PAST ARTISTS OF THE MONTH
Jason Paul Peterson
A 2010 winner of the Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition, Ria Carlo was educated at Harvard, Princeton and Cambridge Universities, and has worked for the Hubble Space Telescope team as well as NASA. Having studied piano while in high school with lessons at the New England Conservatory of Music, she has also been the piano accompanist for the Princeton University Glee Club. Married to Mark Christopher Carlo, a chemical engineer and technology officer, she and her husband are active volunteers in non-profit scholastic causes. The couple recently returned from the Alexander & Buono Festival of Music in Abano Terme, Italy, which Mrs. Carlo describes as “a landmark event in my musical growth.”
Music is replete with scientific and mathematical principles, for example, pitch and vibration. Harmony, according to Plato, had its basis in the study of physics. Given the fact that you have distinguished yourself in both science and music, what do you think often makes people of science great musicians?
In addition to the aesthetic, creative, and spiritual dimensions of music, there are strong components of order, structure, and logic which a composer employs to formulate a beautiful piece of music. Rhythm, tonal patterns, harmony, and polyphony are inherently mathematical. The way that musical transcription has evolved over the centuries, a musical score is a kind of blueprint of instructions within a framework of rules. Although we might not explicitly think that we are reasoning out math problems as we are reading music, the mind is busily at work fitting together the logic of a piece.
Conversely, the creative faculties evoked in music making are vital to the scientist or engineer who must find novel solutions to real-world problems. I once had a science teacher in the 8th grade who made me promise that I would never give up playing the piano, because he felt that the development of both left- and right-brain capacities was essential to the creative process that makes for great scientists and mathematicians.
Analytical ability without imagination leaves one unable to dream of possibilities; imagination without logic leaves one lacking the structure to compose his or her intentions. The two are inextricably linked in the process of innovation – a fresh delivery of ideas and possibilities that is at the heart of great science and great music alike.
Watching you onstage one has a sense of your being extremely thoughtful, as though you are studying and analyzing every measure of a work. What do you focus on when you perform, and why?
The first thing that I focus upon is what I want to convey to my audience. I may play a piece wanting to evoke certain feelings, paint an image, or communicate a story. Life is a kaleidoscope of emotion and experience, and it is this depth and richness which I want to convey in the microcosm of musical expression. My practice time is very focused upon every nuance of the score until much of the mechanical execution becomes autonomic. Then on stage, I am wholly focused upon sound and emotion.
I try to go into my performances in a very clear and calm state of mind so that the audience has no disturbance coming from me that then dilutes their perception of the music. A performer has a remarkable opportunity of uplifting the hearts of an audience through wonderful music that is beautifully executed, and this is what I continually strive towards. My richest reward is when a listener exits my performance emotionally moved and mentally refreshed.
Most artists have composers whose works they favor, and looking at your choices for programs one gets a clear sense of your own preferences, most notably a love of Chopin. Let’s therefore approach this next question somewhat differently. If Chopin were alive today and he told you he wanted to write a work especially for you, what elements and emotions would you want it to include, and why?
I do love the music of Chopin because it takes me back to a different time and place. Some musicologists have found that younger generations of pianists tend to play Chopin with the impatience and impetuousness of the times, whereas life in the days of Chopin and Liszt was not as hurried nor as fast-paced as the times tend to be today. I resonate with this viewpoint and tend to play Chopin’s works just “taking my time”, perhaps with more rubato, allowing it to flow with an unhurried, uninhibited feeling. I believe that this helps the listener become absorbed into the music and hopefully brings them into the emotional genre of a bygone era.
I enjoy more bucolic settings and bringing a “breath of fresh air” to an audience when they hear a piece of music. So many of Chopin’s pieces already typify the colorful landscapes of nature and the romance of life. I would only ask of Chopin that he do for me what he normally does in composing music—painting soulful frescoes of human experience that stir the heart.
One of your fellow Princetonians, Manjul Bhargava, who is also the 1998 winner of the Clay Research Prize, says that music and math are both art forms that use different languages for expression. If called upon to clarify this statement, give us some idea of “words” associated with the language of the piano, and how you personally use that language to “speak” to an audience.
I am always amazed by how composers—Debussy, for example—use chord progressions and phrasing that paint visual pictures. Somehow, this concoction of certain combinations of notes, articulation, and dynamics merge with a performer’s artistry to produce an entire sequence of imagery and atmosphere. Though there are scientific explanations that describe music by way of the mechanics of sound waves, frequencies, and patterns, the effect of music upon an individual is at times metaphysical. There is so much that I do not know and that I cannot explain when it comes to music: we can analyze the nuts and bolts of musical notes on a page, yet it speaks nothing to the pathos and healing that can occur when music touches a human soul.
When I perform, my heart is as engaged as my mind; I share in a mutual love and respect for my audience and do my best to deliver the perceived intent of the composer with every faculty I have, including historical knowledge, technique, phrasing, and intuition. I choose repertoire that moves me personally and then do my best to convey what I feel to the audience. What then happens in the soul of the listener is a matter of providence.
After one of your performances in Italy I heard an audience member remark: “I’m not sure which is greater—her talent or her beauty.” To the point, you are always exquisitely dressed for each of your performances. What suggestions can you offer other pianists in terms of making wardrobe selections for recitals?
I thank you for such a generous compliment. The music that we represent carries with it a great dignity as we interpret some of the most profound repertoire to have been conceived by Western civilization. It is a unique honor and a privilege to be able to go before an audience and convey the beauty and depth of classical music. In this cause, I try to be my personal best both mentally and physically so that the audience receives a congruent impression all around.
We can each have our own distinctive “style” as we aim to represent what classical music means to us within the context of our unique personalities. I think it requires more time than money to figure out what wardrobe selections are comfortable and appropriate. I watch what accomplished concert pianists wear and adapt it to my own style. I shop for bargains and keep an eye out for wardrobe selections throughout the year. I ask others to give me honest feedback on my selections, because, quite frankly, I am no fashion expert, and what I see in the mirror can be quite different from what others see. What I wear affects how I feel and can influence my composure in a performance, so I aim to select clothing that is comfortable and demonstrates the highest degree of respect for the repertoire, the audience, the venue, and the occasion for which I am called upon to perform.
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Sixteen year-old pianist John Zhang has already been hailed by teachers, critics, and virtuosi alike as an artist poised for greatness. Born to Chinese parents and living in Sweden, he continues to garner accolades throughout the world for his strong, insightful performances of some of the most beautiful—and difficult—piano repertoire ever written.
A student of Mikael Kanarva, Zhang brings great strength and beauty to everything he performs. Having just taken First Prize in the Bradshaw & Buono, judges proclaimed his performance "astonishing for any artist at any age, and even moreso for one so young."
Everyone seems to comment on the fact that since you started studying piano you have always worked with great diligence and enthusiasm. In fact your first teacher, Valentin Hevlund, is quoted as saying "Watching John play, I can now understand how the Great Wall was built." What is it exactly that motivates you?
If I simply answer this question I would say I love music, but that answer is not specific enough. My motivation to play piano has been different at different times in my life. I started to play piano when I was five, and from the very beginning my motivation for playing was the love I felt towards my father, in part because he encouraged me. Even at that age he would tell me how much he enjoyed my playing, and I was so happy to play for him. Playing for my father will be always part of my motivation. He is my most faithful audience.
Gradually the great masters’ music infected me and made me feel so much joy when I played their music. Especially the musically and technically difficult pieces, because I love challenge, and the best feeling for me is to overcome the difficulties.
I was also lucky to be guided by some famous pianists like Mr. Janos Solyom and Professor Hans Palsson. Their love and care, especially their vigorous and capable guidance gave me a lot of strength and insight of music. My current teacher, Mr. Mikael Kanarva, is very dedicated and demanding as a piano pedagogue, and puts a lot of effort into my education. All of these things continue to motivate me to improve, go forward, and win competitions and prizes.
You have already won a number of piano competitions and prizes: the gold medal at the Belinske Tidenes in Denmark, the Steinway Competition in Stockholm, and most recently the Bradshaw & Buono, just to name a few. Have you worked on developing a particular approach for playing in competitions, and if so, is this any different from how you perform in recital?
I don’t have any particular approach to playing in a competition. I use my general understanding of music and skills to show the judges an original me, and then wish myself good luck. But when I perform in a recital, I feel the audience’s expectations. Maybe they have heard I won prizes, or read about me. I always feel I must play even better in order not to disappoint them. I really want them to hear the way I interpret Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. I want them to feel as if they are with the masters, not only in the recital hall but also on their way home and even in the future. I feel how important my obligation is to the audience. Competitions can not compare with this!
You are already, at age sixteen, being called a "virtuoso" and a "future world star." Do you ever feel the pressure of living up to these accolades? Do you think there is a method by which you, or any other artist, can avoid feeling pressure as a result of such high praise so early in a career, and if so, how do you recommend doing it?
I never actually take it as pressure. I feel honoured. Those happy moments in my life give me great confidence and make me feel that I deserve these as a result of all my efforts and teachers' work. That motivates me to be even better. I see it as a recognition and appreciation from the judges and experts whom I respect. It only encourages me to accomplish myself and live up to these accolades. I always remind myself that I have not done enough so far and how much more I can improve.
The obvious question for many of us, given your clear dedication to your instrument and your art, and your extraordinary achievements to date, is how do you balance your dedication to the instrument with the rest of your life: school, studies, and just fun in general?
My school is my main social environment right now. I spend most of my day at school from 8 am to 4 pm. When I am in school, I focus on studying all school subjects and do not think about my piano and music. I am friendly to my classmates and respect my teachers. After school I concentrate on practising piano. I do my homework in the evening then read about music, art, or other interesting things. I divide my time with different focus and concentrate on one thing at a time. I also take time for sports or go to the gym every week. I don’t go to parties very often like some of my other school friends. I like horses and horse riding. Sometimes at the weekend I like to be with horses. I think they also give me inspirations on music and my piano playing.
If you could design you perfect career as an artist, what would it include, and why?
I don't quite understand the meaning of the word ‘artist’ right now. I think I shall just follow my music wherever it leads me.
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Jan Lisiecki is by all standards of comparison, a genius. Skilled in a way that makes his pianistic abilities rival those of someone three or four times his age, and already boasting an international career, there can be no question of his talents. Handling his success with equal amounts of ease and grace, at age thirteen he is a source of wisdom to anyone working to manage life while growing up, and building a career.
You have been studying the piano since you were five. How did your interest in the instrument first develop?
When I was very young, I enjoyed math a lot. There was never enough for me to do. At that time, the school had already accelerated me one class. The teacher suggested that since I love math problems so much, I could take up some extracurricular activities to develop and keep me busy – and music came into my mind naturally. My parents' friend offered an upright piano to start lessons. It was an old instrument, but from the first moment I loved the sound – the piano sang for me immediately.
Given your age and talent, comparisons between yourself and other prodigies are inevitable. Chopin began performing at age eight, Claudio Arrau could read musical notes before letters, and when Louis Moreau Gottschalk was your age he moved to Europe for classical training. Given the tendency of people to draw these parallels, do you feel your age adds an extra layer of pressure to your performance, and if so, how do you handle it?
Age shouldn’t be a factor for the music listener. What should matter is the quality or originality of the performance, and age in many ways works against a true perception. Critics taken by surprise question what they hear - especially when the artist is young and dares to have a personal interpretation. One can only afford to be original when it is true to what the music conveys. Many artists have been looked at critically before becoming endeared. The good thing about being young is that you grow older every day. Every time I experience something in the world, it also applies to the way I understand music. Soon I will be 14, then 20 and then hopefully 85 years old. I don’t feel pressure when I perform - either by my age, the stage, or the event’s “importance” - because I am not trying to be perfect, or superior to others. I can only hope to play better in the future and I know how much I still have to learn. I am very humbled by the artists you mention. How can one compare the genius of composing the Chopin F-minor at age 19 to the ability to perform it at 12?
No doubt one of the more interesting aspects of your life as a young artist is that you have managed to remain so wonderfully balanced—(notice I didn’t say “normal”). Anyone who knows you sees that you are completely void of the eccentricities and peculiarities that get written about for some other artists, even more than their talent. Do you find it difficult to stay focused on your work and your career, while still making time for fun?
Not at all. Don’t forget that at age 13, you have your mom to perform the balancing act! I love to play piano, to perform, to travel, to meet, and to learn from people. I also love going to school and not even mentioning to kids that I can play the piano and to simply be able to have fun. The biggest gift that I got is not the ability to play the piano, but as my parents say, to be constantly happy!
You not only play the piano, but you also sing, and have won awards for composition. For a musician, it is almost the equivalent of being able to speak several languages. With music clearly a central focus of your life, what role does each play in terms of your artistic expression? In other words, is it easier to express certain emotions through say, singing, than through composition, or convey certain ideas at the piano, instead of the voice? What do each of the disciplines give you?
Composition is the foundation of any music – for the performer, the listener, or even for the math-lover! Now I study composition with two different teachers – and they definitely don’t speak the same language! Thanks to studying composition, I have a deep appreciation for Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, and Chopin’s (etc.) abilities and more and more I am learning how to respect their wishes by reading the score (ha!) the way they want! Studying voice and singing is a pure joy! It is very different from playing piano, as for me playing the piano is very intimate; while in singing you have to communicate also with your whole body, especially the face and eyes. I consider piano introverted and singing extroverted. They both complete each other. Of course, I try to apply my understanding of the human voice to the piano. Chopin would repeatedly tell all his students “chantez, chantez” [sing, sing].… Much easier said than done! But one should never stop trying.
Looking at your list of engagements, it would be hard for any artist not to want to be in your position. Still, at thirteen there is a wealth of time for decision-making in terms of career. Do you have any career ambitions or endeavors right now that don’t include music?
I would love to have a pilot’s license before a driver’s license, then I would like to learn Italian and German, then Mandarin, and then… Well, I believe that life will unfold the way it is supposed to unfold and I cannot wait to see what destiny holds for me.
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Having been part of the international piano scene for more than a decade, Mattia Ometto is clearly an artist whose career moves at an exciting pace. In the 2008-2009 season alone he will play concerts on three continents, in addition to making his Carnegie Hall debut.
Ometto is no stranger to rave reviews wherever he performs. One critic describes him as “an artistic figure with exuberant virtuosity,” while another proclaims he “takes advantage of a palette of timbres of extraordinary diversity.” Even his teacher, Aldo Ciccolini, maintains he is a “pianist with a marvelous sensitivity, one of those artists that has the commitment to make the audience understand what having talent means.” Barry Alexander, the Executive Director of the Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition, recently sat down with Mr. Ometto to interview him as Bradshaw & Buono’s Artist of the Month. Translation from the Italian is by Johan Sartori.
For more information on Mr. Ometto, please visit his web site, www.mattiaometto.com.
This is clearly an important season for you: in the course of just a few months you will perform in Europe, have a multiple city tour of China, and then make your debut at Carnegie Hall. How does it feel to have so much success at once?
Being a musician means being blessed with the most rewarding job in the world. The way life unfolds and unexpected opportunities such as the ones that happened to me this year make it all the more exciting. Receiving phone calls that announce engagements of this importance certainly makes one feel that his work is being valued. In my mind, this is the most important reward to my efforts. Being represented in three different continents by three different agencies who decided to trust my work has also been exceptional. I believe my success derives from this trust as well.
You always associate yourself, and your music, with your life in Venice. Describe to us exactly what you think there is about Venice that influences your music, and your performances.
Venice is indeed an important part of my life, and its influence cannot be underestimated in terms of my art. It is unique not only for its history and enormous quantity of architectural beauty that it reveals, but also for its particular, surreal atmosphere. It is almost like living in a dream: you walk in a city that Ruskin and the travelers of the 19th century depicted so brilliantly right after the fall of the Venetian Republic – La Serenissima. The city is very much like their vivid descriptions. To a young musician looking for new ideas and inspiration, Venice offers limitless sources. For instance, while studying Bach’s English Suites as a teenager, given my young age I did not possess the adequate maturity to comprehend their meaning. One day however I was at the Church of the Scalzi and felt completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of its polychrome marble columns and golden statues. In them I found the austerity and extravagance that I felt was necessary to grasp the meaning of Bach’s music. This is only an example, but I could cite many others to corroborate the fact that a young musician should immerse himself in anything that can stimulate creativity: from art to history, from the great museums to the churches, from the stages of concert halls to the ones of theaters. Music feeds on all these things, and for those who have the great privilege to live in contact with a city like Venice, these are all things that one can expect just around the corner.
Every single one of your reviews describes you in superlative terms. However, one thing continues to be a constant: that you are not only a true virtuoso, but someone who knows how to interpret music in order to maximize the intentions of the composer. How do you go about this?
In my mind, these are concepts that are inseparable. The idea of dissociating artistry from craftsmanship reminds me of how critics in England had welcomed John Singer Sargent's work: flashy but without content. They were obviously unable to see how, in his art, pure virtuosity was at the service of expression. A virtuoso who limits himself to flashy displays without being able to penetrate in the deepest meaning of music offers a ludicrous account of a work of art, as much as an actor expecting to show his skills by reciting some tongue-twisters at a very fast speed, and leaving the stage immediately afterward. When an artist solicits a reaction it's because the content, be the audience aware or not of what generated it, is touching them, is telling them something that they hadn't heard felt, experienced before. We could label this “power of communication without barriers.” Audiences feel a connection, no matter what the repertoire or the vision.
You have an enormous amount of repertoire at your disposal. How do approach a piece when you first begin to study it, and what is your particular process for getting it ready for performance?
This unfortunately I cannot really disclose. It is as if you went in the kitchen of a restaurant and saw how they prepared your food: you would never eat it! Jokes apart, it is rather difficult to answer this question because there are as many approaches as there are pieces in the repertoire. The truth is that each piece has its own way of developing: I could list periods in which relatively easy pieces came to me with great difficulty and pieces that I considered demanding were learned with great facility, but the bottom line remains in the words of my great mentor Aldo Ciccolini: “practice as if you were completely untalented, without taking anything for granted.” What I think this message reveals is a basic humility that has to permeate the long hours of works spent at the piano. Nothing replaces the humbling experience that comes from comprehending that, no matter how rich your baggage is, when it comes to a new work you invariably find yourself alone, lost in the woods, having to find your way out.
While you have studied with may great teachers, you are now working with Aldo Ciccolini, who can best be described as legendary. How do you think this collaboration has helped your understanding of the piano, and what you want to express as an artist?
Aldo Ciccolini has been an extraordinary mentor during a very difficult moment of my life. After graduating from the conservatory, I inevitably fell into a trap: a long period of studies at the conservatory came to an end, and a sense of void took over. I felt that an era came to an end: no one was there to help me understand what the next steps would have been. Aldo Ciccolini has been filling that void for the past years, offering his life-long experience. He opened his house and shared his art with me. Aldo Ciccolini is such a fundamental point of reference because he represents the best of both worlds: his music, wisdom, support; but also what he was able to bring out from me as a person, and how he made me understand what I desire my own life to be. Seeing him interact with his environment, spending days at his house making music and having endless conversations about life and the arts, is something that will never leave me and that will always be a point of reference. I will always treasure his presence in my life both for his contribution as an artist but especially for the extraordinary human being that he is.
What role does an audience play for you as an artist? Once you sit down to play a performance, what exactly are you trying to give them, and what do you want them to leave the auditorium thinking and feeling about the music?
This is possibly the most terrifying question one could ask! I recall an interview with Radu Lupu in which he said that when he thought he had played horribly, somehow audiences and critics welcomed the performance favourably. On the contrary, when he thought that he had played decently, somehow that's when he received the worst reviews. He claims that that's why he doesn't pay attention to them anymore. This is besides the point, but in a way it is a reflection of us as artists: there's a fundamental inability to accept that fact that what people perceive about what we do on stage may be different from what we expect, and in many ways this is the great beauty of our art: the thrill of unpredictability. In my experience, adrenaline is generated by that more so than by the fear of failing! In the end, what I try to offer to my audience through my music is done with great humility.
Tell us exactly what were the steps leading up to your Carnegie Hall debut, and how do you feel about taking your place alongside all the other pianistic greats who have played there?
As a prize winner of the B&B International Piano Competition this past June, I had the opportunity to play at the Kosciuszko Auditorium in New York City. My performance had such a positive impact on Cosmo Buono, the Artistic Director of the competition, that he immediately invited me to appear at the Annual ABC Gala, to be held at Carnegie Hall on March 30, 2009. This is obviously a great responsibility! Carnegie Hall is somewhat of a myth: the idea of stepping on the same stage as some of the great names of the past century gives me the shivers. I don’t think that there's a real way of preparing myself: in many ways, it is like anticipating what happens when you jump from an airplane with a parachute for the first time! The only thing I can say is that I'm extremely excited to have been chosen to be part of that experience. I am aware that this might represent an important turning point in my career. The real challenge will be to conquer it. It will be overwhelming, for sure! There will be a lot of rehearsing, and I'm certain that the days prior to the concert will be possibly the most exciting days of my life! This is what I can tell you so far.
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Jason Paul Peterson
American concert pianist Jason Paul Peterson has been described as "a national phenomenon” by The Milwaukee Journal, and a musician of "technical brilliancy” by Polonaise Magazine.
At age 17, Mr. Peterson was awarded a grant from the Chopin Foundation of the United States, Inc., and subsequently became the first-ever four-time recipient of the award. He is the winner of the 2006 Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition, and has recently been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for study at the Hochschüle für Musik in Freiburg, Germany.
You are already an accomplished performer. If you could have your career develop in any direction, what would you like most to do musically?
One of my favorite parts of being a musician is the constant variety of the work. I enjoy performing solo and concerto literature immensely, but I am also a great lover of chamber music and accompanying. I also enjoy teaching. My primary aim is to keep making music at the highest possible level, and to share my love for this music with as many people as possible.
Given your rather rigorous performance schedule, how do you find the time to study new repertoire, and on what basis do you decide a piece is "performance ready?"
This is an interesting question. In order to maintain any sort of performing schedule, one must be continually learning new music, often in short periods of time. The secret is to practice efficiently. The pianist must become a sort of “musical doctor”- quickly diagnosing the problems through careful listening, and determining the practice technique that provides the best remedy.
When I'm preparing for a performance, I spend a portion of my time practicing as if I'm on stage. I find that some musicians are generally in two completely different mental states when practicing and when performing. This causes problems, and I try to find ways to close the gap. There's a well-known phrase among musicians- “Practice as if you're on stage performing, and when you're on stage, play as if you're at home practicing.” Other things that help include playing for friends before the performance and rehearsing the piece mentally away from the piano.
Why have you chosen to pursue doctoral studies? Do you consider them distinct from your work as a performer, or does one inform the other, and if so, how?
A doctoral degree is often a necessity for college teaching positions, and I would very much like to work with dedicated music students at the university level. The opportunity to study at Peabody with Alexander Shtarkman, a musician I admire greatly, was quite enticing, and the program has an especially demanding performance requirement of six full recitals, which appealed to me as well. The instruction and experiences I've had there have undoubtedly made me a better performer; I must say, however, that I try not to let the degree program itself become the primary focus of my activities. Conservatories are wonderfully protective bubbles for classical musicians, but we can't just keep playing for each other. There are far too many places in the outside world that need to experience great music.
Who are your favorite composers to play, and why?
I've never been able to provide a good answer for this question, because the answer is continually changing. Like many musicians, I have a great love of Bach, and studied his works constantly in earlier years. But on any given day my preference may be for Beethoven, Messiaen, Scriabin, Brahms, Liszt, or Mozart. Every great composer has meaningful things to say, and we are blessed to have such a vast body of great musical literature from which to choose.
That being said, I find myself gravitating more toward Schubert these days. Although the notes don't always lie as well under the hands as with later Romantic composers, the music itself is of such a noble and pure quality that it transcends these problems. On the other end of the scale, I find particular fascination with the works of Scriabin, which often display a sort of frenetic, unbounded energy unmatched by any other composer. I'm also playing less Chopin than I used to, and more Schumann. But who knows? That could change again.
With your having won so many prizes, grants, and scholarships, how would you say the Bradshaw & Buono has helped your career?
Naturally, the opportunity to perform for a rather large crowd in Carnegie's Weill Hall was wonderful. The piano and acoustics are fabulous. But even more importantly, I enjoyed meeting the many professional musicians in the audience and talking with the other competitors, some of whom I'd met before. The competition provides both a great performance opportunity as well as an excellent opportunity to network with other students and professionals, and best of all, the competition atmosphere seems to be a very friendly and supportive one.
On your website you have a page called "Publicity Materials" in which you offer suggestions to other pianists for effective publicity. Given that the rest of the site features information about you, why have you chosen to do this?
Actually, my reasons are entirely selfish! Occasionally I've arrived to play a concert only to find that the presenters have done very little publicity for it. Nothing is more frustrating than hearing, “What a fabulous concert! If only more people had known about it.” Now, when I'm performing at a place other than a concert hall with staff that deals with publicity on a regular basis, I'll refer the presenters to this page just in case they need some ideas about how to spread the word.
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In a career that already includes appearances with major orchestras, recordings, and an array of international prizes, Ukranian-born Anna Shelest shows all the signs of becoming a pianist of international stature. Critics have hailed her as the female reincarnation of Liszt and a piano lioness. Currently a graduate student at The Juilliard School studying under Jerome Lowenthal, she is known for her interpretations of Rachmaninoff, and has recorded many of his solo piano works.
It seems almost inevitable that anyone who has enjoyed as much success as you have so early on gets asked the question, What is your secret? If then, you had to cite one particular factor as essential to your success, what would it be?
If there was just one factor, then I would like to learn what it is myself. I don t think that there is a secret, or at least I have not found what it is. Without sounding falsely modest I must say that every success in my career or in my life in general, came as a combination of my efforts and people close to me my family, teachers, and friends I made through the music. There are certainly many factors that make a successful musical career possible such as love for music, hard work, and the right guidance, but there also have to be those special opportunities that open new doors to a great career.
In addition to your solo career, you have performed a great number of works with orchestras. What do you feel are the differences between playing with an orchestra versus playing as a soloist; do you find yourself preparing any differently for these two kinds of performances; and if so, how?
To me the orchestra is the closest thing to magic one can encounter in real life. I remember as a child seeing orchestra performances on television and being enchanted by the man in tails on the podium, waving a wand, and the magical sounds coming out. As a young student it was my first real professional dream to play with an orchestra. When such an opportunity finally arrived, I was 12 years old and I performed the Rachmaninoff First Piano Concerto. That orchestra debut made me feel I had become a real performer. It gave me a sense of empowerment that I never felt before, although by that time I had a few performing experiences.
Playing with an orchestra is a significantly different experience than a solo performance, so I try to consider this, even at the early stages of preparation. No matter how convincing you think your tempo, phrasing, or character might sound at home, everything can change in a blink of an eye in the rehearsal atmosphere. This can be the most fun surprise, walking out of the rehearsal full of fresh perspectives and ideas for the upcoming performance.
Even such exceptionally virtuosic concertos as the Prokofiev Second, that recently became my favorite one to perform, cannot give you as thrilling an experience without a committed collaboration between the soloist and the orchestra. No matter how important the solo part may be, it is critical to realize that you are part of something much bigger then yourself.
Everyone talks about your particular affinity for the works of Russian composers, and there will always be those who say that ties of geography breathe a unique spirit into an artist s interpretation. Still, critics don t dispute your ability to distinguish yourself among all the composers you play. To what extent then would you say shared geography creates a better understanding of a composer s works?
A great work of art can appeal to people across the globe regardless of their cultural origin or knowledge of the subject. However, it should not stop the performers or just music lovers for that matter, to try to learn as much as possible about the background in which great works were created.
Hearing the sound of the Russian Church bells can make you think differently about the sonorities in Rachmaninoff s music, or if you recall your grandparents singing Russian folk songs, many more humorous colors will come up vividly for you in Stravinsky s Petrouchka. Whereas shared geography and cultural ties can give you some unique insights into the composer's music, it does not grant you an exclusive right to understanding of composer's intentions. Perhaps the best example is the performance of Van Cliburn at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, after which the celebrated teacher Henry Heuhaus was moved to tears. When a student approached him with the words: but this is not how you were teaching this to us... he replied, his playing convinced me!
If you were to decide for some reason to stop performing at this point, there would be enough accomplishments to keep you from having to justify the decision: you ve been winning prizes since you were twelve, and have already achieved many goals other artists can only imagine. With success in classical music being filled with so many difficulties, and given that you have attained so much success already, what would you say, aside from success, continues to motivate an artist to perform?
While success plays a critical role for an artist, it alone cannot be a source of motivation. No level of success can justify years of work put into becoming a performer unless one is absolutely in love with the process of music making. Music has brought so much joy and beauty to my own life that I see it as an incredible force that can change people s lives for the better. I believe that a true artist can share the music in a way that makes listeners come out of a concert hall different people than before. This is my ultimate motivation.
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The daughter of a Persian architect father, a Dutch and Indonesian mother who is a successful entrepreneur, and a grandmother considered to be one of the great ballerinas of the twentieth century, Leila Samii has been blessed with the bloodlines and talent of a truly great artist, pouring that energy and grace into her skills at the piano. A prizewinner in the 2007 Bradshaw & Buono, she continues to pursue her love of the instrument, while combining it with the active life of a teenager, and someone very much committed to her music.
The demands on a student, particularly one in high school, are enormous: classes, study, preparation, and the desire for a social life being chief among the priorities. How do you then not only find the time to study the piano, but also make it such an important part of your life? And, given the fact that you are so accomplished with the instrument, what makes it worth the trouble of fitting it into an already highly demanding schedule?
Without my piano, I would surely not be as relaxed and at peace as I am now. Having to study all the time is unrealistic for me, and I feel that by incorporating piano into my schedule every day not only do my piano skills improve, but it is also a chance to escape from other work and unwind. Because of the fact that I promised myself to never give up piano, it has become natural for me to choose it as a priority, and I feel as if it is something I am doing for myself. In a world that is overly busy most of the time, it is important to have escapes, and the piano happens to be mine.
There are those students of the piano who say that it is something they have to do because their parents insist on it, and even at levels of high proficiency they remain detached from it as a vehicle of expression. Still others say that the more they work, and the more they practice, the more they want to be able to use the instrument as a means for their own personal communication, and a way of interpreting and understanding their own range of emotion. Where do you think you fall along this spectrum, and please tell us in what ways you find the piano a vehicle for sharing your own world view?
I personally not only use the piano to learn about past composers and read and learn music, but to also take that music and develop something new that is my own. Ever since I was little I remember taking my pieces and attaching a personal story or emotion to them, and often I find that the piano is the only way to express myself, and therefore put all my emotion into them, of course staying within respectable parameters of the music presented to me. I am often told that I have a certain way with the piano, and that my current emotion shows through the piece I am playing, which is a goal I try to maintain at all times. The world of music is all about self-expression, and the piano is my instrument of choice to enter that world.
Another point that grows out of this question is then, when you perform, what message do you want to leave with the audience?
When I perform, I not only want to leave the audience with a good impression of my piano playing, but also feeling inspired. Perhaps even curious, but I feel that if I get at least one audience member to be enthused by my playing that I have done what every musician strives to do through playing music.
All questions of skill aside, what do you think is unique to the piano that allows one to make it the instrument of choice, versus, for example, another string instrument like a violin, or perhaps even a harp?
I feel as if you can literally squeeze out the widest spectrum of sounds through a piano. I may be biased, but I feel this is valid. There are so many ways you can tinker with the music presented to you through a piano, which just means so many more opportunities to mold the music into your own creation, versus for example just being able to strum the strings of a harp.
One often hears pianists talk about their favorite composers, and why they respond to the works of that person more than they do to someone else. As a student of the piano, what elements or aspects of composers in general do you find have to be a part of their compositions in order to make you interested in performing their works?
To me, a composer must bring some sort of story that you can relate to in their compositions. I find that knowing which direction the composer wanted to go in is crucial in learning a piece, and that you must understand the emotion that the composer wanted to portray in his or her piece in order to enjoy it. I often lean towards more romantic and morose compositions, because for reasons unknown they bring out the deepest emotions in me.
Soprano Yelena Dof-Donskaya is perhaps one of the best examples we’ve ever seen of the kind of discipline—and courage—that can go into a career in classical music. Having sung throughout Europe and the United States in the early 1990s, she put that career on hold to raise her family, but still kept studying, and learning repertoire. Later, after her son finished college, she re-launched her musical pursuits, first taking a job as a cantor, while gradually involving herself once again in opera.
As a First Prize winner of the Barry Alexander this year, she performed in The Winners’ Recital on Sunday January 24, 2010 and will guest star in The Third Annual ABC Gala on April 7, both at Carnegie Hall.
Anyone reading your bio has to automatically label you a triple threat: a singer who is also trained as a pianist, and a conductor. To what extent do you feel having these additional skills helps your work as a singer?
I’ve always dreamed of being a singer, but I could never imagine being a singer without having a solid foundation, and being a pianist and a conductor have provided me with the needed base to become a singer. In my opinion, any good singer has to be, first of all, a good musician. A singer’s voice is merely an instrument and learning how to use this instrument is a never-ending process. I believe that one can never have enough skills, and that is why I am always trying to learn more and more. I think that the more you know, the more you can understand and feel, and the more you can give back to the audience.
It’s no secret that some of the great operatic stars began their work as cantors: Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker immediately come to mind. What exactly do you feel there is about the specific demands of cantorial music that help your work in opera?
Old traditional cantorial music demands a very good control of the voice, excellent musicality and virtuoso technique. All these qualities are evident in Jan Peerce’s and Richard Tucker’s performances. Both of them had excellent voices and schooling. And that is what helped them become great opera stars. When I was a cantor, besides leading services, I was also involved in the community, I participated in people’s lives, I was with them in joy and in sorrow, I felt what they felt, and through my singing I could make them feel what I feel. Suddenly I understood that I love people even more than before, that I can play a big role in their lives. I feel that being a cantor has made me a better person, and I think I am a better singer for it.
The Metropolitan Opera conductor Paul Nadler describes you as having "a superb, large, shimmering sound, and excellent musicality." Paul Crook, one of your colleagues at London’s Royal Opera House, says you have "a voice of rare quality and beauty, with the highest standard of stage presence." With this kind of praise being bestowed upon you by those in the most exalted levels of professional music, do you ever feel as though there is an added pressure to perform your best?
It was very pleasant to receive such nice compliments about me from people I had the privilege to work with. Rather than adding pressure, it gave me a boost of confidence. I was always taught to do my best, and never stop improving. I have a great passion for music and I love sharing it with everyone around me.
I have always personally felt that your career path is a shining example for many singers who do not necessarily pursue a career right out of conservatory that leads to years of performance. How do you think that taking time off to raise your family has, in the interim years, helped you as an artist?
My family is the most important thing in my life, but I never gave up on my dream of being an opera singer. I understood very well that I couldn’t stop practicing singing. One of my dearest friends once told me: "Yelena, remember, if you don’t practice one day – you will notice it; if you don’t practice two days – your friends will notice it; if you don’t practice three days –your enemies will notice it." He made a very good point! If you want to be good at anything, you need to keep improving. It takes a lot of commitment and passion. I continued to practice every day, continued to take voice lessons and coaching sessions every week. I believe that I am ready to pursue a career now, more than ever, because I feel now is the right time to do it.
Perhaps this is not the first time you have been asked this question, but given the difficulties of a career in classical music, are there any regrets on your part that you chose to step away from the singing, albeit temporarily?
In my heart I never stepped away from the singing. I had to put a career, which I always wanted, on hold, and I have no regrets. I always believed that God leads me, so I accept life the way it is and I am grateful for what I have. It always was very important for me to be a good mother first and everything else after.
What advice would you give to artists in situations similar to yours who might have found themselves "on hiatus" for a longer period of time than they might have planned, as it relates to re-kindling their plans for a career?
Just do what I do: Never give up! Love people, love yourself, love life, love music, and believe in everything that is good and always try to do your best!
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It seems fair to say that Nina Berman is among the new generation of opera singers showing the greatest promise. Still, for all her talent, she remains gracious, and extremely giving of her time, though thoroughly focused on the needs and demands of her career.
There can be no question that you are a coloratura soprano of extraordinary ability, and that you have distinguished yourself in this repertoire by tackling some of its most difficult works. When, in addition to singing, did you discover you had this particular gift?
I have been singing my whole life and began voice lessons with a fantastic teacher, Tammy Hensrud, when I was in high school. She gave me the most wonderful guidance and support and I still work with her occasionally. Now, however, I study with Arthur Levy, who has also been just great. When I first began working with him, I thought I was a light lyric/soubrette, but he told me I’d be moving up, and lo and behold, he was right! I’ve always had easy coloratura, but it wasn’t until I tackled a particular aria that had been haunting me for a few months that I realized my extreme top wasn’t so terrifying, after all! I really love the repertoire that I sing now because it’s so much fun to perform and audiences usually enjoy listening to it.
Within the world of opera, where there are so many categories of voice, particularly for sopranos—lyric, coloratura, spinto, dramatic—do you feel the coloratura soprano voice easier or harder to market, and why?
I think every voice type offers its own challenges and for that reason, I don’t concern myself with marketing my particular voice. I sing what I sing, I try to make it my own, and I love it. I have noticed that there is some sort of mystique surrounding the coloratura voice type and repertoire, however, which makes singers believe that by calling ourselves coloraturas or by singing the repertoire, we will somehow stand out more and create an easier path for ourselves because coloraturas are not as prevalent. This is certainly not true because there are simply so many talented, engaging singers out there and everyone’s talent resides in a different area. I think that when we talk about a voice type being easier or harder to market, it is important to understand first of all that no one has an easy career path and that no one sails through without taking on his fair share of hardships. Second, in marketing a voice type, we are not really marketing our voices alone; as singers, we need to be sure that we move well on stage and have a real connection to the text. Third, no matter what the voice type, it is imperative to sing material that suits one’s talents and temperament because the audience can always tell when you’re faking it! Last, while the overall number of singers physically able to sing Mimi might be greater than the number of singers physically able to sing Zerbinetta, for example, I don’t think there are any more great Mimis than there are great Zerbinettas; in other words, the playing field levels significantly when we look at people who are able to give truly moving and technically accurate performances, no matter what the repertoire or voice type.
With your grandfather being a highly distinguished songwriter of ballads and popular music, was there ever an influence to pursue a musical path other than opera?
My grandfather, Ervin Drake, has certainly had a huge influence on me. In fact, my whole family (myself included!) is very much in love with the great American songbook. I, like many people, grew up on standards and rock and roll, in addition to classical music. All throughout high school, I always thought I would pursue musical theatre or cabaret singing, and, in fact, was fortunate enough to do some performances at NYC’s Town Hall and Citi Center singing this music. Eventually, however, it became glaringly obvious to me that my talent resides in the classical arena…there aren’t many coloratura musical theatre ingénues!
Given your work with luminaries like Daniel Beckwith, Andrew Parrott, and Stephanie Blythe in master classes, how do you feel working in the master class environment helps refine the interpretation a singer gives a piece, or even a particular role, and how do you use this format to inform your own performances?
I think that the master class setting can be wonderfully invigorating at best, but absolutely harrowing at worst. When singers are fully prepared and in good voice and the master teacher is understanding and very open, a master class can be a fantastic experience: the audience can provide singers with performance-level energy and immediate positive feedback. In this case, the singer is very much able to take the given advice and apply it again and again to other material. However it can be so, so tricky to make changes on the spot and it is very difficult to be open to the prospect of making a fool of yourself in front of an audience (for both the student and the master teacher)! In situations where the master teacher is asking something of the singer that cannot be done on the spot or that the singer is having trouble understanding, the seconds tend to tick by at an unbearably slow rate and it is very disconcerting for both the singer and the audience. The other issue to think about is that sometimes a master teacher will harp on something relatively unimportant and if a teacher makes too many negative comments, he or she can really overshadow the depth and beauty of an otherwise acceptable performance without even realizing it. In general, I would say master classes are not the most ideal learning environment, but there are certainly exceptions, and I have without question learned a great deal from participating in them.
Tell us about your career aspirations, how you envision the next five years, what specific goals you might have in terms of repertoire, and the reasons for your selections.
At the moment, I am concentrating on completing my Bachelor’s of Music at Manhattan School of Music, after which I will continue to study for a Master’s degree. Over the next five years, I would like to look into some young artist programs and, of course, continue to perform at school and around town. In terms of repertoire, my taste is constantly evolving and who knows what I will want to sing five years from now? One thing I always do is make a conscious effort to promote and sing contemporary music. Working with a composer on his or her own music and interpreting and premiering pieces teaches us so much about ourselves as both musicians and as people. I might also try to include more bel canto, since this is something about which I have been quite negligent.
Regarding career aspirations, I think we all dream big, but it is so important that we love what we do no matter where we end up; after all, some of us are very much cut out for performing careers, while others of us are more suited to teaching. No matter what we do, it’s important to remain satisfied by and interested in it. I believe that when we, as musicians, are able to come to terms with ourselves and our talent, we open ourselves to the possibility of reaching our full potentials. I derive so much satisfaction out of giving a good performance and I think being on the stage is just thrilling. I really love to sing, and to think and talk about music. In fact, I would say that my study of classical music has really and truly made me a better person, and I am quite confident that my pursuit of a career in this field will allow me to continue along the same trajectory. I think Charles Ives said it best: "Music is life."
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While the demands of creating and sustaining a career are of primary concern for all classical artists, Ann Cravero would seem to have struck the perfect balance between passion for one’s art, and a practical approach to making a living from it. Years of intelligent preparation and a proficiency in a variety of areas have allowed her to combine her skills as a singer, teacher, pianist and director, into a highly successful career in music. The model she has created serves not only as an example, but an inspiration.
Looking at your résumé, one immediately sees you are a true Renaissance woman in terms of your approach to music: how have you managed to combine singing, directing, and teaching so successfully?
The collaboration between singing, directing and teaching naturally evolved because of my desire to learn and immerse myself in all aspects of music. I believed that hard work, dedication, professionalism, and gaining a myriad of experiences in the world of voice would provide me the necessary edge in what I came to realize was a very competitive market. Likewise, my ability to play the piano, and quickly read and memorize music, has been an invaluable skill that resulted in professional opportunities such as accompanying opera theatre, master classes, recitals and choirs. This collaboration of performing, teaching, directing, and family life have worked quite successfully. Each day I am fortunate to have my avocation be my vocation.
In planning your career did you prioritize your work to be a teacher or performer first, and what led to your choosing one versus the other?
When entering into my undergraduate music studies as a pianist and vocalist, I entered into a degree plan of Music Education per the recommendation of my piano and voice teacher. It proved to be a very smart decision as I was able to find employment following graduation, thus providing me the financial means to continue studying voice, and audition. As the years progressed and my voice developed, I became more and more engaged with and in the art of singing, and eventually focused my efforts in the field. Although, my graduate degrees are both in vocal performance, I didn’t specifically prioritize to be a performer, nor did I specifically prioritize to be a teacher. I love to perform and I love to teach, so I never put the pressure on myself to ‘choose.’ For me the paths have always been inextricably intertwined, with doors opening at seemingly the right times. Currently, I have a great balance of teaching and directing at Drake University while maintaining an active international performing career.
Directing opera is a fascinating aspect of your work. How do you think your singing informs your directing, and do you think having a directing background helps your singing? If so, how?
In preparation for a singing role, I use my directing experience to more fully understand my character, in terms of motivation, interaction with other characters, movement, and musical development. I also include historical research, the internalization of all roles, and a broad, overall perspective of what is happening on stage. Since studying and directing opera seven years ago, my acting and singing are very improved.
There is clearly an interest in and passion for modern music on your part. Please explain the fascination, and how it compares with your interest in more standard repertoire?
While studying at the University in Iowa, I had the opportunity to perform and premiere works for living composers at the New Music Center, including the Austrian Contemporary Music Festival in Clapp Hall in Iowa City. As a singer and pianist, it was exciting for me to further explore new tonalities, timbres, the incorporation of electronics, and the various methods of notation that I had not encountered in standard repertoire. Each composition assisted in sharpening my tonal memory, rhythmic skills, pitch accuracy, and revealed to me that music takes on various and beautiful forms.
What suggestions can you offer to other singers in terms of combining a career of performance with other aspects of the musical profession, such as you have done with your teaching?
I encourage every singer to find his or her own path by exposing themselves to the diverse opportunities in the world of music. It is with those opportunities and experiences that a singer gains valuable insight into what will be their right professional choice. Hard work, dedication, drive, desire, professionalism, respect for colleagues, and a passion for singing cannot be underestimated.
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A native of Saint Petersburg, Russia, soprano Tatiana Taranec is a serious, dedicated artist, whose hard work has resulted in a major career. Glamorous, elegant, and highly musical, she continues to flourish in her work as a principal singer at the Saint Petersburg Theatre of Musical Comedy.
As a First Prize Winner of the BAIVC in its inaugural year, Ms. Taranec made her debut at Carnegie Hall in January, and returned there in April as a guest artist for the First Annual ABC Gala at the invitation of Messrs. Alexander and Buono, who also invited her to participate in the twentieth annual Musica e Arte Festival in Tolentino, Italy, where she performed three recitals.
Ms. Taranec holds many awards and prizes for her work, and continues to receive accolades throughout the world for performances in opera, operetta, and concerts.
You are relatively young in term of singers who have achieved so much. How did you first begin your career?
I have been singing ever since I can remember. I always wanted to sing, and I loved it, even as a child. I also played violin and piano.
Once, when I was eleven, I heard a radio announcement about auditions for enrollment in the State Children’s Choir of Radio and Television. I went there by myself (I still can’t believe my mother actually let me do it), and passed the interview and audition. This led to years of singing in a choir and traveling around the world.
My professional career began in the theatre of Musical Comedy in Saint Petersburg when I was still a student at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory. At that point I had not planned to sing operetta, but the opportunity to sing with the theatre was so wonderful I had to accept it. It just made sense because I knew I would have a future with the company. My first role with them was in a performance of a work called Truffaldino of Bergamo or Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni. I could not believe I was given a chance to participate in this work so early in my career. Later I received very big vocal parts as well.
What was it like working at the Academy of Young Singers?
After the conservatory I was accepted to the Academy of Young Opera Singers. This was a very difficult school in every respect. So much competition! You were busy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was never a given that a conductor would hear you and then give you a role. Many students waited for years and were never given parts.
I managed to be given a part in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. To be honest, I had never performed such complex music in my entire life. I was of course, grateful to the Academy for the opportunity of performing on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. Every Russian singer dreams about it, and I got a lot of great experience there for which I thank the Academy.
You do a lot of performing of musical comedy. Do you see yourself performing more dramatic roles in the future and if so, what would they be?
I work a lot in the Theatre of Musical Comedy. I treat it as my home base, even though I have concerts in various places. I love the operetta genre very much because it is cheerful; it is easily understood by the public, and usually has happy endings. Operetta is certainly no less difficult than opera, and in many cases is more so because of the need to dance, act, and still maintain great vocal quality. It is no secret that moving, dancing, and singing simultaneously is very hard.
In Russia there is a saying: Good operetta is like champagne, and bad operetta is like wine that has turned. I am always trying to do my work so that people think of what I do as champagne! Besides, I love opera too, and would be happy to sing dramatic roles like Leonora in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino or Puccini’s Tosca.
You are a winner of the Golden Floodlight Award. Tell us more about the award and how one is chosen.
The Golden Soffit (Floodlight) is the highest theatrical prize given in Saint Petersburg. There are many theatres of different kinds here, and winners are chosen from all of them. It is very much like an Oscar in the United States, with very similar categories: best female role, best male role, etc. I received mine for the best female role in a performance of Offenbach’s Bluebeard. I was very pleased, honored, and happy with this victory.
Russia has both consistently and characteristically given the world some of its greatest classical music artists. What do you think there is about musical education in Russia that makes this possible?
In Russia there are many famous artists, and many, many talented people. Russia is a huge country, with the kind of musical education that is very strong and effective. However, the secret is not just with the education, but with the student. A student has to have a real desire to learn and to work. You cannot be lazy. Of course you need a bit of luck too, but with desire, knowledge, and experience, you can take advantage of the strength of the education.
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Listening to lyric soprano Camelia Voin, it becomes very clear what great singing should be. Hers is a vibrant, rich voice that joins great musicality with superb technique. As a First Prize Winner of the 2009 BAIVC, she recently appeared as Special Guest Artist at the Alexander and Buono Festival of Music, performing works by Donizetti and Rossini, as well as Romanian composers Grigoras Dinicu and Teodor Rogalski.
Anyone hearing you for the first time is forced to remark on not only the clarity and sheer beauty of your sound, but an evenness of tone throughout the entire range of the voice. What is there specifically within your technique that has helped you to create this?
I believe there are three major factors contributing to the development of a beautiful singing voice: the God-given talent, never-ending practice, and the soul of the singer.
The natural talent is a very significant factor to a beautiful voice, and those who are blessed with this have a real head start. Nonetheless, without hard work, even the most beautiful natural voice will not reach its full potential. The human voice is like a precious gem that needs to be carefully cut and polished before becoming of great value.
It is well known that as opera singers we encounter many difficulties and obstacles, but the extraordinary rewards are immeasurable. And, if you are born with a solid vocal talent, it is impossible not to follow its pathway; your body becomes a vessel for a very capricious being which will never allow you to put it aside, however hard it is to perfect it.
So, even though my voice has a natural ability for coloratura, and I enjoy performing fast scales and combinations of demanding cadenzas, I was always fascinated by long legato phrases and equal tone quality throughout the entire vocal range. I wanted to bring my lyric side to the level of my coloratura. It took me years of practice to acquire such quality, and I am still constantly changing my vocalizing routine to improve the ease as well as the long sustained legato tone, so it will have its internal life, like a flame, fed by the inherent energy of breath. I work continuously on gaining security of breath, purity of enunciation and smoothness of tone. I assume that my native language also contributed to the clarity of my sound. Similar to Italian, Romanian expresses ideas in long phrases with words rich in alternating open vowels in quasi singing patterns.
I believe in the concept of feeling yourself sing, rather than listening to yourself sing, and by doing that one will diminish the possibility of muscle stress and other bad habits.
I truly believe that opera singers are not much different from athletes, requiring a very disciplined and scheduled life, exercising every day to strengthen their muscles and to create an automatic reflex in singing as it is in speaking.
Nevertheless, what makes one’s voice to be distinguished is the individuality and personality of the vocal tone. Every human voice has a unique and extraordinary feature that no other musical instrument possesses: a soul, borrowed from the inhabited body. The wonders of God’s creation reflected in beautiful singing will remain unknown until the singer will let their soul free so the voice can use it.
Having sung so many of the great roles like Violetta, Gilda, Juliette, and Olympia, how do you prepare? How do you recommend a singer study a role in order to get it ready for any performance, but particularly a production?
In my performances I like to identify myself with the character and the emotion that the composer is trying to express. Every time I start working on a new role, I try first to understand what makes my character happy, sad, or even deeply depressed, her role in society, her environment, and who her friends are, and the influence they have on her. We live in a different century from the time of these tales, but we love and hate just the same. Throughout the years, my life experiences have also helped me better understand the emotions of a particular character, so that the more knowledgeable I get, the better I understand the characters’ personalities. This is also why molding a person to become an "opera singer" is a very long process, because it involves much, much more than an extraordinary technique. Things like acting, dancing, feeling and understanding behavior are also crucial.
Once I believe I can identify myself with the character, I start the process of learning the music, understanding the emotions and the expression that is transmitted, not just the melodic intervals. If you take the time to listen to the music, you will find the answers for all of your questions: what to feel, how to move your body, where to breathe, as the composer already put these in his music.
One other important part of the preparation is the understanding of the language. It is necessary not only to understand the translation of the lyrics but also to know which muscles are involved in the creation of a perfect pronunciation, because for each language you need to engage different positioning and technique. There is a very distinct difference between singing and speaking, and this applies not only to foreign languages but also to your native language. After finishing all this hard work, it is time to think about placing your newborn persona on stage and in action. I like to be ready with some of my own ideas before facing the stage manager. Opera singers needs to learn how to beautifully combine the art of singing, dancing and acting to create a complete artist.
You are known not only as a great artist, but also a fine voice teacher. How do you think your teaching helps your performing, and vice versa?
It is very hard to say which profession is harder; teaching or performing; for me they are equally challenging. My life and career have been influenced by teachers with whom I’ve studied, musicians I admire and I had the privilege working with, and students from whom I’ve learned. I consider myself a very diligent and disciplined individual, and I try to guide my students to observe and learn not only from their teachers but also from colleagues, singers and musicians of the world. Studying voice is a lifelong journey of quest and exploration, with the objective of becoming your own best teacher. Ideally, the teacher-student relationship should be a partnership between two collaborating persons seeking mutually desirable goals. As the student becomes more independent in managing his/her learning process the role of the teacher should diminish.
A voice teacher, once he/she masters the art of singing, has to learn the skill of communication and developing a style and system of teaching. I am completely aware of the fact that a vocal instructor plays many important roles in the development of a student, being a mentor, instructor, scholar, counselor, coach and ultimately colleague, and I am trying to use all my knowledge and experience to achieve this objective. I really do hope that my students are learning from me as much as I’ve learned from them.
You often sing under the baton of Viorel Gheorghe, who is also your husband. Please discuss with us the advantages, and perhaps even potential disadvantages, of such a collaboration.
I consider myself a very romantic person and my life is a love story worthy of being made into an opera libretto. Some years ago I was hired by Dr. Gheorghe, who later became my husband, to perform the solo soprano part in Mozart’s Coronation Mass, and how beautiful this adventure has become.
I feel that we are a great match, as we harmoniously complete one another and greatly enjoy each other’s company, whether making music, travel, cooking or leisure time. However, as soon as we step on stage, we become two professional musicians doing our best for the better outcome of the performance, as he cares equally for everyone involved, while I fall in love with Alfred, Elvino, Belmonte, Ernesto, or whomever the role requires.
I really do not see any disadvantages to our collaboration, nevertheless, it is an obvious advantage for a conductor and a singer to have more time to discuss and rehearse performance projects. My husband’s experience and knowledge have influenced me tremendously, and he tells me that my expertise has helped him become a better conductor.
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You have been described as a violinist for whom "nothing seems too difficult." With such accolades coming relatively early in your career, does this create any special performance pressure for you, and if so, how?
These complimentary and quite powerful words do not add any further pressure to what I already put on myself–the kind of pressure that keeps me motivated to perform better every time. I am happy that my long-term efforts to become as solid as possible technically are being recognized. In fact, I have always thought that technical security allows turning one's attention to more significant aspects of music making, such as the element of personal expression. Also, a limitless technique will allow an artist to learn and absorb more music in a shorter period of time, which will give them an opportunity to experience more styles, as well as to fully live in the world of music, almost breathing it.
No matter how talented a violinist, it is said that an artist is only as good as his instrument. Tell us your opinion on this, and then describe for us the characteristics of your own perfect instrument.
A good, high quality instrument can definitely help an artist. Aiming to play a musical instrument at possibly the highest level is indeed quite similar to developing a great professional relationship with another person. When both capably work well from each other's potentials, the outcome is always better.
A moderate violin will certainly allow a skilled violinist to play all the right notes, as well as to even phrase music in the way they wish or intend. (The latter is especially significant). However, if the goal is to ensure an expressive performance that will be a most satisfying experience for a listener, there is simply much more to consider; there are different timbres to explore, and there are different kinds of expression, just to name a couple. The first thing that an ear captures, though, is the sound itself. And significantly, a great quality of the sound requires both the ability of the performer and the quality of the instrument itself. Accordingly, despite the fact that a great percentage of the actual music made by an artist reflects how they hear and interpret it, I do recognize that the sound quality of a great violin factors in, intangibly in a manner of speaking, to create a distinct expressive sound.
A perfect violin for me will have a most beautiful, pure, and rich tone. It will possibly be most responsive, and will therefore be a ticket to an ultimate expression.
With there being so much violin literature written for soloist and orchestra, along with a great body of chamber music, when learning repertoire and rehearsing alone, what special techniques do you feel you need in order to anticipate performance with other musicians, and how do you calculate any potential adjustments you have to make until you are able to make them in an actual rehearsal?
When preparing to perform a violin concerto with an orchestra as a soloist, I have to do much more than just to learn the solo part. I always find it helpful to know the history of a work, its inspiration etc. Expectedly, in the beginning stages of a new work, one must study the full score to gain a sufficient understanding of the entire piece; and significantly, a deep study of the score provides one the idea of the composer’s intentions. Just like the conductor, I have to know what, when and approximately how all the different parts of the orchestra are played; knowing when and how to react for the perfect musical flow. And obviously, the better my knowledge is in this regard, the better connection I make with the orchestra and the conductor. Consequently, a more powerful communication is achieved with the audience.
Coming to a rehearsal with either an orchestra or a chamber music ensemble, I have learned to be quite flexible, especially in the aspects of tempi; as those could vary, depending on different musical temperaments, preference or ability. Especially in chamber music, I am also open to different interpretation ideas. It is a learning process, which helps to grow as a musician.
Singers are often taught that it is the body that is their instrument, and not just the voice. How much do you feel the physical make up of a violinist contributes to the overall sound of the artist?
I don't particularly pay too much attention in anticipation of how my body moves and behaves physically when performing for a piece. The important thing is to have a good solid foundation as far as posture, violin position and stance go, and spatial orientation when performing. During performance, I want to believe that I become one with the instrument, as a vessel through which the music flows. I believe, in my field, the subsequent bodily movements are more of an outcome of the kind of piece that is played. And one can indeed appreciate how a musician is moved by music, through the body language they exhibit.
What advice would you give a violinist working to improve technique in terms of acquiring repertoire? Which composers naturally allow a gradual increase in flexibility and overall musicality, before taking on the more virtuosic literature?
What has greatly helped me is studying the music of Nicolo Paganini, especially the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin. In my younger years, the daily scales were my water, and the 24 Caprices were my bread. As technically challenging pieces, the Caprices require not just basic abilities to play the violin, but a focused work on making the best use of both arms. Aspects to address in these pieces are: hand position, shifting, optimal holding of both the bow and the violin, and picking most useful fingerings that will not disturb the flow of the usually simple phrases Paganini wrote. The latter should especially encourage using the technique to serve the needs of the music of other composers of the violin literature.
Besides Paganini, I think that the study of music by J. S. Bach, especially the Three Partitas and Three Sonatas for Solo Violin, is quite crucial. Playing these wonderful works requires an utmost purity of sound, understanding more complicated structures as in case of the fugues, and deep consideration of the harmony, which should be treated as an important guideline for phrasing, timbre, the level of intensity of the sound, among other aspects. Subsequently, this knowledge and these abilities should be further used and explored when fundamentally learning works of other composers.
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