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.
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
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.