Brian Ganz

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Chopin: Discoveries and Rediscoveries

All composers have written works that have fallen into relative obscurity, and often this obscurity is undeserved. One of the joys of performing the complete works of any composer is discovering these little known pieces for oneself and bringing them into the light. In my next installment of the complete works of Frédéric Chopin, I devote much of the program to Chopin's obscure works, joining them with some of his best known works in groupings designed to reveal interesting connections. The title of the program is "Chopin's Hidden Gems and All-Time Favorites," but we could affectionately call the program "Selections from Chopin's 'Top 40' and 'Bottom 40!'" Not "Bottom" in terms of quality, of course, but in terms of familiarity. 

At first glance the program may appear to be a grab bag of miscellaneous works, but a closer look reveals organization throughout the program around certain themes. For example, the program begins with two of Chopin's most substantial "hidden gems," the Tarantella and the Bolero, followed by the great Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No. 1, often called the "Military." I call this opening group "Chopin the Traveler." Chopin was not able actually to travel much, being of relatively fragile health for much of his adult life. But he certainly traveled in his imagination to Italy, the birthplace of the Tarantella; to Spain, that of the Bolero; and to Poland, which he left at the age of 19, never to return. When he composed the "Military" Polonaise years after leaving Poland, he may well have been immersing himself nostalgically in the spirit of his homeland. He did make it to the Spanish island of Mallorca eventually, but only after he had composed the Bolero. Hearing these pieces together is revealing indeed: One hears how Chopin uses the polonaise rhythm in the Bolero and wonders whether he simply hadn't researched genuine Bolero rhythms. But it turns out that the standard rhythm of a polonaise is also found in boleros! And furthermore, one hears in the Bolero a gesture that sounds like it was lifted whole and intact from the Polonaise- except the Bolero came before the Polonaise! Did that gesture plant a seed in Chopin's mind that later flowered into one of the most beloved of his polonaises? It's quite possible that it did, and hearing the two works back to back is a revelation.

Another group of works shows Chopin working on his contrapuntal skills in pieces seemingly directly inspired by J. S. Bach, one of Chopin's favorite composers. Many Chopin lovers find it astonishing that he composed a fugue and a canon, as these pieces are virtually never played. I pair Chopin's unfinished Canon in F minor with a mazurka that finishes with a melodic canon (Op. 63, No. 3); and I follow Chopin's thrilling Fugue in A minor with a mazurka that features a great deal of imitative counterpoint, just like a fugue (Op. 50, No. 3). I like to call Chopin's Mazurkas his creative laboratory, and indeed it is not at all surprising that he would apply his refreshed contrapuntal skills to two of these highly personal, deeply original dances.

The entire evening is organized in what I hope are creative and revealing ways: I'll play an early spinning waltz followed by the most famous dizzying waltz of them all, the so-called "Minute" Waltz, which Chopin said was inspired by a dog chasing its tail! I'll play a stately, little known Largo suffused with a spirit of serenity, and follow that with one of the darkest of Chopin's stately marches, the funereal Prelude in C minor, also marked "Largo." I'll play Chopin's two Bourrées, two almost entirely unknown miniatures of charming simplicity, and follow them with another miniature whose simplicity masks the greatest sophistication, the Prelude in A major. And much more! 22 works in all, and all organized into groups that have a thematic connection.

I invite you to join me on February 10 at 8pm at the Music Center at Strathmore. Come and discover Chopin's hidden gems and rediscover his perennial favorites as we continue our journey through the Romantic master's complete works.

Musical Gardening: Listening to the Growth of Genius

Frédéric Chopin reached creative maturity before the age of twenty; hardly anything he composed after that age was less than masterful. In fact, his level of consistency was unusually high even among composers whose genius equaled his own. Imagine a major league baseball player with a batting average of about .850, towering over other all-stars. That was Chopin among composers, writing masterpiece after masterpiece after the age of twenty. 

However, Chopin did of course undergo a period of maturation and development as a composer before he reached twenty. In my journey through Chopin's complete works, I will play every single note he composed, and this includes all the works he composed along the way to artistic maturity. I like to present these works in a paradigm I call "musical gardening," the musical equivalent of time lapse photography. 

Chopin's early works contain the seeds of his genius, and as he grew and matured, the flashes of genius that sprouted from those seeds increased with every work. This development of his compositional mastery is easiest to track when heard within works of the same genre. So in each episode of "musical gardening," I take one genre, say the waltz or the mazurka, and play one or more examples from Chopin's earliest years, perhaps one or two more from subsequent years as he grew in compositional skill, and finally, I play one example that demonstrates his genius in the fullest bloom of artistic maturity. 

Sometimes I point out a few of those seeds of genius in the early works--perhaps an example of a precocious chord progression, or some other example of harmonic or rhythmic sophistication. Or, I might demonstrate the young Chopin's embrace of beautiful dissonance, or growing mastery of chromatic techniques. In any case, I try to show how each successive work takes him closer to his true voice. 

With the title "Chopin: A Young Genius," my February 18 recital at the Music Center at Strathmore offers an excellent opportunity for musical gardening, and indeed I will offer two episodes, one for each of the two Polish dances Chopin composed--the polonaise and the mazurka. I'll begin with a polonaise Chopin composed at the age of 11, continue with one composed a few years later, and finish with the first polonaise he chose to publish, the C-sharp minor, Op. 26, No. 1. I'll do something similar with mazurkas, and will also finish with the first mazurka he chose to publish, the F-sharp minor, Op. 6, No. 1. 

In musical gardening, we go beyond merely enjoying the charm, energy and loveliness of Chopin's early works; we also follow with fascination as they chart a path in Chopin's development from high promise to full artistic genius. I hope you will join me on February 18 for a program featuring musical gardening and more, including such masterpieces as the 3 Nocturnes, Op. 9 and the 12 Etudes, Op. 10. A garden of resplendent beauty, indeed!

Baptized by Beethoven

"Like a bath of G major." With these words my teacher Leon Fleisher described the opening chord of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. I was 16 years old and the concerto was one of the first pieces I studied with him, so my early memories of this great work glow with the sense of discovery I felt from his poetic and revelatory teaching. The bath of G major with which the piece begins signals something new in the evolution of the concerto for a solo instrument and orchestra, because it is the first such work that begins not with the orchestra but with the soloist, completely alone in the entire first phrase. Many years later, when I had the opportunity to perform the concerto under Fleisher's baton at the Peabody Conservatory, he joked to me just before walking onstage: "If the opening phrase goes well, feel free to close the piano and say goodnight!"

His joke revealed much about the way pianists see not just the first phrase but the entire concerto. In it Beethoven seems to be reaching for a synthesis of soulfulness and luminosity, of depth and height. It requires utmost awareness and concentration. Playing it can feel like approaching a holy altar, such that preparing to perform it calls not just for practice but for meditation and prayer, not just for listening to glorious sound but for listening to silence. And yet for all the work's profundity, a spirit of playfulness abounds as well, reminding us that the divine is quite at home alongside the human and down to earth.

In the second movement Beethoven comes pretty close to an explicit demonstration of "teaching peace." We don't know exactly what he had in mind, and I think it was Franz Liszt who first likened the dialogue between the orchestra and the piano to the Orpheus story, in which Orpheus, in his quest for his departed Eurydice, tames the beasts of the underworld with the power of his beautiful music. But there can be no doubt that the piano is not just engaging in dialogue with the orchestra but persuading, coaxing, and ultimately calming it. The piano changes the orchestra in a way never before attempted in the concerto literature. This spirit of transformation is utterly in keeping with the heavenly reach found elsewhere in the concerto.

While my collaboration with Piotr Gajewski and the National Philharmonic doesn't reach quite as far back as my studies with Leon Fleisher, it does reach 25 years back to my early thirties. We have performed more than a dozen works for piano and orchestra in the intervening years, more than I have played with any other conductor or orchestra, and so I think of Piotr and the orchestra as my musical family. However, in all these years we have never done a solo concerto of Beethoven! (We did do the Triple Concerto a few years back.) So it is with a very special sense of joyful anticipation that I look forward to exploring and sharing this luminous work, so long a part of me, with my musical family. I invite you to join us on September 17 at 8p or September 18 at 3p (or both!) at the Music Center at Strathmore.

Only recently I realized that the bath of G major with which the concerto begins is replicated at the very end of the concerto- the same notes in both hands. But the left hand is much lower, as low as it can go on the piano, and the right hand higher, as high as it can go (or as high as it could go in Beethoven's time). With this symbolic gesture Beethoven reminds the listener of how this great work explores both depth and height, soul and spirit, the human and the divine. The final chord spans the entire keyboard, the hands at opposite ends. The bath of G major has become an embrace.  

How Beethoven's Choral Fantasy Speaks To Our Times

As I prepare to perform Beethoven's great Choral Fantasy later this month at St. Mary's College of Maryland and then in mid May with the Cathedral Choral Society at the National Cathedral in Washington, I am struck by how timely its message is. As the anonymous poet Beethoven sets to music writes (in Stanley Appelbaum's wonderful translation), "Forces that pressed on us roughly and hostilely/reform themselves into feelings of exaltation./ Whenever the magic charms of music hold sway/ and the consecration of words is uttered/ splendid things take shape of necessity,/ night and storms turn into light."

Daily we see evidence in the news of such hostile and rough forces, whether in the tensions and injustices surrounding our national wound of racism or in this unusually volatile election season. The poet's message is a hopeful one, however, and affirms the power of the arts to make a contribution to healing and transformation.

As a society we are still grappling with "night and storms," but each of us has the power to light a candle in the darkness. Of course, any work of art is itself a candle: Its beauty or truth or emotional power needs no further justification or reason for being! But art also has a dual value in its power to inspire. Inspired by a beautiful poem we might be unusually forgiving of our neighbor. Uplifted by a lovely painting we might smile at a stranger. And moved by a beautiful work of music, like the Choral Fantasy, we might write a letter to the editor that touches readers and inspires compassionate action.

I believe it was that dual value that moved Leonard Bernstein to write, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." But my favorite quote about transformation comes from the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin: “Each human being has the eternal duty of transforming what is hard and brutal into a subtle and tender offering, what is crude into refinement, what is ugly into beauty, ignorance into knowledge, confrontation into collaboration, thereby rediscovering the child’s dream of a creative reality incessantly renewed by death, the servant of life, and by life, the servant of love."

As I practice the Choral Fantasy, I can't say that I always hold such lofty thoughts in mind! But I try to return often to the poem Beethoven sets, grounding my practicing in its message of beauty and strength. I hope you will join us on May 15th at the National Cathedral at 4pm as, together with the Cathedral Choral Society under the direction of J. Reilly Lewis, we fill the National Cathedral with Beethoven's luminous music and the poet's "consecration of words."

- Brian Ganz, April 2016