Jon Lee


I played the Brahms Handel Variations to impress girls at parties

Masterclass program

Concluding a half-week artist residency at SFCM, Leon Fleisher was the master at a masterclass on a Friday evening. Three young pianists performed; the first two played selections, and the third was supposed to play an excerpt but instead played the whole 23-minute piece.

How do you deal with rubato in Bach?

Mr. Fleisher indicated he liked to first ask whether the pianist had any questions about the piece. After performing the first two movements of the partita, the student asked about how much rubato was acceptable. This question appeared to be the theme of this year’s residency, as he was asked this repeatedly.

His responses were measured and after a long pause of silent thought. The audience seemed rapt in the silence, eager to hear what he would say.

You want to feel this constant heartbeat undergirding the music. This heartbeat with cosmic regularity. And the challenge is to strike a balance between the irresistibility of a pulse that leads you to a goal, and the notion that all art has spontaneity and a sense of the improvisatory.

With expressivity, exaggerate to the extreme. Do too much so that you experience it and recognize it was too much. From there you can start backing off.

Allemande opening

As a baroque dance, you step on the ball of the foot and launch into the next step. You do not stomp with the heel.

In Euro-centric music there are three elements in music. In order of importance: rhythm, harmony, and melody. The rhythm is controlled by the bass. Place the bass, and play as late as possible without being too late. Where are the joints between the rhythm and the melody. Contextualize the melody within the rhythm, and here, the long notes are on the weak beats.

But keep the left hand steady. Subdivide the quarter notes physically with the wrist to emphasize the underlying rhythm.

Avoid finger legato in the right hand sixteenths melody. Melody follows where it is going harmonically. Avoid being too sentimental, which tends to come out with the sixth jumps in the melody.

As an aside, Fleisher said that his teacher Artur Schnabel insisted everyone attend each other’s lessons. Maybe there is one reason or another for there to be one-to-one listening. The piano is a recalcitrant instrument. But when we observe other people’s lessons, together we shine a light on common challenges.

We honor a legacy by how much we break it

Moment Musicaux #5 opening

“It’s amazing how independent our feet are from our volition.” The pedalling was too muddy and there was too much connection between the chords.

For bring more vitality to the character of the piece, scrunch up the eighths. This implied the quarter notes lasted a little longer.

Benedictine monks decided 4 beats was inartistic and inelegant. It was to be avoided at all costs. Instead, they divined a solution that placed very specific emphasis on the 4 beats. Beat 1 was the most important, followed by beat 3, then beat 2, then beat 4. “They adjudged that to be the United Kingdom of thumpings.”

We honor that legacy with the frequency with which we break it. That is what makes the music exciting to listen to.

Onto the next movement:

Moment Musicaux #6 opening

Clarify the texture by voicing the chords better. Bring out the edges—that is, the top and bottom lines—to lead to a more transparent timbre. The right-hand thumb and second fingers are lighter.

Turn the 3/4 to 6/4 measures. Loosen up the joints to absorb the weight.

Being a magician

The Rachmaninoff was meticulously played, but many of the big chords and octaves were executed rather timidly.

Virtuosic playing requires being a great magician. Everything happens with no effort or no apparent effort. You have to make it seem easy.

The pianist made it look like he was putting in a lot of effort.

Keep your body still. “Wear a steel corset or something. You’re like… an anaconda in heat.”

The audience laughed at the uncomfortable imagery. I’m not certain the pianist understood.

“You play it so damn well.” Pause. “So why doesn’t it take off?”

Part of it seemed like there was a lack of momentum and drive. His school of training taught him to play all of the fast sixteenths as with a metronome. It’s so impeccably even, there is no drive or urgency. It’s just fast and the pianist is working diligently.

“When I was your age I had a party piece. I played the Brahms Handel variations to impress girls at parties. I played it so many times that I got pretty good at it.” The implication was that it became so easy that he appeared like a magician.


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