Brian Ganz

“There isn’t much about Chopin that Brian Ganz doesn’t know...His delight and wonder in this music seems to grow, apparently without bounds.” - The Washington Post /// See Blog for Brian's New Video.

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