Victorians got a treat this morning: from 10 to noon, renonwned international superstar Angela Hewitt donated her time to host a piano masterclass at Christ Church Cathedral. Proceeds from the masterclass and the weekend concert go to the Godfrey Hewitt Memorial Scholarship Fund to encourage and develop organ players. Four lucky students got some expert advice in front of a crowd of 340 or so. Here.s the menu:
Some observations on the pieces. Chronological from Baroque (Bach) to Classical (Beethoven) to Romantic (Schumann) to maybe a counter-Romanticism (Brahms, but this piece is musically more forward than backwards looking with its undulating melodies). Musically, a span of two hundred years from early 1700s to late 1800s. Composer wise we have the three Bs with Schumann thrown in.
It was a lot more packed than I had thought, so I ended up sitting five or six rows further back than I like. You can sort of get a sense of where I am in this shot. Hewitt.s just wrapping things up here after the last student:
About ten rows back (with another 15′ space between the piano and the first row) and the balance between the direct sound and the reverberations tilts towards the latter. At this distance, you can also notice a slight delay from when they strike the keys to when the sound gets to you. Quite a bloom with the sound. Having played the instrument, I prefer the sound closer up with less reverberation. The piano is one of those instruments that just sounds so different depending on how far away you sit. It.d be interesting to ask performers if they change how they play depending on the size of the venue. The impression I got today was that in a large venue, you could probably use a lot less pedal because the reverberations will blend things together all on their own.
Some thoughts on the concert. What fun! The masterclass was in many ways more thrilling than going to a professional concert. You have four young students playing their hearts out, taking chances. That they aren.t used to the piano adds to the thrill and hazard. Some of them may have never played before so many people at such a cavernous venue. You can tell this was the case because Hewitt was exhorting them to ‘make sure the sound makes it right to the back door, the one way back there!’. It.s true: you have at your disposal not a spinet, not an upright, not a 5′ grand but a 9′ grand–make it sing! Even though the students are obviously less polished than a professional recital, there was never a dull moment in this fun filled two hours.
How the masterclass works is that each student get half an hour of the limelight. They play a ten to fifteen minute selection and the rest of the time Hewitt comments on what she.d like to hear, often jumping herself onto the piano to demonstrate. Her comments included, ‘I want to hear more depth in the sound, you know, I always think of a picture of Brahms over the keyboard like this [makes gesture] and you know, he was a very corpulent man so the sound must be just as corpulent’. Well, that idea of Brahms’ music being corpulent I think is now stuck in my mind forever, it hits the nail right on the head. Another time, she insists that the student ‘play with authority’ saying ‘think of Furtwangler conducting: that is how you move your hands over the keyboard’. Wow! Brilliant image. What an effective teacher!
Hewitt may be doing Terpsichore’s work today, but her tips can benefit those doing Melpomene’s work or really anytime anyone is engaged in performance. Which is all the time. Public speaking, making presentations, even communicating. Her pedagogy is: get the idea straight in your head. Think about it some. The idea can be a musical phrase. Or an emotion. It.s not good enough playing the notes. Think: ‘what do you want to say?’. Only when you have figured this out can you make the fingers play. Now, to get the idea out, sing along and sing out loud. As the students played or as she herself played, she would sing out loud: a crescendo would be sung and spoken out loud as ‘crescendo!’ and sforzandos would be ‘SFORZANDO NOW!’. And all the while gesticulating about. Now, not everything is transferable to other arts and disciplines. But some things are. Here they are dear readers: 1) figure out what you want to say, 2) after figuring out what to say, use whatever techniques you can muster to bring it out (singing, dancing, etc.,): it must COME ALIVE, 3) don.t be timid or shy: belt it out. Belting it out doesn.t just mean loud (though it can). Belting it out means playing with inner conviction. It must be your own interpretation and you must be proud of it, 4) you are in performance, not playing before yourself: make sure to captivate the audience! One of the students had a really introspective touch which actually I thought was very interesting: focus on the decay of the notes, soft and delicate grace. But Hewitt was right: you could lose the audience with this sort of approach. Save the introspective playing for late nights in the drawing room.
One thing that I also picked up on that I would like to share with you, diligent reader, is the art of criticism. What do you think would have the greatest impact, be the most constructive? Let.s say there.s a weak passage in the student.s playing. Would you say: ‘It.s falling apart’. Or would you say: ‘I want you to play more robustly’. Or if the emotion is lacking, would you say, ‘There.s no emotion’. Or would you say, ‘I need you to express yourself here’. I.d venture if you tell someone what you want rather than telling than how they.re lacking, you.d get better results. It.s really the same thing though, but psychologically by coming at it in terms of what you want, you.re approaching it from a more positive angle. This is something I can learn from Hewitt so I.m thankful for this lesson.
Another thing these concerts and plays are good for is just to practise the art of communicating with strangers. Small talk. Ever since I left work, I feel like I.ve been holed up a lot, just in my own company (which I don.t mind). But if you.re talking to yourself a lot of the time, you lose the art of communicating with others. Which is not a good thing. Back at Bayside Mechanical, I.d be on the phone a good deal of the day, or if not on the phone on emails or meeting people at site meeting and so on. And of course you.re also interacting with everyone in the office as well. There was lots of personal interactions. I.ve been trying to initiate ‘small talk’ with random people at these events. What I.ve learned is that as you walk by people, you have about a one or two second window to start the conversation. Once the window is past, it.s awkward to go back to start the conversation. But when the window is open, it.s easy. As for what to say, there are two approaches: ask something or convey something. I find that when I ask something (for example, ‘How did you enjoy the concert?’) what usually happens is a weird look and an awkward start to the conversation. But I find if I convey something (for example, ‘I really enjoyed the concert’) the other person pauses, smiles and responds and you can usually keep the conversation going. I think usually when people walk around, you glance up at them and no conversation starts. At best, a smile. But if at the second people exchange glances, you ask them something that initiates small talk, you catch them off guard. They.re flat footed because its sort of unexpected. But if you convey something, it.s also unexpected, but more natural in that you.ve already announced your position (ie ‘I really enjoyed that’).
So, as I was walking around after the show making small talk, two thing that emerged from the conversations: how wonderful Hewitt is and how we shall certainly be seeing more of Keaton Ollech, the young musician that played the Schumann piece with such poise. We are seeing the birth of a star. And that.s something you don.t get to see when you go to the professional concerts. I certainly agree. Right from the first note, you could feel the star power. But it.s hard to qualify just what it is. He just made it sound easy.
A big thank you to Christ Church Cathedral for the wonderful venue, Hewitt for the masterclass, and a round of applause for the four musicians: Laura Altenmueller, Elizabeth Clarke, Keaton Ollech, and Frances Armstrong. Until next time, I am Edwin Wong and I am Learning Melpomene’s Work by listening to Terpsichore in action! What a wonderful venue too, here.a parting shot. Just look at that Gothic rib vaulting! It.s beauty almost makes me lose sight of how all those bricks overhead probably aren.t a good idea on the San Andreas fault!