Christopher Taylor gets called things like "a genius" (San Francisco Classical Voice) "a pianist of equally nimble intelligence and imagination" (The New Yorker), and "so talented it's almost frightening" (The Boston Globe). He's a pianist's pianist - no time for flash or hype - a musician dedicated, in his almost frightening way, to the serious art of making serious music.
Taylor's projects lean towards the monumental and thorny: Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus, all 130 minutes of it, performed by memory; all 28 Ligeti etudes; the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes... His musical propensity to tackle such complexities reflects the rather intimidating scope of his intellectual abilities - this is someone who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with a mathematics degree in 1992, just two years after winning first prize in the William Kapell International Piano Competition.
Most lately, Taylor has been immersed in the world of the Goldberg Variations, touring a fascinating performance of the Goldbergs executed on the Steinway–Moór Concert Grand, a unique dual-manual model D Steinway equipped with the double keyboard mechanism developed in the '20s by the Hungarian composer and inventor Emanuel Moór. This Berlin-made piano was purchased by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1961 for the use of Gunnar Johansen, who was artist in residence at the university at the time. After Johansen's death, the piano remained unused for many years until Taylor, who joined the UW faculty as Associate Professor of Piano Performance in 2000, initiated a complete restoration of the instrument to performance quality. Since the piano's restoration in 2007, Taylor has brought the piano around the country for stunning performances of the Goldbergs at venues including the Caramoor Festival, Ravinia, the Gilmore Festival, the Krannert Center, the Gardner Museum and the Kennedy Center. He brings the project to the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis next season. We talked about Taylor's way of looking twice at the Goldbergs.
"Two keyboards give Mr. Taylor’s hands space to maneuver... the mouths of pianists in the audience must have been watering. More important were Mr. Taylor’s legitimate talents as a Bach player. The modern piano is built for smoothness of tone. Bach’s interweaving voices require separate, identifiable colors. Mr. Taylor’s varieties of touch showed both love and good sense. Mr. Moor’s invention stood out in the last of the variations, with added-on octaves producing joyful noise for grand-finale effect."
-The New York Times
Lara: I've been watching your videos about your performance of the Goldberg Variations on the double keyboard piano, and I’m wondering about some of the technical issues involved with accommodating the differences. You’ve had to rearrange fingerings, chord configurations, etc - how hard is it now to go back and forth to playing the piece on a standard piano?
Christopher: It took me about a month of practice after I first sat down at the instrument (this was in about 2005, I believe). For instance, at first I wasn't sure if I should have my left hand on the upper keyboard and the right on the lower, or vice versa. (Turns out that it's usually the former.) Now that I'm used to it, though, it's not that difficult to switch back and forth between the double-manual instrument and a regular piano. Once your hands are in a particular position, they tend to follow the appropriate series of motions.
Lara: Right. I've just recently started using an Ipad for reading my music, using a bluetooth foot pedal for turning the pages. I discovered that although it’s initially hard to add a component to the physicality of playing - when every part of your body has known for so long exactly what it needs to do – it’s also amazing how quickly the new physical element becomes natural. You also have a 4th pedal on the dual-keyboard Steinway, for coupling the two keyboards. Are you using it very much?
Christopher: For the Goldberg variations I use it just in the final variation (the quodlibet). Adding it on the repeats makes for a very nice, festive effect, and one that I think has at least some historical plausibility. I've also made some arrangements, for instance a Liszt transcendental etude, and in that it's also effective to throw in some extra notes an octave up. The only drawback of the fourth pedal is that you feel the extra mechanical resistance when you're pushing two hammers with a single finger. So you have to be in shape (practice your Hanon first). But you can get some super-human sounding results for your pains.
Lara: Had you played the Goldbergs previously, so that you had to essentially re-learn and re-arrange them on this instrument?
Christopher: Yes, I first learned the Goldbergs when I was about 21, on a normal piano of course. It was about 15 years later that I first encountered the double-manual instrument, and it took me about a month to readjust... But now both versions coexist in my head, surprisingly peacefully.
Lara: Do you feel that you play the piece very differently on a conventional piano? Technical issues aside, does your interpretation, your use of voicing etc, change very much with the 2-keyboard piano, and/or has that experience or playing on the two keyboards influenced your approach to the piece, back on the standard instrument?
Christopher: The effects are pretty subtle, I'd say, but it's definitely been a broadening experience to play it both ways. When playing variations 5, 8, 11... (the ones Bach specified for 2 keyboards) on a regular piano, one is fairly preoccupied with the mechanical issues of avoiding collisions between the hands, issues of fingering and positioning the hands precisely relative to each other. On the double-keyboard piano, those issues disappear, and so you can focus more on just enjoying and appreciating the intertwining contrapuntal lines. The net result probably doesn't sound wildly different, but the psychological effect has been significant.
Lara: It seems that you and this piano finding each other at University of Wisconsin is one of those lovely gifts life gives us every now and then. Having the opportunity to live intimately with the instrument in your home base is probably essential to your mastery of and comfort with it.
Christopher: It was indeed serendipitous to discover the instrument so unexpectedly. It's definitely changed my life in a number of ways. And now, it turns out, I'm starting to think about the building of a successor instrument, one that incorporates modern digital technology, and that's opened up yet another front in my life... About 3 or 4 years ago it occurred to me that one could have a setup where there's a special console in the middle of a room that includes 2 keyboards but itself does not produce any sounds (it would have no strings). Instead it would have digital sensors which would record what the pianist is doing, then send the information instantaneously across the room to two regular pianos. That way a pianist can control two pianos at once and get all sorts of novel effects. So I'm hard at work trying to get the idea realized. I filed a patent application in November with the help of WARF, the U of Wisconsin's division for faculty inventors. In the next few months I hope to get a reduced-scale model built (with a total of 12 keys, rather than 176).
Lara: What a terrific extension of the idea behind the Moor piano! How about impacts to your teaching at UW? Are your students working with the double-keyboard piano too?
Christopher: Only a few of my students have messed around with it (I guess it scares quite a few of them off). But I'm hoping I can attract more people to it, and if the successor instrument ever gets built, maybe that will make it easier for more people to get involved.
Lara: You’re bringing this piano to the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis next Spring. Taking the instrument on the road must present a lot of logistical hurdles. How many tour dates are you doing this season & next?
Christopher: The logistical hurdles are indeed considerable, but fortunately my manager has a system pretty well worked out. When I first started touring with the instrument it was probably 3 or 4 times a year, but the rate has now slowed a bit. Thus far, it looks like Davis will be my only stop with the instrument next year.
Lara: I wanted to ask you about audience reaction at your performances on the double keyboard piano. I can imagine that there's an element of circus act that you might have to fight against? Keeping the focus on the performance and not the novelty of the instrument - do you know what I mean? Sometimes when there's a "hook", you kind of have to work against that somewhat.
Christopher: In general the audience reaction has been very encouraging. I suppose there's a circus element, but then to some extent that may be true even with a regular recital. Once the novelty of the sight of me playing two keyboards wears off a little, I guess people can start listening to the music; if the instrument drew them in in the first place, hopefully the music is what they'll remember at the end.
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?
This varies. Some weeks I'll be dutiful about doing scales or maybe some Czerny. Other weeks I'm too impatient for that and I jump right into whatever piece or passage has been running through my head.
What's the last thing you do before you go onstage?
No terribly special rituals. In the last hour before a show, other than dressing, I tend to chill out and read; that keeps my mind from racing.
If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which would it be?
I'd be very curious to have heard the premiere of Schoenberg's op. 11 in Vienna, Jan. 1910. The audience's reaction to history's first fully atonal work would have been pretty interesting to observe (undoubtedly bewildered, perhaps angry?). Whether the pianist (one Etta Werndorff) made musical sense of it would be another question I'd love to learn the answer to.
If you didn't play the piano, what would you do?
Quite a few possibilities: mathematician, computer programmer, philosopher, linguist.
Christopher Taylor's only touring performance this season of the complete Goldberg Variations can be heard at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis on May 3, 2013.