January 24, 2006

Rock me, Amadeus: Two pianists share their thoughts on playing Mozart

Mozart scholar Hermann Abert—referring directly to Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra—said, “The pianists share all their melodies, vary each other’s music, interrupt each other, even argue sometimes gently; however, their fraternal agreement is never troubled by serious differences of opinion.”

This statement embodies not only the intrinsic nature of the work itself, but also the collaboration between the two extremely talented pianists who are premiering it on the University of Chicago campus. Sventlana Belsky, coordinator of piano studies at the U of C department of music, and Jen Maxwell, the director of public relations for the U of C department of music, have a great deal in common. Each of these highly accomplished pianists is a figure of pragmatic modesty. They also happen to be good friends. Here are the duo’s thoughts in regard to their upcoming January 28 Mozart collaboration.

Chicago Maroon: What are your areas of expertise, and why?

Belsky: Anything and everything that includes interesting musical material. I enjoy playing pieces from many different stylistic periods, and try to avoid becoming so highly specialized that I am unwilling to appreciate or experiment with the subtleties of Mozart, as opposed to the more Romantic flair of Franz Liszt.

Maxwell: My favorite piece is whatever I am working on currently. I mean, each genre of piano repertoire presents its own assets and challenges. However, there is more music written for the piano than any vocal and instrumental combination, so we as pianists are fortunate enough to have a lot of choices.

Chicago Maroon: How do each of you approach new repertoire? In what ways are your practicing or performing habits modified in relation to the challenges of a double piano concerto?

Belsky: Because the piano sections in the Mozart are so transparent, we have to agree exactly on stylistic concerns. The bulk of the work was not related to the simple issues such as counting, but rather, a matter of unifying our approach to the music; the ornamentation. We also had to adjust to the acoustics of Mandel Hall, which called for us to experiment with the lids on the piano. Eventually, we decided on having them both off, to keep the volume level consistent between the two pianos.

Maxwell: We had to do a great deal of prep work on our own, and then notify each other when we were prepared to go through the piece together. We also had to consider the conductor’s ideas and input as far as tempi and dynamics were concerned. One of the most difficult problems we encountered was attempting to fit two pianos on the same stage as the orchestra. Because we pianists are so far from each other on stage, it is logistically difficult to coordinate certain sections. At first, we were on opposite sides of the stage, but we couldn’t hear each other to know how our balance was. After recording several rehearsals, we decided it was best to have the pianos directly across from each other—one lined up with cello section, and the other with the violins.

Chicago Maroon: What are the specific challenges of this piece, and of Mozart repertoire in general?

Belsky: The unison sections are extremely challenging, because we cannot see each other’s hands.

Maxwell: Coordinating a double piano concerto is particularly challenging, especially because there is only one place [Mandel Hall] that two pianos can rehearse. We have to compete with other venues for rehearsal time, and it is difficult to move the two large pianos in and out of climate-controlled storage. Within the piece itself, there are several fast runs that are unmeasured and look impossible to coordinate. The pianists really have to be spiritually in tandem.

Chicago Maroon: What is the movement or section within this piece that you most prefer?

Belsky: My favorite section is of Jen’s playing, in the second Andante movement, the piano duet with the oboe. She just does it beautifully. It is the one of places in the piece where there is a lot of drama anticipating Mozart’s later theatrics. And the second movement is well balanced. It is as if the pianists are commenting on each other; having a true conversation.

Maxwell: I like the coda of the third Rondeau movement, because there is an extremely difficult passage that I know if I hit spot-on, the rest of the concerto will be amazing. Really, both pianos have the same musical material. It’s just a matter slight changes in the ways the motives and themes are presented by the individual pianos.

Chicago Maroon: Outside of this concerto, what are your personal favorite pieces and why?

Belsky: I don’t think I can name a favorite. I appreciate different pieces for different reasons. I will say that I don’t like the operas Wozzeck and The Rake’s Progress, because I had to memorize sections of them for my doctorate competency exams. But I appreciate what I have acquired through them. I guess the first piece I remember liking was the Mendelssohn violin concerto; my father played it for me, and it turned me on to music. I also listened to Chopin’s Preludes performed by Maurizio Pollini when I was six, and the experience inspired me to study piano.

Maxwell: My favorite piece is the Schubert String Quintet with two cellos in C major; it is heavenly. However, the only time I have ever considered suicide was when I first heard Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in a music history class. I instantly disliked it. However, I have always wanted to play this Mozart concerto ever since I heard it in the movie Amadeus.

Chicago Maroon: How long have each of you lived in Chicago? What are the advantages or disadvantages of living in city with such a diverse population of music listeners?

Maxwell: I’ve lived here for two years. The thing I love the most about the city is the U of C campus; it’s so gothic and beautiful. Also, I find the intellectual life here incredibly stimulating. Plus, people on this campus have been helpful with regards to rehearsing this concerto; particularly Will White, who acted as our accompanist by learning the entire orchestra part. Also Mike Jewell; he and a myriad of several other brawny musicians have been kind enough to help us move the pianos around. However, I could do without Chicago’s schizophrenic weather and tedious public transportation.

Belsky: I went to high school here, and came back 12 years later, when I got married to a Chicagoan. Now I’m stuck here, but in a good way. It is a wonderfully diverse community; there is always something going on. Plus, musical life is bubbling here. However, I could gladly do without the cold and the snow.

After speaking with these pianists, I anticipate a simply divine performance. They shop together, wear the same shoe size, and claim that the hardest thing about rehearsal is for the two of them to stop chatting enough to play—several things helpful in performing in the precious, convivial spirit of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.