Long Road to Chopin Scherzi

It began as a teenager…

The four Chopin Scherzi have always had a special place in my heart. I was looking for a flashy piece to play for a local scholarship competition when I was a senior in high school. My teacher Susan Starr suggested that I learn the first scherzo, though it would be a tough go to learn in just three weeks, with at most two lessons beforehand. It was tough to learn, and I didn’t learn it well enough to place in the competition. I did end up playing for one of the winners, though, as a collaborative pianist!

As a 17-year-old, I was very impressionable. I got to know many of the pianists who were on the scene, since I went to several solo piano recitals and concerto appearances at Carnegie Hall during my senior year, often on school nights! Although I never heard Ivo Pogorelich play live, I do remember listening to his recording of the Chopin Scherzi on my Sony Walkman as I waited in the infamous Port Authority Bus Terminal to get home. Someday maybe I’d play all of those pieces as well! Back then, he dressed like a rock star and had hair that matched.

Virtuosity needed but don’t forget the musicianship…

Although a large hand is helpful, what makes Chopin difficult is the frequent stretches between the fingers, and the weird passage work that isn’t made easier by simply knowing your scales and arpeggios fluently. Of course, having good technique, including scales and arpeggios makes playing Chopin possible. However, you also have to learn his unique, frequently-occurring virtuosic passages as well. Despite all of that, the music needs to keep shining through despite all the difficulty.

Learning and relearning is hard work…

While I was at Purchase College, I added the third scherzo to my repertoire, and at some point, I also added third ballade, maybe during my gap year between Purchase and Juilliard? However, I guess I lost the urge to complete the set with the missing two scherzi. That came later, a lot late, as in last year! It wasn’t until last 2019 that I relearned the first and third scherzi and learned the second and fourth for the first time. The performances were far from stellar, and my playing of the fourth was pretty awful in spots!


Chopin’s Four Scherzi
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An arrival point…

This year, I finally feel like these pieces are starting to sound decent. They’re not yet memorized, which will be the next step since turning the pages during passage work detracts from the performance. There are also still some rough patches, which only can get worked out by repeated playing in practice and for some “tune-up” recital audiences. Even famous recitalists play for friendly audiences with a hushed invite list and zero publicity. It’s the type of thing you need to do to make sure you are giving the professional venue your very best playing.

Success depends on your metric…

It’s easy to get depressed by listening to pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, or even newcomer Kate Liu, because my playing is not anywhere near theirs. However, it’s back to a level in some ways similar, and in some ways even better than when I was in music school. That’s quite difficult to do when your life doesn’t revolve around performing. So many people leave music altogether after graduating with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. If they stay in music, they often don’t have the time or energy to practice after spending their days in administration or teaching lessons.

Enjoy…

Please enjoy this project for what it is! And just in case if you’re curious, I looked up Ivo Pogorelich. He sort of disappeared from the concert stage for a long time, and his recent recordings have gotten mediocre reviews. Age has also not been kind. With a bald head and an aged face, he looks more like an Eastern European hit man on an episode of a TV crime drama than a former rock-star pianist! I have the memories from that old cassette tape, but it’s anyone’s guess where it actually is. Besides, I’m too old to remember that!


Chopin’s Four Scherzi
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score of Chopin Scherzo No. 4
Near the end of the Chopin Scherzo No. 4
Last Updated 2020-09-04 | Originally Posted 2020-09-04

Grieg Galore

Introduction

My professor of keyboard harmony at The Juilliard School, Baruch Arnon, suggested that Edvard Grieg was a first-rate composer for the piano. Mr. Arnon was an all-business type of instructor, so when he gave off-topic recommendations it was worth noting. Grieg is one of those composers that a pianist typically knows, but doesn’t know well. As a child, I had played Elfin Dance for a National Piano Guild of Piano Teachers exam. As a young adult, I heard the Holberg Suite played in the string orchestra arrangement played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I knew that some day I had to play that on the piano. The story of Grieg Galore follows.

From Holberg’s Time

The connection between falling in love with that work and learning it took more than 30 years! The five pieces that make up this suite are dances written in a Baroque style to honor the eponymous Dano-Norwegian playwright. Though Grieg wrote the pieces in 1884, they celebrate Holberg’s 200th birthday. Thus the framework of the Baroque, with the unmistakable Norweigan romantic harmonies worked into the dances. Even though the Holberg Suite is much more well-known in its string orchestra arrangement, it was originally written for piano.

I programmed this work as part of my Piano Postludes, which take the place of organ postludes at First Methodist once per quarter. The Chopin Waltzes I played in May worked so well in the online church format that I sought to play more piano music. To listen to each one of the movements, you’d have to fast forward to the end of each church service between May 31st and June 28th. They are available on the Facebook page of First Methodist. While you are welcome to do that, I plan to reprise these pieces. They will appear either on a mini-recital or on my Weekly Acorn series.

Peer Gynt, Suite No. 1

Certainly more famous, but not originally written for the piano, are the orchestral pieces written as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. From the smattering of incidental pieces, two suites were extracted, the first of which has best stood the test of time. When most classical aficionados think of Peer Gynt, they are likely thinking of the four individual pieces comprising this suite. Despite being originally written for orchestra, these pieces work really well on piano.

When I originally conceived doing the Holberg Suite as part of Piano Postludes, I thought programming the Peer Gynt on the Weekly Acorn would be the perfect complement for one June program. However, they are a bit trickier to learn than I first assessed, so I will instead debut them in July.

After he died, Grieg’s music quickly came to be regarded as old-fashioned. But his influence was particularly apparent on the French composers of the early 20th century. Ravel said that, other than Debussy, there was ‘no composer to whom I feel a closer affinity’.

Classic FM Website

About Grieg’s Fame

Grieg never attained the fame of other contemporary first-rate composers. I think there are two obvious clues. One, he stuck close to his Norweigan roots, including melodies from traditional music in his compositions. Two, he didn’t like to travel, and only did it begrudgingly. One might say from today’s perspective that he was poor in marketing!

Although Dvorak was very much a composer in the same mold, championing his Bohemian routes, he took a more international approach. He left Prague for a three-year stay in the United States. He cemented fame in the United States that endures to this day by composing his New World Symphony. The piece is filled with American musical and literary references. While Grieg took a different route, his music is wonderful, and deserves to be celebrated! A concise history of Grieg’s life can be found on the Classic FM Website.

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Photo of Edvard Grieg in 1888. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Last Updated 2020-07-23 | Originally Posted 2020-06-23