Pianist Brian Ganz “tickled the ivories” to perfection during a recent performance of Frédéric Chopin’s works for pianoforte, while also achieving a landmark in his professional career — reaching the halfway point in his quest to perform all of the composer’s 250 works for piano.
The concert, “Chopin: Recollections of Home,” held at The Music Center at Strathmore on Feb. 2, also showcased the internationally-acclaimed mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór as the duo celebrated the Polish maestro’s songs for voice and piano, original Polish poetry and a composition for unaccompanied singer.
The presentation, featuring 10 rarely heard Chopin songs, marked Ganz’s ninth recital in his goal to both master and perform the complete works of the composer written for the piano.
Ganz opines: “Chopin was, without question, the greatest Polish composer of all time [and while] he spent only the first half of his life in Poland, much of his music reveals his deep love for, and connection to, his homeland as reflected in this recital.”
“Chopin’s probably the best of the Romantic Era with a gift for beautiful melody writing and harmonic vocabulary. He’s often called the poet of the piano but I like to think of him more as a uniquely-talented storyteller who approaches every conceivable and even inconceivable, emotion in a profound exploration of what it means to be human,” Ganz added.
Since January 2011 during his sold-out recital that launched the inaugural partnership between Ganz and the National Philharmonic, “Extreme Chopin,” he has maintained an impressive, if not exhausting, concert schedule which, upon its completion, will secure him as one of a handful, if not the sole pianist, to perform Chopin’s entire oeuvre.
National Philharmonic Music Director Piotr Gajewski speaks highly of the goal Ganz has set for himself, also acknowledging the pianist’s skills and talent.
“Brian is the first musician to attempt to perform all of Chopin’s works,” acknowledging the recent concert that featured Polish dances for solo piano, polonaises, mazurkas and several folkloric songs — the majority of which have rarely been heard — and which further confirm the appropriateness of Chopin possessing “the spirit” of his homeland.
But for Ganz to achieve his goal, he’s had to follow a strict rehearsal regiment that includes one of his proven strategies: “mental practice.”
“I imagine playing away from the keyboard and do a lot of work with hands alone because it helps me notice different things about the music,” he said. “It’s a way of getting deeply inside the work — like uncovering its DNA. Truthfully, I’ve been doing this for so long that I can’t say for sure if I came up with this process myself or not.”
Along the way, Ganz notes that he’s learned things about Chopin that have been surprising — things he says have only increased his admiration for the gifted composer.
“Some of his works have been lost; others he was unable to complete before his death,” Ganz said. “I played that composition during the concert and actually stopped at the point where Chopin ended. This project, for me, represents a deep honoring of all of his gifts to humanity. Even some of his less mature works serve stepping stones toward his more mature pieces.”
“Just a few months ago, I discovered his composition for unaccompanied voice which we performed during the concert and which may well be its American premiere. When I say, ‘Extreme Chopin,’ I’m not kidding.”
What’s a typical day entail for the concert pianist? One that requires flexibility, he says.
“I do a fair amount of teaching including private lessons, classes at St. Mary’s College of Maryland where I’ve been the longest and at the Peabody Conservatory,” he said. “Teaching keeps me alert and it’s stimulating. But I have to balance teaching and practicing around each other. Finding time to practice as much I would like can be a challenge so I’ve learned to make every minute count.”
“Three or four hours a day is a good day but when a major concert is approaching, I put in more time — at least 15 hours in a week’s time and I keep track of my practice hours too. Some of Chopin’s pieces have taken me 10 hours or more to learn and perfect. But I can recall working on others that have taken me considerably longer to learn like Rachmaninov’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’ or Brahms’ ‘Piano Concerto No. 2,’ both of which took me around 175 hours of practice before I was ready to perform them.”
As a child, Ganz remembers wanting to be a professional football player, hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps — an accomplished athlete on the gridiron. Together, they frequently attended Baltimore Colts football games which Ganz says further added to his boyhood dreams.
Then, at the age of nine, he began taking piano lessons and the world became a very different place.
“After my first few lessons, I was hooked and fell madly in love with the piano,” he said. “I quickly became enamored with the works of Chopin. And while I may have been just a little boy, I knew even then what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
If you haven’t seen Ganz in concert performing the splendid works of Chopin, you’re missing a true treat. As for his recent pairing with Wór, the evening was a delightful experience that showcased their indisputable talent. The concert was, in a word, ‘glorious.’
For more information about Brian Ganz and his upcoming performances, go to www.brianganz.net.