The Other Side of the Bench - Lara talks with the Cross-Eyed Pianist

I really like this interview I did recently with Frances Wilson, aka the Cross-Eyed Pianist. So I am sharing it here!

FW: Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
LD: I started at the piano as a toddler and simply never stopped! I just never found anything I loved as much. In my teens, I had passing fantasies about being an archaeologist or an actor “when I grew up”, and then I realized that I could incorporate aspects of both of those careers into my musical path. My work involves a lot of archaeological excavation of the repertoire in search of historical narrative and context, and I think that I channel my inner actress into the task of interpreting the emotions and messages of the composers whose works I perform.
FW: Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
LD: It’s been a collage of many things: my very first teacher, Maria Cisyk, was my first love! She was a wonderful woman who integrated a true understanding of and curiosity about music into the first steps at the piano. As soon as I could cover a five-finger position, she had me playing little and Bach and Bartok pieces, and learning the stories behind them so that I had a sense, from the very beginning, of the scope of a history and a tradition in music.
A little later I went on to work with Adolph Baller, a wonderful Austrian pianist with whom I studied at Stanford when I was still very young. He gave me, again, another layer of understanding about the importance of tradition. Having come out of the Viennese tradition himself – he studied with a former student of Franz Liszt! – he was a direct link to the European Romantic school that I, an adolescent in California, could only vaguely imagine. Tragically, Baller had suffered tremendously during the Nazi regime (he was interred in a concentration camp and his fingers were broken), before escaping to the U.S., where he was able to rehabilitate his hands and resume his career as Yehudi Menuhin’s accompanist and a member of the Alma Trio. His story gave me some insights into the power that music can have in a life, the strength that can be found in one’s calling throughout personal tragedy and upheaval. That was an important turning point.
Later on, as a teenager, I studied myself at the Hochschule in Vienna and the Mozarteum in Salzburg with the great Hans Graf, and was able to touch that grand tradition for myself, which brought everything full circle. I remember a winter morning in Vienna, the first heavy snow of the year, when an Argentine classmate came running into Graf’s class saying “I went to the Mozart house and I walked in Mozart’s snow!” That’s how it felt for me during those years, working in the birthplace of the tradition, treading the same ground as the composer whose works I was studying. Very magical.
FW: What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
LD: I think that I’ve come of age in a challenging time to be a musician, but also a very liberating one. So I see the challenges also as advantages. The limited opportunities in the concert world (especially in the U.S. where funding for the arts is such a tremendous issue) present a constant difficulty, but ultimately that difficulty has been an inspiration to me to develop a real creativity and innovative spirit in my approach to presentation and programming, to build a unique profile as an artist, to identify what it is that I have to offer and share with audiences that is uniquely mine, my genuine voice in the world. I think we are living in a time when an artist with something significant to say can take a significant amount of control in determining how, when and where he or she is heard. There is a really interesting and diverse mix of artistic personas on the concert stage these days, reflecting a commitment to different ways and means of musical expression. I think it’s very exciting.
And then of course there have been the challenges of combining my professional and personal lives – the same challenges we all face as musicians, finding ways to integrate my roles in my family and in the professional world. Being a mother of two young children has meant making some choices. But that too, I think, has been a very positive thing for me. I’m certainly a more centered, more thoughtful musician than I was when I was younger, and obsessed solely with the day-to-day mechanics of being a pianist, practicing 6 hours a day. Having a wider landscape to tend has been very good for me. I’ve built a career that encompasses performing and recording, writing, and also concert curating and presenting, which I love to do. Being active as a concert and festival curator/presenter allows me more space to bring my many (too many??) ideas to life! It’s important to me to have some impact in shaping the future of an art form that is changing so quickly, and has so much potential to reach new audiences in new ways.
FW: Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
LD: I’m proudest of the multi-faceted projects I’ve created and produced from start to finish, which have encompassed everything from commissioning and premiering new works, to writing and delivering narrative commentary from the stage, co-producing multimedia/visual enhancements, and self-producing and releasing recordings on my own label (Tritone).

FW: Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
LD: I love playing the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. They treat artists so well (my son wants me to go back so we can “ride in the limo”!), but more than that, the place evokes for me something very powerful about respect for and pride in the arts. It’s just a beautiful place to be and to perform.
FW: Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
LD: Whatever I’m working on at the moment! And some “comfort food” pieces that go way back for me, that I turn to when I need to sort of musically meditate and center myself: the Chopin Nocturnes, Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze, Bach’s Goldbergs, some favourite pieces by Barber, Ives, and Prokofiev…
FW: Who are your favourite musicians?
LD: Arthur Rubinstein, Billie Holiday, Richard Goode, Nat “King” Cole, Chet Baker, Etta James, Charles Aznavour, the Beatles, Pablo Casals, my son playing the trumpet, Lucio Dalla… you see it’s pretty all over the place!
FW: What is your most memorable concert experience?
LD: Hearing Rudolf Serkin under the big tent at Tanglewood in the late ‘80s, just a few years before his death. I was a kid watching a legend and knowing deep in my bones just how precious the moment was. Again, to me he represented the magic of the tradition.
FW: What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
LD: Know what your music means to you. Find your voice. Learn what you alone have to give. Don’t try to be like anyone else. Be flexible in your thinking and let your path take you in unexpected directions. The future can surprise you.
FW: What are you working on at the moment?
My next recording, Exiles’ Café, will be released on the Steinway & Sons label on 26 February 2013. It’s a collection of 19th and 20th century music by composers in exile, or written in response to the experience of exile and diaspora. I’ve positioned music by composers displaced by World War II (Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bohuslav Martinu, Darius Milhaud, and Kurt Weill) alongside works by earlier composers such as Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, who were likewise political exiles in their own time. I’ve also included the Africa Suite by African American composer William Grant Still, representing the permanent wandering of the African Diaspora, and some preludes by the American composer and novelist Paul Bowles, who lived in self-imposed exile in Tangiers for the latter part of his life. The central, big piece on the album is Korngold’s 2nd Sonata, which he wrote in 1910 when he was a thirteen year old prodigy! It’s a massive, late-Romantic, very Straussian work, just absolutely gorgeous and lush.
The project illustrates the global currents of diaspora and exile, which create artistic confluence among people from many different backgrounds of time and place. I think the theme of displacement is one with which everyone is familiar at some level, and also I think that this goes back to my answer to your earlier question, which touched on my deep emotions about the tradition that has built our concert repertoire. Often it has been breaks in that tradition that have actually carried it forward – the historical and political situations that have carried composers from one place to another (Chopin from Poland to France, Rachmaninoff out of Russia, Korngold to Hollywood where he made a legendary career as a film composer and defined the future of that genre) have influenced the development of concert music in a profound way. So once again challenges sometimes prove essential!

FW: What is your present state of mind?
LD: It’s a hugely exciting time for me. I’m watching several musical projects come to full maturity and thrive, and I’m embarking on new ones. I feel that I’ve arrived at a time in my life when my musical/professional priorities are clear to me. I know what I want to do, and I’m ready for new challenges. I feel lucky every single day to be making a life in music, really. It’s an amazing thing.


The Indy 5: American Pianists Association finalists, Part V

This Sunday, the last of the five finalists in this year's American Pianists Association competition performs with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra as the culmination of his residency week on the APA's Premiere Series.

If you were one of the other four APA finalists, you might be a little nervous about the goings-on in Indianapolis this week, because Eric Zuber has something of a reputation in the world of piano competitions.  

Eric holds an astonishing nine major prizes, won over the last four years from some of the world's most important international piano competitions: Honens, Cleveland, Arthur Rubinstein, Seoul, Sydney, Dublin, Minnesota, Bösendorfer (Gold Medal), and Hilton Head (Gold Medal).  He was also awarded Juilliard's much-coveted Arthur Rubinstein Prize. 

This consistency is unusual, and fascinating to me, as a pianist whose own experience of the competition circuit was less than idyllic. Such a triumphant sweep demands a special combination of unique strengths: tremendous pianism of course, but also some degree of strategic preparation, and a presumably innate sangfroid. It's this combination that can help a young artist navigate safely and surely through deep and hazardous (some might say cold, some might say shark-infested) waters. But, paradoxically, a young artist who is gifted with this combination of strengths has to be wary of too long a run on the competitions, no matter how successful, in order to avoid the weird trap of being branded a "competition pianist", with that stereotype's inherent danger to career potential. In effect, for the young pianist strong and fortunate enough to achieve consistent competition wins, the ultimate win might be knowing when not to win anymore!

But for now, Eric Zuber is riding his wave with both style and substance. He checked in with me from Indy to talk about the week to come.


Kathryn Stott: Playing Together

I love this photo of Kathryn Stott. It's chic and unexpected, and has a sense of wide possibilities. As does her very interesting career, as a soloist, chamber musician, artistic administrator and teacher.

I wanted to talk with Kathy during her current US tour with her long-term duo partner Yo-Yo Ma. The two have a long partnership, going back to the summer of 1978, when Kathy came back to her student flat in London to find that her roommate had, without mentioning it, sublet her half of the flat to a young cellist and his wife. From surprise roommates to international touring soloists, 35 years later... For six weeks, Yo-Yo, his wife Jill, and Kathy cohabitated in less than ideal circumstances. Kathy was practicing "around 7 hours a day" for the Leeds Competition (in which she would take the prize that would launch her career), her piano situated right up against the adjoining bedroom wall. Such close quarters can engender either intense dislike or intimate friendship. The latter resulted, and some years later, Jill suggested that the two try their hands at a duo concert.

These three decades later, playing together has developed into the best kind of shorthand, the rare long and deep musical friendship that allows "such great trust, the ability to take risks and know that you won't throw the other one off, the capacity to keep reinventing." As Kathy puts it: "Sometimes one tiny little change can lead to something totally different. If you understand how to keep the music alive, it doesn't matter how many times you play a piece - it's different every time." She laughs as she tries to calculate how many times the pair has played Saint-Saens' The Swan. "9 times out of 10, that's our encore, and I never, ever get sick of it."

In the frenetic reality of today's touring circuit, such long-term ensemble partnerships are becoming increasingly tricky to establish and maintain. We trade partners easily and frequently, a new morality maybe, with a potential for thrill and excitement, but without the the deepening and growth of a long and stable marriage. For two world-class soloists to look back over three decades, back before "anyone was anyone", to draw on all those years of a musical and personal relationship, must be something quite spectacularly comforting and comfortable.

I asked Kathy, joking, how she feels about playing with to the biggest household name in classical music, and, more seriously, how she deals with the perennial misnomer "accompanist" that continues to plague the collaborative pianist. Every chamber music pianist confronts this particularly obnoxious problem - the ongoing struggle for equal billing between instrumentalist and pianist always at issue. Some reach for extreme solutions, like  insisting on the technically authentic piano-first listing of the Classical duo sonata repertoire, or a sometimes-advantageous alphabetical billing. Still the problem persists. And when your duo partner is Yo-Yo Ma, the problem, presumably, gets a little bit worse. She's equanimous about the whole issue: "I'm a pianist and Yo-Yo's a cellist. That's what we do. I'm not stupid, I know why most people come to the concert! Of course he’s a huge name, but because we go back to a time when we knew each other before any of these things were happening, I don’t feel in the shadow. I know that he needs to be challenged by me, that we need to feed off each other If I went into some subservient role he'd be bored out of his mind!" 

Knowing the immense importance of the musical collaborations that have fueled Ma's musical life, it's clear that this partnership is in all ways a meeting of minds, a match between equals, and a duet between old and dear friends.

Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott perform at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, January 29 at 8pm. Information 


The Indy 5: American Pianists Association finalists, Part IV

Andrew Staupe appears to be an entirely normal guy. He appears to be laid-back, well-rounded, open-minded, midwestern, straightforward, and fun-loving. Which, in the music world, is not entirely normal.

Andrew, like Claire Huangci, Sean Chen, and Sara Daneshpour before him, takes center stage in the concert halls of Indianapolis this week as a finalist in the American Pianists Association competition.

Unlike his fellow finalists, and unlike many 28-year-old pianists with serious career ambitions, Andrew has not spent the last 5 years traveling the competition circuit. He didn't seriously start his piano studies until he was ten, he didn't go to Juilliard, and he has spent much of his life not locked into a practice studio for 6 hours a day. Before he got serious about piano, Andrew was a working actor and dancer in Minneapolis. He's a performance-level violinist, a jazz dabbler, the founder of a Medieval-Renaissance choral group, a history and archaeology buff, a competitive soccer and Ultimate Frisbee player, and an avid Packers fan.

What a laid-back, well-rounded, open-minded, midwestern, straightforward, fun-loving guy brings to his pass through one of the most rigorous and rewarding piano competitions in the world is surprising, refreshing, and honest. We spoke by Skype from Toronto to Houston, a few days before Andrew left for his Premiere Series week in Indy.


Chopsticks to Chopin with Charlie Albright

Charlie Albright is a very, very nice young man. He's also an absolutely extraordinary young pianist with a busy schedule and a bright future.
The way he thinks about that future is refreshing in its intelligence and pragmatism, with a sense of responsibility and respect that is informing his choices in interesting ways.

However he chooses, somehow I think he's going to do very, very well!

Listen to our conversation here:

Then watch him improvise on Chopsticks - quite fabulous!

Charlie plays a light little program that includes the complete Chopin Op. 25 Etudes on Sunday, January 13, at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis. INFO

Charlie Albright tour schedule


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: