My greatest musical passion is, without a doubt, chamber music.
One of the biggest advantages of attending the IU School of Music 30 years ago was the huge number of people there. Many people felt this was a disadvantage, saying it was a factory and too easy to get lost in the shuffle. That is one potential experience—mine could not have been more different. The sheer quantity of musicians meant there was an endless supply of musical partners, and with a little initiative, one could make all the performing opportunities one wanted. I quickly realized that when I was making music with other people, my playing had a freedom that I could not find nearly as easily when playing by myself, so I sought out the experience as much—and in as many different forms—as possible (somewhat to my teacher Menahem Pressler’s dismay…he felt, rather paradoxically if you ask me, that I should be practicing for him alone).
For three of those years, I was part of a wonderful piano quartet, playing with string players that would go on to become members of the Lark, Alexander, and Ciompi quartets. We won some competitions, toured a bit, and had some great performance opportunities, culminating in a concert in Carnegie Recital Hall (as it was called back then). It was a fantastic experience, and I miss it to this day.
The other great advantage of attending IU back then was the faculty. Imagine being able to coach repertoire, as I did, with great teachers like Pressler, Josef Gingold, János Starker, Franco Gulli, Fritz Magg, Tadeusz Wrónski, and Georges Janzer as a matter of course. I had no idea how good I had it, and sadly, those days are gone—the IU faculty is now a pale shadow of what it once was.
A few years later, I became an assisting pianist for the string program of the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival. Another great experience, in large part because the head of the faculty, Walter Levin of the LaSalle Quartet, had an almost unique intellectual approach to musical study and performance that resonated strongly with me (because of him, I played the Schoenberg Phantasy every summer and loved it every time). And thanks to my habit of requesting pieces I had not already played but wanted to, I filled in many of the few remaining holes in my string repertoire.
I don’t get to play nearly as much chamber music these days as I would like, but here around New York City, I consider myself fortunate that the Bronx Arts Ensemble and the Harlem Chamber Players invite me to perform with them from time to time.
As to repertoire, it would almost be easier to list the things I haven’t played than those that I have. I play pretty much all of the standard rep, for just about every instrument and chamber ensemble configuration – up to sextets, anyway (Poulenc, Mendelssohn, Thuille, Dohnányi). There are a few septets out there I’d like very much to play and haven’t yet, like Saint-Saëns and Hummel. Any takers?
I have always loved the orchestra. In fact, I have spent my entire career as a pianist wishing I were an orchestra (except in those less-frequent moments that I wish I were a singer). It was almost inevitable, really. My wonderful piano teacher in Ohio, Barbara Wasson (who recently celebrated her 99th birthday), insisted I accompany her and her husband to Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concerts every weekend during my teenage years. There could hardly have been a better musical education for a kid in Ohio. In those days, the CSO was a truly great orchestra, and the music director was a marvelous musician and conductor I feel was and still is underrated, Thomas Schippers. There are concerts from that time I still remember vividly all these years later.
It seemed only natural that when the time came to accompany concertos, I would have a knack for deciphering orchestral reductions and re-creating (to a certain degree, at least) the sound of the greatest instrument on earth. I was, understandably, a bit nervous the first time I played in one of János Starker’s cello master classes (Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, still one of my favorite cello concertos) as a freshman piano major at Indiana University. Starker could be very intimidating. His first comment after our performance was directed at me: “I see we have a budding young conductor in our midst!” Well, no… but he immediately grasped my passion for the orchestra.
During my tenure at the Cleveland Institute of Music, much of my job was to play the stuff other pianists didn’t want to learn, This meant I learned a lot of trombone rep… which I discovered I loved. One never knows where such things will take you, and my later concerts with trombonist Alain Trudel remain some of the musical highlights of my performing career. It also meant I spent quite a bit of time working with a tuba student there named Alan Baer. He is now principal tuba of the New York Philharmonic. In the end, I expanded an already large repertoire of orchestral reductions to include almost every standard work for every instrument. I found some unexpected gems along the way, but I’ll also be okay if I never have to play the Villa-Lobos harp concerto ever again.
Playing a piano concerto with orchestra is about as much fun as a pianist – well, this pianist, at any rate – can have. Almost as much fun for me, though, is playing second piano for piano concertos. Obviously, it’s not an ideal performance scenario, so this activity is generally limited to studio and competition situations. Over the years, I’ve been hired by a number of competitions to provide piano concerto accompaniment, including the Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition, the Naumburg Foundation, the William Byrd Young Artist Competition, Music Teachers National Association competition, and a continuing relationship with the American Music Scholarship Association’s competition (now the Cincinnati World Piano Competition) that lasted several years.
Even more satisfying than imitating an orchestra is playing in one, and I have been lucky enough to play orchestral piano with many different orchestras over the years, including the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Orquestra da Fundação Gulbenkian in Lisbon, Orquestra Metropolitana de Lisboa, and Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas (Orquesta Filarmónica de las Américas), with which I can be heard on the Sony Classics CD Mi Alma Mexicana.
My job as orchestra pianist with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas eventually put me in front of a larger audience than I had ever imagined possible. We were invited to perform at the Mexican Bicentennial celebration in Mexico City in 2010, the opening post-parade musical act at the Plaza del Ángel de la Independencia. I’ve read some estimates of crowd size as high as a quarter million, and it was broadcast internationally on Mexican television. The whole experience was wild, to say the least! Danzón No. 2 by Marquez is quite an audience-pleaser, and the prominent piano part is huge fun to play. Keep an eye out at 2:13 (and again at 6:20).