable technician services of John Veitch, who is a pianist himself and has a musician's ears and sensibilities.
  • A beautiful studio facility at Sono Luminus, and the rock-steady support of Dan Merceruio as my trusted producer/therapist/third ear. 
  • Many bad jokes, good sushi, geeky music gossip.
I'll have more news about the album coming up very soon, stay tuned...


Exiles' Cafe Recording Journal: Day 1!

Yesterday was a hellacious travel day. Why is there always so much laundry when you need to get out of town??

My flight to DC was fine - but on the long death-march walk from terminal to baggage claim at Dulles, I slipped and fell down which was A) very embarrassing and B) significantly painful. The floor at Dulles is very, very shiny and slippery. My husband Rick asked which shoes I was wearing when I slipped and I said "my hiking shoes". Actually, I was wearing new platform wedge sandals, very pretty and perhaps not the best for traveling, but I maintain that the floor at Dulles is too slippery.

To get to the Sono Luminus studios in Winchester, VA, you have to drive about an hour. It was extraordinarily dark last night at 9pm. No street lights of any kind. And the whole trip down, I was sure that I was going to arrive, get out of the car, find that I couldn't walk, that my ankle had swollen to 4 times its size, that I had to go to the nearest ER, and that the recording sessions would have to be postponed until after the surgery. But the nice bartender at the George Washington Hotel gave me a big bag of ice, and everything seemed to be fine. It's a lovely hotel. So nice to stay in a pretty, old-fashioned, just nice hotel.

Morning. Ankle still OK. The drive out to the Sono Luminus studios: BEAUTIFUL! Horse country, stone fences, so green. My GPS wound me through the countryside and into tiny little Boyce VA, where Sono Luminus is housed in a former church built in 1917.

If you want to know how I feel about studio sessions, read Jeremy Denk's New Yorker piece about the perils of the recording studio.
It's the most naked, vulnerable and self-aware place a musician can go. I've learned over the years to be less crazy, and to turn the studio into a space for expression and reflection, but still, it's hard going in, especially with a new crew, in a new environment. Dan Mercurio, my producer, put me at ease and we dove right in with a pair of Chopin Mazurkas: the first one he ever composed, in 1831, the first year of his exile from Poland; and the last, written just a few months before his death, when he was too weak even to try the piece out himself at the piano. A fairly intense way to start the day! Then came Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and some Stravinsky, all before lunch!

We took a break for lunch at the Locke Country Store. Delicious vegetable tart and cookies, much needed.
And back to work. We got so much done today - 45 minutes of music already, which is quite a lot. The next two days will go quickly! Tomorrow Eric Feidner from the Steinway & Sons label comes down to hold my hand - he was delayed today.

And now I'm back at the hotel, with a glass of wine and crab cakes, looking forward to tomorrow. More then...


Recording Journal: Live from the Exiles' Cafe

I'm on a layover at the Denver airport, on my way to the Sono Luminus studios in VA for recording sessions, working on my next album, Exiles' Cafe, for the Steinway & Sons label. Starting tomorrow, I'll be posting recording session videos and journals all week - stay tuned!


If Pianists Were Horses: Piano competitions, from both sides of the bench

I was not one of those kids who love winning piano competitions.

I stressed: unable to sleep for weeks leading up to an audition; my fingertips breaking out in a disgusting, never-seen-since excematic peel; my stomach flip-flopping hysterically-

I over-practiced: risking carpal tunnel and total burnout, putting in 8 hours a day obsessively/ mindlessly drilling danger spots, hiding my scores in another room to test my memory, making things, inevitably, worse.

I panicked: going into the audition room I'd be convinced that the seemingly harmless group at the juror table was actually some sort of a sadistic Orwellian firing squad in disguise, waiting with pencils poised to slash through my name at the first whisper of a wrong note-

I cried: unleashing tears of utter devastation whenever my name wasn't announced among the finalists, plunging into the depths of despair and self-loathing, vowing never to put myself through it again-

Sometimes, even despite my best efforts, I won.

So why, these many years later, do I direct a competition myself? Why perpetuate the torture and abuse on another generation of young pianists? Why not live by Bartok's famous dictum "Competitions are for horses, not artists", and leave the racing on the racetrack?

Because, of course, it turns out that when I was a kid, I was wrong.

Piano competitions exist for many reasons. Their merits and outcomes have been widely debated, their abundance discussed, their efficacy disputed. But this much I now know to be true: music competitions exist, above all, to discover talent. The pencils in the jury room are poised, yes, but they are poised to record something exciting, something good, a moment of beauty, perhaps even of greatness. I know this because now I sit at the jury table, and I know how much I want to find that moment.

Of course, in the jury room there is an element of danger. There is a certain insanity, a vulnerability that brings to mind the impossible challenge of the Olympic gymnast who trains her entire life for one all-or-nothing moment...
which can, with just a fraction of a second's error, end like this:

To give a wonderful performance during those few minutes in the jury room is a challenge,  not for the faint of heart (or the stresser, or the over-practicer, or the crier).
There are some who are born to face the moment (this week we have all been thinking of Van Cliburn, not only a competition winner, but a symbol of artistic triumph over politics and conflict), and there are those who learn how to meet it with grace. And there are those who are simply not cut out for it, and find a different, and often, in the long run, better path to their success.

The competition I started seven years ago, the Mondavi Center Young Artists Competition, began as a local effort, a natural outgrowth of the work I was doing already with young musicians in Northern California. It started small, as is usually best - I invited a few local youngsters to audition for the chance perform with me on a Mozart Anniversary concert at Mondavi Center. It was a beautifully successful event which led to local and wider interest, more formal auditions, a wider reach. With the support of tremendously generous donors, and the development of national partners including Steinway & Sons, IMG Artists, Festival del Sole, and Concert Artists Guild, the competition has now officially entered the major leagues, with auditions coming up this fall in Portland OR, New York and LA, as well as here "at home".

The growth and expansion raises issues for me: how to keep this project as healthy and nurturing as it has been in its smaller form, how to keep the commitment we've established to staying involved in and supportive of our winners' future careers, how to retain a strong focus on education and career development. I see the answer in the idea of building bridges. Bridges outwards from this wonderful performing arts center that is presenting amazing, forward-looking, unique artists and projects, here on the West Coast. Bridges inwards from the New York establishment with the big-management presence of IMG. Bridges to the next level of career development with our partners at Concert Artists Guild. And bridges for these talented young student musicians onto the professional stage.

I look to several national competitions as models for this kind of long-term commitment and multi-faceted development of young artists. Foremost among them, the Indianapolis-based American Pianists Association, whose finalists live a full, immersive year of musical experiences designed not only to test but to teach them, and emerge more accomplished and deeply informed by the process, regardless of outcome. I'll be profiling the five APA finalists on their competition journey in this space, starting next month, as well as journaling from the Mondavi Center YAC auditions as they unfold around the country (see below).

The mom in me thrives on taking a parental role in young musicians' lives. The pianist in me loves the ability I have now, as a member of the professional generation, to share my information and wisdom, such as it is, to help the young ones come up in our world.

The former competition kid in me? She shakes her head and regrets all the heartache, and wishes she'd known better.
And, if wishes were horses, maybe I'd do it all over again.

Prizes: $2000-$6000
Application Deadline: THIS FRIDAY!!! August 31, 2012

Young Artists Division 
Pianists and Instrumentalists ages 10–16
Founders Division
Vocalists ages 17–21

Regional Auditions
September 29, 2012: Sherman Clay,
131 Northwest 13th Ave.
Portland, Oregon
October 13, 2012: Steinway Hall,
New York City 
October 28, 2012: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts,
UC Davis 
November 15, 2012: The Colburn School,
Los Angeles


Mirian Conti: Remembrance of Things Past

You can listen to Mirian Conti's lovely new album Nostalgias Argentinas on different levels. At first impression, it's salon music - Argentinian piano pieces from the 1920s, infused with dance rhythms and old-world charm. But dig a little deeper and you quickly connect with the Nostalgias of the title, not only in terms of the obvious nostalgia for a more gracious time gone by, but a personal nostalgia on the part of this Argentine-American pianist for the country she left as a teenager, as well as the inherent, permanent nostalgia of all classical musicians, who spend the majority of our time communing with the ghosts of long-dead composers.

With nostalgia and homesickness very much on my mind as I begin work on my own  nostalgia-soaked project, Exiles' Cafe, Mirian's recording resonated deeply with me, and led to a lovely conversation about the things we can miss, and why:


In Memorian: Brigitte Engerer

I was so fortunate to hear Mme. Engerer in concert several times in France when I was a young student. Her playing was passionate, elegant and completely personal.
She lived a full life that was true to her self, and her playing was a reflection of that integrity. 

Brigitte Engerer, born October 27 1952, died June 23 2012



Vanessa Perez: It Takes a Village

A happy follow-up to my last post (thank you, everyone, for so many good comments, tweets, etc)...

I recently had a chance talk with Venezuelan pianist Vanessa Perez, and our conversation was a perfect example about what I love most about my encounters here On the Bench. For pianists, bred in the solitude of the practice studio, raised on a steady diet of self-examination, self-obsession, and self-doubt, the ability to reach out and connect with our equally self-absorbed colleagues is priceless. It’s why these conversations are important to me, and why talking with someone like Vanessa opens up interesting connections in experiences and perspectives, exposing the common ground between very different lives.

Vanessa grew up in the incredibly rich and nurturing musical community of Venezuela, a country with a unique musical history, where the slogan “There is no culture without musical culture” defines the central importance of music in the collective consciousness. There, in the birthplace of El Sistema, Vanessa’s early years were spent with “so many children making music”, shaping her identity as a musician and building lasting friendships with her fellow youngsters coming up in El Sistema’s many orchestras, incubators which produced not only a generation of tremendously gifted young conductors – Dudamel among others - but also provided abundant opportunities for young soloists to perform with those orchestras. She talks with deep affection about those early opportunities, about the impact of young years spent in such nurturing surroundings.

This is a musician who depends on other musicians - the theme of community and friendship came up time and again in our conversation. Even in the recording studio - the most private and vulnerable arena, the place where most of us withdraw to commune on the most intimate level with our artistic  intentions, to examine every musical pore and wrinkle in the most magnifying of mirrors, and to do battle as best we can with our full spectrum of neuroses (See Jeremy Denk’s most excellent account of these horrors in a recent New Yorker piece) - Vanessa has found a way to create a support system of musical colleagues and friends. Most of us treat the studio as an inner sanctum, impenetrable except for the trusted troika of engineer, producer and artist. Vanessa, in contrast, opened up her recent studio sessions to a group of trusted friends and colleagues, creating a hybrid of live performance and recording session that, she says, helped her keep her playing "real and honest". 
The result, a disc of the complete Chopin Preludes, was recently released on Telarc and will be celebrated with a NYC release concert this Thursday, May 31 at the Americas Society, 680 Park Avenue.

Listening to the album, you hear the same humanity and honesty that comes across in conversation. Vanessa's connection to Chopin's music is almost primal, sometimes bypassing the surround of exquisite beauty in favor of the raw emotion at its core. Her relationship with Chopin is life-long. She remembers the thrill of discovering her first Chopin Nocturne as a child in Venezuela – the momentous feeling of entering into the world of “grown-up music”, as she puts it “I felt for the first time that now I was really a pianist”.  When she played for the legendary Claudio Arrau at age 14, he sensed the potential in her natural affinity and encouraged her to “play more Chopin”, putting her to work right away on the E Minor Concerto. Arrau took a pivotal mentoring role in her musical life, sending her to study in the U.S. with his former students Ena Bronstein and Rosalina Sackstein .

Leaving Venezuela for the States (first Miami, then New Jersey), being transplanted into the relatively arid musical landscape of the American suburbs, took its toll. Her response was to dig deeper into her music, to find there the sustenance and communication that had always been critical to her musical identity. At 17 she went to the Royal Academy of Music in London, and was able to connect again with a community of musicians who provided a environment of support and community. Studies in Italy followed, then some post-grad finishing back in New York. The friendships Vanessa has made at every point in her musical life have remained central to her musical life. She makes music with those friends - fellow Venezuelans Dudamel and Gabriela Montero are friends from childhood and have both been musical collaborators. She joined Joshua Bell for a performance of Piazzolla's Oblivion on Bell's At Home with Friends album. The musicians in Vanessa's life serve as mentors, role models, touchstones - as it should be.

The Chopin album may be a breakthrough to a new level of visibility as a soloist. Even alone on the bench, though, Vanessa Perez' music is full of the spirit of all the musicians who surround her - from her childhood friends in the musical sandbox of Venezuela, to her trusted advisors in her recording session, to the very tangible presence of M. Chopin himself. 

The ON THE BENCH Questionnaire
(with apologies to Proust and Vanity Fair)

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice?

It varies all the time...I don't have a specific routine.  
What's the last thing you do before you go on stage?

I look obsessively at the first few measures of what I will begin my program with.

If your piano could speak, what secrets would it tell about you?

My piano wouldn't tell on me ... :)
If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which would it be?

 I would attend one of those beautiful soiree salon concerts in 19th century Paris, with Liszt or Chopin playing.  
If you didn’t play the piano, what would you do?

Chef, specializing in Japanese and northern Italian cuisine.


Frenemies: Sharing the Bench

In response to the anonymous question about why I use this space to "boost the competition": 

I suppose that, on the face of it, it might seem less than strategic for a concert pianist to be giving exposure to/creating buzz for other concert pianists. Sure, we're all in competition for that very limited resource - the elusive concert booking. It's a tough world we live in, and survival of the fittest is a central part of our professional reality. 

But I've been thinking about this, and I want to share my motivations here On the Bench:
1) To communicate with my comrades in arms. As professions go, concert pianist runs a close second to lighthouse keeper in terms of solitary hours logged and restricted access to meaningful human contact. It's lonely on the bench. If we can share our stories, ideas, thoughts, dreams and challenges, it helps to ease the isolation of those many hours alone in the studio and on the road.
2) To give a peak into the weird and wonderful world of the professional pianist, for the concert-goer, the record collector, the aspiring student - anyone who cares about the nerdy technical details of what goes on behind the scenes and before the concert. Maybe these insights will inspire young students as they're logging their own lonely hours on their way to being the pianists of tomorrow. (Or maybe reading about the reality of the pianist's life will inspire a few of them to beat a much safer path to business school, asap.)

3) Lastly, and mostly: to make the point that all of us are very different people - emphasis on people - with different stories to tell and different ways of approaching our instrument, our music and our lives. Because this is the thing: I would like to think that maybe, if classical musicians can build personal narrative and individuality into our musical profiles, we can create more interest and more opportunities around what we do, make more room for ourselves in the world.
There is no such thing as a generic pianist. And no one should go to a piano recital just to hear a generic piano recital. No one goes to a "rock concert". We go to hear a musician or a band we care about, musically and personally. We find resonance with the musicians we follow. We should go to a classical concert for the same reasons. My piano recital is different than your piano recital! Maybe if the audiences (and potential audiences) out there understand just how different, then they'll come out to hear us both.
Knowing something about the personal side of a musician might open up new perspectives into that person's playing. Knowing how a musician thinks about music might shed more light on that person's musical choices. Knowing more might mean caring more.
In many cases, the concert hall is still a strangely depersonalized zone, with a lot of space between the person on the stage and the person in the last row. Maybe I'm trying to fill that space.

Maybe I just can't mind my own business. 

Or maybe I do have self-destructive tendencies after all, and maybe all my guests On the Bench are stealing my future concert engagements as we speak. But that would be such bad karma.

What do you think? Is there room for all of us On the Bench? 
Tweet your comments to @Laradownes, or leave them here!

Thanks to Maura Lafferty for talking this through and believing in a better way!


Anderson & Roe: No More Matching Dresses!

Anderson & Roe is not:
1) A law firm
2) A figure skating pair
3) Married (to each other)
4) Your typical piano duo

Anderson & Roe is one of the most exciting young duos performing today, with a musicality, repertoire and stage presence that bring their concerts closer to rock shows than demure chamber music recitals. Forget your image of a sweet sister team playing piano duets in matching dresses (more on my personal PTSD around that topic later on...), Greg Anderson and Liz Roe have a musical partnership that is anything but adorable. Whether playing their original arrangement of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, their performances are passionate, wild, intensely physical, and completely gripping. Audiences around the country flock to their concerts in numbers that defy the rumors of dwindling attendance for concert music, and the duo holds their own on MTV as well as on NPR.

Their interactive website is buzzing 24/7, with a dynamic online community that includes fans of all ages, bloggers, and the millions of YouTube viewers of A&R's self-produced, visually exciting and dramatically compelling music videos. Greg and Liz communicate with their fans in real time, generating an energy and sense of community that contributes to their success, and furthers their commitment to "make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society; to connect with others; to engage, provoke, illuminate; to serve as a conduit for the composer's voice; to express our inner lives; to share the joy and fulfillment that only music can elicit." And, furthermore: " to free the world from the constraints of sleep-inducing concerts." Done. 
In upcoming months they can be heard in San Francisco and Portland, among other stops.

Anderson & Roe's new album When Words Fade recently came out on the Steinway & Sons label. It's a remarkable collection of vocal works inspired by the night, in virtuoso arrangements for piano duo (composed by the artists themselves). Traveling through very different soundscapes of song, from Vivaldi to Coldplay with stops at Schubert, Bizet and Villa-Lobos along the way, the duo proves that their musicality is up to the challenge of reimagining songs without their words, and infusing them with new and profound meanings. Greg and Liz describe the music this way: "When words fade, a song sheds its specific narrative—but the emotion remains with all its potency. You, the listener, are free to infuse the music with your own personal meaning."

They're celebrating the album with a release party next Tuesday, May 22, at Galapagos Arts Space in Brooklyn. It should be a great party - go if you can!

I spoke to Liz and Greg by Skype, in a long and often hilarious three-way conversation (which has been slightly sanitized here for your protection)


Angela Hewitt: Checked Baggage

© James Cheadle
Angela Hewitt is a woman with a lot of baggage. 
Not that kind of baggage! Ms. Hewitt is far from neurotic. Judging from all reports and appearances, and personal conversation, she is thoroughly down-to-earth and professional, gracious,  organized, an anti-diva altogether. 
No, I'm talking about actual baggage. The suitcase that has been unpacked, she says, "maybe once in the last three years", what with her almost non-stop touring schedule and her travels back and forth between homes in Ottawa, London and Umbria (where she runs her annual Trasimeno Music Festival). I am told she always carries her own bags.

And then there is the metaphorical suitcase that holds her outsize repertoire, somewhat notorious among pianists, and always expanding, driven by her unstoppable appetite and energies. 
All the Bach keyboard works. 
The Beethoven Sonatas. 
The Mozart Sonatas. 
All of Schumann, give or take. 
Chopin: check. 
Debussy, Ravel, Liszt, Brahms... 
And her massive concerto repertoire as well. 

Extra handling fees may apply.

When asked how she does it - touring with as many as twenty recital programs per season, putting out four new recordings a year, managing the curatorship and heavy-rotation playing at the Trasimeno festival (she'll be playing seven different programs at the festival alone this summer), she says "I just work very hard", and laughs "I really don't do much else". But even so, the reconciling of the working very hard and the getting there is in itself a challenge. The demands of present-day air travel being what they are, the time and the energy involved in getting from point A to point B are considerable, taxing and unpleasant, and a major component of the artist's life. She says she "doesn't waste time on board the plane", using those transit hours for studying scores, writing liner notes, and planning concert programs, as we all do (although I argue that the time can also be well spent obsessively watching an entire season of Downton Abbey, just for example).

But back to the luggage. 

On Angela's website, an upcoming event caught my eye: a benefit for her Trasimeno festival featuring an exhibit of her concert gowns, including the very first one, custom made for her at age nine. (The photo here shows one worn at age 15). The preservation of four decades worth of concert gowns is further evidence of organizational skills (and good closets), and made me wonder about favorite dresses, packing challenges, and the pleasures and perils of dressing for the concert stage (more on that coming up soon On the Bench...). Angela says that some favorite keepers have come from Alberta Ferretti, Roberto Cavalli, and other European designers, that she has one dress she sewed herself, and that she is grateful for the current unstructured, minimalist styles, a big improvement on the "old days" of the complicated, poufy, and hard-to-pack dress. 
A very hard dress to pack.

Much better.
But aside from the necessities and complications of packing for different audiences, repertoire and climates, one senses that it's the second bag that is more important to Hewitt - the figurative (hopefully rolling, hopefully soft-sided and infinitely expandable) suitcase that carries her tremendous collection of repertoire new and old. That collection  is central to her identity as a musician, and to her musical satisfaction. It represents both the souvenirs amassed during all these years of traveling, and the legacy of a life spent, from the very beginning, devoted to the pursuit of music. 

The ability to navigate comfortably among many different recital programs, chamber music collaborations and concerto performances in short periods of time requires constant exercising of the musical muscles, and Angela's commitment to such flexibility and productivity is evidence of habits developed early on. She recognizes her range of repertoire as "probably much bigger than most pianists - I'm not one to tour with one program at a time", and she cites the voracious consumption of new repertoire during her youngest years as a critical phase of her development. She wishes that every young pianist would recognize the importance of taking advantage of youthful elasticity and capacity to stockpile vast amounts of repertoire. "That's when they should be learning it, all of it." she says. "They'll play it differently later on, hopefully, but now is when they should be acquiring the repertoire". We spoke about the staying power of those pieces learned well and thoroughly, long ago, the interesting sensation of bringing them back and brushing them up  - the  way that we can access those ingrained memories very differently from music learned more recently. "The old file is in there somewhere - it just has to come out, and usually you know when it's ready."

I think that the fascinating thing about that resurfacing of the old information is that it comes with layers of new and different understandings each time around. That’s one of the great pleasures of making and remaking music.

For Angela Hewitt, the opportunities for reconsideration and renewal within her vast musical inventory come frequently, thanks to the scope and range of her concert schedule. And this, maybe, is why it is so worth it to keep packing those bags, getting on another plane, and putting on another dress.

This month, both East and West Coasters can hear Angela Hewitt in U.S. recital dates: at Shriver Hall in Baltimore today, Sunday May 6, in Salem Oregon on Sunday the 13th, and in Seattle at the UW Presidents Piano Series on Tuesday the 15th.