Many of today’s pianists no longer identify exclusively with the romantic notion of the role of a performer as an inexplicable force of nature, providing a podium for the genial hinge of mysterious wonder.
Such “virtuosity,” often applied dismissively and loaded with self-expressed emotional context, bears the risk of providing cover for ignorance in the interpretation of the exacting rationale and tactile process of mediating historic truths and accuracies within a composer’s work.
In the age of information, the focus seems to have shifted away from the grandiose, awe-inspiring emotional sweep that has historically been the hallmark of virtuosity, in favor of deeply analytical imagination, poignant lucidity, and more carefully calibrated formats for emotional response, driven and controlled by an imperious intellect.
This mindset also strongly informs the choice of repertoire; the celebrated Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, for example, declared in an interview with Fiona Maddocks of BBC in 2015: “When I sit down and play Chopin, I find it, or maybe it is me, dumb.”
Suggestive of such dissenting alliance with the emotive protagonist who made listeners swoon is a somewhat personally detached, yet rather deeply analytical pianistic journey: “Beethoven and Bach are preeminent for Levit, Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Busoni, and Stockhausen, [more recently also Rzewski] close behind. He speaks generously of several other pianists, but András Schiff – not surprisingly, given his choice of repertoire (Rzewski aside) and the unremitting seriousness of his approach – is Levit’s role model,” explains Maddock.
In 2015, Sir András Schiff started an initiative in support of young performers called “Building Bridges,” which I described in my 2015 interview. Roman Rabinovitch and Michael Brown were among the first young artists to be endorsed by Schiff; as a selection for 2020, Schiff chose the 2018 Honens 1st prize winner Nicolas Namoradze. Incidentally, Schiff is one of Namoradze’s piano heroes as well and, interestingly, all three of these young artists are indicative of a recent revival, suggesting a trend – all of them are pianist/composers.
“Everyone who performed used to compose, and those who composed, performed,” says Namoradze. “It was very natural, and I think it’s unfortunate that this largely disappeared. The two are symbiotic and inform each other. For example, when you are a composer, you realize how difficult it is to express what it is you want through notation and how little one can actually communicate. This knowledge of what I want a performer of my music to figure out and understand – especially what I might not explicitly mark – subsequently informs my own searching for clues when approaching another composer’s music as a pianist,” explains Namoradze after his recent recital at Mana Contemporary in an interview with Karen Hakobyan, artistic director of Pegasus: the Orchestra and curator of their Mana residency.
Exceptionally articulate, “sparkling … sensitive and coloristic” (New York Times) – at the piano and in conversation – the 26-year-old pianist/composer has garnered wide interest and admiration, as the latest laureate of the Canadian Honens piano competition. Critics in attendance of his Zankel Hall debut this February, the first in a series of important debut performances awarded to Namoradze as part of the competition’s prize, give enthralled accounts: “a true artist who impresses not with pyrotechnics but rather with keen intelligence, a rich tonal palette and refinement… a thinking virtuoso,” offered Roman Markowicz, a description with which I quite agree.
The recital’s format suggested a keen probing into idiomatic comparisons between the infrequently suggested, solemn grouping of works by Bach and Scriabin, followed by the novel feature of Schumann versus Namoradze. A direct association of Namoradze’s namesake composition to Schumann’s Arabesque seemed inevitable. “Schumann’s Arabesque is set in a recursive rondo form that served as a kind of structural starting point for my own as well. It becomes somewhat obscured by the compositional process I employ, but there is an underlying skeleton the pieces share,” explains Namoradze, adding the fun fact that the original impetus for writing the Arabesque was that his mentor, Emanuel Ax, asked him to provide a piece that was not as impossibly difficult to play as his Etudes. “It started with the idea of both hands playing intertwined figures where the individual strands can only be distinguished by dynamic shifts between the hands – so the dynamic markings in the hands are largely independent of one another for most the piece, creating a kind of a ‘stereo sound’. I didn’t just stick with this one idea for long however, and kept introducing various new elements that made the piece increasingly complex – worse than the Etudes in a number of respects! Throughout the piece there are gradual, subtle shifts in the texture in the manner of an Escher painting.”
Namoradze’s Etudes I-III
Namoradze describes meeting Emanuel Ax as perhaps his most pivotal experience as a young pianist. Namoradze was born in the Republic of Georgia, but amidst the outbreak of a civil war, his parents moved the family to Budapest. A visiting artist, Ax was rehearsing there with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and Namoradze got to play for him, prompting an invitation from Ax to study with him at Juilliard.
When Namoradze accepted Ax’s invitation to complete his master’s program at Juilliard after completing his undergraduate studies in Budapest, Vienna, and Florence, he also studied with Juilliard’s piano chair Yoheved Kaplinsky. Composition had been part of Namoradze’s activities at the piano from childhood on, but only after arriving at Juilliard did he formally study composition, later on also under the famed John Corigliano.
“With Ax, it was all about proportions, finding the right balance. Before I came to him, I was perhaps more temperamental. He helped me to find a sense of proportion, with everything I do,” he says. Ax, in turn, proudly describes his student as “set to become one of the truly important artists of his generation.”
As part of his CUNY Graduate Center enrollment, in the process of pursuing his doctorate, Namoradze still has ample opportunity to perform for both of his mentors and to get their perspective, whenever working on a new piece. Gaining perspective is clearly a perpetual quest for Namoradze; this became clear when he recently gave me some insights into his dissertation, a work in progress with the working title: Macroharmony in Ligeti’s Late Piano Etudes.
Focusing on the Third Book of Piano Etudes, Namoradze takes a statistical, graphic approach in analyzing this music, trying to quantify and visually represent the makeup of the underlying textures and their correlations to various keys or scale areas (macroharmonies). Asking how Ligeti constructs these passages, Namoradze explores the composer’s alteration and juxtaposition of these macroharmonies and the resultant effect on the dramatic narrative in each Etude. He loves collaborations that add visuals and has been composing film scores, with a focus on electronic music.
“Walking Painting”, a short film for which Namoradze composed and produced the music
Despite his craving to analyze abstract concepts, and convincing success at doing so, the idealist in Namoradze is not that distant, especially when we talk about what virtuosity means to him. Within the supremacy of mind, there is still a lot of room for daring, surprising, and uncalculated risk-taking. Even Schiff, the master himself said: “a performance is still 70% about expressing emotions.”
“I took plenty of risks at Honens, including changing the choice of concerto just a few weeks before the competition – not something I would recommend,” he admits. But he dared to do so nevertheless, adding an emotional element. It may just be that veiled personal ingredient, without any interpretation, may be doomed to remain stale, if we accept the premises that music speaks directly to the heart – not just the mind – of the listener.
“I do not think that one’s interpretations should be derived directly from analysis. That comes from instinct, but preferably an instinct that is informed – informed by, for example, an understanding of how the music is constructed, how different harmonies relate to each other and what those implications are, and so forth… I generally prefer to find my interpretative approach away from the piano, so as to not let one’s physical limitations or pianistic shortcomings set any boundaries. If one just listens to oneself, there is the danger of getting used to what one hears, and simply accepting it,” he says. “I instead imagine an ideal interpretation, of what I would do if I had no limitations, and then gradually approach that” he adds, and follows: “Perhaps virtuosity for me is the capacity to truly execute one’s intentions; one’s conception of the piece.”
Perhaps in an age of superlative refinement within the craft of piano playing, the term virtuosity itself has reached limited validity, other than touching on that fleeting ideal interpretation, so unambiguously convincing on its own merits. And what other virtues does the performer need to bring to the stage, to qualify the artistic distinction of transporting the listener, transcending reality?
“It goes without saying that there is a visual aspect to a concert performance,” says Namoradze. “However, I maintain that it is an essentially aural experience, utterly different from witnessing a dancer or an actor on stage. Naturally, a performer’s stage presence can be of great interest – often beyond the usual understanding of the term ‘stage presence.’ I can only imagine the profoundly imposing presence of someone like Richter on stage, even when in his later years he’d plunge the whole hall in total darkness (save for a reading lamp for the score) in order for people to just listen and not watch him.”
As for the other physical aspect of performance – the performer’s general endurance, Namoradze sees the performer as an athlete, and that entails a somewhat strict life style. He never likes to eat very late, but also not right before a performance. Describing the intensity of the recent competition he says: “One might be an excellent recitalist, but performing for competitions is quite a different story. For the rounds in Calgary, I had to prepare more than four hours of music; we had four rounds: two semi-finals with the two final rounds on two consecutive days.” He prepared himself with reading material on mental training and sports psychology, central in athletes’ preparations. “Imagining the process, yourself being calm, and practicing the physical movements mentally, was really helpful,” he says. “Such preparation, especially in conjunction with meditation, can help one access what athletes call ‘the zone,’ also called the ‘flow state’ by psychologists – a kind of total immersion, which I believe is a key ingredient to those performances where one is able to really transport oneself – and by extension, the listener. I think one of the reasons why we listen to music is indeed to be transported, perhaps to somehow transcend the mundane, and I feel it is especially in these moments that this can happen.”
Namoradze looks for answers that involve body, mind, and soul, following a regimen that includes weight training and yoga. The athletic aspect in a performer’s life can be followed on Igor Levit’s Instagram posts as well, where one can admire lean muscle and hip attire during his travels to world class performances; rigorous circuit and cross body training are an integral part of his regular routine.
With the competition cycle put behind him, hectic touring schedules are now just starting, as Namoradze embarks on a busy performance and recording tour to Europe. After completing a recording of his own works paired with some more Schumann on the Steinway label, he will follow his passion for discovery of the corner repertoire of little-renowned music with an upcoming recording of works by the English neo-romantic composer York Bowen for the Hyperion label, credited with specializing in such rare fare.
Namoradze’s upcoming schedule will feature debuts at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr, the Konzerthaus Berlin, Wigmore Hall, Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, and the Gardner Museum, including performances with orchestras such as the London Philharmonic, as well as an appearances at festivals such as the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the Rubinstein Festival in Kfar Blum, Israel, and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
Namoradze will also return to the New York Chelsea Music Festival, where he has been a featured artist for 5 consecutive years as both a pianist and composer. In April 2020, Namoradze will bring his analytical scope to the art of the etude, with selections by York Bowen, Scriabin, and his own works of that genre, performing at the 92Y’s Sound Scape series.
Namoradze seems ready to forge ahead: “I will find the time to prepare the huge repertoire,” he says, happily admitting to the fact that he “was very lucky. “Taking chances worked out for me,” he says, “I am exactly where I want to be.”