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“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.

 

Pianist Lucas Wong on finding new ways to inspire audiences and students

Note: This is the first story in a new series that profiles UBC School of Music alumni who have followed interesting and innovative paths to career success.
 

By Andrew Hung

Lucas Wong - 4.jpg

It is difficult to give Lucas Wong (BMus’04) a specific label or title.

The UBC School of Music alumnus is a concert pianist and recording artist, but his career goals extend far beyond performance. He is also a university professor, a collaborator in a computer software project for piano students, a textbook writer, and the founder of the lecture-recital series, Mostly Debussy.

“I always enjoyed talking about music as much as I enjoy playing music,” Wong says. “As pianists, we have to look for new ways to engage the audience in our programs. One of the ways is by interacting with the audience and introducing pieces to them.”

 Mostly Debussy was featured at the Roy Barnett Recital Hall in September, a concert in which Wong performed Debussy’s Pagodes from Estampes, as well as several selections from his collection of Préludes and Etudes. As part of the concert he also explained how the pieces work and what makes them so compelling.

The lecture-recital series is currently in its fourth year, and has featured the works of Debussy and Stravinsky, as well as Chopin and the French Romantic composer Emmanuel Chabrier.

Next year, the final year of Mostly Debussy, will be an important one. It is the 100th anniversary of Debussy’s passing, and to commemorate the event, Wong has commissioned three composers to each write a work for the series.  One of the objectives of these compositions is to reflect Debussy’s late work, the Cello Sonata. 

Just a year before starting Mostly Debussy, Wong began collaborating with computer science students and professors at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to create a software that will make piano reductions — that is, simplified arrangements or transcriptions of an original score or composition — more accessible for performers, educators, or anyone who simply enjoys music.

“It will be cool if one day, if someone pulls out the iPad, and says, ‘I feel like playing the second movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony on the piano,” Wong says. “‘And maybe my technique isn’t too great, so give me a very simple version.’ And if that can be done in five seconds, that would change a lot of how people can appreciate music.”

Wong expects that the final product will be the first software of its kind on the market. In the meantime, the project poses interesting challenges.

“It’s more complicated than we actually expected.  Even the word ‘harmony’ opens up so many different things that one still tries to accomplish.  What is the harmony?  Or what are the possibilities?  Computers don’t usually like the word ‘possibilities.’” 

 

 

LISTEN: Lucas Wong performs Debussy and Chabrier


In the same year that the software project began, Wong also began work on a textbook for keyboard harmony students, although he didn’t realize it at first.  As one of the first faculty members in the Soochow University School of Music’s performance program, he had the opportunity to create a course from scratch, which was eventually named “Advanced Musicianship and Improvisation Skills for Keyboard.”  Wong began writing the course outline and syllabus, originally without the intention of creating a textbook.  But as the worksheets he wrote for his students grew in number, he realized that he had a textbook in the making.

“I’ve revised the format of the book many times, internally.  I’m on the fourth or fifth edition, without publishing it.  Hopefully, someday we’ll have it done,” he laughs.

Wong was once a student reading textbooks, not writing them. He was a very busy student. He played chamber music, collaborated with singers, and played for UBC Opera’s rehearsals.  In his first year, Wong also played cello in the UBC Symphony.

He recalls the instructors who made an impact on him as a student at the UBC School of Music – Bob Pritchard, Rena Sharon, and Bruce Pullan.

With 2018 shaping up to be a big year, Wong appreciates the insights he picked up in his piano lessons and Piano Pedagogy courses at UBC, lessons about efficient practicing that has also translated to other areas of his career.

“When you have less and less time, you’ll find out that the only way to do it right is to do it efficiently. You have to always be very well with time management.” 

He pauses for a second.

“But most musicians are naturally very good with time management — onstage with rhythm!”