Jan 31st 2018

This Lively American has "got rhythm"

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

American expat pianist David Lively found happiness in Paris as a teen-aged piano prodigy and got so busy performing and studying  -- with an Alfred  Cortot associate -- that he ended up making his life in France, a “different planet” culturally, he says, compared to that of his native land. 

Yet Lively has kept his roots. His new CD, “I Got Rhythm” (La Musica SAS) is a personal survey of American piano music, 28 selections, beginning with Gottschalk and concluding with William Bolcom. Along the way, he samples Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives and others. It is a refreshing, exciting panorama from the New World. 

Long associated with the Ecole Normale de Musique, one of the two or three main music schools in Paris, Lively performs classic European repertoire onstage and in recordings but leaves the door open to contemporary and American composers. 

At the Ecole Normale he functions as Director of Exams, which gives him a window on upcoming young talent. Despite technique reaching new heights among developing keyboard artists, he sees piano careers ever more “tough and heartless”. He has concluded that the two piano styles that survive and dominate today are Russian and South Korean. 

I asked Lively (yes, his real name) if he is a crossover artist, but he demurred. He told me in an interview (see below) he says he enjoys “ tackling anything written, whatever style it may be.” He has the technique to wrestle the most virtuosic Elliott Carter compositions to the ground, and even conspired with his late friend Carter to bring “Caténaires” to fruition. They worked it out on the phone. 

I have spent several hours listening to Lively’s almost clinical articulation, easy virtuosity and his sensitivity to the American idiom. I have rarely heard Scott Joplin bounce like this, or felt the Gershwin Songbook trigger the familiar melodies of my past. His Copland, Barber, Ives and Carter all dazzle. 

Lively recently performed at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, rolling out his Zumpe square piano of 1771, identical to Beethoven’s instrument, to play the Beethoven F-minor Kurfürsten Sonata to the delight of the Parisian audience.

My interview with David Lively

Question: You are a born-and-bred American Midwesterner. What has attracted you to France? 

Answer: As a child, I was enthralled by the music of Debussy and even more of Ravel, and the idea of studying in Paris was a dream. 

Q. So how did you get over here? 

A. At the age of 15, I was offered a grant from the French government to study with Jules Gentil who had been assistant and confidant to Alfred Cortot, one of history’s greatest pianists. Within the first months in Paris I was being displayed as wunderkind before heads of state by the American ambassador, performing before the likes of President Pompidou and Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco.  Before the age of 17, I was awarded the highest diploma the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris with the greatest distinctions. The following year, three international prizes and representation by prestigious European agents allowed me to embark on an international career.

Q. What kept you here? 

A. Paris is irresistibly beautiful and I was too busy to think of living elsewhere. I am to this day ever fascinated by the history that surrounds me.  Debussy would have been my next-door neighbor!

         

Q. Aren’t the arts cultures in France and the U.S. pretty similar? 

A. The arts cultures of the two continents could well be on two different planets as far as I am concerned. The level of music-making here has skyrocketed since the late sixties and I am proud to be a part of it.

Q: You are a Queen Elisabeth competition laureate and you have been a jurist there and elsewhere. Where do stand in the controversy over piano competitions? Useful career-wise? Waste of time and energy? Noble? Corrupt? 

A: Controversy? I wasn’t aware ;=)… Frankly, my opinion is that piano competitions are no more nocive than any other exam, although they pit the very best of all schools together. Can harm come of that?

Q.  And yet so many laureates fall by the wayside. 

A. I’ll let you in on a secret -- the career of a pianist today is tough and heartless. Competitions can hone you to perform a Tchaikovsky concerto at a day’s notice or to sit onstage without warming up because your plane was late, or to give two performances on one day etc. etc. The list of inhumane demands on the competitor is long. There is also the ever slimmer chance that competitions can further your career. I say slimmer as the more competitions, the more first prizes are churned out almost daily. But if your heart speaks, the audience will hear the difference and will always respond. Agents and organizers will then, too.

Q: As Dean of Exams at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris you spend much time judging the level of performance among the young. How rewarding is this activity? 

A: You make it sound tedious! It has been a learning experience for me and a definite influence on my own interpretations. Thanks to this experience, I have grown more sensitive to what is important to me to convey and what is, on the other hand, self-indulgent and trying on my patience.

Q: What changes have you noticed among the young over the past 20 years or so? Is technique improving? 

A: Lol! There is no doubt in my mind that the general level of hitting the right note at the right time in as little time as possible has definitely “improved”.  But then I listen again to interpretations of ages past and am bowled over by the technique of the great masters. For me, there are two schools of piano today, the Russian school that has remained, thank heavens, and the South Korean. In both instances, the nurturing of precocious talent is paramount. I need not say more.

Q: Your discography and repertoire are impressive. Is there a center of gravity, a favorite era or composer? 

A: I am insatiably curious of all facets of our vast and amazingly rich keyboard repertoire and am ever eager to explore unfamiliar work. Consequently, I will accept most any proposal.

Q. Yes, but can you play “any proposal”? 

A. I am blessed with a facile technique which allows me to delve into whatever I put my heart into, and I am easily won over. Just today, I began work on Enescu’s amazing Third Violin Sonata and am already totally intoxicated by his truly unique writing. 

This version, performed by violinist Aylen Pritchen and pianist Eloise Bella Kohn demonstrates the attraction that captured ively’s imagination:

 

Q: On your new CD of American music you have chosen quite a span of composers, from Scott Joplin to Elliott Carter and William Bolcom. What is the link? 

A: My choice was determined by my desire to champion works under the influence of jazz and American folk music. I don’t think I could have started earlier that Louis Moreau Gottschalk and I was determined to include work of my dear friend Elliott Carter. I don’t think the time span could hardly have been reached beyond what it already does!

Q: But what’s the progression, the “fil rouge”, as the French say, that you are threading through them? Is it all about harmonic progression? 

A: Chronology allows me to point out the incredible prescience of  “Souvenir de Porto-Rico”, of perfect “patrol” form before the day. The almost rude intrusion of Charles Ives’s tribute to baseball, “Some Southpaw Pitching” underlines his staggering precocity and sense of reckless audacity that rubbed off on the young Elliott Carter who frequented him as a high-schooler. I love the juxtaposition of Barber’s square dance and William Albright’s hallucinatory “Hoedown”, two very different interpretations of the same dance-scene.

Q. How about harmonics? 

A. This is something important to me that I wanted to say with my album: Carter is an integral part of this history as jazz also informed his style. I wanted the listener to be progressively led from tonal to atonal and back again, far-reaching with Carter’s archetypal “Intermittences” and his dizzying “Caténaires”. William Bolcom’s witty ideas end the CD with the taste of some very sweet, very satisfying dessert.

Q: Are you a actually becoming a “crossover” musician, mixing pop and serious music? Your background has been almost entirely in mainstream classics – Brahms, Rachmaninov, Bach, Fauré, Liszt. Now you are playing Scott Joplin, which you perform with exceptional brio … 

A: I consider every piece on this album a gem. I guess that makes them “classic” for me. I enjoy tackling anything written whatever style it may be in, be it capable of sustaining my interest!

Q: You chose Scott Joplin as the opener for your CD. Did he show the way to other composers? 

A: Indeed, Joplin ended up as the opener. This album is almost chronological, except for the extremities. I finally decided “Maple Leaf Rag”, an historic watershed with irresistible charm and almost manic energy, deserved to initiate the voyage I propose. I want to say that I am delighted that an African-American opens the curtain, all the more so as both Joplin and I commenced our careers in Missouri!

Q: The American music you have chosen has a clear element of “fun” (Joplin, Ives, Gershwin, Copland – even Barber and Carter) unlike the classical music you have recorded and often perform.  How much of a feeling of liberation do you get from playing this American music? 

A: There is indeed a sense of freedom inherent in American music that one must be in touch with while performing it, an immediacy. It might be akin to holding a conversation with the composer. For me it has to do with stress, flexibility,  color, breathing, drama. Taking time, relaxing, or on the other hand, letting loose the manic side of your personality. Either you guide or you surprise the listener.  And above all, sing, be the voice! That holds for all music in various degrees, but there is indeed a lot of good humor in many of these works. That was particularly something Copland spoke to me repeatedly about. 

Q. You seem to have avoided the New York American composers such as Cage, Feldman, Partch and others. They were groping for a new American idiom. Do you disagree with their anti-European direction? 

A: There are many who deserve our interest but those you mention do not fall within the prism I use as historic perspective.

Q: You and Elliott Carter were friends. How did you interact during the composition process? Didn’t he write “Caténaires” in some kind of symbiosis with you? 

A: I remember well his phone call describing with almost childish glee what was going on in that very atypical work he was busy writing. Elliott was fiercely independent. Since the First String Quartet, I doubt anyone had great influence on his work. For the pianist, virtuosity is essential to conquer the difficulties and allow the freedom to focus on the intense expressivity. It was fascinating to speak about music with him. Despite the metric precision in his scores, he desired expressive flexibility in his interpreters. Once when I was staying in his flat in New York, I had time to explore his personal library. The book most worn and annotated of all was on the sole topic of rubato!

Q: What is your relationship with the American composer William Bolcom? Did you add the foot-tapping and other percussion effects in his “Garden of Eden” just for fun? 

A: I’m delighted it sounds improvised! No, every sound effect (some of which require vanquishing a healthy dose of my own prudery) is indicated in the score. I find the image of a snake doing tap dance utterly hilarious. I am very sad to say that I have never met William Bolcom and I sincerely hope this CD be an effective calling card.

Q: Where are you in your own career progression? You have performed recently at the prestigious Parisian Salle Gaveau recital. 

A: As one woman friend of a certain age poutingly put it, “I just don’t seem to have the fortune I deserve”. Concerning the Gaveau appearance that took place last week, it was in part a presentation of the new CD but also part of a Beethoven series of his better-known sonatas. I was delighted to use that opportunity to pull out my beloved Zumpe square piano of 1771 to show the audience not only how the music of the twelve-year-old Beethoven truly sounded (the F-minor Kurfürsten Sonata, where the Pathétique is already apparent) but also to point out why the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata” should truly be performed without the dampers (because dampers were erstwhile maneuvered with difficulty and lifted for long periods creating dissonances eschewed today). I then proceeded thusly on my carefully prepared Steinway grand, meaning in one long, uninterrupted pedal.

Q: How would you like to be remembered – as a performer of the European heavies? As a discoverer of American gems? As a bridge artist who can play anything? 

A. Don’t I have to die first? I never learned to play bridge properly. I shall have to one day…

END

 


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