DISCOVERING world-class pianists | meet Henry Kramer | #TeamHenry
You can’t see it in the room, but Henry Kramer can feel the clock ticking.
Gracious as we sorted through some videoconferencing challenges. Fully engaged as we discussed his music, inspirations and diversions. Yet professionally expeditious when wrapping up—Henry has so much he wants to do!
We spoke last month shortly after he was named a finalist for the 2017 American Pianists Awards. Fresh from a week at Music@Menlo that followed a month in Europe (where he finished second in the Queen Elisabeth Competition—fellow Awards finalist Alex Beyer placed third), Henry was back at Smith College where he serves as the Iva Dee Hiatt Visiting Artist in Piano.
Henry was born near Boston and moved to Cape Elizabeth, Maine when he was 12. His appointment at Smith last summer brought his travels nearly full circle:
In contrast with some of the other finalists we’ve spoken with, he had a fairly late start to piano. Here Henry explains his introduction to wonders of classical music and piano:
So thanks to a great teacher, the MTNA Conference and “Une barque sur l'océan” from Ravel’s “Miroirs” Henry had the inspiration to seriously pursue music at age 13. And this fact highlights Henry’s wish for an earlier start and points toward his goals for the future.
It is not everyday one hears of a classical pianist crediting Whitney Houston as an influence, but her ability to connect with her audiences is a goal of Henry’s. As he was developing his artistry he was “fascinated by the complexity of a score and being able to translate that into an actual musical sound that can communicate to people. That process of conversion really fascinated me I really wanted to understand the score and dissect it completely.” Like his favorite R&B singers, he was seeking to make music real for the audience and “communicate those essential elements.”
And while he still listens to other music (“Whatever is on the radio—I might listen to the pop song of the moment”) classical music holds his primary focus, and he is anxious to broaden its appeal:
Henry says his parents are a great example of how exposure to beautiful music can create new fans:
My Dad never understood classical music. Then I started playing piano and now his favorite composer is Brahms and he loves listening to classical music now, but they never did before. And my Mom, she used to not be able to tell the difference between a Rachmaninoff piece and a Bach piece I would try to quiz her and now she is a legitimate critic! I’m astounded by what she is saying!
Broadening the appeal of classical music is an important aspect of Henry’s career aspirations. He sees it as an opportunity to leave a legacy with music—how can one make it relevant to society? Further he believes everyone can be an ambassador for music: “I believe in connecting with all audiences. When I meet strangers I try to engage them in what I do and make it less foreign.”
In 2014 Henry served as a musical ambassador on a trip to Cuba with the Steans Institute from Ravinia. Part of the rip was meeting with young Cuban artists and musicians. He was thrilled to bring share his music in a new location. “Now,” he says, “it doesn’t seem as cool because you can go to Cuba. But then you couldn’t go to Cuba so it was cool!”
He continues, “The people are so friendly there, but they seem so starved for opportunity and so eager to be connected to the world. They love music there. They LOVE music! The concerts were super well attended. The people go crazy for music—that was really cool!”
Back in the States, Henry continues to work with young musicians and will complete a three-day residency later this month at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis. We discussed Henry’s goals for his work with students:
Henry hopes to inspire his students with Mozart, who has had a big influence on Henry. He also takes inspiration from a broader range of arts:
I think you can draw from all the other art forms. I’m really inspired by literature; when I’m reading, my music making is much more storytelling and less about the instrument. Just playing well. It takes me out of that pianist headspace.
I love going to museums. When I was at Yale the Art Gallery was a great place to go recharge because they have this great collection of contemporary art.
Also acting: I mean there is really not much theater to go to here [in Northampton, MA], but if I see a great performance on TV or something and then think about how that would translate. Like if I’m doing chamber music, it’s like a couple of actors doing a scene together. So I try to always look outside of just the bubble of the instrument to make it something more communicative.
Asked for some examples of great storytellers, Henry has a number of examples:
I took a Russian literature class when I was at Yale, and I was so amazed by the oeuvre because I didn’t study it in high school. After reading it I felt I had a much better sense of how to play Russian music. “Anna Karenina” and “Eugene Onegin” were definitely my favorites
I’m reading now this book by Michael Chabon called “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” He is a great storyteller; I love his writing. I just read “The Remains of the Day” which I thought was really beautiful. I also like Murakami a lot.
He also calls himself a very eclectic person who is always willing to try new things. “If I don’t like something, rather than not go to it I will actually go to it more until I understand it or why I don’t like it because I feel like then I have a better chance of enjoying my life if I can enjoy everything,” he shares. Sound time consuming!
So how is Henry getting his arts fulfillment in Northhampton? He explains:
Henry was performing chamber music at Music@Menlo when he learned that he had been named a finalist for the 2017 American Pianists awards. “it was an exciting time because I was performing every day and having a really busy schedule. I was doubly excited when I got notification that I was going to be a finalist!” However, he didn’t have time to celebrate: “I had to turn out like five chamber pieces in a really short period of time! I told my parents and I worked some things out at Smith and they were really happy to hear. I was celebrating in my own head.”
After spending so much time on the international competition circuit, Henry is looking forward to the unique format of the American Pianists Awards:
And he also appreciates the camaraderie that can develop among finalists over the 13-month-long competition:
Henry will have the opportunity to meet Drew and Sam (and catch up with Steven and Alex) at the media introduction of the finalists at Steinway Hall in New York on September 14th. He will then spend more time with the group later in the month when the five gather in Indianapolis. Make time to see Henry perform his Premiere Series concert on Sunday September 25th. Tickets are available now—hurry like Henry knows, the clock is ticking!
The American Pianists Awards finalists were selected by jury from nominations of the top American classical pianists aged 18-30. Each pianist performs a Premiere Series concert in Indianapolis between September 2016 and March 2017. All five finalists return to Indianapolis for a week of juried performances next spring, culminating in the naming of a winner on April 8, 2017.
Henry Kramer’s Premiere Series concert will be Sunday, September 25, 2016 at the Indiana History Center. As part of the American Pianists Awards program, Henry will also complete a residency at Heritage Christian School 9/26/16 to 9/29/16. Show your support for him on social media by mentioning #AmericanPianistsAwards #TeamHenry!