Piano Connections with Barbara

JUST CALL ME A PIANIST! April 30, 2021 

We live in a time when gender and identity are frequent topics of discussion. When it comes to piano playing, how important is the gender of the artist? We certainly don’t identify my male colleagues as male pianists. They are just pianists. Why the need to create a special category for women pianists? Personally, I would like to be perceived as just a pianist— a pianist who happens to be a woman –- just don’t call me a woman pianist! 

So often in interviews the question has been asked if as a woman, I have felt discriminated against by the music profession. Perhaps that is not the right question—wouldn’t it be more appropriate and beneficial to discuss the opportunities available for young artists to be heard and the proper environment for individual voices to develop. Each of us, regardless of gender, brings individuality to the art of music-making.  Every artist contributes a unique blend of strength and sensitivity. However, the ultimate question that needs to be asked regardless of gender identity is if the level of talent is strong enough to communicate the message of the composer directly to the hearts of the listeners. The touching of souls— that is what artistry is all about! 

I often remember after my concerts hearing comments like “you play like a man” and numerous compliments about my physical strength at the keyboard. These observations can be understood and also forgiven because most people don’t realize that it doesn’t take strength to make a big sound at the piano— just proper coordination of all the elements working together in harmony along with gravity and weight technique to enhance the sound—all delivered without force or tension. The bottom line is that you don’t have to be a 300-pound weightlifter to get a rich sound at the keyboard. Even a small child is capable of producing a big sound at the instrument. 

I guess there is a certain preconception when one sees a female at the piano— the false assumption that she might be delicate enough to play Mozart or Haydn but she dare not tackle the big guys like Liszt or Prokofiev. And that just ain’t so!  Another stereotype that needs to be refuted or perhaps a holdover from the time when all proper young ladies were able to sit down at the fortepiano and perform adequately in public.  

As the saying goes, “we’ve come a long way baby!” And we are firmly on the pathway. 

Now let’s make sure that all of us, regardless of gender, develop our own individuality and let our voices be heard distinctly over the roar of the crowd. And most importantly, always let the voice of the composer shine through! 

A YEAR HAS GONE BY AND WHAT A YEAR IT'S BEEN!! April 3, 2021 

Hard to believe that over a year ago most of us were going about our daily lives without giving much thought about the COVID virus or its ramifications.  

I treasure the special memory of my last recital in New York City last March. It was held in St. Stephen’s Church, a beautiful sanctuary not far from Lincoln Center. As I was trying out the piano the day before and rehearsing Liszt’s B-minor Sonata, I remember thinking that the composer himself probably would have liked being in this lovely space—Liszt would frequently stop at churches along the way to his concerts and usually sit down at the organ and do some improvising. Coincidentally I opened my recital program the next day with his wonderful transcription of Bach’s Organ Prelude and Fugue in A minor. 

Perhaps the memory that I cherish most from that March concert was the feeling that everyone in the audience truly wanted to be there—it’s as if we were already starved for the music that was needed to provide nourishment for our souls. In retrospect—sadly, this was the last live concert that most of us would be able to experience for a long while. The next day after my recital, New York City went dark and everything shut down. 

And what have we been doing since then? Playing the piano of course! Since I was a child, the piano has been my constant companion and best friend. It has helped me survive and cope with difficult times. And living with Beethoven sonatas this past year has been such a joy and a challenge.  He certainly doesn’t make it easy for the pianist, but the process of wrestling with these extraordinary works has nourished both my brain and my soul. 

As a performer, I am always trying to get closer to the composer’s intention. I remember what Stravinsky said when asked what was the best interpretation of one of his compositions. And his answer was “when I heard it for the very first time in that moment of creation when it came to me— that represented the ideal.”  And that is the constant quest of the performer—to get a little closer every time to the composer’s ideal—to that moment of divine creation. 

That is what I have tried to do with my latest recording—the last sonatas of Franz Schubert. I had learned these sonatas as a young university student but to revisit them now at this point in my life has been a revelation. There is so much pain and joy and beauty contained within these late works. 

And remember what Schubert said about his music, “It is a combination of my genius and my misery.” 

And don’t forget the joy that he shares with all of us!! So very much needed these days!

HERE'S TO THE NEW YEAR! January 4, 2021 

So many of us were anxious for 2020 to come to an end, but there are always lessons to be learned from difficult times. The overcoming of obstacles is what musicians do practically every day with their daily practice. However, these struggles of the past year were unfamiliar to most of us and represented unique challenges. 

I learned from these past months how important music and the piano are to my well-being. Playing the piano has kept me sane and focused during these trying times. Interesting that the composer I want to spend time with every day in my studio is Beethoven—not always the easiest guy to be around but my wrestling matches with him and his music are always stimulating and challenging. He always takes me away from where I am and we travel together to far away places. And Beethoven encourages me to go deeper into myself to try and understand his message. It’s a life-long relationship and a constant challenge. And what a blessing these days to be able to live with Beethoven and dwell within his music. 

I believe that I now can understand a little better how isolation affected him and his compositions. His deafness left him totally alone within his own sound world. No outside influences, no distractions, only the freedom to follow his own pathway wherever it would lead him. Working on his late sonatas, it is amazing the places where he dared to travel, always without a safety net. There is boldness and courage in his independence. And Beethoven is the poster child for overcoming difficulties. His deafness, usually considered a liability became an asset towards achieving greatness. 

My last public concert was on March 8th in New York City and similar to the fate of most musicians, all engagements since then have been cancelled. The need to perform again found another outlet in my studio. Speaking into my MAC, a new series was created called “Behind the Notes.” Each of these programs focuses on one composer and I share the work that I do at the piano while trying to get closer to the spirit and soul of these great ones. It has been fun putting together these 14 programs so far (with more to come) and to create an educational library for the young student and music lover to appreciate. When audiences see me perform on the stage, they hear a somewhat finished product, arrived at after much struggle but rarely does a performer talk about the process and what goes on during the many hours of preparation. And that is what I share within these programs. 

It has been a joy to put this series together and immerse myself into the world of these composers. It has made me go back and explore and rediscover pieces that I have not played in many years so the process has been a growing experience as well as a time of reevaluation. It has made me aware of my musical growth and the mission that I wish to accomplish in this life. 

And more importantly it has been fun to share, as best I can, with an audience that at the moment is feeling a bit isolated from their community. There is no doubt that music is a nurturer of the soul and can help restore a well needed balance and equilibrium.  I remember as a child the magical world that the piano opened to me— what a privilege and a blessing it is to reenter that secret place and take you with me on an exciting voyage.   

Here is the opening program of our “Behind the Notes” series featuring everybody’s favorite Beethoven sonata, The Moonlight. Enjoy!   

CLICK HERE:

BOLDNESS & COURAGE! September 1, 2020 

Recently I participated in an online webinar for pianists—we were discussing the why’s and why nots of memorization, an essential tool for public performance. After that dialogue came the realization that it takes a great amount of boldness and courage plus a huge leap of faith and trust to walk out on the stage and sit down at the piano, exposed—warts and all— for all the world to see. We trust that our memory will work and not fail us and that our fingers will remember how and where to move around the piano. Most importantly, we pray for our hearts and souls to be engaged so we can try and create a magical experience for everyone including ourselves.   

And why would anyone want to subject themselves to this trying experience? 
Because the artist feels that he has something to say—something to communicate that might touch the souls of those who listen— a personal point of view to share through the music. The English psychiatrist Winnicott analyzed this as the “need of the artist to make symbols.” The poet uses words; the musician relies on sound. Somehow this process allows the craziness of the current world to seem more bearable and to give the artist a sense of mission and fulfillment.  

So many of us sit in our music studios and we practice.  We follow our nose and keep trying to chip away to get a little closer to the composer’s spirit and to what his music demands. But performing on the concert stage can be a very different experience than just playing in our living room. 

Yet most audiences never realize the anxiety that can accompany a public performance. The body doesn’t seem to function normally the day of a concert. Add the problems of travelling and sleeping or not sleeping the night before. And then there is the nervousness that accompanies the backstage waiting. They call it “fight or flight”—the body’s innate response to danger. Most performers know that feeling. I remember wanting to crawl out a window and disappear before one concert began, but there was no window there for my escape. And then by some miracle once I walked out on stage and sat down at the piano, I calmed to the fact that I was going to make music that evening for everyone to hear. 

Adrenalin affects each of us so differently. Performers learn to cope with it and try and make it their friend. Adrenalin can certainly help to make any performance much more exciting with faster than normal tempos, usually the result of a more rapid heartbeat.  However, adrenalin must be controlled or else it will take over and be in control. Frequently the performer is forced to learn on stage (publicly and sometimes painfully) how to cope with this friend or foe. Even great artists are not immune to its problems or the disasters it can cause. 

I always think of performing as having the courage to go out and do a high-wire act without a safety net. And sometimes the magic does happen and the music soars to the heavens— those are the rare concerts that play by themselves—or so it seems. However, there is always that delicate balance between control and freedom that must be found. Too much control and the performance can remain earthbound— cautious, a little boring and much too predictable. Too much freedom and we can risk a train wreck. But somewhere in between exists that perfect balance where everything functions in divine harmony. And that is when the magic can happen!!

Perhaps that is the addiction—why we need to keep getting back up on that horse to try again—striving not for perfection but for the harmony of all the elements coming together—always in search of that special place where the performer is at one with the music and the composer. And that is when all of us can come close to experiencing that divine moment of creation.

It’s a life-long challenge yet a blessing as well—a true passion that helps us survive even the craziness of today’s world.

HOW DO YOU MEMORIZE!! July 22, 2020 

I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me after a concert and said, “And you don’t use music!!” They are amazed that solo musicians actually memorize the works they are performing. Given the choice of performing a work with or without music, I would always choose to perform without using the score (or using an I-pad.) Personally, it would be a distraction to have to put on my glasses to read the music; that is what I do only when I am beginning to learn a new composition. And more importantly it would make me feel inhibited at the piano, not as free to focus completely on the music. I strongly believe that any performer who chooses to get on the stage and share with an audience has the responsibility to know the work inside and out, to understand how the composer put it together and be committed to a personal conception of the work. Without that, how could the pianist convince the listener that it is worth his time to listen! To master the notes is not enough; that is only the starting point. So to answer these folks, I always say, memorization is just one of the many elements that goes into preparing a piece for concert performance. There are so many more obstacles to overcome before one is ready to walk out on stage and perform. 

But let’s get back to the problem of memorization. How does one memorize? Recently a friend of mine who just went back to study the piano in her retirement years told me that she just could not memorize. I do not agree with her; I believe that the problem she encountered was that she was trying to memorize too soon— before she truly was acquainted with the music. She had not mastered its technical problems, had not analyzed how the piece was put together and was trying to memorize measure by measure using a rote technique—that never works. It’s also a tedious and boring way of practicing! What that method brings with it is fear— the fear of forgetting and the fear of failure when the time comes to perform. Memorization should only take place when the piece is ready to be memorized—when all of its problems have been mastered. 

I believe that the most important element for memorization and performance is focus and concentration. One cannot perform at the highest level if you are thinking about what you are going to cook for dinner that evening. The focus must be on the music and where you are at that precise moment in the musical journey. The bigger picture must be analyzed and grasped—the total structure. We’ve all heard the saying: “Seeing the forest for the trees.” In performance that applies; it doesn’t work the other way around. Seeing only the trees translates to hearing only the details and not understanding how these details contribute to shaping the entire composition. The artist needs to comprehend how the composer conceived the work and try to get closer to his spirit and character at that very moment of creation. The true artist keeps striving to capture that magical moment of conception. And our work is never finished!! 

Focus and concentration are essential tools of the trade. Some people do breathing exercises; others do yoga or meditation to help them to focus and rid themselves of all the extra chatter. I know some artists who sit and do crossword puzzles before a concert to cope with their nervous energy. Whatever works to calm oneself down and helps with the adrenalin buildup that accompanies any performance is a valid tool. And we do need that flow of adrenalin; we need that extra element of excitement—being in the moment. Getting on the stage takes boldness and courage—it is a special event. Without that extra burst of energy, most of us would play like automatons. So, we need to make adrenalin our friend and not our foe.  We must learn how to deal with adrenalin and also understand how it can make our bodies react to the stress. Accept the fact that most people do get nervous before they are walking out on stage to “do their thing.” That is a healthy reaction. Use the techniques I have mentioned to remain as calm as possible and to get “in the zone” where you will not be distracted by anything extraneous. Build that invisible wall of protection between yourself and the audience. Residing within this sacred space, there is only you and the music. And frankly the focus should not be on you but on the composer and his masterpiece that you have the privilege of performing. And what a privilege and opportunity has been given to you to share! And quite a responsibility as well! That is the attitude necessary to make the magic of music happen and to touch the hearts of listeners. 

However, before this point is reached, we need to do our homework—technically and musically. If we don’t master every technical problem these difficulties will definitely return to haunt us during the performance and most likely affect our memory as well. You can count on that!! Also we need to analyze the composition—know its form and the structure and understand its key relationships. We need to discover secure structural marking points, places that can be relied upon should an unexpected “detour” occur. Let me give you an example. You are playing a concert; you are definitely in the zone; everything is going so well, and suddenly, someone’s cell phone goes off— it’s the most beautiful moment in the adagio and you as well as the audience are jolted out of that special place and you are dangerously close to losing your concentration and memory. What do you do? You can’t stop the performance—you must go on. It is at moments like this that you need to have in your mind exactly where you are in the total structure, a marking point that you can jump to just in case it is needed. Accept the fact that none of us are perfect; we are human and we are not machines. Nor do we want to play the piano like machines!  The goal of performance should not be about perfection. It is about sharing the glory of this wonderful music with others—raising the bar so that music can inspire and nurture the souls of those who listen. 

And after all the work has been done and you feel ready to go out there and share this music with the public, then you must practice performing. If you don’t prepare yourself in performance mode, you might be surprised how differently you will feel that first time you walk out on stage when adrenalin kicks in. Trust me, it’s a very different feeling than just playing for yourself in your living room. The issues of control and freedom also need to be addressed. How much freedom can you exercise without losing control and how much control do you need without losing your freedom of expression. Being too cautious can be boring but going the other way can turn into a disaster!  And the answer to these questions comes with the experience of getting out there every time and doing it—always with focus and concentration. And trust me, no performance is ever the same. These techniques of concentration and focus must be practiced and learned so they become second nature; they need to become part of your DNA. Actually you should not practice the piano without having the necessary focus and concentration to do so.  Lots of time will be saved that way!! 

Playing the piano is a life-long challenge and a wonderful addiction— the need to make glorious music and to share it. Rachmaninoff was right: Music is enough for a lifetime but a lifetime is not enough for music. And so we keep trying and we keep chipping away at it! 

It provides a bit of sanity in our crazy world!! 

                                               

YES INDEED, THE PIANO DOES MATTER!! April 20, 2020 

Ever since I was a child, all I ever wanted to do was play the piano. I believe that my awareness of the instrument began the first time I heard my older sister trying to master Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor. I must have been four or five years old, and that is the moment I started to beg my mother for piano lessons. In our neighborhood, there was one piano teacher who serviced the entire block of row houses, going from door to door teaching every child how to play the piano. Looking back, I can understand how he did it— he used the “one size fits all” approach, and his rote method proved successful. I think he could have taught a monkey how to play with his technique of  “repeat after me: first line E, second line G, etc.” Except that method didn’t work for me. I never could remember what he was asking me to repeat, and guess I just didn’t understand. After several unsuccessful attempts to teach me, he concluded that I was a lost cause and generously suggested to my mother to stop wasting her money as her little girl was never going to be able to play the piano. However, my mother was not someone to give up that easily, and she insisted that we continue. In retrospect, I am a wonderful example of a late-bloomer. The light bulb did not go on until several years later, and then I just started to read music on my own. So the adage that a child learns when they are ready to learn is appropriate here, and I am living proof of that. 

Thank goodness for the piano. Growing up it became my secret best friend. I could tell it anything; it knew when I was happy or upset, and playing the piano always made me feel better. It represented a safe and magical space where nobody else could enter. It blocked out the world around me and transported me to a very special and sacred place filled with beautiful melodies. And it still does! 

The piano has helped me to weather many storms encountered during difficult periods of my life. And now, when all of us are hibernating in forced isolation, my constant friend is my Steinway. What I find so interesting is the music I have chosen for my seclusion. I have no desire to be with anyone else but Beethoven these days. He is the composer who speaks to me at this moment in time. Perhaps now I can better understand his sense of isolation— the silence and lack of social contact. Reworking one of his late sonatas, Op. 101, I realize that this blocking out of the world enabled him to be the revolutionary that he was— to go his own way without distractions. Nobody influenced Beethoven or stopped him from soaring to the heights he achieved. And he left his mark on every composer who followed him. 

I am amazed by his strength of character, his vision and his humanity.  As deep as his soul seemed to be, he could still speak to every man with directness and relevance. Exploring his piano sonatas, I am stunned by the modernity of his writing— so ahead of his time— the voice of the future. 

I am pleased to share with all of you, our latest CD that has just been released. I have gone back to the early sonatas that I learned many years ago. What a joy to revisit old friends and see things much more clearly than I did in my youth. I am amazed by the virtuosity of the master and the minimalism of expression.

There is no filler in these works—just direct communication from his heart straight to ours.  What a blessing for all of us!

A NEW CHAPTER!  January 4, 2020 

A new year- a new decade- new beginnings- a fresh new calendar proclaiming that we are going forward into the future presents us with new and exciting possibilities. The blank page beckons and awaits our decisions as to where we want to travel on this journey! Where will our time be spent and what will become most important as we proceed on life’s pathway. Having just celebrated a landmark birthday, I am even more aware of the value of time.  Fortunately now I can focus on the things I wish to leave behind for future generations. 

On that note, I am delighted to share with you that the Three Oranges Foundation is now firmly established and up and running. (http://threeorangesfoundation.org)  I am excited by the possibilities and how many souls can be touched with the sharing of our educational projects.  Our mission is to make music accessible to many— to bring it into the community, into the schools—to make it a vital part of everyday life, and to make a difference. 

It is my firm belief that anyone can respond to classical music—the factory worker as well as the university professor. Prior education is not required. The only prerequisite is the ability to listen and allow ourselves the freedom to feel and go where the music takes us.  How fortunate musicians are!  No translation required—no words are needed to express emotions and transport the performer and listener to a magical place. 

Perhaps that’s why I adore the romanticism of the 19th century. There is a freedom within the music to go wherever the heart wants to travel—and what a wide range of emotions to experience along the way. When I think of Rachmaninoff and his music, I hear his divine gift to take us to the darkest places. But he never just leaves us there to wallow in the grief; he always manages to bring us back into the light—back into the sunshine—more enriched than before by the journey. 

Our latest CD on the Three Oranges label (http://threeorangesrecordings.com) Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev & Ramey includes a recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata- the earlier uncut version as well as his Six Moments Musicaux. These works present a technical challenge for the pianist especially for a pianist like me with a small hand and limited stretch—just imagine Rachmaninoff’s huge hands that could expand to cover nearly a 15th on the keyboard-- I can barely manage a ninth! In addition to the technical challenges, these works present us with an emotional and spiritual hurdle. We need to trust in what Rachmaninoff is saying and open our soul to go with him to these darker places of the heart.  And after all its technical challenges are conquered and its many notes mastered, only then do we have the freedom to experience the music’s many emotional and spiritual layers. And the good news is that every time we explore these works, there is so much more to be discovered. Each performance becomes a different moment in time. As we grow emotionally and spiritually, we uncover yet another layer. 

Quite enough to fill up the hours on that new calendar in the life of a pianist.

RAISING THE BAR March 20, 2019 

That’s what artists are supposed to do— with every performance, with every new challenge they try to raise the bar. Perhaps that is why true artists are never completely satisfied with their work—it could always be better! And they keep striving and working for the next time so they can get a little closer to the ideal. 

Who sets the standard? It is the artists themselves who set their own standard of excellence. The written words of a critic should not be necessary to tell the performing artist whether he has played well or not. Critics offer their educated opinion, but the real artist knows deep down in their gut if they are in “the zone” or off center. He is the one who has to answer to a higher master to judge whether he managed to come a little closer to the composer’s intentions. Ultimately, the artist competes with himself and wrestles with the level of his own talent with every performance and every recording. 

What is important to remember is that there is more than one pathway to interpreting a piece of music.  I am not talking about the quest for perfection here; note-perfect, correct performances can be saved for competitions. We are seeking a personal relationship with the music. Isn’t that why we keep going to concerts to hear the same repertoire performed many times by different pianists and listen to recordings of great artists from the past— all were individuals who brought a unique character to their interpretations.  What we are searching for is the magic and the power inherent within the music.  Our responsibility as performers is to bring out that sensibility so the music can soar and directly reach deep inside the souls of listeners. 

The older I get, the more I am amazed by this exciting process: digging under the notes to go as deeply as possible into the music, keeping our focus and getting rid of all outside interference, and allowing the music to come to you. Ultimately, we are raising the bar every time. It comes down to the unwritten agreement that the artist makes with the composer—the pact to get as close as possible to what their conception might have been at that very moment of creation.  That’s the ideal, and it is the responsibility of the performer to try and communicate this to the listener. 

What a joy to watch something grow and take shape and flower!  I have been preparing works for a series of recitals and recordings that I studied as a young student, but never truly performed in concert. The process has been a revelation. It gives me a good idea of where I had been so many years ago and how much I knew and didn’t know.  I am not talking only about technical mastery here—I am talking more about the search for musical meaning. That process of extracting what is meaningful and then making it your own— owning it in order to convincingly convey its meaning to others. 

And that is the real addiction. The artist is never satisfied so he keeps going, keeps working with an unreachable goal in mind. What a joy and a blessing to have this purpose and mission in life and also to embrace the responsibility that comes with it! 

My favorite quote from one of my favorite composers says it all.                        

“Music is enough for a lifetime but a lifetime is not enough for music.” 
Wise words from Sergei Rachmaninoff. 

And so we go forward!

“THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS” OR IS IT?? July 2, 2018 

At the reception after a recent concert, I was asked a very interesting and thought–provoking question. “What are you thinking about when you are performing music?“ I had just been playing music by Rachmaninoff and Liszt. “Is there a specific story that you are trying to tell?”  

As I attempted to answer, I realized that it never is about a story line; that would be far too specific and rather limiting in scope. It’s much more abstract than a concrete plot. Unconsciously we’re communicating emotion- feelings emerging from the sounds created. An English psychiatrist brilliantly explained the process as “the need to make symbols.” For the poet, it’s with words; for the musician, it’s with notes and how these come together.  For me, it is the most direct language with which to communicate and to touch souls.  

As I tried to explain what goes through my head as I am performing, I realized that most of the preparation work has been done beforehand. The analysis, the understanding of the form and structure, mastering the technical problems, shaping the work, coloring and pacing the climaxes— an awareness of how all the musical elements then combine to form a whole— something so complete that it feels inevitable as it unfolds.  

The performer tries to enter into the spiritual world of the composer to understand his intentions when the music was initially conceived. How is the work put together- how did the composer use all the elements available and how do they relate to each other? Ultimately, the performer tries to discover the composer’s secret: the magic that makes it a masterpiece.  

I remember a conversation that I once had with a piano professor who taught at the University where I had been a student. We were discussing how to learn a new piece of music. He proclaimed to me that he would always start with the details and then eventually the piece would come together. For me, it is just the opposite.  I believe that you must start with the big picture: tackle the form, see how all the pieces fit, and then once you have the shape of the work, the details will eventually follow. The mold must solidly be in place before uncovering the surprises revealed within. 

For me, playing the music of Rachmaninoff involves another problem— the issue of control and freedom— how to create that perfect balance between the two. Rachmaninoff pulls us into his deep Russian soul and the performer must enter his world to experience and convey the emotions that he must have been feeling when he wrote this music. Yet how far can we go inside his darkness without losing ourselves completely? The performer must walk an emotional tightrope. How easy to get swept away—never finding the pathway out of the darkness into the light! How much freedom can we have without losing complete control; how much control is necessary without sacrificing freedom of expression? That is the constant struggle in the quest for harmony and balance. 

So to return to that initial question: if we were only telling one specific story, how much easier that would be than boldly venturing out into the unknown with every performance.  However, it would not be as rich or as fulfilling an experience— emotionally, musically or spiritually for either the performer or the listener! 

And so we keep trying to get a little closer every time!! 

As Rachmaninoff so often said: “Music is enough for a lifetime but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

MUSIC FOR EVERYMAN! March 10, 2018 

There is so much talk these days about the death of classical music. People lament waning and aging audiences, and question the relevance of hearing serious music played well. Presenters always look at the economic equation- the bottom line and ask: can we sell it to our public? The question that should be asked is: how can we make this music relevant to people’s lives and build an audience for music that should be heard and experienced first-hand—music that nurtures the human soul. Within the complex world in which we find ourselves, music helps the human condition, and its message goes directly to the hearts of the listeners. 

It is a great pleasure to report that last Sunday, March 4, 2018 a recital of “Old & New Favorites” was presented to a packed house and a cheering audience at our little Carnegie Hall in my hometown of Lewisburg, West Virginia. Granted, the first half consisted of lots of “old chestnuts”- popular tunes that we all love to hear. However, the music was not watered down, and in the second part of the concert a “new favorite” was introduced— the uncut version of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Sonata— a work not frequently performed. 

I believe that the secret of this successful concert was in sharing my passion for these compositions with the people who were there—chatting with them and helping them to feel comfortable responding to the beauties of music that I love.  The music was made accessible and relevant by humanizing the composers, and providing the keys to open the door to understanding. 

Anyone with a set of ears and an open heart can respond to classical music. I experienced this early in my career when I was asked to be the first Artist-in Residence for the farm equipment company, John Deere. Hired for eight weeks spread out over the year, I was asked to develop a lunchtime series for the workers. The Steinway was wheeled into the lunchroom; the machines were turned off, and for 40 minutes, the men, while eating their brown bag lunches, listened to me talk about my good “friends”, Liszt, Chopin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff. As I walked in to my very first concert, one of the guys yelled out to me-“ Hey Blondie, how about a little Clair-de-Loonie!!” Luckily I had that in my fingers that day. The ice was broken and I played and chatted and shared with them the music that I was so passionate about. Then I invited all of them to come to my evening concert—that was also part of my deal with John Deere— to develop a lecture series for the general public— and I was lecturing that evening on the Liszt Sonata. And the good news is that so many of these men dressed up to come to my lecture with their families that evening; afterwards, they started asking me questions about my composer “friends.” So the experiment worked and we built up to a “standing- room only” audience for this lecture series! 

I have experienced the joy of sharing classical music with new listeners, and am excited to report that we have established the Three Oranges Foundation to continue our educational work through concerts, lectures, recordings, master-classes, symphonic appearances, and a new educational DVD series. Our purpose is to take classical music to the people and to make a difference in people’s lives— touching souls— giving them a sense of hope—inspiring them to reach for the impossible! And that is what it is all about. So thankful for this unique opportunity!

THE ELUSIVE SOUL OF CHOPIN November 22, 2017 

Chopin was such a complex man—an elusive personality with so many layers veiling his deep dark soul. Few knew the real man because he never revealed himself— never completely. Of course he could be charming, elegant, a man of fine taste and sophistication, extremely comfortable in Parisian society. Yet essentially Chopin remained a man in conflict within himself, and we hear this in his music. 

We have just released two new recordings of Chopin’s music that show such different sides to his complex personality. Chopin! – with the B minor Sonata, the Berceuse and the 4 Scherzi reveals the man who would have liked to have been a virtuoso but never had the strength or the personal inclination to follow the Lisztian pathway. The other recording is much more intimate—much more exposed—much more autobiographical. In the complete Nocturnes, Chopin comes closest to writing his autobiography. 

The Nocturnes are personal, honest, full of pain and melancholy; they are dramatic and passionate and also overflowing with nostalgia for the family and the home-land that he would never see again. With each nocturne, Chopin embarks on another spiritual journey. He bares his soul and allows us to listen to his heart. 

I’ve played these pieces for most of my performing life. With these recordings, I felt encouraged by the spirit of the composer to take a closer look at the man himself. There has always existed a stereotype of the weak, frail and sickly composer, and somehow this has informed the way so many pianists approach his music— especially his Nocturnes. It is time to shatter this false image of the man. 

Just because Chopin didn’t possess the strength or virtuosity of his good friend Liszt, does not imply that he did not understand virtuosity at the keyboard. And the four Scherzi are bold declamations of bravura mixed with tenderness and compassion. The B minor Sonata is Chopin working within a larger framework than usual and coming to grips with the structural problems of sonata form— it is Chopin venturing out of his comfort zone and doing it “his own way.” He makes us aware of the problems of holding this large structure together. Yet at the same time, his emotional range is extraordinary. 

Perhaps this accounts for the real difficulty of interpreting his music. Chopin keeps surprising us with his emotional mood swings. He is definitely not a weakling— he possessed boldness and power. And he is definitely not only a virtuoso— his natural poetry and depth of humanity always shine through. 

With his genius, Chopin manages to hit a nerve by pinpointing the emotions of everyman— the ups and downs, the highs and the lows that we all experience. We are blessed to be able to accompany him on his turbulent voyage.

THE POWER OF MUSIC! January, 2017 

As we begin a new year, I realize how grateful I am for so many things that are in my life.  I’m not speaking of material things but thinking about the joy of love, friendship and the power of music— that is what defines my life. And the sharing of it— now that is a privilege that we musicians are given— the joy of making music! 

And then our added bonus as performers is being able to experience the magic and see it grab hold of our audience. Sometimes we experience the joy on their faces, hear it in their words and occasionally witness their tears. Essentially, our mission is not only to bring the composer to life but to ideally share the creation of music at the very moment of its conception. That was Stravinsky’s definition of the perfect performance—“the moment that it was conceived!” 
  
Our job as performing musicians is to share the music’s magic!! And that experience just might make a profound difference on someone who might be listening. We are meant to touch souls!! I always define this when it happens as “divine intervention”— “getting help from above.”  Why do some performances just take hold and soar and others remain good, competent, well-played but totally earthbound. Perhaps, it is the “divine” component that creates the difference between just a good concert and an unforgettable, life-changing experience. 
  
That was the effect Franz Liszt had on his audiences. He was able to transport them to another world. I love the quote from one of Liszt’s contemporaries who had heard Liszt and also another virtuoso of his time, the pianist, composer and teacher Henselt, and he summed up the experience very well: “If you have heard Henselt once, you have heard him at all times, but Liszt you have never heard because he is always different.” Now I do believe that Liszt, being the devout Catholic that he was would have acknowledged “help from above” as the reason that his performances were able to touch the hearts of his listeners so deeply. And they could not get enough of the magic— it truly fed their souls and they always returned for more! 

Some artists can do that— others cannot. It is not a matter of technique or virtuosity— perhaps it just boils down to a different mindset about serving the music. The purpose is not to show off the speed of your octaves— as Liszt said “who cares how fast or loud you can play your octaves!!”— but to dig deeply under the notes for the musical and spiritual message — to get yourself out of the way so that the composer’s intentions can come through directly to reach and touch the audience. 
  
This past summer, my home state of West Virginia experienced horrible flooding— it was nicknamed the “thousand year flood” because nobody could remember when the State had been so hard-hit. The next town experienced terrible devastation— loss of life and loss of property. Where I live, we endured the heavy rains but were more fortunate— at least the Steinways in my studio were not floating down the river the way some people’s possessions were. Our electricity was out but we could cope with that for a couple of weeks — many of the roads were washed away so we were mainly confined to our homes.
 A terrible depression set in and most of us felt it. There was nothing to do but deal with it. I gravitated to my studio thankful that I could still sit down for a few hours at the piano and make some music. What surprised me was the composer that I most wanted to hear. I just wanted to play those beautiful heart-wrenching melodies of Rachmaninoff. My soul was hurting and I wanted to go to those dark places with him. The interesting thing about Rachmaninoff is that he does take you on a journey deep inside his soul but always manages to bring you back out into the sunshine, leaving you with hope in your heart.   

And that is the power of music— taking us from the earthbound world in which we live to a higher, almost magical place where we can briefly touch the essence of existence. Music provides a spiritual journey to the soul and the deeper we travel— the clearer becomes our vision of the world—a place where we do not feel completely alone or isolated with our pain.  It is a place of divine order where our lives do make sense for that brief period of time. 
  
How blessed we are!!!!

LIVING WITH FRANZ LISZT September 6, 2016 

Perhaps we did know each other in a former life. How I would love to think so!! Or perhaps in a previous incarnation, I was one of his adoring piano students, a member of his musical family who gravitated around the master in Weimar!! After reading his many letters, plus every flattering and non-flattering biography written about him, and immersing myself in his piano music, I am happy to report that the spirit of Franz Liszt is alive and well. Even today his words and his music remain timely and relevant. 

Many years ago when I was doing a music spot on a popular daytime television show in England- BBC’s Pebble Mill at One – and was speaking every week about another one of my composer “friends” as if I had known them personally, I received a note from a viewer asking me if I would like to meet Rosemary Brown. She was the lady who “communicated” with dead composers—Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt were dictating to her their musical works from “beyond.” By chance, a friend had given me her biography to read, and it had turned me into a believer. The English pianist John Lill and the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein also counted themselves among her supporters. This lady even managed to impress the people at the BBC when they put her through rigorous testing to determine how she managed to accomplish what she was doing with limited musical training. There seemed to be no logical explanation how a woman, basically uneducated in music, was able to write down these compositions if she weren’t getting help from “above.” She seemed to be the chosen “conduit” through which the spirits of these great composers could communicate.  And so with delight and excitement, I accepted an invitation to have tea with Rosemary Brown at her Wimbledon flat. And that marked the beginning of our friendship—a friendship that lasted until her death.

I’ll never forget the first words that she said to me when we met: “Oh, Liszt has told me all about you!” According to Rosemary, Liszt was the most sociable of the entire group of her composer friends; he communicated often with her and assumed the role of Rosemary’s chief protector.  It just so happened that I was in the middle of performing several concerts with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. During tea, Rosemary informed me that Rachmaninoff had told her to give me a message about the second movement. “I wasn’t paying enough attention to a voice that he wanted me to bring out in the 12th measure of the solo piano part.”  Now I was truly astounded at this bit of technical information, and sure enough, when I went home and checked the score, Rosemary or should I say “Rachmaninoff” was absolutely right!! That hidden voice did need to be brought out more!! 
  
But back to our friend Liszt— for the past several years I have been living with this composer, putting together a DVD portrait of this extraordinary man while focusing on his masterwork for the piano, the Sonata in B minor. After reading Liszt’s letters, I decided to tell his story using only his words and the words of his contemporaries. Liszt suffered so much within his lifetime, and I believe that even today, he remains a man misunderstood—not only musically but also personally. To truly understand his Sonata in B minor, his confessional that he wrote for his favorite instrument, we need to peel away all the layers to arrive at the soul of the man. Only then can we begin our journey to understand his masterwork. 
  
Franz Liszt: Portrait of the Man & his Masterwork – The Sonata in B minor, is a two DVD set, the equivalent of a multi-media textbook, that will be released next month.  The first DVD contains a biographical portrait, scripted using only Liszt’s words and those of his contemporaries. Michael York is the voice of the grand old man looking back at his extraordinary life, and the voices of his friends are read by Billy Joel as Chopin, Don Henley as Brahms, Harry Connick, Jr. as Carl Czerny, Rebecca De Mornay as Clara Schumann and Anna Liszt, Peter Schickele as Berlioz and the critic Hanslick, David Dubal as Heine, Manfred Honeck as Beethoven and Goethe, Leonard  Slatkin as Robert Schumann, Rosemary Harris as Princess Carolyne, John Schuck as Wagner and GB Shaw, Barbara Feldon as George Sand, Bill McGlaughlin as Grieg and Richard Strauss, Stuart Margolin as Liszt’s pupil Carl Lachmund, Miles Chapin as Hans von Bulow. Kermit Medsker as Siegfried Wagner, Jon Cavendish as Felix Weingardner, Anna Singer as Amy Fay and other voices, Dennis Rooney as the critic and Count Apponyi and Pete Ballard as Adam Liszt, King George and other voices. 
  
On the second DVD an in-depth master class about the Sonata is followed by a concert performance of the complete work. The master class includes a discussion of form and structure, thematic transformation, technical problems, memory issues, and how the performer can dramatically shape the work, pace the climaxes and prepare the piece for performance.  What a joy to share my personal insights about one of the great masterworks of the piano literature. 
  
I must confess that I feel as if my old friend Rosemary Brown, along with many of her composer friends, has helped to guide me on this journey to tell Liszt’s story.  Everyone who was asked to participate in this project immediately agreed and generously contributed their talents to bring Liszt’s extraordinary spirit to life. And I believe that we have told his story the way he would have liked it told— honestly, and in his own words- with warts and all- as a human being struggling to get through life as best he could. A portrait of the complete man emerges. We see Franz Liszt as a vulnerable human being with all his conflicts and foibles exposed, as well as his genius and extraordinary humanity revealed. 
  
How blessed we are to experience the man and his music, and how relevant his journey can be for all of us! Thank you Maestro Liszt! 
  
 

DEO GRATIAS! REMEMBERING ALBERTO GINASTERA (1916-1983) June 29, 2016 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and I have been joyfully celebrating the man and his magical music. How blessed I was to have met this extraordinary composer when I was just finishing up my doctoral studies at the University of Michigan. Actually we met after a rehearsal of his First Piano Concerto and that’s when our friendship began. I remember how excited all the students were at the prospect of meeting such a prominent composer from Latin America and having him attend our rehearsals and concert. And I remember all of us remarking that he surely didn’t look the way we had imagined— remember this was 1970 and we couldn’t google him beforehand on the internet.  Judging from the passionate and evocative music we heard, we didn’t expect to meet a man who could pass for a rich South American banker! But no matter— appearances are never what they seem. This was a man who wrote music that seemed to bypass the brain to go straight to the heart and was felt in the pit of the stomach- gut music! His music made us feel- it touched a nerve and titillated the senses. It was passionate- it was magical!! It was music that could only be written by a “man of Latin America” as he liked to call himself! 

It was after that performance that Ginastera promised to write me a piano concerto!! Wow! What a gift that would be! We didn’t meet again until 1976 when I was living in the Netherlands and received a call from him. “He would be celebrating his 60th birthday in April and could I come and play his Piano Concerto as part of his birthday concert in Geneva with the Suisse Romande Orchestra?” And what a joyous celebration that was! Ginastera accompanied me to the first rehearsal that the conductor scheduled with only piano, harp and percussion. Nobody wrote for percussion the way Ginastera did! What was extraordinary about that first reading was that the concerto had morphed into a completely new and self-contained composition. And Ginastera was quite excited when he heard it and said after the rehearsal,  “The concerto I will write for you will be a concerto for piano and percussion- for one piano!! (We both laughed because we had just been discussing Bartok’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion.) Over the years, whenever we would meet, we would talk about “our” Concerto – the piano concerto that Ginastera intended to write.  
  
Unfortunately life intervened, and Ginastera became ill with a terminal illness. Sadly, time was running out for him. I was preparing to return to the States to make my professional debut at Alice Tully Hall, and Ginastera offered to write me a solo Sonata instead of a full-scale concerto. This short one movement sonata became his final work, the Third Piano Sonata. He had intended to add an Adagio introduction but there was just no time. He wrote this sonata from his hospital bed in Geneva. Perhaps he knew that this would be his last composition when he wrote the words, Deo gratias over its final measure. 


Deo gratias for our friendship Alberto and for all those wonderful musical discussions we were able to have. I treasure our friendship and feel blessed to have known you and your wife Aurora. Your music is so full of life and joy and passion. It inspires us to follow our hearts and pursue our dreams. What a gift you have contributed to the world and all we have to do is listen to feel its magic!!  
 (Ginastera Festival at Spectrum, NYC on April 14, 2016)

Click here to read the recent article "Remembering Alberto Ginastera- a centenary tribute" in Musical Opinion (UK) 

PIANISM- ANYTHING ELSE?? September 21, 2015 

Even someone like the virtuoso performer Vladimir Horowitz, (were he alive today) might be impressed with the pianistic level of the pianists, regularly appearing on the competition circuit. There seem to be no technical problems or unsolved hurdles in evidence. Pianism has been mastered. However, the question remains- is that all there is!! Is it enough??
 
Franz Liszt was known to have told the students who frequented his master classes in Weimar, “I don’t care for the piano-bashers. I don’t care how fast or loud you can play your octaves.” Never having encountered any technical problem at the keyboard himself, Liszt did not have to analyze his natural technique and rarely focused on the teaching of technique. A limited student was advised, “I do not wash dirty linen here; go back to conservatory.”  In other words, after you have solved all the technical problems, then you can come back and participate in Liszt’s master classes, and gain inspiration from the Master. Liszt’s virtuosity gave him the freedom to make musical magic! And he preached to all who came to play for him: “Go and create memories!” Share your musical inspiration!
 
As spectators, we have been overwhelmed by the “sport” of playing the piano. After a while, we have come to expect this level of technique and dazzling pianism. We sit in awe as if we were watching a professional tennis match or a championship fight. What is missing from all this is our heart’s complete involvement in what is going on—the emotional connection. Can the pianist help us to forget the technical component of what he is doing and just focus on the musical message- the story being told by the composer? Is the pianist capable of going to that next level to concentrate on the making of music- pure music using technique and virtuosity as a means and not an end?  More importantly, is the performer capable of making the listener feel something more than just technical admiration for a job well done. Is he or she inspired by the music and can they transport us to another world- a musical world of magic! Does the performance connect with our hearts and make us feel?   Not very often!
 
Where is the musical inspiration- where is the joy of recreation! And where is the originality- the imagination- that sense of fantasy??
 
Recently, I caught an old film clip of Philippe Petit, the French high-wire acrobat, making his illegal walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (pre-9/11/2001) Quite an amazing feat that was! Watching him, there was no doubt about his focus, his expertise, his intensity of concentration and his own belief in what he was doing. But it also went beyond that- Here was a man who was truly inspired and aided by something beyond just his own self. This was an artist who could connect to all of us – watching him do what he did so well conveyed a sense of hope— a renewal of spirit and a belief that someone could actually achieve the impossible!! And for a moment this man on the high wire made us forget our own limitations and helped us to believe in miracles.
 
When I walk out on stage, it’s as if I am walking that high wire without any safety net in place. I need to trust and have faith in something much higher than just myself and my own technical skills so that I can communicate the musical message and bring to life the spirit of the composer.  It is an opportunity that has been given to  “create memories”- to inspire the listener with music that I believe in and am passionate about - to share in a magical experience. That is the ideal- to touch the souls of all who listen!

 

This looks like the cover of my new release, Out of Doors.

This looks like the cover of my new release, Out of Doors.

It's "wild 'n wonderful" West Virginia in the January snow!

It's "wild 'n wonderful" West Virginia in the January snow!