NACO tour blog 6: Paying it Forward

Pinchas Zukerman & JKP

Calgary, Alberta

I grew up in Vancouver, a hotbed of musical talent. I recall my youth as a swirl of piano lessons, Kiwanis festivals, student recitals, and absolutely no hockey.

One occasional feature of growing up in a musical world was taking part in master classes. The most memorable for me was in 1977, when the internationally renowned violin soloist Pinchas Zukerman came to town to give a class at the Vancouver Academy of Music. I was seventeen at the time.

I played the Fauré A Major Violin Sonata with a colleague for Mr. Zukerman’s class. Master classes are a strange mix of performances and public lessons. The students play a work, and then the esteemed soloist critiques your performance in front of the audience. One hopes that they will be gentle in their comments.

Our performance went reasonably well, and Mr. Zukerman started to give us suggestions. He was friendly but firm, and filled with good ideas, especially in his suggestion to my colleague to work on his sound. At this point my attention lagged somewhat, as the suggestions involved fine points of violin technique.

Then the unthinkable happened: Mr. Zukerman picked up his violin to demonstrate the sound he was looking for. He looked over at me, winked, and said “Let’s start four bars before Rehearsal A.” I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was going to play with Pinchas Zukerman?!

Play we did, and I’ll never forget how thrilled I was. In fact I have a permanent record of how thrilled I was: an hour after the class was over I got my first speeding ticket driving back home to Burnaby.

Last night I gave a master class of my own at the Academy of Music at the Mount Royal College Conservatory in Calgary. I always approach these classes mindful of the experiences that I had as a teenager. How can I make suggestions that will be useful and clear in a limited time, make them relevant to the audience, and how can I be gentle enough so as not to unnerve the young performers?

If the three teenaged players that I’ve just heard here are any indication, the state of classical music, and specifically piano playing, is healthier than ever. I didn’t have to worry about pulling punches; I had to worry about finding enough helpful things to say.

The first of the Master Class participants, Jan Lisiecki, a student of Colleen Athparia, already has a significant reputation at the National Arts Centre Orchestra, having performed with them last year. I had heard that his Mozart Concerto performance reduced several orchestra players to tears. At the time, Jan was twelve. A year or so later, one could say that he has matured musically, but he still cuts a delicate figure at the piano, with his petite frame and shock of blonde hair.

Jan played two of the most fiendishly difficult Chopin Etudes for me. If I see a Chopin Etude on a master class program, I am always prepared to offer technical advice, which turned out to be unnecessary: his Etudes were flawlessly clean and brilliant. I would then be prepared to address the oft-ignored bass line in the left hand, where much of the harmony and phrasing are defined. But Jan’s phrases were conversational, and his chords voiced well.

What would I suggest to this precocious young musician? Finally we discussed the slow section of the “Octave” Etude. I thought it could linger more on a few of the beautiful chords, and that the phrases could be even more elastic. Jan asked a few clarifying questions, understood exactly what I had asked for, and changed it on the spot. It was quite something to hear.

The final performer of the class was Tie Dan Yao, a student of Charles Foreman. Tie Dan played the complete Piano Sonata of Samuel Barber, a spectacular and complex work that I had performed twenty-five years earlier as a semi-finalist in the Leeds International Piano Competition. (I’ll never forget that experience: the sostenuto pedal stopped working halfway through. But that’s another story…)

Tie Dan played with vigor, big sound, and purpose. We discussed the second movement, a bizarre, almost drunken scherzo which I thought could had been a little lighter in character. Like Jan, Tie Dan was quick to respond and alter his approach.

In between, Boyang Zhang, a student of Marilyn Engle, played the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. I thought this was fairly brave as I was about to perform it the following evening with the National Arts Centre Orchestra!

There were two pianos on stage, but he didn’t have an accompanist available. I saw an opportunity to emulate what Mr. Zukerman had done for me over thirty years ago, and I offered to perform the accompaniment of the concerto with Boyang.

I hope he enjoyed it as much as I did.

It is twenty-four hours later, and I have just walked offstage at the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary, having performed the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. And there I was on stage with the man who gave me such a thrill as a seventeen year old, Pinchas Zukerman.


"Fantasy is not just a technical showcase, but a big, clear picture window of a musician with a rich soul and great artistic depth. It is also a fantastic example of programming that entertains as well as edifies.”
-Musical Toronto

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