Saturday, October 16, 2010

Alfred Brendel Master Class

This morning I attended a master class given by Alfred Brendel, at the New England Conservatory. As an alum of NEC, it has been exciting to see the growth in the school, which has (from my perspective) evolved from a first-rate school to a truly exceptional school (judging from the caliber of faculty and students there). Kudos should go to Bruce Brubaker, the Chair of NEC's Piano Dept, for arranging to have Brendel there (he gave a class yesterday as well).

The highlight for me was the fact that afterward I was able (briefly) to meet Brendel, shake his hand, and meekly ask that he sign a copy of one of his books, "Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts." I have always admired Brendel, not only for his actual playing but also for his uncompromising, principled approach to music-making, putting the composer first and continually exploring and growing. As an example of Brendel's artistry, here is a video clip of him playing the 2nd movement from the A major Sonata of Schubert (D. 899):

In fact, one of the most memorable concert going experiences of my youth was hearing Brendel in an all-Schubert recital, one of four all-Schubert concerts he was giving in one week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. I was struck by the depth and commitment of his playing - not a note was played without purpose, without a wealth of exploration and consideration behind it.

Brendel made his career playing, primarily, a segment of the repertoire that is considered more "serious," which is to say Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. He also has devoted considerable time to elevating the music of Liszt, who is sometimes seen as a less important composer than he is. But I am not aware of any performances of his of great Russian or French composers, and while somewhere at my mother's house is an old recording of him playing Chopin Polonaises, it is not his finest hour. His interest in playing the very pinnacle of great music (perhaps even a refusal to play "trifles") is something I have always identified with. I have more recently been able, happily, to develop an interest in music outside the great German/Austrian tradition, but for better or for worse I have spent most of my life focused on the same music as Brendel, and probably for some of the same reasons.

With all that in mind, I should restate how excited I was to meet this great artist. The masterclass itself was, however, not the "ideal" masterclass. I have learned that teaching a masterclass is not (or should not be) the same as teaching a lesson. Somehow the teacher needs to generalize certain ideas so that the whole audience can find a way to apply them in other situations - that is, not only, "this passage is too soft" but more generally "in Beethoven we need to notice the distinction he makes between 'piano' and 'pianissimo'" To his credit, Brendel was focused totally on the music at hand (two Beethoven pieces: the Piano Trio op. 1#1, and the String Quartet op. 132 - covering two extreme ends of Beethoven's career). He didn't make any effort to engage the audience - he was speaking to the performers about what they were doing, and if we the audience wanted to listen in, that was our business.

In both cases (I arrived late and didn't hear the first 30 minutes of the trio), the performers were all very fine students, who had mastered all of the technical requirements of the music, and had commendable ideas about the character and color of the music they were playing. Brendel in general did not talk in abstract terms about what the music was "saying," but instead expressed himself almost entirely in strictly musical terms - "play off the string" or "fix the balance so I can hear the melody more clearly." I know that his concept of these pieces is profound and insightful, and much more than just a collection of notes/dynamics/tempos, but he seemed to feel most comfortable discussing the music in musical terms - but, in the end, this is not so scintillating for an audience. NEC's most celebrated piano teacher for the past few decades has been Russell Sherman, who *can* of course be very specific, but has the gift of getting students to hear music as more than just music. (He was not my teacher, but I had the privilege of playing for him many times while he was teaching Music 180, the chamber music course at Harvard, which he taught for one year. I remember scratching my head when he asked a violinist colleague and me to play the 2nd movement of the Brahms A major Sonata "like the rotation of the spheres." But now, I have to say, that image has stuck with me, and it has encouraged me to "aim for the stars," so to speak, rather than only to think in technical terms).

In other words, the good news with Brendel is that HE knows the music inside and out and there is truly no B.S. in what he says. The bad news is that the only obvious benefit derived from his teaching is to somebody playing that specific piece under discussion (the performers playing on stage, and possibly those in the audience who may perform the same piece). This is fine for a lesson, but a public class - especially what may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear from this great artist - needs to have more, shall I say, platitudes and life lessons.

Brendel, perhaps as a show of modesty, sat in the audience in Jordan Hall, equipped with a clip microphone so we could hear him; the alternative would be to sit on stage, near the performers where we all could see him. By not doing so, he did focus our attention on the music, rather than on him - which seems fitting from an artist who always put the music ahead of his own ego.

One comment he made, however, WAS of a general nature, and is worth sharing. Referring to a passage where the performers were playing very literally, he asked them to make a little crescendo as the pitches were going up - then he said, "Not everything is written down - sometimes we have to follow the logic of the music." This struck me as a wonderful piece of wisdom coming from someone who has always been held up as an exemplar of adherence to the composer's score. In Harold Schonberg's classic book, "The Great Pianists," he lumps together Brendel and Pollini as part of a (then) new breed of "objective" pianists, who put their own "feelings" aside, according to Schonberg, in favor of following the printed score to the utmost. I have never felt that Brendel was holding back his emotions, or that he did not have a total investment in the music (I have, on the other hand, seen that at times from Pollini), and I think Brendel made an important point to those students (and all of us in the audience), that we do, sometimes, have to read between the lines.

By the way - this master class was presented free of charge. NEC seems to organize a large number of masterclasses, not only by pianists, and I believe that many if not all are open to the public. It was great to be there today - to some people I am a teacher, but I also know that I am and should always be a student as well. The blessing of being a musician - and the curse of being a musician - is that we are never done learning.

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