4 pianists walk into a bar

Every summer at Garth Newel’s there’s a keyboard weekend. It’s a tradition that started before my hire, and it involves 3 pianists descending onto Garth Newel to join me and give the term “piano quartet” a whole new meaning.

You might imagine what that might be like. Perhaps we have nightly “octave offs”, where we all try to see who can do the opening of Liszt concerto no. 1 the fastest. Or we stay up all night to geek out to Martha Argerich. Or maybe we exchange war stories of tiger moms and competition damage until one of us cracks and concedes to the other “ok, you had it worse, you win”.

What actually happens is that we’re usually just laughing and catching up on each other’s lives. There is little else that we do besides rehearse, practice, eat, and drink, and we usually are having too much fun to do the whole “feeling bad about yourself must assert ego and get praise and validation” sort of thing. This could be because I just don’t have many piano friends who are so blatantly unpleasant. It also could be because “bro-like” piano competitiveness doesn’t happen once you graduate.

No, it’s not other pianists that I struggle with in keyboard weekend. It’s the corny names given to all multi-pianist events (Pianofest, PianoTexas, Keyboard Virtuosos…). I love many things about having a keyboard weekend here, but definitely not the job of naming and marketing it. At least we got rid of “Keyboard Extravaganza”. You see that name and you think powder puffs and champagne. Keyboard Kaleidoscope is also dumb, but at least it doesn’t feel like excess and frilly virtuosity. I’m a fan of “Hammered”, because it brings to mind the raw power of the piano, and hints at a desperate violence and need for expression that I find compelling. This more gut, earthly, striving sort of feeling is where I would like to go for with my programming, because where do you go, emotionally, personally, when you listen to scintillating fluff? Nowhere. I don’t want virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. I want to go somewhere with what I’m playing or hearing.

Unfortunately, tradition, audience expectation, and the particular aesthetic of Garth Newel marketing vetoed “Hammered”, but I’ll keep persisting for next year. Suggestions are very welcome for any better names!

I struggle with the repertoire, mostly because the idea of so much piano ensemble music gives me a headache. I had a prejudice against piano ensemble music before I started explicitly programming for it, because my impressions were:

“too loud.”

“too much of the same piano sound”

“noise of notes”

“this all sounds the same”

“Can we stop with the Lisztian eruptions? Please??”

Piano virtuosity is a funny thing. I was so sick of Liszt, fireworks, all that she-bang for cheap thrills stuff, and was ashamed of how my natural playing style seemed to embrace flair and flash. I felt like I had to break an addiction, mostly because I couldn’t stand listening to these sorts of concerts, where all we heard was faster and louder ways to wow the audience with pianistic athleticism, and everything was from the late romantic period. But, like a good 12-stepper, I have come to accept that a large part of a pianist’s identity lies in the show stopping traditions that Liszt propagated. And that virtuosity and integrity is not mutually exclusive. Just like the myth that pianists are horrible people, I learned that by examining my prejudices, I realized that there was no reality to them, and that my impressions were snap judgments calcified at an early age without enough weight given to the power of interpretation. Technical prowess can be a tool of struggle, fighting, journey, when used with dramatic intent. One doesn’t need to be ashamed of of thrills when it is attached to an expressive purpose.

What jump started this realization was that Matthew Browne wrote me a piece called “Lisztomania”. He told me he had the idea to write something that

“intended to be a raucous and heart-pounding scherzo inspired by the intense frenzy (of the same name) directed toward Franz Liszt during his performances. The music incorporates various quotes and allusions to Liszt’s piano works, and strives to make some of his more extravagant moments even more so. The piece will be: fun, cheeky, raucous, explosive, virtuosic, irreverent, humorous, breathtaking, confident, and outrageous”.

With that sort of concept I of course was intrigued, and so I programmed a Liszt half, where Genevieve Lee, Brian Hsu, and Tian Tian lead off with Liszt transcriptions of Schubert and Schumann songs, Hungarian Rhapsody no.6, and his Rigoletto Paraphrase, which I then cap off with Browne’s homage/cheeky take on Liszt.

In a way, I wanted to embrace the traditions that shaped us as pianists, as well as show how those traditions give way to new inspirations. I also figured that by having such a hallowed figure of Liszt organically lead into works by a living composer, audiences would see and appreciate the relationship between the 21st century and the 19th.

Piano Weekend. Wish me luck.

Concert 1: Memory Palace

Concert 2: Liszt-Mania!


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