Yael Weiss possesses a rare commitment that compels her to recognize her responsibility as a performer in her daily existence. “Even if I am by myself, it is absolutely essential that I always try my best to be precise in uncovering the intention of the composer, to find the meaning behind the notes,” she says. “There is thinking about music happening at every moment during practicing and of course on stage, a never ending search for the truth in the music – the reason why a particular piece was conceived as is.”
In music, the exchange of the written score between the artist and the listener happens in real time, unlike in other arts. “It’s the realization through performance in that moment, that makes the performer such an integral part of the equation – the other part being the listener,” Weiss marvels. “A score, sitting in a library is not music yet; those black specs sitting on paper are not yet realized. They are just pointers to multiple layers that indicate the ideas about a specific sound, and beyond that, to a certain message that needs to be conveyed to the listener. So it is this realization of the actual notes into sound and the interpretation of the meaning behind those notes that I do every day when I am at the keyboard.”
As in real life, there should be a give and take in a musical experience. Weiss does not hesitate to put some of the responsibility for the success of a performance on the listener, an approach that should not be taken for granted, given the passive role audiences are generally accustomed to. Weiss, however, sees the interaction of performer and listener as a true dialogue: “I believe every performer will tell you that the performer’s music making grows and benefits from being on stage in front of people. The level of concentration, openness and attentiveness on the listener’s part affects the end result tremendously. It’s a shared experience, the realization of a joint purpose, the realization of the written score.”
When she teaches, Weiss finds that students often are concerned with their own nervousness on stage, and feel overly exposed to personal judgment and critique. She tries to remind them that their focus should be on positive energy and on communicating with the audience through the music, as opposed to worrying about what the audience thinks of them. The stage can be a very lonely place if the performer lets isolation overtake the thrilling sensation of connecting with his or her audience, which is nourished by the shared experience that is a musical performance.
In an attempt to create a more engaged and aware audience, Weiss has begun posting a series of podcasts on iTunes called Classical Minutes, providing many different informative musical agendas and addressing a wide range of music enthusiasts, professionals, and students. The topics are not instrument-specific, but rather their prime purpose is to inspire and motivate musicians on different levels, and give a personal outlook on performers’ lives: their struggles, daily practice concerns, thoughts from before, during, and after performances, and other everyday details from the performer’s world. Weiss says that, “because of the solitary nature of a big part of one’s life as a performer, the podcasts provide on a daily basis little bits and tips to move forward, when one is alone and getting stuck.” She says, “when I started to think about doing these podcasts, who they would appeal to and who I wanted to reach, I found myself thinking of a couple of my past students who were very receptive. Sometimes I imagine addressing them, in my mind, and sometimes I also think of conversations with my teachers Richard Goode or Leon Fleisher. At times I comment on specific questions that have come up from people sending emails about the podcasts.”
Some of Weiss’s daily-streamed podcasts entitled “CM61Giving and Receiving”, “CM16 Truth or Beauty”, CM57 Do You Have a “Rainy Day List”?” and “CM14 Are you feeling stuck? “, received a great deal of attention after they aired.
“Often, when you get ready for a big project and are totally consumed by it, it’s easy to lose perspective. People end up feeling overwhelmed. So what do you do if you are not improving, in terms of your physical comfort or interpretative insights? Here’s one of the simplest techniques, one that is much underrated: You take two days off from that particular piece and practice with a shift: Let’s say you’re studying a late Beethoven Sonata, you take another work of the composer of that same time period, which you have not previously worked on, another Sonata, a chamber work, a symphony. Without feeling any constraint from anything you may have been told about this music …but most of all without incorporating any rules you had set for yourself, you practice this work ‘without limitations.’ Returning to your main piece, you will have gained the original excitement of fresh discovery, something a performer must always bring to the stage.”
You can access the podcasts or subscribe to them through iTunes, or directly at this link: The Classical Minutes Daily Podcasts on iTunes. Classical Minutes also has its own new website: classicalminutes.com. Weiss is an animated educator who has presented master classes for several leading international institutions. She has served on the faculties of Indiana University and UCSB.
A serious and intense performer, Weiss, who recently also once played a run-through in my living room before embarking on a concert tour, is in high demand as performer and mentor. With her strong musical presence, she is able to draw attention away from her personal stage persona and guide the listener into the realm of the music. Weiss has appeared on many international concert stages and music festivals, including the Marlboro, Ravinia, Banff, and Caramoor festivals. The competition- and award-winning pianist, who has been lauded by the New York Times for her “fine technique and musicianship in the service of an arresting array of music,” also champions chamber music alongside violinist Mark Kaplan and cellist Clancy Newman, with her trio that records on the Bridge label.
Weiss’s recent projects include the release of Robert Schumann: Piano Works, which presents infrequently recorded material with great insight, sparkling technique, and sensitive rendition, on the Koch label. At the moment, Weiss plans to delve into more Schumann – a composer who is close to her heart. She is fascinated by Schumann’s more obscure side, which comes out in some of his more difficult pieces – works that artists have often been reluctant to learn and program, even such champions of Schumann’s music as Clara Schumann or Brahms. Of the Ghost Variations for example, Clara would only publish the theme, not the variations. Schumann composed this work in his later stages, after he had already begun to be consumed by mental illness, as Weiss explains. She is only aware of one old LP recording of Ghost Variations by Austrian pianist Joerg Demus, which makes her recording of the piece the first on CD.
Weiss is also concentrating on a project that juxtaposes the 32 Beethoven Sonatas with contemporary works inspired by Beethoven. She says that her mission with this performance is, “bringing Beethoven into our time, providing a context for Beethoven and showing why he is as relevant and essential today as he was when he was writing more than 200 years ago.” On this topic, Weiss says, “While there are many wonderful musicians who specialize in new music, I always like to combine current scores with historic ones. The new works I play are usually by composers I have had the privilege of working with directly. I feel the relationship between the performer and contemporary composer is such an interesting cooperation, a relationship that of course is not possible with the old master composers. To look at the score with the composer present is a fascinating experience, providing more flexibility with the notes on the stage.”
Weiss takes great pleasure in collaborating with composers while she prepares to perform their works. She has had such experiences with composers Lera Auerbach and Paul Schonefeld, among others. Weiss recalls an incident where something on Lera’s notation was not playable, and she improvised another chord instead with a similar effect. Lera agreed that this was a fine idea, and instructed her to go ahead with the suggested solution. “There is a lot of back and forth,” Weiss explains, remembering a situation when she was rehearsing a piano concerto written for her by Joel Feigin. “On the day of its world premiere, the composer was attending the orchestral rehearsal and there was something off with the voicing of the piano trills. I suggested re-organizing some of the chords, and as I demonstrated, he made notations on a plain sheet of music paper and said: ‘Ok, this is how we are going to play it in tonight’s performance.’ It is through moments like this that one learns to understand the impact of the performer on the music, and how flexible a composer can be when trying to make a piece sound its very best. It is important to keep this in mind while listening to historic composers who went through the same struggles in their lifetimes. The score is a living organism. It is not written in stone.”
Armed with a thorough understanding of this message and an acute sensibility, Weiss’s powerful piano performances turn her listeners into her accomplices. As Weiss says, nothing is written in stone. Perhaps it is the recognition of this flexibility and uncertainty that brings us closer to the truth of what Schumann meant to share, even in his most tormented creations.
The artist’s website is: www.yaelweiss.com please check for upcoming sceduled performances.