When your concerto soloist is marooned by a massive snowstorm and stuck 500 miles from the concert hall, who you gonna call?
For the Cleveland Orchestra, one winter back in the mid-‘90s, the answer was easy: If it’s Ann Arbor, just ring up Anton Nel.
Nel, a superb South African-born pianist with a big international career, a huge concerto repertoire and phenomenal recall, was then on the University of Michigan music faculty. So the Cleveland Orchestra tapped him, just hours before a Hill Auditorium concert, to substitute for a snowbound Emanuel Ax in the Brahms First Concerto. Ax made it out of New York after all, but Nel was cheerfully at the ready.
Before and after, Nel, who has been on the faculty at the University of Texas since 2000, has responded to many calls to play here in Tree Town, none of them last-minute. He’s in demand around the world, but Ann Arbor hasn’t lost its allure. When he returns Saturday as soloist in the big, beloved Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra at the Michigan Theater, it will be his ninth appearance with the group.
“There isn’t another artist even coming as a close second,” said Emily Fromm, the A2SO’s marketing and public relations coordinator. “So he is the one and only, as they say.”
The A2SO’s concert, billed as “Tchaikovsky & Friends,” also includes Rossini’s overture to “La Scala di Seta” and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish.”
Austin-based, Nel is frequently to on the road – or in the air – for concerts and other engagements. Early in October, when I caught up with him, he was in Oregon for a master class and solo recital before heading on to Cleveland and Oberlin for more of the same; then it was west again for California. No matter, he was ready and willing to take some time to talk Tchaikovsky, Ann Arbor – a town to which he’s very loyal — and music.
“Hi there,” Susan,” he wrote in an email. “This is working out well, since I’m on a plane most of the day, and can now happily answer these questions for you en route.”
Herewith, his high-flying responses:
How long has the Tchaikovsky concerto been in your repertoire?
I played it for the first time when I was 15, and at that point it was definitely the most difficult music I had ever worked on. My teacher, Adolph Hallis, had an incredible gift of choosing exactly appropriate repertoire for me at the various stages of my development and he knew that this would be a technical (but doable) challenge for me; he also wanted to make me aware of the work’s expressive qualities. That was a not easy for a fleet-fingered 15-year-old, but I very much enjoyed it.
Have you had memorable performances of it?
In the late ‘90s, the great Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov was scheduled to play this concerto with the Detroit Symphony with Neeme Järvi conducting. Very near the concerts it appeared that there had been a misunderstanding between managements, and that Sokolov could only play one of the subscription concerts. The DSO called me (in Ann Arbor) asking if I could play the second concert, but with the understanding that I would not be able to have a rehearsal with orchestra beforehand. Having worked with Maestro Järvi before (he is truly one of the finest concerto collaborators in the world), I said yes. The concert was very thrilling, and I still think that’s the best I ever played it.
What, to you, makes this concerto special? Or difficult? Favorite moments?
The concerto has so much in it that makes it immediately appealing (very much like all the other really famous concerti like the Rachmaninov 2nd, or Grieg): exciting writing for the soloist, and memorable themes… It is a concerto for a virtuoso and remains challenging to play. All the movements have significant technical issues: octaves, chords, sweeping scales and arpeggios, all having to sound effortless. I still think the opening of the concerto is wonderfully grand and heroic, and playing those famous chords up and down while the orchestra sings out the melody doesn’t get old. The cadenza at the end of the first movement is one of the finest examples of piano writing in the “grand manner,” and the coda of this movement is glorious. I also find the tender melody in the second movement very touching, and the central little scherzo is very exciting (and fiendishly difficult!).
And is it hard to keep this music fresh – both for you and for audiences that perhaps imprinted on the million-selling disc (America’s first!) of Van Cliburn back in the 50s? When was first time you heard this concerto? How do you come back to a piece like this to practice it? Is it sitting there, ready to go in memory, and even if so, what do you do before a concert to put it on a front burner?
I have not played this concerto in a number of years, and I’m happy to come back to it. Rather than “cram” it in a few days of intense practice, I’ve enjoyed bringing it back slowly, taking great pleasure in seeing my teacher’s markings from all those years ago in my music. Now that I’m older, I really do appreciate all the beautiful moments in it, and I’m working especially hard to make these come to life. (I’ve played this concerto more than any other, so most of it is lurking “up there,” but it’s important to me to make it sound fresh every time I play it.) Technically, there will always be challenges…
Yes, the Van Cliburn recording was famous, even in South Africa in the ‘70s when I played this for the first time. I believe I was about 10 or 12 when I heard it the first time (on a cassette!!) with Shura Cherkassky as the soloist. Has your interpretation of the concerto changed appreciably, do you think?
If anything, it’s quite a bit slower now, I think…
Favorite concertos overall? Does it figure there?
It’s not on my “top 10” favorite concerto list, but that’s mainly because there are so many fabulous piano concertos to choose from. After Beethoven 4th, a few Mozarts, Brahms, Schumann, I’m already up to almost 10! I also have a thing for some of the French repertoire: the Ravel Concerti, the Saint-Saens “Egyptian” concerto, etc. And of course I love the Russians, too…
And speaking of keeping things fresh, what was it like to play Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” so many times running in the Austin production of the Moises Kaufman’s play “33 Variations”? I’m curious, too, whether playing them in that context changed them for you, either temporarily or permanently (will you ever play them again, for instance?).
The pianist in “33 Variations” in New York was my friend Diane Walsh. After hearing and reading about her experiences, I thought it would be a great play for Austin audiences, and suggested it to the producer of our local theater company. Being part of the theater world for those two months will always be one of the highlights of my life. This was a unique experience, of course, since there is nothing else like it in the repertoire. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so many hours on an individual thing in my life, and it was all worth it. The Austin production was different from the one in New York since the piano moved on and off center stage throughout so I was literally an “actor” in the play and with the actors doing slightly different things every evening, I followed suit. I think we were starting to peak after about 15 or 16 performances, and none of us wanted the run to end. I will definitely play the piece again one day!
I see online you have loads of concerts and dates coming up, including a South African tour – if you wanted to say a few words about what’s ahead and what you are excited about, that’d be great.
Like “33 Variations,” I’m trying to do some new and different things in addition to my normal diet of concerti, recitals, and chamber music. Last season I did a very exciting project with the Mark Morris Dance Company, where I did an evening of Mozart Concertos choreographed by Mark. I went to New York to work with him, and it was an incredible experience to be coached by a dancer who has such a profound understanding of the finest details of music.
This season I’m broadening my horizons more, and a few weeks ago I made my fortepiano debut, playing Haydn and Mozart concerti with La Follia, Austin’s baroque orchestra. I had never really practiced for any length of time on this instrument, and have been amazed and delighted at its expressive capabilities. The bug has really bitten, and I will make some trips to see the wonderful fortepianist Malcolm Bilson this year to take lessons and really learn how to play it properly. I am very interested in giving more concerts on it and perhaps teaching it as well.
Speaking of teaching, I’m doing more and more masterclasses on my travels, and since last summer am spending a week teaching at the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival in addition to my work at the Aspen Music Festival and School — I have a wonderful life!
And is Ann Arbor “old home week” for you? Whom will you see, where will you revisit, eat, etc.?
I always love coming back to Ann Arbor. I think this is my ninth appearance with the symphony, and I so appreciate the opportunity to come back regularly. I always love to drive around the town, see the school, places I’ve lived, catching up with friends… Then I make time to visit Zingerman’s and scout out new eating places!
Tchaikovsky & Friends
- Who: The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, Arie Lipsky, music director; Anton Nel, piano, guest soloist.
- What: “Tchaikovsky & Friends” – Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, Rossini Overture to “La Scala di Seta,” Schumann Symphony No. 3.
- Where: The Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor.
- When: Saturday, Nov. 15, 8 p.m., with pre-concert lecture for ticket holder
- How Much: $15-$62, online at a2so.com; via email, email@example.com; or by phone, 734-994-4801. Discounts for students, seniors and groups.
Read the original article at Mlive!