Pianist Louis Schwizgebel-Wang
Photo: Christian Steiner . The young and personable Louis Schwizgebel-Wang is not to be considered a ‘secret’ insider tip anymore, and he certainly won’t be after his upcoming recital at Merkin Hall on January 30th. Even as early as 2007, the Swiss born pianist was introduced
to audiences in the United States, with his Zankel Hall debut in New York and at the Kennedy Center in Washington. According to the Washington Post at the time, he played with a “powerhouse technique, a sly sense of humor, wonderfully expressive phrasing, and seething passion, showing also sensitivity to subtle but essential details of touch and tone.” Previously he had won First Prize in the 2006 Young Concert Artists European Auditions in Leipzig Hochschule fuer Musik Felix Mendelssohn- Bartholdy. He is once again launched by Young Concert Artists, an organization that is dedicated to boosting to success the careers of many great pianists, -- including artists like Jerome Lowenthal, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax and Jeremy Denk. Schwizgebel’s upcoming encore
recital at Merkin Hall will give this young performer the chance to remind New York audiences of the previous positive impression that he made in New York and beyond.
Schwizgebel-Wang’s other career highlights include a 2004 tour of China with the Basel Symphony and in 2005 he won the top prize at the Geneva International Piano Competition. His continued winning of prizes in Europe and the United States had led to more, great concert opportunities, such as his performance as a soloist with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Fabio Luisi and with the London Philharmonic under Carl Davis. He also very recently played a solo recital at London’s Wigmore Hall, and this summer he performed at the Verbier Festival, with critic Ismene Brown saying: “ … I enjoyed most what was happening upon a new bloom, the sort of thing that is very Verbier. One afternoon at the clipped white modern Église appeared a 23-year-old Swiss pianist named Louis Schwizgebel-Wang, who made an hour and a quarter of Liszt flee by with exquisite fairytales of pianism, from the sombre questions of Vallée d’Oberman to some breathtakingly virtuosic playing of Paganini studies….
Photo: Christian Lutz To make a career as a musician is a long-term act of intelligent will and curiosity about music-making, as Terfel embodies. At the moment, perhaps, the beauteous and glamorous Buniatishvili, the same age as Schwizgebel-Wang, has a huge marketing advantage, but in 20 years I think that, like Kovacevich and Argerich, it is Schwizgebel-Wang who is more likely to be the master of his instrument opening ears to the intimate secrets of great music up in the mountains of Verbier. Catch him when he plays in Britain this autumn with his fellow Swiss cellist, Lionel Cottet, and, I'd bet he will be playing in a lot of high places as a soloist before long.” His parents —the mother Chinese, the father Swiss— are both visual artists living in Geneva, and believed in a sheltered environment. He started lessons with his teacher Franz Josefovski at age six. The young piano talent, who, aged 12, represented Switzerland in the 9th Steinway Festival in Hamburg, visited the Lausanne Conservatory, but just for lessons with his teacher Brigitte Mayer. Still living at home he earned his soloist diploma, aged 15. He later travelled for lessons with Pascal Devoyon at the Berlin Universität der Künste. That is why only since he came to New York this year, to study at Juilliard with Emanuel Ax and Robert McDonald, has he experienced a true “school – environment,” which he actually enjoys greatly.
He likes to challenge himself and, as I was impressed to learn, he likes to continue to explore. Even in terms of his already greatly praised piano technique, he likes to gain a deeper insight into the principals that are at work which are evidently not always completely clear, despite all the great training and musical talent.
I met him for the first time recently, after his participation at the Beethoven Marathon, a live broadcast from WQXR’s Greenspace on November 20th. This marathon was a collective effort of some of the most talented -- established and emerging pianists including Jonathan Bis, Jeremy Denk, Alessio Bax and Phillip Edward Fisher. “I needed to expand my horizon…” said Schwizgebel-Wang, as I approached him after his stellar performance of Beethoven’s opus 14, no. 1; and Opus 81a. His participation at the Green Space broadcast happened somewhat spontaneously, leaving him only the very limited time span of 8 days to prepare both of the sonatas for performance. “I decided on studying in New York,” he explained, “since I had already contacts, won some auditions and I had management, which still continues. Young Concert Artists was very helpful; they introduced me to Emanuel Ax, who then accepted me as his student at Juilliard. Engstroem, the organizer of the Verbier Festival also convinced me to go New York. I had first gone to their Academy – Master classes in 2008/9 and then Engstroem had invited me to play a recital this year. I would have thought Paris or London. Engstroem pushed me further.” And he loves it. Lucky to have found an apartment close to Juilliard, he practices at the school, daily. “At home I was always a bit lazy about practicing, since ...well it was home, there were distractions. But here, you pass by the practice rooms and I am motivated; everyone else is doing the same thing,” the pianist continues. He enjoys the musical input both his teachers, Ax and McDonald, provide. They don’t talk much technique. Schwizgebel –Wang likes to listen to both their personal suggestions, of how to go about different phrasings, musical structure and interpretation. “Sometimes there are small changes in details that transform the whole idea of the piece” , he claims, getting the most out of his one year graduate diploma process, which he would like to extend to a second year. When we are talking about technique, Louis gets really interested.
It is crucial, for any aspiring pianist to know that, despite this pianist’s huge talent, his accomplished performances and his aspirant career, he can admit to constant insecurities, or rather a continual questioning of his pianistic technique as the reliable craft to forge all the wonderful promising artistic ideas. How to produce the full tone he wants for a particular place in the music? How to get into the keys so the planned sound effect won’t be too harsh, but loud enough?
There are obviously different stylistic ways to approach the piano, for example when playing French, impressionist music like Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, that Louis is preparing for his upcoming Merkin Hall recital. “Something about the touch light, precise and this clear accuracy, is more tangible for me and easier to instinctively grasp then let’s say Brahms or Schubert,” he says. So what is it one has to focus on practicing, considering one can prepare two Beethoven Sonatas in 8 days? “I am not crazy about “exercises.” I make up my exercises according to each piece I play and I like to know all about the music I play. And I would love to understand technique in general better, what enables you to feel comfortable at the piano. “ As his teacher McDonald had mentioned the Taubman approach, I offer to introduce him to Edna Golandsky, who is the most renowned specialist in Dorothy Taubman’s inquisitions of natural piano technique.
It is fascinating to see the interaction when huge talent meets with the lifelong experience in a piano coach like Edna Golandsky, who has welcomed many pianists, expanding their horizons in seeking her advice. Louis plays a movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A major, Haydn Sonata in C Major and
some of Ravel’s gaspard de la nuit. Edna admires his talent and realizes he is on the search of how to get that ever-escaping quality of tone, effortlessly and reliably.
I am honored to be present at their session: “What’s on your mind?” she asks him, after he played for her.
He explained that he never really had a completely comfortable technique; “I had always been searching, starting out with a too high wrist and tension. I wanted to play difficult pieces too young
and had to find a way to be able to play them. McDonald gave me some new advice
that made me feel somewhat better about how to go into the keys, somewhat
diagonally, not gripping the keys, as I was doing before, but I am still searching…” Edna has a different approach, pointing out the very natural alignment of the forearm, hands and fingers. There is no one position that can be kept continuously:”Curling the fingers is one of the biggest reasons for
tension, she says, but a thrust forward creates a finger action that can be counterproductive just the same as grabbing the keys, which has an effect of making you “fall off” the piano. Sometimes changing one approach for another can make one feel better. But the real answer is to get rid of any tension.”
Edna Golandsky, founder of the Golandsky Institute at Princton University, longtime assistant to Dorothy's Taubman work and veteran pedagogue of the Taubman Technique, a natural approach to piano technique
Edna went onto tell Louis that the depth in his tone, comes from the weight of the forearm, which negotiates also the sideward movement on the keyboard. There is a sense of forward balance, opposed to falling back. She recognized that he has a lot of imagination in his playing and brings out color changes, but there could be a deeper sound:”That comes from the forearm, by slowing down the key speed with a
rotational movement,” she explains.
Louis gets the hang of it, immediately. Edna asks him, “How is that? ““Comfortable,”
Louis confirms, nodding thankfully. “Paying attention to the alignment allows you to feel more
grounded, more supported. In order to bring out sounds, especially when we are talking about a soft sound, people hold up their arms, their shoulders, not daring to make a too big sound. Sound is not at the bottom of the key, but slightly before that. Therefore you don’t aim for the bottom,” Edna explains to him.
“You release more power, when you are not forcing into the key, like when throwing a ball. With the timing of the key and the power of the forearm, there is a lot of variety of tone, and a bigger sound. Just be careful not to break the wrist and not to collapse at the knuckles. Breaking the wrist can quickly lead to
injuries, and usually, when the wrist collapses, the shoulders go up as well.
Maybe your higher wrist position tried to make up for this. In any case, when it’s correct, the hand does not want to do anything else, it’s totally comfortable and there is no difference if it’s in concert performance or practicing.”
Schwizgebel-Wang is enthusiastic about his initial visit, as
he tells me afterwards: “It really helps! I was expecting something more
complicated but actually it is so simple and natural. I am looking forward to
practicing in this direction. “
Louis with David Aladashvili, during a Thanks Giving visit.
Lucky to be open-minded and not deterred by some of the
ghosts of critical rumors about the Taubman approach, he will have the
opportunity to visit Edna again, as questions arise. But for those not near New
York, there are the 10 tapes, introducing the principles of the method which
are available at the Golandsky website. www.golandskyinstitute.org
On top of it he is great fun, as I experienced first hand when he visited with my family for dinner and joined with Juilliard co-student David Aladashvili into a spontanious Schubertesque salon performance. And maybe we will experience some of the impressive, positive
results of Louis’s new approach to tone production in his piano technique
during his upcoming Merkin Hall recital. We hope it will be a more comfortable,
effortless experience for him… as he will be able to craft his wonderful
musical thoughts more freely.
His website is: http://www.louisschwizgebelwang.com/