Sir Andràs Schiff – Building Bridges for the Next Generation of Pianists

Maestro Schiff in his hotel suite, grand piano provided courtesy of Steinway, Photo by Ilona Oltuski

Andràs Schiff – world-class pianist, much-traveled cosmopolitan and critical spirit unafraid to speak his mind. Last year the Queen knighted the Hungary-born artist. In his latest incarnation, Schiff has become a supporter and patron for the next generation of young pianists. In between two Carnegie Hall performances, “Sir Andràs Schiff’ talks about his new passion.

By Ilona Oltuski  This article was published in the German PianoNews Juli/August 2015

A concert-free day between two big performances in New York’s Carnegie Hall. Andràs Schiff is relaxing in his hotel suite on New York’s Upper East Side. On his Steinway the scores of some of his favorite composers – Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. The late works of the Viennese classics are part of Schiff’s concert tour this year, which will take him from Europe to the United States and Canada. At the zenith of his popularity, the 61-years old pianist has not forgotten about the hard times of building his career.    This might be one of the reasons why he is now dedicating himself to supporting new talent. He also feels that existing offerings for young artists can be approved upon. „I’m not a great believer in piano competitions,” he says, but adds that he has taken part in some himself. “Back then competitions offered the only opportunity to get concerts and play in public, and winning a competition opened up all sorts of doors,” he explains. “Today, there are very few promoters who manage to translate a competition victory into reasonably important concert opportunities. You end up having many winners all moving from one competition to the next, without ever managing to achieve anything meaningful in terms of building their careers.”

Of course, Schiff realizes that it is not enough to just criticize competitions, but that one has to find other ways to tackle this dilemma.

Schiff smiles when he talks about never actually winning any famous competition, such as the 1975 Leeds International Piano Competition: “In a competition, the one not bothering anybody is the one who wins. Nobody can play everything equally well. Everybody has their very own strengths and weaknesses,” Schiff says. It is well known that the structure of competitions and the great expectations young artists find themselves confronted with often make them ‘play safe’ at the expense of the artistic.  Schiff maintains that the freely chosen concert provides a much-needed counterpoint, because it allows the pianist to really show what he or she is made of. “In a concert one should play what one loves,” he says. “It has to be more than an obligatory exercise.”

He also thinks that “… the emotional and the intellectual should be in balance, and that the instinctive in music should dominate at 60% over 40%. One has to study and analyze, but then again integration is necessary. The audience doesn’t want an analysis; they want to be swept off their feet. It’s about a kind of controlled letting go. Risk taking is part of it, and that requires courage.”  At the same time, Schiff believes that a pianist needs a clear concept, and that without it there’s the risk of anarchy. “And one can hear that,” he says. “Only through the experience of performing publicly can one learn to take risks in a controlled fashion, resulting in a mix of an interpretation’s fixed elements and the improvised nuances of the reproduction, which will always differ somewhat depending on spatial acoustic conditions.”

Photo by Ilona Oltuski

And he reminds us that “… above all, music is play. I hear the human being behind it; you can’t deny yourself. The human and the personal are vital in music.”

His critical attitude towards competitions and the fact that he did not win Leeds ’75 have in no way been stumbling blocks in Schiff’s career. On the contrary: The fact that jury member Charles Rosen, himself an accomplished pianist and author of the landmark volume, The Classical Style, was extremely dissatisfied that his favorite competitor did not make first place, probably was, in the long run, much more helpful than winning the competition. “Rosen really supported me, and through his recommendation I came to Columbia Artists, which in turn led to me finally leaving Budapest in 1979 and moving to New York,“ Schiff remembers. His big breakthrough, however, was not to be for some time. “It was very hard, “Schiff says. “Everything took a lot of time. [I played] one community concert after the next, sometimes even in a sports stadium; at times it was almost humiliating.”

Schiff’s participation at the Marlboro Festival marked the beginning of a new phase in his life. Not only did he admire the festival’s founder and pianist extraordinaire, Rudolf Serkin, but he also had the chance to deeply immerse himself in chamber music.  On a personal level, Schiff added new friendships and connections, and he met his future wife, then Salzburg-based violinist Yuuko Shiokawa. After following her to Austria, he founded the “Mondsee-Festival“ in 1989 and six years later, together with composer and oboist Heinz Hollinger, the “Ittinger Pfingstkonzerte”. Marlboro may well provide further answers as to why Schiff has dedicated himself to supporting new talent: to him, the festival proved that performing music together, as well as the exchange between teaching and learning artists offers a potential which cannot ever be fully realized in a competition-style environment. It is this experience Schiff wants to pass on.

In selecting candidates for his concert series he not only consults his musician friends, but also relies on suggestions of industry professionals like Berlin impresario, Sonia Simmenauer, or his New York friend and director of the 92Y concert series, Hanna Arie-Gaifman. Gaifman, who has accompanied Schiff’s New York career in the city, was with him when he started to think about the possibility of a program supporting new talent. She says: “After Andràs’ concert performance three years ago we already spoke about such a concept. Who would want to turn down a performance featuring young talent recommended by an artist like Andràs?” she asks.

Promoting his initiative under the heading of “Building Bridges – András Schiff Presents Young Pianists“ and “Andràs Schiff Selects“, Schiff is making sure that the European and North-American music scene is ready for his project. “In the next few years, the series will feature performances at the Piano Festival Ruhr in Germany, in Brussels, Antwerp and Zurich, as well as in San Fransisco und Vancouver, “says Schiff proudly.  “And perhaps next year already at Wigmore Hall in London, an excellent performance hall where I often play myself, “he adds. Schiff continues: “Apart from master classes I have very limited teaching experience, but a great opportunity has presented itself here. Of course, one doesn’t know what the effect for the individual artist will be, but I think we’re off to a good start.”

The Berlin and New York performances in Schiff’s new concert series have been very well received, already.

Photo by Ilona Oltuski

This year’s “chosen three” young pianists all live in the U.S. and are Curtis or Juilliard students; some of them, like International Rubinstein Piano Competition 2008 winner, Roman Rabinovich, have already been on the international competition circuit.  Pianist Kuok-Wai Lio, whose teacher, Gary Graffman, was also Lang Lang’s teacher, won over his audience at New York’s Town Hall last year. He had at short notice replaced Radu Lupo who had been slated to play in Frank Solomon’s “Peoples’ Symphony Concerts“– series.

Number three is Fleisher-student Adam Golka. He says: “[Schiff] really dedicates a lot of time to us and looks after us with a lot of love and perseverance. Sometimes it’s almost eerie when he sits by the piano and discusses ‘our’ repertoire with incredible precision.” And Rabinovitch raves: “András Schiff epitomizes the pinnacle of artistic integrity; he is a shining example for all musicians. His support was invaluable and means incredibly much to me.“

Performances in the series mainly take place in small, intimate locations, such as the “Institut Français“ in Berlin or “Subculture“ in New York, a laid-back and ‘cool’ alternative performance space in Manhattan’s Downtown, in collaboration with the 92Y.  ”An artist’s character shows through when performing; egoistic tendencies, for example, or exaggerated self-promotion can be easily detected in a pianistic rendition,” says Schiff. “A pianist has an important role in terms of bringing the work of a composer to life, but we, as interpreters, have to stay within the framework the composer has provided us with; everything else is criminal. This does not warrant any further discussion for me.”

Pianist Adam Golka with new found mentor Schiff

Schiff applies his rather non-ambiguous approach to other areas of cultural activity, as well, contemporary theater being one example. Recently he severely criticized some directors of German theater productions for what he regards as disrespect to original works. And so it follows that he sees it as his task to promote opportunities for young talent sharing his love for tradition.  He regrets that the West’s young generation seems rather disinterested when it comes to tradition: “Despite excellent training facilities at European and U.S. institutions these countries only provide a small fraction of students; these days, almost 90% of music students come from Asian countries,” says Schiff, and laments the corresponding lack of interest in concert visits and classical music in general.   The increasing number of young instrumentalists composing interesting new works gives him some hope, however.  ”I myself have no talent for composition, but I admire the young generation, many of which do not only perform magnificently, but also enrich the field of new music with their own compositions. There we see a true return to the composer/pianist of the 19th and 20th century – a very interesting phenomenon, indeed. “   One of this new brand of artists is 27-years old Juilliard graduate Michael Brown; the New York-based pianist and composer and recent recipient of the distinguished Avery Fisher Career Development Grant will be featured in Schiff’s next round of concerts. If there is something Schiff would like his students to take to heart, it is the trust in art; he quotes Claudio Arrau, who once said to a young pianist: “Don’t be afraid to be boring. Having to be interesting or original in an uptight way – that is what’s boring. “    “The classical composers give us a lot of freedom,” he concludes. “One has to use that freedom, and that requires a lot of courage. Not everything is in the score. I am sometimes called old-fashioned when I use both hands with small time lapses in between. I do this very often, and it feels stylistically correct and very pleasant to me. Most pianists use both hands very accurately and in a totally synchronized fashion. But then there is the tradition of building in small freedoms – a tradition that is known all the way to Bartòk who himself played his chords arpeggiated, although they were written as a simple chord. You cannot possibly say that he didn’t know how to play his own music.“     It does not surprise that an artist and personality like Schiff, who deeply cares about culture in general and the pianistic tradition, in particular, feels a responsibility for the future of classical music, and so his personal commitment in supporting new talent is but a logical step.

The full extent of his work might not be known for some years, but one thing is already certain: his legacy will live on in these chosen pianists from all around the world.

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When asked what this means concretely and ideally, Golka says: “Schiff has been an inspiration my whole life and it certainly is some sort of validation to be invited by such a [high-caliber] artist. It stimulates me to aim to attain such a high level of artistry for myself, and it of course helps stir the course of a career, which is always unsure. Often you try to push for things to happen, get connections….and then nothing happens. I have to remind myself to not try too hard, since sometimes the best things really happen when you just concentrate on the essential – being better at the piano. Now, it’s a little surreal to have his name attached to some of my performances, and while it’s a great honor, it also puts a great responsibility upon me not to disappoint.”

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