Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Leon Fleisher Masterclass @ Yong Siew Toh Conservatory

Tuesday evening, 10 March 2009

The octogenarian American pianist Leon Fleisher gave two masterclasses at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. The first class on Tuesday was greeted by a sizeable audience and its two and a half hours passed ever so swiftly. All photos by Jonathan Wong.

First up was Abigail Sin (Singapore) who gave a very clear-headed and accomplished performance of Bach’s Toccata in C minor (BWV.911), one which showed much awareness of its contrapuntal possibilities.

Fleisher gave the first poser, “Do you have any questions, doubts or frustrations?” which came unexpectedly. About the work’s introduction, a recitative on the right hand, he looked for simplicity in response to its declamatory and rhetorical character. He felt it could have been more direct and played less fast, and there was no need to find variety so soon in the piece. Also, he gave more emphasis to the off-note, while playing down the need to find extra voices when these were not written. He played the entire passage with his left hand and did so quite perfectly too!

In Baroque music, he felt that the temptation to introduce Romantic devices should be resisted, remarking that people often “got tired of simplicity and injected their own neuroses” to the music. On the fugal subject, he observed syncopations to be special events, and deserved to be supported, that is to linger that slight bit longer on the held note. He also helped Abigail shape the voice of the theme, so that it sounded less literal and less metronomic.

In the reprise of the fugue theme with the right hand decoration, he reiterated the importance of these extra notes as a means of variation. For a very short while, he also rested his hands on Abigail’s shoulders and the top of her head, indicating “don’t move excessively!” There is enough in the music for the pianist not to respond physically. So keep it simple, was his message.

The burly Akkra Yeunyonghattaporn (Thailand) played the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in C minor (Op.37), accompanied by his teacher Thomas Hecht on second piano. It was big and blustery, as expected, but one filled with unusual sensitivity as well.

At the first instance, Fleisher reminded the young virtuoso to always acknowledge his orchestra ie. the accompanist. He described performing to be a complex activity. A musician is three persons at once: the first plans the performance in advance, the second does the playing, and the third listens and judges, and tells the second how to attain the goals of the first. This was according to him, an “ideal state of schizophrenia”, combining a microcosm (the purpose of each note) and a macrocosm (the grand vision of the work, from the first note to the last).

About the performance, he wanted the pianist’s entry to be more than just scales, a mini-eruption if possible. He gave the analogy of fast-acting yeasts, and how they achieve a rising quality immediately. On the scintillating descending arpeggio passage, he thought it could be achieved with one hand. “You’re too good a pianist to do it with two hands!” he joked, quite seriously. Again, he exhorted the young person to experience the music inside him, and not to be “physically active”.

Fleisher brought up the association between music and mathematics. He felt music to be closer aligned with physics – direction, forces and momentum – especially with its irresistible and inexorable drive. Thus, even a simple scale should not sound like a flat typewriter but rather a force that swells, and “takes the listener by the lapels”. He also noted that pianists are at an enormous disadvantage compared with their string and wind counterparts. They need to constantly create and recreate the illusion of continuity with their instrument. Finally, he discussed pedalling and the effect of senza sordino (without dampers), which he concludes to be with the sustaining pedal after all. He however warned that this effect “offends certain people, mostly Republicans.”

The third pianist to perform was Nattapol Tantikarn (Thailand), whose choice of Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole seemed like a self-indulgent one. One wondered what Fleisher might have to say. What is there to be gained by bringing Balakirev’s Islamey to Arthur Schnabel, for example?

Fleisher, impressed by the flashy pianism, quipped, “That was a lot of piano playing,” and went on to help the young man work on his colour. “Silence, or air space, is often underestimated” he added and got him to take his foot off the right pedal. The effect was startling, as the amorphous mass of sonority had become so much better defined. Finding the right accents and effects amid the dotted rhythms also helped to make Folies d’Espagnole sound more orchestral. As to achieve pianissimo, Fleisher questioned him about not using the middle (sotto voce) pedal. “Why?” he asked. About Spanish music, Fleisher advised him not to be too sentimental as the “Spanish danced with straight backs”, adding that “bullfights were a ritual of blood and sand.”

Fleisher finally described music to be “a horizontal activity with vertical events”, and all musical activity to be “an adventure in anti-gravity”. He emphasised the need for a lift or a spring forward after the keys have been played, and not “hammering coffin nails”. He also asked the pianist to “go for a direct ending”, that is to be off the stool and off the stage before the sound dies out. With that, he leapt off his seat - to the appreciative applause from all who attended.

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