Classic Mornings

Master Classics


It was a first on the eve of the first day of winter. It was the first time I heard pianist András Schiff speak.

No, he wasn’t in town. But knowing that his birthday falls on the first day of winter, I was curious as to whether there was any news about him. I noticed that there was a master class with Schiff at the Royal College of Music in London. Though it took place in June, it was archived online. I decided to peek in for a bit.

A young pianist performed a Beethoven piano sonata. At the conclusion, Sir Andras, who’d been listening along with others in the auditorium, came onstage and began to review the performance with the pianist. He was rather soft-spoken, which didn’t really surprise me. At the outset, he noted that there wasn’t much to say, but that he had to say something. That’s the whole point of master classes

It was rather interesting to hear him speak about some of the finer points of the performance. As it turned out, he had a good number of things to say. I wondered whether the pianist was a bit nervous in Schiff’s presence. If not, I certainly was – actually, somewhat terrified for him. But I realize that it probably did him a bit of good, since it won’t be the last time that he’ll perform in the presence of a well-travelled musician, not to mention one who has come to know the music of Beethoven, as well as Mozart, Schubert, and Bach so well.

When Schiff stepped over to the keyboard to illustrate a point he was trying to make, it was clear that he knew the music quite well. And it was easy to notice that the young pianist wanted so much to listen to the critique and “get it right” almost at once. That didn’t always happen. Schiff remained patient, and no less perceptive.

It’s not necessary to listen to a musician speak in an interview or a master class to appreciate their performances. In fact, it might even be distracting. Over the years, I’ve told many of them that they already share their music-making with listeners. That’s their art. Yet I was so appreciative if they chose to be interviewed and share some of their thoughts and words as well.

I had the chance to hear the late Jean-Pierre Rampal speak at a pre-concert talk years ago. Last Friday marked the centennial of the flutist’s birth. I was reminded of how he made those of us who were a part of that small audience laugh with the stories he told about concertgoers in the front rows, including snoring patrons and unruly children. He was being interviewed by conductor John Nelson, who appeared to know Rampal quite well and to make the most of the relaxed atmosphere in keeping the conversation lighthearted

Unlike Schiff, Rampal became rather animated when he spoke. And with his French accent, I couldn’t help but bring to mind actor Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. But Sellers’ accent was a caricature. Rampal’s was genuine.

Wondering if there was a clip of him chatting online just to be reminded of the pre-concert talk of years ago, I found a number of them, including excerpts from master classes as well. In that context, he seems to have been just a much an entertainer as I recalled. It may have helped to break the tension for the young flutists. I wonder if it might have interrupted their concentration as well. After all, this is the performer who mentioned in his autobiography that he and keyboard artist John Steele Ritter sometimes broke into silent laughing fits on stage while playing.

He did admit in an interview online that he’s a “ham.” He seemed to accept the fact that it’s a part of performing and being with an audience. But when it came time to illustrate a passage during one of the master classes, Rampal demonstrated the artistry for which he was famous.

The master classes reminded me that there’s a lot of intense work that goes into the art of performance. We’re moved by flawless and deeply inspired playing. We cherish all the subtleties and nuances, which at one point may have been nightmarish challenges. As talented as many young musicians are, not everybody becomes an András Schiff or a Jean-Pierre Rampal. But they strive to nurture their musical gifts and to bring their unique approaches to the works they perform, just as Schiff and Rampal did once upon a time. Some do succeed. And classical music has been all the richer for it!  

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