Category Archives: Interviews

Carol Comune

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I had the privilege of interviewing pianist, composer and teacher Carol Comune back in August, 2012. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then. It seemed like a great idea therefore to catch up  – see what’s changed in Carol’s life and learn more about her current projects. A heartfelt thank you to Carol for yet another fascinating insight into her life as a pianist and composer. The original interview can be read here.Enjoy! – Malan Wilkinson
1. Which living pianists do you admire today and why?

There are countless musicians all over the world and it is a very difficult to have to choose my favorite but a few whom I admire the most are Andre Mehmari a native of Brazil – who I think is one of the most multi-talented pianist/composer of both classical and jazz/pop genres, of his time; and Christopher O’Reilly – a colleague of mine from the New England Conservatory of Music. I have learned so much from him and am constantly inspired by his amazing repertoire and versatility he brings as a host to NPR’s From the Top, as well as his own well-known piano arrangements of songs by alternative artists.

However, there is one man who, although no longer with us, was (and is) probably one of the most influential person in my career and life: Anthony Di Bonaventura. As a student at NEC, I found myself becoming frustrated with my playing and needed guidance if my studies were to continue. Bonaventura, a pupil of the celebrated Russian teacher Madame Isabelle Vengerova, took me under his wing and changed the way I saw not only music, but relationships and life. Anthony and Me138Through the Vegerova technique, I found new purpose and drive that has made me the pianist, composer, and teacher I am today. I can still hear his voice in my mind when I practice, and now I hear myself speak in the same manners as he did, to my own students.

What is even more wonderful are the accomplishments that my students are making individually through competitions and annual performances- thanks to Anthony Di Bonaventura.

 

2. Can you shed light on your current projects and concert schedule?

My latest and new projects:

My latest composition, The Nightingale was debuted at the Kaleidoscope Series at Rider University this past Spring 2015. I started this piece back in 2006 when my daughter was just 9 years old while we were still reading fairy tales and creativity was a huge factor in our lives. I did not, however, anticipate the adversities of raising a child that made me put this lovely story on hold until I could find the space to revive and eventually complete.
Composing has always been a gift that I could never take for granted, since the age of eight. I am a sporadic writer though the music is continuously turning in my head until I have the time to write it down, creating my next piece.

My music Variations for Piano on O God, Our Help in Ages Past (18th century Hymn of William Croft) was performed by a wonderful pianist and colleague Paul Kenyon -The concert is being presented to raise awareness and financial support for the Community Christian Service Agency, “an ecumenical organization of Christian Churches providing assistance to persons having emergency needs.” Dr. Kenyon’s program will include classical piano repertoire from across three centuries and is inspired by sacred themes of worship and praise. Starting with the music of J. S. Bach and progressing through works of Franz Liszt and more recent compositions by myself and Kirsten Shetler. In addition, this year I received the Hall of Fame Award from my high school, Watchung Hill Regional High School. It warms my heart to think that I might be inspirational for students who aspire to have a career in music!

As for upcoming projects, I do have a new venture that I would like to start on this year. I plan on composing a documentary based on a local Chinese folk song that will portray my daughter’s journey from China to growing up in the US. All of the families that I met in China in 1998 have kept in touch through Facebook and now our daughters have graduated and are off to college this Fall for an amazing journey. I just want to have pictures and music in the background for an intimate chamber piece. In 2016, I will be performing on a Westminster Conservatory Faculty Series “Captivating Imagination Through Musical Storytelling” in Bristol Chapel, Princeton, NJ.

 

3. How has your life as a pianist and musician changed since I last interviewed you back in August, 2012?

Since my last interview with Pianists from the Inside, I have devoted countless hours on educating myself with better ways to promote myself through social media. I have found it to be quite exciting how one can connect with the world and have met so many talented musicians in the process. Through my colleagues and even some of my students, I have learned so much, so quickly about technology it is really quite amazing.

As an entrepreneur who runs two companies, (Elegant Entertainment & Co. and Comune Music Press) as well as a private practice, my upcoming year is still unpredictable. I am maintaining my private studio as well as teaching at several accredited institutions, but I also hope to take on new ventures as they come. As I have mentioned before, I have found social media and the internet in general to be paramount to maintaining my business. I am now a part of websites that reach all over the world, allowing me to network with artists near and far. Doing this has also allowed me to take the time to listen to my colleagues and competitors regarding their businesses and music. I have been able to build my fanbase with Reverbnation; Pandora and now the new launch of Apple Music!

One website that has made a profound difference in my business is, about.me. It is a personal web hosting service co-founded by Ryan Freitas, Tony Conrad and Tim Young in October 2009. The site offers registered users a simple platform from which they can search a database of online identities like their own, relevant external sites, and have access to popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Flickr, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter Tumblr, and YouTube.

Within the year that I started using about.me, I have accumulated over 150,000 views and increased my fan base greatly – and furthermore, increasing sales.

I have published (Comune Music Press) and scored two new compositions for solo piano : Farm of Dreams and Reflections for the older student who would like to play a more popular/classic style or better known as New Age. I am in the process of scoring, The Nightingale – based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson.

 

Some other accomplishments…

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My daughter Gealyn (16) and I had the honor of performing Mosaic for 2 pianos for Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee’s 75th Birthday Celebration Marathon with musicians from all over the world performing her music – River’s School Conservatory, Weston, MA.

Kaleidoscope Chamber Series: Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ
Kaleidoscope Chamber Series presents “Ensemble for New Music,” featuring recent compositions by Westminster Conservatory composers. This Westminster Conservatory faculty series is dedicated to chamber music of all centuries, placing emphasis of repertoire that explores the tone colors made possible when voice and instruments from different musical families – string, woodwinds, brass, or keyboard – are combined. I have had the opportunity and privilege to debut my original compositions and collaborate with my colleagues annually. It gives me a lot of inspiration just knowing there is this wonderful venue to work towards.

Student Accomplishments

Westminster Conservatory – Honors Program keeps me extremely busy during the academic year coaching chamber ensembles and piano performance classes. I enjoy researching new music each year and discovering living composers to feature at the Young Artist concerts. I also accompany the Woodwind scholarship competitions early spring with challenging repertoire. In the past few years, I have become involved in several piano competitions including, but not limited to, New Jersey’s Music Fest. As a faculty member of the Westminster Conservatory, I am able to prepare my students for Music Fest-Rising Talent Competition. I have had 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Place winners for Solo and Chamber pieces culminating with performances in prestigious halls such as Carnegie Hall and Merkin Hall (Kaufman Center) in NYC.

4. How do you believe Piano music makes a difference in people’s lives?

hqdefaultI never really had an agenda when I started composing music in a marketable manner. It was about the time in my life where I settled down and experienced new chapters in my life- as a wife, mother and composer. Having a life and a family in the beautiful town of Jupiter, FL was much more relaxing compared to my residency in Boston for 20 years and growing up in a family of seven outside of NYC.

I felt like a child at the age of 40; snorkeling, kayaking, and just loving living an outdoor lifestyle in tropical weather 24/7. There was something about my reaction to the change in scenery that allowed my creativity to flow and I found myself writing for 10 hours a day for years.

My music has had many outlets from background music to being played during the birth of a child, to the Chemo ward of Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Morristown, NJ.

There was a time when I was recovering from major surgery and my colleague and compositional teacher lent me a music book of French Carol’s and Gregorian chants from the 16th century. After my recovery and from listening to and playing through the music I was given, I wrote like there was no tomorrow from the source of energy it had given me and ended up creating, Season of the Light- a collection of Advent and Christmas carols, Gregorian chants to 16th Century French and Traditional for voice, trumpet and piano.

Every year during the Holiday Season, I challenge myself to compose a new setting and send as a Seasonal Greeting card..it makes me feel good and my colleagues are always pleasured by the inspiration.

On a lighter side I was asked to play New Age/ classical music for a candlelight dinner affair at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA. The dinner tables were in a spiral set-up surrounding penguins who were making quite a racket before I began playing. Within 30 minutes you could not hear the penguins anymore and the keepers of the Aquarium became concern and to their surprise found all the penguins either resting, asleep or caressed in another penguins lap…some even looked like they fell in love. So, my music apparently had quite an effect in the almost amusing manner that evening!

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Sara Davis Buechner

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Buechner was awarded the first Beethoven Fellowship of the American Pianists Association in 1981. She was a prizewinner for piano at the 1983 Queen Elisabeth Music Competition. She was awarded the Gold Medal at the 1984 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, and won a Bronze Medal in the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition.

Early interest in music

I grew up in a suburban household where my mother was greatly concerned — as were many American parents of the time — that my brother and I should attain a good education and cultural exposure to which she and my father did not have ready access. In addition to a pronounced emphasis on good schoolwork and study, we were both given piano lessons from a local teacher who, fortunately, was a marvellous young musician herself. Her name was Veronika Wolf (now Veronika Cohen), and later she made her mark as a pioneering composer of electronic music and Dean of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. At age 18, she was pursuing a degree at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and earning side money teaching piano to children. Miss Wolf brought me to — or should I say, brought to me — the world of rhythmic clapping exercises, “A Dozen a Day,” and Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. She did not want to teach me at first, as I was just 3 years old (my brother was 5), but when she tested me at the piano, I could read the notes without any instruction at all, and could play all of my brother’s pieces from the Leila Fletcher Book I. Many years later, she told me that my touch was “soft and sure.” I’m still proud of that quote.

I had another teacher in the form of our living room radio, which my mother set to the classical station in our house, every day. And I can recall learning to tell the time of 4:30 p.m. each weekday afternoon, when the radio tag for that time was Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.”

My mother noticed that I would stand, glued to the spot in front of the radio at that time daily — the music just galvanized me so. Even today, when I hear the rustling string 16th notes of that Overture, my chest begins to palpitate with excitement. Call it the splendour of knowing that one is alive.

Competitions

My main teacher as a youth (after Veronika) was the Filipino virtuoso Reynaldo Reyes, and from the age of 11 onwards he trained me to perform not only in student recitals but also by way of competitions — local, then national. After I left Baltimore for New York City and Juilliard (where I worked primarily with Rudolf Firkušný), I entered a fair number of international competitions. I was fortunate to gain some prizes, which spread my name and reputation, and eased my way to establishing a performance career.

I was the Gold Medalist of the 1984 Gina Bachauer International Competition, and got a Bronze Medal in the Tschaikowsky Competition in Moscow as the highest-ranking American pianist, in 1986.

There are too many music competitions overall, and these days it seems that everyone has a prize on their resumé from some place — so that the meaning of a competition prize is pretty much de-natured. Moreover, the way of attaining a prize is usually in a polar opposite way of establishing oneself as a unique artist.

So many pianists simply playing the same old same old repertoire (Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin Ballades, Prokofieff showpieces) in the same way, fearful of offending someone with an original approach. So many judges (many of them failed performers, I might add) expecting to hear that repertoire played in the same way, so they can easily opine on what they hear as validating their own thoughts about it. None of this is good for young musicians, and it is certainly not good for classical music in general.

One thing I used to do when I entered competitions, was to make myself learn new repertoire that was infrequently programmed. Consequently, I often found myself playing pieces in competitions that no one else was playing, and often the judges did not know — Bartók’s Etudes, Janacek’s Sonata, Busoni’s Toccata, Martinu’s Fantasy and Toccata, et al. If there was a recital component of free choice, I looked at that as a tremendous opportunity to expand my boundaries in terms of stage presentation.

Off the top of my head, I can surely name 10 fantastic composers (not including contemporary living ones) whose keyboard music is never played in competitions — Frescobaldi, Sweelinck, Byrd, Weber, Dussek, Dvorak, Szymanowski, Turina, Krenek, Yashiro — there are many, many more.

Giving sound to neglected masterpieces is one way of reaching your ultimate artistic goal — not be merely replicating that which has come before, but finding new ways of expression and creativity. If a competition can further this process, then it can be a good experience.

It is always good to learn how to perform on stage with pressure and control — this must be done all through a musician’s life, so to cope with it early is a good thing. Probably the best outcome of entering a competition, regardless of prizes won or lost, is to develop a feeling for the stage. Such experience is crucial.

But when a competition is entered just to make some money or get your name around, then the focus on the big picture — the calling of musical artistry — is lost.

New Music

I have played and recorded a fair amount of new music, because I do think it is important to know the new generation of rising voices, and to help promote those whose vision seems enlightened. Two years ago I commissioned the Japanese composer Yukiko Nishimura to write me a set of Études, and I am now playing that set (of ten) on many of my concerts. I’m also very keen on the young composer-pianists Jared Miller and Michael Brown, both of whose scores I have played in public.

Of the older American composers, to my mind John Corigliano towers over all — his Piano Concerto of 1967 is the greatest American work in that mold after Barber’s. And I think the piano music of Leon Kirchner is stunning, as well, and should be better known.

In my college days I was very aware of contemporary music, mostly in a negative way as the dominant attitude in 1970s-80s New York was simply, well, either you liked and handled hideously complex atonal scores, or you weren’t smart enough to play new music. It was a relief to me when Minimalism came of age and re-booted young composers to the idea that there’s one than one way to express things sonically.

Young composers today write in a wide variety of styles. So there’s really no excuse for pianists today to shrug off the obligation of promoting music of our time, with the phrase “I don’t like contemporary music because it’s atonal / too complex / ugly.” Anyone who says such a thing, hasn’t kept up with music responsibly.

 

I am nevertheless wary of new music “specialists,” who sometimes become so because their technical insufficiencies are easily exposed when they play Bach or Beethoven. Some of the least competent concerts I have heard, were of contemporary scores whose composers should have been incensed about what the inadequate performer did to their work.

And I don’t enjoy the feeling when I attend a new music concert, often surrounded by composers and new music fans, that I should display enthusiasm for everything performed. Like baseball games, a lot of new music concerts are dull, with music of little inspiration or feeling for audience connection. If you experience the hearing of a masterpiece in its first performance — as I did with the première Gyorgy Ligeti’s Piano Concerto in New York City — you will know it, I guarantee you.

In listening to new music, or in choosing new music to play or new composers to champion, I keep this dictum in mind: that the technique of expression is not important compared to the value of the message or emotions being expressed. If music does not speak and touch the heart as well as the mind, then it is not good music.

The connection of music across cultures and centuries is of utmost importance. Sometimes I fashion my own recitals with a curator’s mind, which is why I might pair works of Bach with those of Schoenberg due to the shared emphasis on polyphony; or late Beethoven with Fauré and Thomas Adès because of their spiritual natures; or play Rhapsodies by Tomasek, Liszt, Brahms, and Gershwin. It’s like going to the art museum — how wonderful to see the Virgin Mary as portrayed by El Greco, by Picasso, by Chris Ofili (of elephant dung fame!) — see the connections and contrasts. Hear the universal search of humankind.

So to say, I’m not interested in New Music. I’m interested in All Music.

Teachers

I do feel uniquely blessed to have had a wide array of astounding teachers, and I could write for a very long time about them all. My technical approach is very much derived from the Busoni School through his pupils and grand-pupils that I worked with: Mieczyslaw Münz, Reynaldo Reyes, Ann Schein, Edward Weiss, Gunnar Johansen. In my adult years, my most influential teachers were Byron Janis and Rudolf Firkušný. The latter in particular, with whom I studied for four years at Juilliard — playing for this magnificent artist was simply the most inspiring and unforgettable experience of my entire musical life.

Firkušný taught in the way that I consider the most efficient and informative, by means of demonstration. When he sat at the second piano to show me something (he always played perfectly, at any given hour, and with the modest disclaimer “well, I do it like this”), my eyes and ears perked to maximum awareness, so that I might be able to effectively copy his beautiful sound and inimitable timing. Münz and Reyes taught in similar fashion. Byron Janis could not, because of his rheumatoid arthritis, but his gruntful singing accomplished almost as much! You must depend upon a teacher as a role model, and later fashion your own approach upon that sturdy foundation. I think it is crucial to study the piano with someone who knows well the experience of playing successfully in concert.

Research into the lives and musical careers of my own teachers led me to a lot of revelations about pedagogy and different schools of pianism. It amazed me, for example, to see film of the French virtuoso Jacques Février playing (the Poulenc Double Piano Concerto with the composer) — for his hands and fingers, and the way in which he used them on the keys, looked like mirror images of his pupil Reynaldo Reyes’ hands, and of course Reynaldo taught me to shape my hands the same way. The sense of apprenticeship in music teaching is fundamental. Whenever someone plays the piano, there are echoes of teachers and grand-teachers in the fingers, the body, the phrasing and sound.

Pianists today

I must admit that I rarely listen to piano concerts these days, as my own hours are so full of my own practicing, that my ears are already overworked! When I have some free time, I’d much rather take a long hike, visit the bookstore or art museum, see a movie, or go to a baseball game (I am a longtime fan of teams on both sides of the Pacific). I’m more likely to attend symphonic or choral concerts than piano recitals.

And it has been a long time since I went to concerts to study, copy or learn, as I did often in my Juilliard days. I feel like I have my own style of playing now, and when I listen to other pianists, regardless of how good they are, my critical teaching ears start to grind and churn. I truly hate that! — It’s a bar to true enjoyment. When I hear jazz pianists, I am much happier for I can relax and really listen the music, as an audience member should.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not aware or appreciative of other pianists’ work, of course. There are so many fine pianists performing publicly now, and of course the Internet is awash in them. For myself, I love the recordings of Dinu Lipatti and Clara Haskil in particular, in addition to those by my teachers Janis and Firkušný. The sounds they make are familiar and serendipitous to my ears.

And I still play for other pianists, too — for the legendary American pianist Reah Sadowsky who was a dear friend until her death two years ago, and most recently for the great Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, both in the USA and in Vienna. He’s an astounding inspiration to me, and I feel so grateful to learn from such an artist. I heard him play two recitals in Japan last year that I’ll never forget, so spiritually powerful they were.

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Sara Davis Buechner

Advice to Young Pianists 

Perhaps your toughest question. For we live in times of diminished appreciation of all culture, and blind veneration of technology — quite to the detriment of our minds, our hearts, our hands (I wonder if the next generation of humans will be able to do anything with their hands at all, besides swiping a screen and poking with their thumbs).

Young musicians today, in addition to working for 20+ years to master their craft, coping with social media, and finding money for rent and food, must fight the possibly unwinnable battle of survival for good music itself. They must be prepared to make enormous sacrifices, so that succeeding generations will have the desire to sit in contemplation for decent lengths of time, to concentrate, to appreciate messages of inward spiritual grace, to value the time and energy and commitment it takes to make personal discoveries in art.

The audience for great music is simply disappearing, and it must not. For the very worth of our society, in cultural terms, is at stake.

I’m not at all confident about this, by the way. But I know the rewards of struggling for quality, as opposed to shrugging shoulders and giving in to the ever-changing banal tastes of ones’ time. Bach, Mozart and Schubert knew that same struggle, very well.

Difficult experiences and challenges 

Every human being experiences the rough ride of existence, if they live long enough — personal relationships gone bad, deaths of friends and family, work difficulties, health issues. I have dealt with all of this, in addition to coming to grips with being transgender. I was 38 years old when I transitioned from male to female, stopped playing concerts as David Buechner and began to play the piano as myself, Sara Davis Buechner.

It would be impossible to understate how enormous that challenge was, and I would need a book to describe the inner journey of it all. For this interview, I’ll just say that the effect upon my performance career was horrendous — concerts dried up, invitations disappeared, lucrative teaching offers pulled off the table. At the lowest point of my life, I was dead broke at age 42, teaching little children in an upstate New York music school where my faculty colleagues had been my own students just a couple of years before.

And you know, I learned to love teaching, and teaching small children, at that time. Partially because I needed to do so, in order to survive and thrive. But also because all my previous expectations as a privileged white male musician with big time manager and orchestral concerts and a big conservatory job was just wrecked beyond fixing — well, it enabled me to start building a true house upon a real foundation. And into that new house came these wonderful, beautiful, sublimely untalented little kids whose piano lessons became for me the opportunity to teach them not to play an instrument they had mixed emotions about, but rather simply to love music. I played games with them at the piano, chased them around the room when they got a little bored, shared candy with them, got them to laugh and smile and clap and sing. And within the context of that job which many musicians would consider lowly, I learned all about what is most important in music — just as I learned from being transgender and outcast, what is most important in life — to live, to enjoy, to be true to yourself and to others, regardless of others’ judgments upon you.

Hopes for the future… 

That’s a long laundry list. Record more Bach-Busoni; record the complete Mozart Sonatas; record Japanese piano music of Nishimura, Nakada and Taku; record the three Brahms Violin Sonatas with Stephanie Chase (these are all in the planning stages now). Keep studying Japanese (I’m at intermediate level, struggling with the kanji at about 500 so far). Learn Spanish for my concerts in Latin and South America (I’ve started). Watch all the DVDs I’ve accumulated and never have time for. Take Latin ballroom dancing. Pick up my pencils and brushes again and draw and paint, not just doodle cartoons. Spend more time in Prague and Kyoto and Honolulu and El Barrio del Bronx and San Juan. Visit Indonesia and Vietnam and Cuba. Smoke fewer cigars, but better quality ones like the Trinidad (Fidel Castro’s fave). Learn how to make a reliable Gin Martini and Blue Hawaii. See the Osaka Hanshin Tigers win the Japan Series. I guess if I get to witness that, I can climb into my grave happily. That should be many, many years from now, if they keep playing like they are this season.

SaraDavisBuechner.com.

YouTube Channel: www.YouTube.com/SaraDavisBuechner

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Nick Van Bloss

Congratulations on your new recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The new album is the latest in a line of recordings in which you present some of the greatest and most challenging works ever written for the piano. Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata also features on the record… what inspired you to record these works?

The most important thing for me, in deciding what to record, is to ask myself the question, ‘Do I have anything new, or unique, to say’. There’s a trend amongst pianists simply to record what might appeal to the public – often glittering, virtuosic works intended to impress, or else very standard and well-known works, which make for an easy sell. Personally, I need to record (and perform) only works that really challenge me intellectually as well as pianistically. For example, I always thought that the Diabelli Variations was probably a dull old work! I thought there must have been a reason why it is somewhat neglected. But, on studying the score, I found it to be such a magnificent, but hugely difficult, cerebral work, that it appealed to me on so many levels. I always want to try and create something fresh and absolutely true to my musical personality. There’s no point in recording something that actually sounds just like another pianist’s recording! That’s a trap so many pianists seem to fall in to. Take the Appassionata – it’s been recorded so many times, and so many of those recordings ape each other. I genuinely think my performance is slightly different: I don’t emphasize the angst and furious passion that the title would suggest. I see it as a mid-period Sonata in F minor – a very effective one, but still a Classical work, one that needs to push forward and keep going, and not linger on pent-up emotions.

You have performed in the United States, UK, Japan, Sweden and Austria, in recitals, concertos and performances. Does audience appreciation and knowledge of classical music differ in these countries? If so, how and why?

That’s such a brilliant question! I really think that audiences do differ by country in so many ways. The UK audiences are often very knowledgeable, but almost jaded in their outlook, so they tend not to be able to bring themselves to ‘gush’ in any way. US audiences do allow themselves to gush – they seem more open to embracing new performers and interpretations and, when performing, I feel them ‘with me’ every step of the way. Austrian audiences are scary! They often know the music SO well, have heard it all a thousand times, and often don’t expect to be impressed. So, when one is able to ‘crack’ them, and impart a performance they really ‘get’, it’s an incredibly gratifying experience.

What motivates you to play piano?

And that’s a difficult question! So many things, is the answer. But, need is the one closest to the truth. If I don’t play, then I literally crave the piano, so it’s like an addiction, albeit a wonderful one! Of course, there’s always the concert or recording schedule to consider, although, I’m not one to sit for eight or ten hours working at the piano in any case. I practiced SO much when I was younger, familiarizing myself with reams of the repertoire, that I now limit really focused work to an absolute maximum of four hours a day. Overall, though, the piano is like being in a very consuming and wonderfully needy relationship – it has a grip on me and, thankfully, it won’t let go.

You have also released three other highly acclaimed albums with Nimbus Records: Bach’s Goldberg Variations (2011), Bach’s Keyboard Concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra (2011) and Chopin’s 3rd Sonata and 24 Preludes (2013). Why develop this long-term relationship with Nimbus Records? 

The Goldberg Variations was a work I first encountered when I was 12 and had only been playing the piano for a year. I absolutely fell in love with it, bought the score, and tried (in vain) to play some of it. I had a kind of love affair with it. But then I left it for decades – I knew it was a mammoth and difficult work, and I never actually imagined I’d learn and play it. So, when I did come to record it, it was like joining a dear, old friend on a life journey. It’s such a monument of a work! The Keyboard Concertos have a similar story to the Goldberg with me – I’d always had the scores and adored tinkling through them, so when the opportunity to record them came along I was in heaven. Chopin was, for me, a very odd choice, and, to some degree, a strategic one. If I had recorded more Bach, I’d have been typecast. If I’d moved to Beethoven or Mozart, I might have risked being labeled a pianist who avoids Romantic music. So, I had to find what I considered the most challenging (for me) Chopin, in works that I genuinely felt would suit my style and ethos. I believe Chopin is a master of direct emotion and not necessarily the composer of wishy-washy played Nocturnes! But again, with all of the above recordings, I absolutely had to choose works that I felt I could impart me on.

You retired from playing completely for 15 years. Why?

It was a self-imposed break from playing, and one from which I never thought I’d return. During those years I hardly ever touched a piano, although I constantly heard and ‘played’ music in my head. It was an incredibly enriching time, though. I made myself familiar with so much other music, but primarily the operatic repertoire. I was constantly ‘learning’ new operas, and then travelling (mostly abroad) to hear them performed. I also wrote a memoir of my life, which was a complete change in discipline, in the sense that writing engages the mind in such a different way to a piano-trained one. I also lived abroad for many of the retirement years. And, all said and done, I have to say that everything I did and experienced has really made me ‘gel’ as a pianist now I’m back at the keys. Life experience brings the greatest of all understanding and wisdom.

Your musical training began as a chorister at Westminster Abbey, you then entered the Royal College of Music at the age of 15 as a junior, attending full time from the age of 17, studying with Yonty Solomon. How did your early music education shape you as a pianist and musician? Did any tutors/professors create a lasting impact on you and why?

I think my choral training at Westminster Abbey was invaluable in that it gave me a real appreciation of vocal line – on which, let’s face it, all music is based.

I still vividly remember and musically feel those days of choral training, and I utilize things I learnt. Studying with Yonty Solomon was life changing: apart from being a superb pianist, he was literally bursting with creativity and good taste, and he inspired me to really explore and, most importantly for any pianist, listen.

I was young and almost bubbling-over with the love of music. I wanted to play everything. Yonty reigned me in and made me focus on finesse and the ability of making performances work for audiences. As I sit at the piano working now, I still often imagine Yonty sitting beside me, and almost hear him commenting, enthusing and suggesting. Teachers like that are to be cherished.

Which living pianists inspire you and why?

Very few. Not because I don’t admire them, I do, but because I genuinely believe that inspiration comes from one’s own musical and life journey. Plus, I happily admit that I rarely listen to other pianists – other interpretations can corrupt one’s own vision of works. Plus, I think the days of grand-old pianism have all but vanished. For that I blame the (mainly European) industry for promoting a new face every week.

Do you have any musical regrets? Would you change anything if you could go back in time and do so?

In some ways I wish I’d been born forty years earlier! These days, the music industry has lost sight of what audiences want, so it’s no wonder audience numbers are declining. The industry focuses on the young; something I feel is a huge mistake. Audiences of the past wanted seasoned, regular faces on the stage, not the latest prizewinner who will be unheard of in a few years time and replaced by yet another. Of course there is room for younger players, but it’s an insult to performers past and present for us to be told that these youngsters are the greatest things since sliced bread!

Do you think there’s too much pressure on young aspiring pianists today? How difficult is breaking into the classical music scene?

The pressure comes from so many pianists wanting careers and so few being able to break through to make their dream a reality. So, competitions exist, thus putting huge and anti-musical pressure on those who simply want to play. If we imagine how many pianists are graduating each year, internationally, from good music schools, it must run into thousands. And a huge number of them will be really good players. How on earth can they all be accommodated in the profession? It’s mind blowing.

Do you have advice for young aspiring concert pianists who wish to develop successful careers as musicians?

My advice would be: only pursue this if you absolutely can’t live without it. I hope that doesn’t sound cynical. I just think it’s such a hard career to break in to, and so much heart-break would be avoided if pianists just looked at the state of the industry and decided if they really want to go down a path that is as dodgy as playing Russian Roulette.

What is the biggest challenge that you have overcome as a pianist?

The biggest challenge for me was deciding to make a ‘comeback’ after so many years away from the piano. I had no idea if I would be recognized or appreciated in any way, or even if I’d be taken seriously. It was with a lot of support and a huge leap of faith that I was able to put myself into the public arena and wait for judgment, as it were. Luckily, it worked out well. But it so easily could have been the comeback that never was!

Diabelli Variations - Nick Van Bloss

Nick’s latest album Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is out now on Nimbus Records.

Pizzicato gives Supersonic Award for Diabelli and Appassionata

“How lucky are we to hear such a personal and refreshing performance of both the Diabelli Variations and the Appassionata. Nick van Bloss’s playing is fluid, extremely transparent, non-sentimental, yet always gripping by its rhythmic force.”

http://nickvanbloss.com

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Valentina Seferinova

Valentina Seferinova – One of only a handful of musicians worldwide to have been invited by the Trustees to play in the Yvonne Lefébure Auditorium at the Claude Debussy House & Museum, St. Germain-en-Laye, Paris on the Anniversary of the Composer’s birth.

Credit: Picture by Gio

Credit: Picture by Gio

When and how did your interest in music and the piano start?

Actually music played big part in my upbringing. My Mum & Dad never played a musical instrument but both loved music & adored singing. So from a very early age I was listening to classical music & I loved singing.

My older sister started playing the cello when she was 9 or 10 years old. Soon after my parents bought a piano as her teacher told my parents that she should start playing the piano as a second instrument.

When the ‘Riga’ (a Soviet union made piano) arrived, I fell in love with it & wanted to start playing it straight away! Although at that time I was only nearly 6 years old, inside me I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life! Unfortunately at that time my Dad said that I couldn’t start piano lessons until I completed year 1 at school and I can read, write, spell, count, add & subtract… I had to wait almost 16 months!

But when I was allowed to start to learn the piano, nobody could stop me! After just under 2 years of playing the piano, I won a prize at a national competition, competing with children who have been playing the piano for 5 or 6 years! I was so happy.

Can you tell us a bit about your most recent work…? 

There are many projects that I’m currently working on. I’m still in the process of completing Rozycki’s solo piano works recordings, Wienawski – 2 pianos works with my piano duet partner Venera Bojkova. Reviving & promoting long forgotten music has been and is my passion! There is so much music out there that had an important role in its own time but for various reasons it was neglected or forgotten :-(.

It was such an amazing experience when I performed Salomon Jadassohn 1st piano concerto with the Karelia Symphony Orchestra in Petrozavodsk. Obviously Jewish composers’ works have suffered the most – many scores were destroyed. My music producer Gareth Vaughan found the 2 piano score in the Royal Academy library; the conductor’s score came from a library somewhere in Germany & orchestral parts came from a private collection from the Netherlands. It was a fantastic experience to bring all these bits of the ‘puzzle’ together & perform that beautiful music live in Petrozavodsk, Russia for the 1st time in more than 100 years after the composer’s death…

There is so much music out there that needs bringing to life. I don’t think anyone’s life is long enough to revive it all. But I know there are more people like me around the world & together we can fill in those gaps.

What is the most difficult thing you have had to overcome as a pianist? 

I guess the most difficult thing was the very beginning. As I wanted to be able to play as soon as possible, I had to cram in lots. I do remember practicing in the evening (it must have been in the first few weeks of my piano experience): there were power cuts at the time and I had to use a candle on the top of the piano; I was struggling – reading, finding the notes on the piano with the correct fingers… soon I was in tears. My Mum came to the room & said: “Valya (short for Valentina), if you are finding it too difficult, we can stop piano lessons.” But I was firm: “I want to play the piano, I want to be a concert pianist!”.

There are no impossible things – what you need is to really really want it & to put the hard work in. My Professor used to say: 1% talent & 99% very hard work! I would agree.

What makes a great concert pianist?

I guess the answer to that question is in the last sentence of the previous question’s answer.

Seriously, there are many qualities needed to become wonderful musician & brilliant instrumentalist, but the essentials are: talent plus lots and lots of very hard work for many years. But believe me – it’s worth it! I forgot about my tears within a week & I enjoyed (and I’m still enjoying) every second of my piano practice & playing. In fact it was my Mum who reminded me about my about the struggle at the beginning about two years ago, I had totally forgotten about it.

Which other living concert pianists influence you and why?

Do you know, that’s really hard to answer! There are so many of the living pianists that I admire and especially Martha Argerich – as a female role model of a pianist & musician.

However, most of the pianists whose playing I love & admire are dead. Sometimes I think to myself: I must have been born in the wrong time. I still listen to many old recordings of the 20th century – Rachmaninov, Horowitz, Richer, Myra Hess… the list is endless! And I adore their poetic playing, you can’t find nowadays the living and breathing and phrasing that speaks & touches you as much as that of the old masters! I do hope somehow we’ll be able to retrieve it & find it again – the new generation would benefit from that tremendously!

Any advice to young pianists out there who wish to pursue a career as concert pianists? 

I probably would repeat myself but as with anything in life, it requires very hard work, persistency (and maybe a bit of luck) and believing in music & in yourself. If you don’t, you won’t be able to make it. I know it’s very hard and sometimes it might feel like giving up but every time you hear the applause, you feel the affection, you see the excitement of the audience, wanting more, you know it’s worth it!

Your hopes for the future?

I do hope for lots of things as we all do. But I’ll say I hope for health, love & peace in the world, and then all our hopes & dreams can come true.

http://www.valentinaseferinova.com/Home.html

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Raffi Besalyan

Armenian-born American pianist Raffi Besalyan made his formal New York debut in Carnegie Hall after winning the Artists International Competition and was subsequently invited to perform at Merkin Concert Hall on the Artists International “Outstanding Alumni-Winners” series.  

Besalyan has won top prizes in several national and international competitions. Among them are MTNA National Competition, Josef Hofmann International Piano Competition, Frinna Awerbuch International Competition, and Artists International Competition in New York. Besalyan made his New York Recital Debut in Carnegie Recital Hall in 2003 to high critical acclaim. He regularly performs throughout North America, Europe, Russia and Asia.

“Technically brilliant… audacious spirit and poetic substance, deeply felt tenderness.” 
- NEW YORK CONCERT REVIEW

“true heir of the mainstream of Russian pianism, like Horowitz” 
- CHOPIN MAGAZINE, JAPAN

 

Raffi Besalyan by Strider Jordan

Raffi Besalyan by Strider Jordan

How did your interest in piano playing start?

I think I have always liked classical music. When I was very little I remember being drawn to the radio or TV whenever they had classical concerts on, or opera broadcasts. I was particularly fond of Puccini and Rachmaninoff…now it seems odd, as at the time I was probably only three. An interesting fact is that I am from a completely non-musical family, to be more specific, from a family of engineers. I am the only one who pursued classical music professionally.

My interest in piano started when I was about five years old. At the time my older brother was attending a music school for violin, and my parents had to purchase a piano to aid his studies. I was immediately attracted to the sound of the piano. I first began playing by ear, and soon at the suggestion of my brother’s theory and solfege teacher who briefly auditioned me and thought I am talented, my parents enrolled me in to a professional music school.

Few years later I was accepted in to the Tchaikovsky Special Music School for Gifted Children in my native Yerevan, Armenia. There I received really superb education. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be trained in the Great Russian tradition of piano playing! The Russian/Soviet curriculum was very demanding, intense and extremely thorough in every aspect from the very early stages.

Did any tutors/professors create a special impression on you? Who and why?

I would say that every teacher I have had since the very beginning left a profound impression. However, one of my main teachers, Sergei Barseghyan, with whom I began at the Tchaikovsky school and studied throughout my conservatory years, and under whom I received my Doctorate (Aspirantura), is the one who molded me into the musician I am today. He patiently worked on building and refining my technique and musicianship.Mr. Barseghiyan is a person of a very subtle taste, which I believe he passed on to me.

The other two pianists whom I have had the great fortune to study with and who left a great impact on me are the legendary American pianist and Vladimir Horowitz protégé, Byron Janis and concert pianists Sara Davis Buechner.

I have met them both in New York. Mr. Janis’ dazzling technique, his electrifying performances and his colors at the instrument are incomparable. The qualities that impress the most in Mrs. Buechner’s playing are the fluidity, excitement, and her subtle and nuanced approach to the pedaling, phrasing and structure.

Which living pianists do you admire today and why?  

Well, I have already mentioned two of my own teachers Janis and Buechner in the previous question.

The living pianist that I admire the most is Martha Argerich. To me she has a very special “golden” musical aura. There is certain naturalness to her incredible technique that no other pianist possesses. Her tone is gorgeous, colors are extremely subtle, and the fluidity of her legato is out of this world. I can go on…she is simply special!

There are others that I like in certain repertoire, but the ones that I really admire are already gone-Cortot, Horowitz, Arrau, Gilels.

Advice to young pianists…

Since this is a very competitive world, just being a polished pianist is not enough. One needs to have charisma and personality in his/her playing, the ability to draw in and command the audience with a unique style and manner.

I would also advise to learn some tricks of marketing and networking using all the social media available today. Most schools offer classes in management; perhaps it would be helpful to take a semester of an introductory course.

Commitment, hard work and persistence are as important as the God’s gift. Never give up if you really love what you are doing, believe in yourself and your time will come! Take chances; never say “No” to any opportunity that comes your way, especially when you are young.

What is the most difficult experience/challenge that you have overcome as a pianist?

I am a perfectionist by nature and my own worst critic. So trying to finally realize that nothing in life (…and for that matter in playing the piano) is perfect, and embracing/accepting things as they are and not getting easily discouraged is something that I had to overcome.

Career highlights up to now? What are your hopes for the future?

My New York recital debut in Carnegie Hall and a return performance at the Merkin Concert Hall; Chicago debut in the famed Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center with the Rhapsody in Blue; concert tours in Japan (the country I truly love), including my debut in 2001 in Osaka with an All-American program, performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto with the Osaka Symphony in Izumi Hall, multi-city concert tour in celebration of Niigata Nippo newspaper’s 70th Anniversary, performances in Tokyo; performance of Brahms’ First Concerto in Venice, Italy; release of my award-winning, critically acclaimed debut album “Dance, Drama, Decadence” (IMC Music, Japan, 2012) and now, “The Return” (Sono Luminus, 2015), which was most recently broadcast on several classical radio stations across the U.S. (WFMT Chicago, WRUV Seattle, WGBH Boston, Wisconsin Public Radio, SiriusXM Classical Symphony Hall Channel in Washington D.C.), and it just received a wonderful review from the UK on Classical CD Reviews.com (http://www.classical-cd-reviews.com/search/label/Raffi%20Besalyan); most recently, my Detroit recital debut for ProMusica of Detroit at Max M. Fisher Music Center and a concert for the 30th Anniversary of The Distinguished Artists Concert Series in beautiful Santa Cruz, CA.

I am very pleased to announce that I will make my debut as a soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the great Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a special concert on June 20, 2015.

My hopes for the future are to play with more orchestras here in the U.S. and abroad, have more recital engagements and continue the recording collaboration with the superb Sono Luminus.

In recent years, You have dazzled your audiences in North and South America, Europe, Russia, and Asia, appearing as a soloist with the Osaka Symphony Orchestra (Japan), the Orchestra Sinfonica Del Festival Di Chioggia in Venice (Italy), the Yerevan Symphony Orchestra (Armenia), the Belgorod Symphony (Russia), the Kharkov Symphony (Ukraine), the New Jersey Festival Orchestra, the Owensboro Symphony (Kentucky), and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Does classical music critique/appreciation differ in these various countries/continents? If so, how?

I think the classical music appreciation is pretty much the same everywhere. However, the audiences in Europe, Russia and Japan are a bit more knowledgeable about classical music, art and literature in general. Many people in these countries have some musical background, thus the classical genre is more accessible to them and less intimidating.

raffibesalyan.com

http://www.youtube.com/user/TAOmusicarts

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Anna Buchenhorst

Anna Buchenhorst is a full-time professional pianist at the Royal Opera in Stockholm and tours internationally with the Royal Swedish Ballet.

Anna Buchenhorst – photo credit Alex bild

 

She explains more about her early years, influences and work …

I come from a musical family, my mother was my first teacher and me and my brother Per Rundberg played four-hands a lot as children and still do to this day.

We lived close to a forest and I like to think that nature gave me the calmness that is needed for this profession.

Can you tell us a bit about your early music education in the North of Sweden?

When I grew older I got a teacher called Björn Ejdemo. He was a fantastic pianist and pedagog, very inspiring and I still tend to turn to him when I have important concerts coming up.

Did any tutors/professors along the way create a lasting impression on you? 

My first musical studies at the Academy of Music in Gothenburg was with Stella Tjajkovski, a polish professor and concert pianist and also survivor of the concentration camp in Auschwitz. With her I got to play a lot of Chopin and also Bach and Mozart.
 Later I moved to Budapest, Hungary to study at the Liszt-Academy with Márta Gulyás and I liked very much how she combined musical teaching with technical solutions.

Later I came to London to study with Peter Feuchtwanger, who was interested in Zen Buddhism, and gave me some exercises based on the the philosophy of letting it happen, which I still do every morning.

Inspiration …

My first inspiration was and still is my brother Per Rundberg, but I also love the way Murray Perahia played the Mozart concertos, Radu Lupo plays Schubert and Gregory Sokolov plays Couperin to mention a few.

I try to frequent piano recitals as often as I can, live music is something much more interesting than recordings, and I like to sit close to the performers.

Anna Buchenhorst – photo caption: Annaguld högupplöst

 

Advice to young pianists?

You have to like your practice.
 You shouldn’t do this to become rich and famous, but rather because you love piano music.

Be open to new connections, you never know who will help you to get concerts.

Never cancel a concert and choose your projects carefully.

If someone is jealous it’s name of the game, just laugh at it inside.

Be persevering and try to have fun along the way. 
 Try to find your love for music every day.

The most difficult challenge overcome as a pianist?

The combination of being a single mother with two daughters and a pianist wasn’t always easy, but it also gave me a lot of strength and motivation. My little family helped me to switch off from the stressful bits of artistry, and I learned how to plan my time.

Recently I had to learn the piano part to twenty newly written trumpet concerts for a competition in a short time, I really regret accepting the invitation but I didn’t cancel. I also made some new rules for my sight reading – always look a few bars ahead!

Can you tell us a bit about your experience at the Liszt Academy in Budapest? 

The biggest difference compared my studies in Sweden was that there were about ten times as many pianists and that their tradition and history is very impressive. Those two years where absolutely amazing!

Career highlights? 

I always hope that my highlight or peak will be my next concert, so at the moment I am looking forward to playing Mozart’s piano concerto no 21 in two weeks with a symphony orchestra in the north of Sweden. (I just love to play with orchestras, as a soloist or even just an ordinary piano part. I was playing violin as a child and that helped my understanding of the orchestra a lot.)
 Travelling in Chopin’s footsteps last summer was a recent highlight that made me come closer to the understanding of a composer. 
I also have a nice memory of working with the comedian Victor Borge. He was clear and demanding and we got a funny clip that I have on YouTube playing Chopin:

http://www.annabuchenhorst.se/Anna_Buchenhorst/Home.html

@AnnaBuchenhorst

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Jean Muller

Philharmonie Luxembourg. In concentration (http://www.pianistjm.com)

Philharmonie Luxembourg. In concentration
(http://www.pianistjm.com)The young Luxembourg-born pianist has a strong sense of drama and detail, as well as fine fingers and a big-hearted conceptual approach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The young Luxembourg-born pianist has a strong sense of drama and detail, as well as fine fingers and a big-hearted conceptual approach.

Jessica Duchen – **** BBC MUSIC, 2012/11

“A truly superb pianist.”
-Philippe van den Bosch, Classica

“A major talent.”
​-Bryce Morrison, Gramophone

In 1999 at Bratislava, Muller was a laureate of the Tribune Internationale des Jeunes Interprètes, organized by the European Broadcasting Union on behalf of UNESCO.

In 2004, he received the first prize at three French piano competitions in Arcachon, Vanves (Jean Françaix) and Brive (Francis Poulenc).

In 2007, Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg elevated Jean Muller to the rank of Knight of the Civil and Military Order of Merit of Adolph of Nassau in gratitude for his performances during official state visits.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Muller#Awards)

Interest in music …

I was born into a family of musicians, so the interest developed rather naturally. My father is a pianist and my mother plays the viola in the “Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg”. Thus I have known very early large chunks of the repertoire for piano and strings and I had the privilege to assist to countless orchestra concerts since my early childhood.

Recent work…

The main focus of my repertoire is on Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. In 2013 I have been touring the program of my Chopin Recital CD, and last year I fulfilled one of my childhood’s dream by performing live in concert the complete set of the Transcendental Etudes by Liszt along with Horowitz’s transcription of the Mephisto-Waltz No1. I also realized a complete performance of the Beethoven-Sonatas in concert, which has been released as a live recording on the German label Bella Musica.

Future projects include the complete set of Mozart Sonatas, as well as touring a recital with a programme of Russian music and last but not least several performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

What is the most difficult thing you have overcome as a pianist? 

As a concert pianist you have to face being on stage, which implies that one should be both very sensitive and totally without fear to perform. I believe this is a major difficulty for any artist, and the most difficult thing to overcome. You have to embrace your innermost deep emotions while being able to control them. It is a balance for which you have to fight every day!

Salle Cortot Chopin Recital in Paris

Salle Cortot
Chopin Recital in Paris

Which living concert pianists influence you and why?

I would like to quote 3 pianists: Radu Lupu, Maria Joao Pires and Lang Lang. Lupu for his ability to transform any hall into a temple of music, Pires for the sheer emotional authenticity she brings to the scores she performs and Lang Lang for his showmanship which never lacks of the highest musical intelligence paired with absolute command of the keyboard.

Any advice to young pianists out there who wish to pursue a career as concert pianists? 

 The same I give to my students when they ask me whether they should pursue a career as a pianist: Don’t do it! Only those who really need to become a concert pianist will get there, and they don’t need my advice.

 Your hopes for the future…

Personally I enjoy the present, because the only time you can do something is now! As for humanity: well as long that we know there is the concept of hope, not all is lost…

 

http://www.pianistjm.com

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https://twitter.com/pianistjm

https://www.youtube.com/user/PianistJM

 

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