“Decades later, you see the whole landscape”: Robert Silverman on performing Beethoven and finding your way as a young musician

By Andrew Hung

Robert Silverman

Robert Silverman

On Nov. 10th, renowned pianist and Professor Emeritus Robert Silverman performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 with the UBC Symphony Orchestra  to a packed house at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

Silverman, who first studied the Beethoven concerto as a student nearly 50 years ago, brought a lifetime of knowledge and accomplishment — and a continued sense of wonder — to the legendary work. And it showed.

“I can’t tell you how different the piece is [to me] now,” he says. “Some people who’ve been around for a while, every time they get asked to do something, they just take the music off the shelf, blow the dust off, and play it. Telephone in their last performance. I just can’t do that. I never have. This [concert] gave me the opportunity to relook at this great piece.”

For Silverman, the “Emperor” — as the concerto is popularly known — has lost none of its freshness and excitement. If anything, his appreciation of the concerto has deepened over years of studying, teaching, and performing.

“When one studies a piece for the first time, there are so many notes. Decades later, you just see the whole landscape. When you’re a pensioner, you don’t have the chops that you had when you were younger. But there are other things that are easier. Just understanding the piece, and how this fits in.”

Silverman’s “chops” are still formidable. The pianist pulled off the thunderous chords and virtuosic flourishes of the Beethoven masterwork with brilliant fluency. You can watch the performance online at https://livestream.com/ubcschoolofmusic. Here's a clip from a practice session:

There was a time, however, when Silverman could only dream of mastering a concerto like the “Emperor,” let alone performing with a symphony orchestra. Though he played piano throughout his childhood and youth, his parents never encouraged him to pursue music professionally. Instead, Silverman studied engineering at McGill and arts at Concordia. Making a living as a pianist seemed to be out of the question.

On finding his way as a young pianist

Even after he dropped out of engineering and headed to the Vienna Academy of Music to study piano, Silverman was unsure of the career possibilities that lay ahead. One day, he brought up the dilemma to his friend – what were they supposed to do once they returned to North America?

His friend’s answer was simple: “You’re going to go back, go to the States, get a doctorate and teach somewhere.”

“It was around then, in the early 1950s, that Silverman’s future alma mater, the Eastman School of Music launched its groundbreaking-at-the-time Doctorate of Musical Arts degree.” For the first time, musicians could graduate from school with hopes of obtaining a position at a university that would allow them to both teach and perform.

“That’s when I learned that there was some light at the end of the tunnel. I was lucky that I was talented and good, and also that the competition was not quite what it is today.”

That is not to say that Silverman didn’t face any competition at all. While at the Vienna Academy, he studied in the same class as future luminaries such as Mitsuko Uchida, known today for her interpretations of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann. He remembers being daunted by the much younger virtuoso (she was 13, he was in his twenties).

Still, he persevered and returned to North America with a newfound sense of purpose. At Eastman Silverman studied with Cecile Genhart and Leonard Shure, the former assistant to Artur Schnabel, one of the great pianists of the 20th century. He absorbed the philosophies of both Genhart and Shure, who influenced him in different but significant ways. Genhart was all about “polishing and listening, getting the nitty gritty of it.” Shure, on the other hand, taught him how to play Beethoven in a way that stood out from other pianists. He remembers a masterclass that Shure gave on the piano sonatas as a life-changing experience. He also studied the “Emperor” concerto under Shure’s guidance.

It was these teachers who impressed upon him the value of a diverse and varied musical education — something that informed his own approach to teaching.

“It’s very important, I think, for everyone to be exposed to many different teachers,” he says. “I never felt that, when I taught, the students were my property. I tried to ensure that all my students got certain basic things that I understand, [such as] melody shaping and technique. On the other hand, I didn’t want them to sound like each other.”

The Robert and Ellen Silverman Piano Concerto Competition

One thing Silverman firmly believes is that all serious piano students, regardless of their teacher, should have the chance to play with a symphony orchestra.

“Professionally, if any pianist is going to “make it” as a career, playing a concerto and knowing how to do it is very important.  There are only so many opportunities to play with the orchestra. So my wife and I thought, rather than offer yet another scholarship, what can we do that would be good for the students and a good feature for the school?”

And so, the Robert and Ellen Silverman Piano Concerto Competition was born. Open to all UBC School of Music piano students, the first competition takes place in March 2018 and will run every two years thereafter. The grand prize? An opportunity to perform a concerto with the UBC Symphony Orchestra at the Chan Centre.

“[Maestro] Jonathan Girard is a great guy and a fabulous conductor. He doesn’t only conduct what he wants, but also considers the students’ needs,” Silverman says.

Learn more about the Robert and Ellen Silverman Piano Concerto Competition.