What are you looking for in pieces of new piano music? David Holzman



David Holzman
Photo courtesy Rosalie Calabrese Management

For me, every new score holds the promise of challenge, discovery and fulfillment. That is why I have always found that the pleasure of receiving a new work (solicited or not) is diluted by the simultaneous receipt of a recorded version, whether a live performance or a computer simulation. My reaction may be extreme, but I could not possibly listen to this before or during the learning process, and only rarely after I have performed the work.

The seductive thrill and ultimate satisfaction in encountering a new work lies in transforming an inchoate (at times, frighteningly so) set of symbols into an intellectually and pianistically mastered work of art. This long and arduous journey climaxes with the evocation, not of the struggle, but of the emotions, colors and shapes which one discovers along the way. Often, the composer himself will recognize with delight that his creation has yet to fully speak to him.

I naturally need help from the creator to maintain the motivation and energy for this exciting yet frustrating journey. Practically speaking, I want a good set of symbols—not only readable but intelligent in its detailing of accidentals, complex rhythms and counterpoint. On a purely inspirational level, I look for an electric jolt—hopefully from the very outset of the work. A distinct and telling musical image or pianistic gesture (the two go hand-in-hand) will set this task in motion.

A bombastic opening, though always welcome, is not necessary for motivation. The remarkable subtleties of touch found in Schoenberg‘s piano music, for instance, are not often recognized; they provide instant stimulation and gratification by the purely pianistic gestures and touches required to shape a phrase expressively. In learning the Copland Piano Variations, it took me years to realize that the inspiration lies in the spectrum of touches required to bring life to its sullen harmonies.

When I know and admire a composer, I will give him greater leeway in grabbing my attention. George Perle‘s Ballade begins in a typically reticent fashion and ever so slowly warms up. As I know this to be part of his musical persona, I have faith to work diligently and allow ample time to enable me to forge the delicate links which tie this elegant work together. Ralph Shapey‘s 21 Variations presents an even more dangerous roadblock. As in many of his works, he here throws a compressed, almost unmusical, idea “in your face” and allows ample time for it to wind down and betray its lyrical, almost childlike and innocent, essence. Thus again, I am forewarned and both ready and eager to reach the epiphany. However, I do not think that I would have this degree of fortitude given an unknown composer and the lack of a concert date.

Aside from openings, there are numerous more general qualities which I am grateful to find in a new composition. Among these are honesty, beauty (one knows it when one hears it), organic form (though I can accept stop-and-start structures in a suite) and, for me at least, polyphony.

Counterpoint does not necessarily mean multiplicity of voices, though it usually does. Wolpe puts a pianist’s two hands at war with each other. Donald Martino demands one ten-fingered hand which covers the keyboard in its vast melodies. These joyous challenges demand different practice techniques and, inevitably, most ambitious works present mixtures of both. I only get suspicious when one hand is inordinately more important than the other.

Honesty implies the courage to express oneself fully, at the risk of crossing the thin line from pathos to bathos, or from subtlety to incoherence. Sadly, the depth and directness of such expression is seldom found unless the work is compositionally courageous as well. Now more than ever, one must scale tonal, metric and stylistic walls which are as dangerous as purely expressive ones. As is also true for the interpreter, one element cannot be separated from another; i.e. technique is expression. One shining example of all I have said so far is Arthur Kreiger’s Fieldstone Sonata, in which a bravado cascade of octaves provides a strong jolt indeed. It soon turns into a violent and jazzy 5/16 two-part invention, still in octaves. When the storm suddenly ends and a languorous line appears out of the blue, one feels Puccini, and this eloquent contrast gave me all the positive energy needed to master this and the subtleties which follow. Another example is the Elliott Carter Sonata. Its opening gesture is no more than a two-note repetition of B in octaves, yet it is so physically thrilling to play, what with fingers, arms and shoulders fully at work. and it is followed by such rich harmonies and the exuberant reiteration of the motif, that I was instantly set for the forty treacherous pages which follow. Martino’s Pianississimo provides a similar gestural inspiration, but not until one’s mental shock over the almost indecipherable clusters, with four staves worth of polyrhythms, has abated. In its own way, it provides both the pianist and, through the pianist’s theatricality, the audience with an entry to the surprisingly human complexities which ensue.

At times, I find myself questioning the “relevance” of much of recent art music. Expressive formalities, abstract complexity and ostentatious “neos” seem to hark back to an earlier time when classical music was a fully-clothed emperor. Now these traits can seem a somewhat fragile symptom of the deep rifts and dangers in our culture. I am beginning to believe with greater and greater conviction that electronic music, which can provide reflections of a more recognizable reality (speech, urban sounds, sonic landscapes etc), when combined with the eloquence of a solo instrument in counterpoint or conjunction, offers the most gripping and potentially revitalizing prospect for the reinstatement of the prominence of new classical music. I would love to be proved correct with the receipt of such masterpieces, maybe even with a recorded version included!