Pianist Shai Wosner ‘Premieres’ a Piece Each Time
New Yorkers have had ample chance to admire internationally acclaimed pianist Shai Wosner, who has partnered in concert with celebrities like Martha Argerich, Pinchas Zukerman, and Daniel Barenboim.
Photo: Marco Borggreve
Wosner has been a regular favorite in piano series all over town, in collaborations with musicians like Martin Fröst, Jennifer Koh and Missy Mazzoli, and as a curating contributor of consecutive programs at the 92Y. Wosner’s interest in exploring subtle connections between works he performs has also brought about his 2017 release Impromptu, recorded on the Onyx label. Among the smaller works that trail back to works with an ‘impromptu’ or improvisational character, the conceptual mix on the album ranges from Beethoven to Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Dvořák, with actual improvisations by Gershwin and Ives next to some stylized miniatures like Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 935. Listen to Shai on Schubert here.
Wosner’s numerous sensitive Schubert performances, and his highly insightful stage persona complete with nickel-framed glasses giving him that touch of an intellectual gaze, have moved critics to call on his likeness to Schubert; he has been described by Gramophone as a “Schuberterian of unfaltering authority and character,” and has performed Schubert’s last six piano sonatas on multiple programs in New York and throughout the United States and Japan. While Wosner, tall and slim (unlike Schubert), lives with his wife (unlike Schubert), a medical doctor, and their two children on the Upper West Side, one can thoughtfully relate the two men in their sensitive nature among other qualities. Few people know of Wosner’s own struggles and elations, the many great influences in his life, and how he became the artist he is today. In a tête à tête with GetClassical, he talks about the secret life and lust of a musician he learned to conceal early on.
Wosner grew up on a Moshav, a cooperative agricultural community in Israel, with fertile grounds, but not particularly for classical music. Despite this, there was an upright piano in the living room of his childhood home, which no one played; Wosner’s sister, 12 years his senior, had taken a short run of lessons, and there it was: abandoned, but with its quaint wooden finish a familiar addition to the sparingly-furnished living room, ready to be explored.
(Photo from the Finale of the 1999 Queen Elisabeth International Piano competition)
Intrigued, young Wosner picked out some basic tunes, teaching himself how to play songs he heard on the radio. Soon, he was harmonizing, adding chords, and, thrilled with his accomplishments, he could not wait to sit at the piano to play when he returned home from kindergarten every day. Wosner’s parents thought it was time for piano lessons.
A talented violinist and pupil of famed Ilana Fehér, Wosner’s mother had to quit playing early on to support her family after the death of her father. She was surprised to meet with some resistance from her son, who was perfectly happy in his playful state of musicianship, worried to turn his joyous hobby into something that sounded a lot like a burden. But for the sake of being able to play more intricate songs, he agreed to meet with a teacher from nearby Kfar Saba. From the beginning Opher Brayer, a jazz musician by training, introduced ear training and improvisation into Wosner’s weekly piano lessons. He also soon understood that Wosner needed more of a challenge, and introduced him to Emanuel Krasovsky, a giant in the Israeli piano world. They clicked immediately, and Krasovsky, who was teaching at the Academy at the time, became Wosner’s mentor. Krasovsky recognized quickly that in addition to piano lessons, a more all-encompassing approach to music was necessary, and introduced Wosner to André Hajdu for instruction in composition, theory, and improvisation; here Wosner learned everything but piano. Hungarian-born, Haydu had studied with Kodaly and went to Paris to study with Messiaen. With Haydu, Wosner became intimate with music analysis, appreciation, and improvisation in a most organic way. “Both my mentors were quite different, but outstanding in their own right,” explains Wosner.
Haydu, who had written many books about music and whose teaching was based on his own vast experience within two great music traditions, familiarized Wosner with both – the rich Hungarian tradition and the French, with its freedom and nonchalant open mindedness towards foreign flavors. “He was a religious man, and fascinated with ethnic music, he had an incredible knowledge of literature and opened up the world of some of the amazing connections between different composers and music traditions for me. A great communicator, he was able to captivate anyone’s attention, from young to old, without dumbing things down. Haydu was a great composer in his own right; among his lifelong friends were Ligety and Kurtág. In addition to everything I learned about the piano from Krasovsky, I was very fortunate to have this great musical thinker in my life; I will always appreciate Krasovsky’s magnanimous generosity to letting me dwell in both worlds, the nuanced one of the instrument and the broad world of its musical context,” says Wosner.
(Photo Credit: The Artsbeat Piano Blog)
With Haydu, Wosner met twice a week at Jerusalem’s Bar Ilan University, and with Krasovsky at the Academy of the Tel-Aviv University. “Even though the distances where not that great, it was quite a ‘schlepp’ to get there,” explains Wosner, “and my mom was committed to driving me back and forth. She also took me to concerts quite regularly. But my greatest memories are from listening to recordings. When I discovered the liner notes in Hebrew of one of these great composer’s collections, I was immediately gripped; reading about the composers and their pieces gave me an opening into the culture around them,” he says. “Like through a time machine I was transported into the world of music, and I was craving more. This was around the time I started working with Haydu, which of course reinforced this fascination. It was an escape from the rest of my life, in which I had no one to discuss my newfound discoveries, my friends (I had a few) did not care at all about all this. I realized early on I had to keep this interest apart from them, it was not really welcomed. So it did make me feel like an outsider, at times, or at least like someone with a double life,” describes Wosner. Only much later on, in High School, did Wosner realize he was not alone.
At the time, Wosner did not even realize the long commute from the Moshav to Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim. Every morning, Wosner caught an early ride with his father at 5.30 am, and got to school at 6:30, killing time before everyone else showed up, and taking the bus for an hour and a half each day on the way back home. “I could not care less about the long way to school, as it meant freedom for me. I could unreservedly focus more on what I loved doing and there were others like me, who cared about classical music,” which was, of course, a new experience in his life.
“There was music history, orchestra, and music-related activities available all the time, and my interest of accessing music through operatic and orchestral works was hugely stimulated. Initially this passion of mine had come to the foreground since I was 12 years old, when my sister gave me a recording of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. ‘If this was his 5th Symphony, there obviously must be others,’ I thought. It was for me like finding a new book of the Harry Potter series, and visits to the music store were my favorite outings with my parents. They would also buy music scores for me, and I remember in particular my fascination with Mozart’s Requiem. I had been very impressed with the movie about Mozart and heard the track over and over, but it was the moment when I opened the score… I remember knowing the sound in my ears; to make that connection, of what the sound could be and what the score looked like. That was a real revelation.”
Today, Wosner avoids listening too much to recordings, but prefers to try to think like the composer. Looking at any score he will typically ask himself, ‘what did the composer have in mind with his particular choices?’ “To see the vocabulary used in each style is like a language, it gives you a more organic view. The logic behind a piece, the choices become visible, and they are not arbitrary; the piece becomes as a living organism with many different layers. A piece can be felt in many different ways depending how you approach it, and trying to follow the perspective of the composer kind of blurs the line between performer and composer. When you keep this kind of open mind and let the music lead you, it also makes it possible to experience the music in different ways each time and to communicate more convincingly, which makes it so compelling. It is as if you are creating the piece again, that’s why my favorite term is to ‘premiere’ the piece, each time again, to make it come to life anew. It’s certainly a way to keep it fresh, and ideally, it can be what drives the performance and makes it part of you – you live it.” Photo: Marco Borggreve
At age 18, Wosner was enrolled – like every young Israeli – in the army. At the time there was talk about continuing his studies in the USA. Isaac Stern had a summer class in Jerusalem, where Joseph Kalichstein was teaching. Wosner attended the workshops in Jerusalem and performed for Stern and Kalichstein. “Stern was just sitting there, with his glasses on the forehead listening, and just dismissed me after I finished saying: ‘ok you can leave now.’
“He stayed on,” says Wosner, “conversing with my teacher [Krasovsky], and it turned out that Emanuel Ax was looking for student at the time. They would make a phone call, they said, and I was asked to send a recording to Ax. That was the start of my years at Juilliard, and studying with the amazing Emanuel Ax,” he explains.
“I would see him very often, at the time he was actually present a lot and we had fantastic long afternoons, and I am proud to call him my friend today. He is one of these artists who doesn’t make a lot of fuss, but [is] still extremely convincing, whether it’s a tune or a phrase, or building the whole piece, I find him tremendously inspiring. I think he is one of the finest pianists around today,” says Wosner.
Wosner also attended the first workshops of the Barenboim-Said West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999. “In the beginning there were mostly rehearsals, with Barenboim conversing; I learned a whole lot. It started with more piano and chamber music, and only later developed into a whole orchestra. It’s a very admirable project, without political indoctrination, but many healthy debates. There were right- and left-wing views. Clearly you had to believe in some form of co-existence between Israel and its Arab neighbors… otherwise, what’s the point,” he says.
In 2017, Wosner performed at the Jerusalem Festival, led by Barenboim’s wife Elena Bashkirov, together with Martha Argerich. “I think she is one of the most creative pianists alive, or probably in history. Her playing can be so spontaneous, almost impulsive, but the magic is that if she does it, it feels inevitable. It’s pointless to imitate this –it’s just how she is. Even at 77, which is obviously a fact amazing in itself, she still sounds as fresh and energetic as she did at 27,” he marvels. He continues: “When you play together, she can lead the duo when she has the main voice in her part, take complete charge, and then, when you have the main part in your score, she can wrap her playing around yours like no other, in complete and perfect harmony. Playing with her was the most natural, easy feat. I just had to pinch myself a couple of times that this is really happening…but I loved every bit of it.”
In the fall season, Wosner will continue the Schubert Sonatas program with a new project, which, still coming together, will involve several composers around a central concept, “similar to the Impromptu recording idea, but with contemporary composers, involving several commissions of new solo pieces,” he explains.
I will be in the audience.