Meet the Sonata Marathon Pianists

Saturday, November 19, 2011

We asked the pianists who are performing Sunday's 12-hour Beethoven piano sonata marathon about their connection to the composer. Here's what some of them had to say.

Alessio Bax:

When did you first encounter Beethoven?

It was almost as soon as I started playing the piano, with his Ecossaises and the Sonata op. 79. But even before that, I remember being mesmerized listening to the 9th symphony on TV.

When did you first learn a Beethoven Piano Sonata? 

I was 7 years old, and it was the op. 79

Why did you pick the sonata you’re playing for us?

This was very difficult and honestly I would have been happy to play any of the 32. Each one is a highly individual work that creates a world on its own. I think the beauty of the Pathetique Sonata and the unimaginable depths of op. 110 will provide a great contrast. The beauty of the sonatas is that day after day, year after year, I am motivated to find new things in them, change my preconceptions, and constantly re-adapt to new findings. They are a source of immense inspiration.

What does Beethoven’s music mean to you today?

I have the feeling that Beethoven has become over the years a great mentor and a friend. With Beethoven, more than any other composer, I have the feeling that every note is a matter of life and death and needs to be approached with incredible commitment. If everything in life worked that way we would live in a perfect world. 

Evan Shinners:

When did you first encounter Beethoven? 

I was drinking a bottle of Jamaican rum when a man knocked on my window asking for a cigarette. I asked him for his name and he said, "Beethoven."

When did you first learn a Beethoven Piano Sonata? 

On a fishing trip last year in Cape Cod.

Why did you pick the sonata you’re playing for us? 

I went up to my roof and threw all 32 off. Op. 22 hit the ground first.

What does Beethoven’s music mean to you today? 

It means I'll be listening to it again tomorrow.

Michael Brown:

When did you first encounter Beethoven?

I'm not exactly sure, but I believe the movie "Beethoven lives upstairs" in the early 90s had a lot to do with my discovery. 

When did you first learn a Beethoven Piano Sonata?

I was ten and it was Sonata in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 1.

Why did you pick the sonata you’re playing for us?

The two movement Op. 54 Sonata has been in my repertoire for quite some time.  It's always been very dear to me and the music is still fresh and exciting.  The "Pastoral" Sonata, Op. 28, shows a rather different style from the Op. 54 and from many of the Sonatas. It's less concerned with stormy, incessant rhythms and more with the gentle sway of the countryside. 

What does Beethoven’s music mean to you today?

Beethoven's music for me perfectly embodies the human spirit.  His music features an enormous palette of palpable emotions that Beethoven felt and that we still feel viscerally today. 

Joyce Yang:

When did you first encounter Beethoven?

I don't come from a musical family, so I grew up listening to just a few classical recordings. I remember listening to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and conducting along (using my longest crayon). That is probably the first time I heard the music of Beethoven. 

When did you first learn a Beethoven Piano Sonata?

The first Beethoven Sonata that I learned, or rather attempted to learn, was Op. 49 No. 2. I was studying in Korea at the time with Choong-Mo Kang and had countless lessons trying to get the opening passage just right. With this piece, I learned to listen, experiment and explore different options. 

Why did you pick the sonata you’re playing for us?

I think effortless humor is one of the toughest elements to achieve in music and it is portrayed beautifully in Op. 31 No. 3 -- it is truly a clever "Hunt".  As a performer, I must play a joke on myself- be the prey and the hunter all at once - in order to achieve the perfect chase. Although there is an underlying humor and playfulness throughout the piece, I think there is an indescribable intimacy that is woven into the entire work. It is one of the most unique and interesting Beethoven Sonatas.  

What does Beethoven’s music mean to you today?

The music of Beethoven is a truly a great pillar of classical music. I can't imagine the piano repertoire without the Beethoven Sonatas  or the 5 concerti.

Timothy Andres:

How did you meet Beethoven?

When I was eight, I came home from having oral surgery to find volume I of Beethoven's sonatas waiting on the piano—a convalescence gift from my parents. I sat down and started to sight-read them, starting with Op. 2, and I haven't stopped.

Why did you pick this sonata(s)?

The two sonatas I picked are a study in opposites: the Waldstein is grand, virtuosic, popular, boldly experimental, and in the bright, familiar key of C major. It's Beethoven at his most joyous—the joy of playing the piano, and of being alive. 

Op. 78 is tiny (just ten minutes), little known (undeservedly), and in the exotic key of F sharp. The first movement is an oddly textbook sonata form (two repeats!), the mature composer demonstrating his facility through humble, almost ascetic means. Apparently it was one of his own favorites of the 32, and I can understand why; it has the contained brilliance of a precocious child.

There's some overlap, though. Both sonatas have a certain sense of melodic ease that didn't always come naturally to Beethoven. They mostly forgo the characteristic moodiness of the Tempest or Appassionata, and lack the contrapuntal rigor that marks the later sonatas. And they have that endearing Teutonic sense of humor; the fake-out at the recapitulation of the Waldstein, the goofy chromatic flights in Op. 78's scherzo.

What does Beethoven mean to you today?

I think pretty much the same thing Beethoven has always meant to everyone: a composer who wrote fascinating, strange, amazing music.

Daria Robotkina:

When did you first encounter Beethoven?

Technically, in school while listening to his symphonies; spiritually, much later when I discovered his late string quartets.

When did you first learn a Beethoven Piano Sonata?

At 14.

Why did you pick the sonata you’re playing for us?

It was the first Beethoven sonata that I learned and it has been a good friend for 16 years.

What does Beethoven’s music mean to you today? 

Purification of soul and senses.

Louis Schwizgebel:

When did you first encounter Beethoven?

I was 6 and I heard  a friend playing Beethoven Fur Elise. I then wanted to start playing the piano.

When did you first learn a Beethoven Piano Sonata?

I was seven and I just started to study the piano. I tried to learn the first movement of the "tempest" sonata.

Why did you pick the sonata you're playing for us?

No particular reason. I would have been happy to play any of them!

What does Beethoven's music mean to you today?

His music is unavoidable.

Natasha Peremski:

When did you first encounter Beethoven?

I first encountered Beethoven when I was about 4 years old. It was in Moscow, and my mom took me to a free performance by the Moscow Philharmonic. They always had these free performances for kids on Saturdays, and they were playing the Third Symphony. I remember that concert so clearly, like it was yesterday. I was so stunned by what I heard. To this day, the Eroica is one of my favorite works. Maybe it is because of the memories of my home, where I was born, or maybe it is because somehow every time I listen to this masterpiece, I relive that very first thrill and awe over and over again.

When did you first learn a Beethoven Piano Sonata?

Back in Moscow, at around 4 or 5 years old. It was op. 14, no. 2.

Why did you pick the sonata you’re playing for us?

Well, to begin with, the "Tempest" is one of the most intriguing, most powerful works ever written. I started learning this piece in my teens, and have performed it quite a bit, but let's face it, I'm still learning, and will always be learning and discovering something new. There is an incredible amount of tension in this work. A visceral, electric current runs through this Sonata. And the core of the tension, to me, lies in the still arpeggiations. I especially find the stillness of the recurring Largo in the first movement unstable, haunting, dangerous. 

What does Beethoven’s music mean to you today?

I can say in all honesty, that I count Beethoven amongst my teachers. His scores are fascinating. Call them obsessive compulsive, controlling, but in all this control, the markings, the detailed notation and instructions, I find freedom and generosity. And because of his generosity, I feel a great sense of responsibility in performing his music. His music takes me to another world, his world, where I find solace and release. Above all, his music is transcendent in the truest sense. He begins where words no longer suffice. And in this, his language, I find a clarity of expression and ...freedom.  

Benjamin Hochman

What does Beethoven's music mean to you today?

To me, Beethoven's music is the expression of a vast range of human emotions, thoughts and aspirations. It can be playful or painful, terrifying, tender, or transcendent- and so much more. You will hear these contrasts in the two Sonatas that I am playing today: the Appassionata and the Sonata in D, Op. 10 No. 3. Playing Beethoven's music is one of the most gratifying and rich experiences for me as an artist.

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Comments [3]

Yeah he is Funny too in these answers! My kid (10 years old) was real laughing at his pants!

Nov. 21 2011 12:01 AM
Neal Bentley

The Beethoven Marathon was superb. Evan Shinners was especially passionate in his performance. I would love to see him perform again.

Nov. 20 2011 10:32 PM
Michael Meltzer

I hope that the programming department of WQXR reads all the above comments, by pianists who certainly know.
Please read them quite thoroughly and at least twice. Then, be guided.

Nov. 20 2011 08:53 AM

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