Pianist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner – “Music can make the world a better place.”
“Music can break down barriers because it speaks directly to the heart, connecting people through its common language,” says the young man sitting across the table with great conviction, as he brushes away a strand of long, blond hair from falling over his lively eyes. From the get-go, Llewellyn’s enthusiasm is contagious, and remains the distinct mark of the multitude of endeavors in which this young musician engages.
Photo: Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner performs at the Miami International Piano Festival
In 2010, Llewellyn was the first American soloist to perform with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra; while there, he launched a fundraising drive for the first local Children’s Cancer Clinic. “While the other performers and I did not speak the same language, and the atmosphere initially might have been described as tense, with search-dogs sniffing instrumentalist’s cases, it was a very gratifying and really bonding experience,” remembers Llewellyn, “carried by our mutual musical goal, we were all just musicians, not thinking of political conflicts.”
Honored as “Connector of the Day” by CNN International in 2011 for his independently initiated humanitarian contributions, the young pianist also performed at President Obama’s second inaugural concert at the Kennedy Center in 2013. Photo: in the limelight at Kennedy Performing Arts Center
Dean of the Juilliard School, Joseph Polisi, the author of The Artist as Citizen, could not have asked for a more engaged young musician to take his ideology to its fullest meaning.
An astonishing curiosity and the ability to both inspire and be inspired are perhaps at the core of Llewellyn’s extraordinary talent, as he is constantly eager to engage in music’s harmonizing dialectic within and beyond the score. He does not need much sleep – life is much too exciting. He says, “What I enjoy most about our relatively small community at Juilliard is the interaction between the disciplines; the dancers, actors, composers and other instrumentalists.” While Llewellyn spends time alone in the practice room, the museum, and in the library studying the orchestrations for Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov, the Belle Canto lines of Chopin’s works and relation to literature, exploring how Liszt set music to poetry and what inspired Schuman, or just trying to understand the complexity of it all, he is actually quite eager to build relationships with those around him. Llewellyn’s most precious memories are intense debates and play-outs with other musician friends in the practice room, even though when it comes to age, those around him are frequently several years his senior.
“Age never proved to be a barrier,” he insists, “I am often like the little brother, but on a cultural level everything quickly evens out,” says Llewellyn, who arrived to New York’s Juilliard Pre-College division when he was barely 10 years old, accompanied by his mother. Tested for extraordinary abilities, he had started taking credits at Ventura College in Los Angeles at age five, and had absolved credits equivalent to a full high school diploma. He became their youngest student ever to earn an Associate of Arts Degree before leaving the West Coast for Juilliard’s eminent breeding ground of musical talent.
His special gift for music emerged at age two, at which time he sang melodies and played them at the piano during his mother’s playful piano lessons; professional lessons quickly followed, leaving him reading music by age three. At age five, he wrote his first composition, inspired by the theory class he was taking: an experiment in counterpoint. Llewellyn continues his studies in composition with Lowell Liebermann, a former graduate of Juilliard and one of New York’s noted contemporary composers. Photo credit: Chris McGuire
In Veda Kaplinsky, chair of Juilliard’s piano faculty, Llewellyn found formative pianistic guidance early on: “She has an incredibly discerning ear and was able to guide me in seeing the big picture, while paying attention to every nuance,” he says. The transformation from pre-college to regular conservatory enrollment happened swiftly for Llewellyn. As per Juilliard rules, first year enrolled students have to live at the local dormitory, but in order to do so they have to be seventeen years of age. In Llewellyn’s case, rules were bent just a little bit when the school granting him permission to continue living with his mother upon his early enrollment at the conservatory; he was only fourteen at the time – the youngest pupil admitted as a full time student.
Llewellyn also started studying with former Leeds winner, concert pianist Ilya Itin: “Ilya and I formed a long term friendship,” he explains, “and as an active performer, he is able to offer something direct and unique. He became instrumental in taking my playing to the next level, but he also has this sterling character,” Llewellyn describes.
Both Kaplinsky and Itin link principals of the Taubman approach to their teaching. Kaplinsky, a student of Dorothy Taubman herself, and Itin, enlightened by Edna Golandsky, a student and later assistant of Taubman’s who further developed her training, both apply individual ingredients of Taubman’s intricate insights into a natural piano technique. Known to prevent pianists from incurring injuries at the instrument and facilitate individual musical expression through an expansive understanding of the performer’s intricate movements at the keyboard, Taubman’s teachings have provided much solace to instrumentalists, solving many mysteries of the key ingredients of playing with full tonal control and projection. “Apart from how these principals affected my own playing, I admire what the Golandsky Institute has done for so many instrumentalists,” says Llewellyn, who visited the summer workshop for the first time as a student in 2009, when studying with Itin, a longtime faculty member and performer of the yearly Golandsky Institute’s Summer Symposium at Princeton University.
“I had never been injured at the piano so for me it was about other things. Ilya has allowed me to find what is comfortable for me and has aided me to find my complete ease of playing, taking or leaving from the approach whatever I see fit. There is never a struggle; the approach facilitates the best possible way of movement with ease and fluidity, it helps with your sound and you become in control of every little detail,” explains Llewellyn, who shifted from student to performer at the festival’s weeklong concerts in 2012, and opened the summer’s 2014 performance series.
Despite his fast-track career, Llewellyn’s receipt of the 2014 Gilmore Award came as a total surprise: “They apparently select based on anonymous recommendations; they visit your performances incognito and read about you online… It was wonderful for me to receive that honor. It served as a validation that I was on the right track, and it provides me with a lot of exposure, which every artist needs.” Although Llewellyn is not rushing into an out-of-control performance career, but rather plans to broaden his expertise, he looks forward to taking advantage of the performance and commission opportunities that the award presents. “Writing music and performing often inform each other; you appreciate music differently if you understand the process of creating it,” he confirms. He indicates that he is starting to expand his search for eligible composers from whom he can commission new works. It remains to be seen for how long Llewellyn’s musical choices will continue to coalesce with his ambitions to ignite social change and cultural diplomacy, but he seems to be able to keep finding fascinating projects. For Hilan Warshaw’s documentary Wagner’s Jews for WDR – ARTE , which brilliantly explores the ongoing controversy over performing Wagner’s music in Israel and the composer’s Anti-Semitic stance, Sanchez-Werner was filmed in New York performing the works of Tausig, Wagner, and Liszt. He has also collaborated with the Gershwin family on a concert and biographical tribute to the Gershwin brothers and he keeps seeking inspiration and to follow in an admirable tradition of symbolic artistic efforts, including some of Mozart’s librettos, Sibelius compositions opposing Soviet suppression, and Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Project. Even if coming from a somewhat blue eyed perspective of a seventeen year old, his idealism and enthusiasm can genuinely spark, garnering well deserved admiration. For more info about the artist please visit his website.
Performing his Graduation recital at Juilliard, this April, he modestly proved that he continues to keep it real: with his heart at the right place he generously commended the biggest inspiration in his life – his mother. Photo right: Ilona Oltuski