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Interview with pianist Zsolt Bognár

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In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.

Zsolt Bognár is an artist of distinction and rare gifts. An alumnus of the Cleveland Institute of Music, he was a prize-winning student of Sergei Babayan, and interviewed the great pianist in the November/December 2012 issue of International Piano (full transcript). Bognár is the eloquent host and creative director of "Living the Classical Life", and he recently released a ravishing debut album (here) of works by Schubert and Liszt. Below is a transcript of our recent San Francisco conversation with pianist and writer, Zsolt Bognár.

EH: Please describe for us your musical background. Are you from a musical family ?

Bognár: I came to music lessons rather late, actually. My older brother had been taking flute lessons, and while waiting for him at the local conservatory - I was around eight at the time - I would often hear the organists practicing. I was, of course, drawn to the works of J.S. Bach. Fortunately, I was tricked into playing the piano: they told me that’s how everybody got started. As a matter of fact, I only very recently tried playing an organ in the Hamptons on Long Island (laughs).

My father would drive me from our hometown of Urbana to Chicago, where we would attend a piano series. The first year, we heard Brendel, Schiff, and Pogorelich. In later years, we heard Zimerman, Zhukov, and Peter Serkin. One cannot underestimate the role of parents in a successful music education that reaches career stage, and I certainly received a lot of encouragement from mine. Since most education systems today are market-based and pragmatically conceived, visionary parents alone must provide the basis of a broad and cultured liberal-arts background. Mine certainly did, and in invigorating measure.

Certain things may have been easier if I had started earlier, but I believe that learning to work for results is an impulse that can be developed at any age. My dear friend and colleague, pianist and composer Andrius Zlabys, gave me one of the best bits of advice I have ever heard: There is no better time to do the best work of your life than right now.

EH: I’d love to hear you describe your lessons with Professor Babayan: how did you come to study with this wonderful musician ? What is exceptional about his methods and insights on music ?

Bognár: It is difficult to give a full picture of the richness of experience, of fourteen years with a great master teacher, performer, and musician; the life experiences and musical learning became inseparable and essential to the work that went on. My mother saw an advertisement in Clavier magazine for lessons at the Cleveland Institute: Meet our artist-in-residence, Sergei Babayan. She did some research on him and told me that I ought to perhaps consider meeting him. I remember my answer at the time, something stupidly abrupt, “…Just because he’s Russian, doesn’t mean he’s good!”(laughs). She brought up the name again, and luckily, I flew to Cleveland for a lesson with him.

We immediately found the connection, inspiration and intensity of work that has continued through the years. The creativity, the charisma and energy of this man is strong and almost indescribable. I really didn’t know much about his background at the time, and it was probably for the better, as I might have been too intimidated by it all. After that initial meeting, I worked with him again in France, along with his former teachers, Vera Gornostaeva and Lev Naumov. I realized then that working with him for a very long time was something I wanted for my life.

Cinema and literature are among his passions, and whenever I am around him, I always feel there is so much that I have yet to discover, as though a world of richness is but a determined step away. He uses a lot of imagery in his lessons to free the student, both physically and musically. When I studied the Stanislavsky Method of acting - also his assignment to me - I found it a parallel to the work I was doing in our music lessons. Being in Sergei's presence is always about discovery and the applied practice of seeking and finding inspiration.

We could often expect a call from him, at almost any hour: “Your lesson is now”. A lot was unpredictable in this regard because time and practicality were not first considerations, but the intensity and craft was always there. His emphasis was on the physical and inner freedom of the artist, and he went to great lengths to impart this, sourced from the musical material. The shortest lessons were about one hour - the longest four hours, and lessons could be three or four times in one week.

Because Babayan is a master of characterization, he would often impersonate the many unique personalities he had met or heard of through his teachers. We received tidbits about Sofronitsky’s physical stage presence (of which there are no videos), recollections of Richter’s magnetic kindness to students, and stories of how the beloved Lev Naumov was often so afraid to play his concerts that he could be found at the nearby bus stop trying to escape the occasion.

EH: One of Babayan’s prized students is Daniil Trifonov (interview), winner of the 2011 Tchaikovsky competition. Have you witnessed any ridiculous musical feats in class ? For you, what stands out about Daniil’s music-making abilities ?

Bognár: Not only do I hear him in class, but he also happens to be my upstairs neighbor, so I hear him practicing as well (laughs). Like Babayan, he is a similarly lively and inventive character. He will sometimes knock on my door at two in the morning, “Zsolt, I have to tell you something that Murray Perahia told me about the Schubert B-flat Sonata. I have to demonstrate to you what he said,”. And I'll reply, “But, it’s two a.m.”, and he will say, “This is important!”. He then proceeds to do an illuminating analysis of the piece. On one occasion, I asked him to convert the Schumann Symphonic Etudes on the spot, from minor mode to major mode. He did so with the greatest of ease and delight.

If I could characterize one element of Daniil’s music making, it is the very contagious and sincere love of the music. I believe he is so in-love with what he hears that he can hardly contain it. His music-making is exactly as he is as a person: simple, direct, genuine, and of a moving power. In the few years I have known him, I have seen such tremendous growth. There are no gimmicks in his artistry, only sincerity and love - which in Mozart’s words, is the essence of genius.

When he is back in town, he wants to help everyone around him, musically and otherwise. He will sometimes play a new piece that he has just added to his repertoire, and we'll talk about it. The experience is not as intimidating as it sounds. Other times, he will be walking to class at the Cleveland Institute, and students will invariably become giddy with excitement, but he doesn’t operate on that level at all. I recently had him on my interview show Living the Classical Life (video), and I tried to ask him questions peripherally related to his fame. Either he wasn’t fully aware of how famous he has become, or it doesn’t affect his musical mission - that much is clear. It really is quite refreshing to see this.

EH: You are the creative director and producer of Living the Classical Life. What was the impetus of this project ? What have you learned from speaking with these fantastic musicians ?

Bognár: I grew up listening to interviews by Charlie Rose, and followed Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton. There is so much to learn from others, their methods, and I have always believed that finding one’s path in music is possible in many different creative ways, especially in today’s world. Things often seem unclear, unappreciated, and difficult to navigate.

We have had many exciting guests from all musical disciplines, and recently released the episodes featuring pianist and MacArthur Fellow, Stephen Hough (video), Deutsche Grammophon recording artist Daniil Trifonov (video). Soon, we'll have Christopher O’Riley of NPR’s From the Top, the most listened-to syndicated classical music radio show in the world, and Met-Opera star, American baritone Nathan Gunn. We are finalizing a lineup of many unique upcoming guests - some famous, some not - all whom have carved unique paths in the musical life. The show is open-ended and will continue as long as I can continue to find sponsors.

One thing I have learned from speaking with these artists is that they all learned to trust themselves, one of the most difficult things to do in a world that combines instinct with craft and experience. They didn’t pay too much attention to the pressures of how the world works, which is refreshing, because the classical music model seems to be evolving. I learn a lot about myself listening to their stories.

The accessibility of online videos is also astonishing, and I hope this will help those curious about classical music to have an inside-look into its world and its performers. It is free of the intimidation factor and addresses concerns as well. This has become one of my favorite projects, and I am very grateful to our sponsors who believe in the idea, to Elyria Pictures - Peter Hobbs, Elizabeth Foley, Jutta Ittner and several others. They are the driving forces behind the show, which I hope provides an inside look at the lives and inner workings of performing musicians.

EH: Speaking of performing musicians, you recently released your debut album, Zsolt Bognár plays Franz and Franz; I’d love to hear you describe the works here, your feelings for these miraculous composers - with particular attention to Liszt’s Après une lecture de Dante.

Bognár: I have lived with and performed these pieces for over ten years. These works conjured such strong emotional reactions in me that I had trouble sleeping for a few nights upon first hearing them. I have performed them throughout Europe, sometimes in the very places where they were heard for the first time. The Dante I have performed in the Netherlands at least fifty times (laughs).

It made sense that if I was ever to release a debut album, I would have to try to include these pieces so close to my heart and biography.
These works were journeys for the composers themselves. Schubert wrote these three pieces in the last year of his life, and they were published a few years later by Brahms, anonymously. There is this incredible sense of narrative that you find in his songs, which for me, are the most powerfully affecting works. It is a journey, and a very lonely one.

The Dante Sonata uses the full range of the instrument, both technically and emotionally. Liszt worked on the piece for ten years, and that is how long I have had it with me as well. The acrobatics are always fascinating, but I have learned of the incredible inner-journey as well.

The atmosphere in Berlin, where I recorded the album, helped tremendously. I worked in a darkened room with legendary producer, Philipp Nedel, who worked with many of the great pianists, including Aimard and Argerich.

EH: As the recipient of an International Festival Society grant, you recently experienced the artistry of Martha Argerich in Lugano for a week. What were your impressions of this legendary artist ? What struck you most about her practice habits, her personality, the manner in which she finds inspiration in the score ?

Bognár: A few things struck me immediately. First of all, the simplicity of her spirit: she is such a hard worker, but she doesn’t seem to concern herself with anything but the music. I got to witness her practicing and rehearsing. She told me, “I’m not any different than any labourer. I work hard for my results, and my work is at the piano”. I watched her practice from nine or ten in the evening until well beyond sunrise. She practiced many hours and with such ease; it was very inspiring to watch.

She never got flustered with anything that didn’t go her way. She did a lot of slow practicing, repetition of bars, and would take frequent breaks. She worked with Babayan on the world premiere of the latter’s transcription of Romeo and Juliet for two pianos. To witness her sound from a few feet away is something I will never forget. To witness the two of them working together was unforgettable because of the total investment of their energy and selves. She took lots of input from those around her, a reflection of why she continues to learn and play so well.

EH: From the Golden Age of pianism, who are the pianists who’ve made a lasting impression on you ?

Bognár: When I was growing up, my father bought me recordings of Zimerman and Richter. I was so excited about these that I took up a paper-route to pay for my obsession with piano recordings. There was a period when I couldn’t get enough of Zimerman, and especially Richter. I was so influenced by the latter’s enormous repertoire. Later, however, I found myself too influenced by his sound-world. I knew I had to branch out and listen to other musicians. I think many young musicians are impressed by his fiery temperament and the conviction with which he plays – just listen to his 1959 Rachmaninoff Second – but I realized that there are others: Moiseiwitsch, Friedman, Sofronitsky, Rubinstein, and Horowitz, who excited me to no end.

I then tried to branch out and listen to lesser-known voices at the piano: Eileen Joyce is someone not many people listen to. She had incredible talent and ability at the instrument. Lazar Berman’s 1950s recording of the Scriabin Fantasy knocked my socks off, and Cziffra’s improvisations did the same. Of course, I also collect for the sake of collecting (laughs).

EH: Are you pleased with the direction that classical pianism has taken, commercially ?

Bognár: The recording industry has been killing itself for at least the past twenty years. In keeping with those apologizing for classical music being apart from mundane matters, the industry superficially markets itself to be a trendy commodity. Everything is rendered meaningless through clichéd superlatives. The emphasis on accuracy - even if clinical - steers music into the realm of presenting what is expected. As Richter said, it is the unexpected that leaves an impression. He took great risks on stage as a performer and was a daring personality - collectors flock to multiple versions of his live performances of the same work because they can be so different. Even the titles of albums today are laughable: almost every pianist has to have a “The Vienna Recital", as though it were only possible to do it once, as an end-all or a musical knockout-punch.

Music is not a boxing match, and yet, who presents it as such ? The music industry. Richter performed over 700 times in Moscow, but it was always about the music, and his audiences knew that. Some labels today even specify in contracts with the performers that public renditions of recorded works mirror exactly what the CD does. Imagine telling Monet that if he didn’t paint his haystacks at the same time each day, that the gallery would refuse to present his works! It is the death of imagination. The greed and mismanagement of large labels - based on the success of the late 1990s - did not last very long. The larger labels are paying for it today, as they should, for losing sight of real content.

Music can only last if it presents a meaningful message, and that has not much to do with a glossy cover with an artist wearing provocative clothes that are out of fashion the following year, and a superimposed persona. I would love to see the next generation of artists cultivate something very rare among highly-visible artists today: good taste. That is something to ponder in a time when subtlety and the strength of understatement are almost unheard of.

EH: I’d love to hear you describe a particular composer whose works you are partial to, someone who isn’t so well known or popular - dead or alive. What is it about their writing that draws you to them ?

Bognár: One composer I admire sincerely is Alkan. Beyond his craftsmanship in writing, his music explores an archaic character that is uniquely French but universal in its spirit, and his piano writing often exudes a medieval world. Another, whose solo piano works are underrated, in my opinion, is Tchaikovsky. His music is so close to my heart. There is a balance between a classical poise and this Slavic sadness that I cannot get enough of. The Sonatas are almost never played. The piano works of Fauré, Franck, Medtner, and many others, are waiting to be discovered by music lovers.

EH: You were recently featured on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog (here), where you shared the experience of playing the piano, spontaneously, in a public place.

Bognár: The depressing notion that classical music is dying – both on-stage and in recording studios – is something I do not accept as fact, but with caveats. There are ways about the business that are changing, and this is limited to the flow of money rather than to a lack of creativity. I believe there will always be some people trying to bring this art form to the public, and there will be people curious to listen and be moved by it, if they can afford it.

Classical music and all the arts have always depended on visionary private funding and corporate support. In America since the financial crisis, the funding dried up and has in many cases not started again. That it is difficult to quantify the benefits of giving money to the arts (which are immeasurable) is not new, but now record corporate profits against microscopic giving is. One only has to look at the incredible usage of corporate funding in the past with American visionaries like Carnegie from Pittsburgh and Rockefeller from Cleveland. Their legacies are pinnacles, and a true gift to posterity. But they were a product of a time and a culture that valued art and funded it in equal measure. Where are such cultured visionaries today?

As for art, people have to know its value by experiencing it in order to want to support it. That day in Cleveland this past summer, I saw a piano sitting outside, and I thought, Why not now? I played a couple of chords and the patio stopped. I was sitting in a restaurant with one of these outdoor pianos; none of it was planned. Someone said, “You can’t stop there,” and so I continued. Before I knew it, people began making requests and I, luckily, was able to play everything from memory. At some point, a man said to me, “If you play Schubert, I’ll buy you a Scotch,”. I happen to be a fan of Scotch, and so I did play Schubert. The entire patio became silent.

I don’t imagine everybody listening was a fan of classical music, and whether this type of thing can be sold in a hall is another matter, but it showed me that the average person is interested and can be excited when they have an opportunity to learn. They are interested in something new, something presented with conviction and excitement. What I don’t believe is classical music trying to bridge the divide between what’s old, outdated, with what’s here now. People can appreciate the great art, focusing on it for an hour. Yes, it takes time to appreciate it, but that’s my role as an artistic ambassador - for all of us musicians, it is our role.

EH: What is one thing you’d recommend to students - something that is not taught in music school, but perhaps ought to be ?

Bognár: The first thing is to listen to a lot of music - really a lot, through many performers. Listen to the variety of pianists from the very beginning. The digital recordings of today are good, but very standardized and a product of an industry with misguided aims. The older recordings are a completely different world. Pianists today think they have rhythmic verve and timing? Just listen to Friedman in Chopin’s Mazurkas to realize we have never heard anything like that today. There is a freshness and life to the music that is undeniable. To pianists, listen to singers, especially the ones before 1960. Listen to as many of them as possible.

The most valuable advice I ever received was from Paul Schenly, the pianist and Avery Fisher Grant Fellow: No matter how famous you are, how many competitions you win, most of your opportunities will be from your friends. When you want to accomplish a huge task, you need the help of many people. This is true of my life and I am indebted to many friends.

EH: What element from your own playing can you offer as advice for younger, aspiring pianists ?

Bognár: I would say the danger of my previous advice on listening to recordings is that we can develop absolute preconceptions of how the music must go - immovably so - and this becomes the death of music as a living, changing form. Even exclusively recreative artists must never lose connection with the creative element. I remember hearing in Cleveland a talk by the outbound conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi, who announced to the public that he hoped recordings would die for these reasons.

For me, it is essential to know by heart and spirit the composer’s works - beyond those for the piano. Listen, almost like a detective, to what every phrase means and why we’re bringing it onto the stage. Knowing about philosophy, history, and many other disciplines also helps put things in perspective. It’s a matter of conviction. The more successful concerts I’ve given have been about making people understand the message of the music.

EH: Outside of music, what other art forms have captured your imagination ? How would you explain the connection and purpose of the arts?

Bognár: I was recently in Vienna to give some concerts, and I was surrounded by buildings in the Secessionist and Jugendstile movement styles. During that period, I was obsessed with a miraculous recording of the incredible pianist, Jakob Gimpel, in Strauss’ Burleske. The understanding of the context of one could not happen without the other. It was a revelation. Then, to stroll across the way to the Leopold Museum and to see the works of Klimt and Schiele, and to dine across the street and have the Viennese mélange coffees with the famous strudel. Now I see that the arts are intertwined with human experiences that feed one another.

I cannot imagine studying Richard Strauss without having a basic familiarity with the spirit and ideals of the Art Nouveau movement and its sub-sets. And how could one play the Burleske without knowing the hedonism of Salome and the glittering neo-classicism of der Rosenkavalier ? It would be impossible.

For young people today, the study of poetry is almost unheard of, so its aims are lost, as is its capacity to meter, ration, and control the flow of beauty and the passage of time. But poetry is one of the most arresting of art forms, and one whose study has enriched my understanding of music and continues to yield riches.

I have had a lifelong love of cinema, supplemented by the input of Sergei Babayan. Of course, an understanding of art is also a need for deeper insight into history, cultures, and travel, so I read as much as I have time to establish this world of context that so sets the stage for art to come alive.

I recently read a book about the history of Odessa; of course, half the greatest musicians in history were born there, and one has to wonder why - at least for a minute. Is curiosity something that can be taught?

EH: Which Chopin Étude is the most difficult for your hand?

Bognár: Chopin understood that there is more to deal with than mechanics and physiology when mastering music at the piano. Czerny exhaustively examined piano technique from a kinetic standpoint, and mainly for the right hand only; he never combined this with a study of developing emotional stasis against impulse of momentum. Chopin understood that the ability to express with free spirit a musical impulse from the heart, the mind, and the body - that these are all connected beautifully. A true virtuoso is a perfect fusion of these elements, and not just a master of each separately. This is also the heart of Babayan’s teachings. Pianists with perfectly fluent fingers are many, but that quality alone does not give goosebumps or life-changing experiences to the listener.

Each Chopin Étude is so difficult - particularly the first two for me. One's head must also be in the right place - not to mention one’s honest and sincere daily work. I remember backstage, a young piano student once proudly announced to Krystian Zimerman: “I am playing the Winter Wind Etude!” His reply? “Actually, you should really play them all.”

EH: Zsolt, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you for taking the time.

Bognár: Thank you, Elijah. It was my pleasure!

A full list of reviews and interviews with artists can be found here, and new material can be freely sent to your e-mail by clicking ‘Subscribe’ below; follow us on Twitter@elijahho.

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