Celebrating Chopin

“Hats off gentlemen, a genius!”

Robert Schumann’s review of Frédéric Chopin’s Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” by Mozart was just one instance of a fellow composer applauding the talents of Frédéric Chopin. He collected countless other fans both during and beyond his short life.

Chopin was born in Warsaw Poland on March 1, 1810; he lived the second half of his life in Paris and died there after a long period of increasing illness in 1849. All of Chopin's compositions include the piano. Most are for solo piano, though he also wrote two piano concertos and a few chamber pieces. He also wrote 19 songs for voice and piano set to Polish lyrics.

Apart from Schumann, Franz Liszt (who for many years lived just a few blocks away from Chopin at the Hôtel de France) and Felix Mendelssohn were two other contemporaries who admired Chopin.

Today, the International Chopin Piano Competition stands as the world's oldest music competition devoted to a single composer. It is held every five years in Warsaw in order to keep the maestro’s music alive and relevant to new generations of pianists. The United States holds its own National Chopin Piano Competition earlier each year on the same schedule and sends its winners to compete in the flagship Polish competition.

In 2000, a young pianist named Ning An won the National competition and went on to receive the Alfred Cortot prize at the international competition. Later that year, he became the winner of the 2000 American Pianists Awards. Currently he serves as the Artist-Teacher on the piano faculty of California State University, Fullerton as well as a visiting artist at Lee University in Tennessee.

Peter Miyamoto had a similarly spectacular early career, being named the first Gilmore Young Artist in 1990 and then winning the 1997 American Pianists Awards. He released an album of Chopin Ballades and Fantasies in 2004 (Listen on Spotify), and currently serves as Associate Professor of Piano and Chamber Music at the University of Missouri.

Ning, Peter and American Pianists Association CEO & Artistic Director Joel Harrison are all serving on the jury of this year’s National Chopin Competition in Miami. The finals run February 22 to March 1, 2020 (Chopin’s birthday), and both Ning and Joel will be onsite. American Pianists Association Director of Marketing, Lee Clifford, spoke with Peter and Ning ahead of the competition:

2000 American Pianists Awards winner Ning An

LEE

All right let’s start with a simple question: why have a Chopin competition?

NING

I am not sure I am the person to answer that question! I think that of all the people in the classical repertoire, Chopin’s almost exclusivity to piano repertoire—it is a major contribution. There is nobody else you can compare him with. He was the first to create all these new genres: Mazurkas, Polonaises and Ballades. There were predecessors, of course, but he really made that all his own and took the character of pieces to a much higher level. In that measure, I don’t think there is another composer you could match in terms of contribution to solo piano music.

PETER

I mean, Chopin’s music is incredibly central to the pianist’s repertoire. For me he was such a genius in revolutionizing a kind of philosophy about approaching music musically, and also the technical innovations that he instilled in piano writing—especially through the études—is very central to this shift from classical to romantic music. His music is incredibly important.

LEE

Are there certain qualities a pianist must demonstrate to play Chopin well?

PETER

It's so elusive to speak of that but you know for instance the Mazurka: there are 3 types of Mazurkas and there is an art to authentic Mazurka playing. It's so elusive because it has to do with the intonation of the lines but certainly of course because of the rhythm. When I was studying with teachers many said well you know no one really knows how the Mazurka was danced, but I remember specifically performing at the Polish embassy in Washington D.C. It was very memorable because there were two sisters in the audience. They were, I would guess, in their eighties, and they came up afterwards and said, “I really enjoyed your playing! You know we used to go to the local dance hall and dance to Mazurkas when we were young.” And then they just started to dance!

Experiences like that were wonderful! When I went to Poland and was in Krakow, I'll never forget being on the big square. There was a big wooden stage, and the folk dancers were performing. I'll never forget watching them dance. There are these stomping steps within the dance, and because it's a wooden stage and they're probably ten feet off the ground, it resonates much like an instrument would resonate. The stomping steps, wherever you are on that square, you would feel it in the pit of your stomach. That's something I hear in his music and some of these things—hopefully one can have the imagination and can find it by just connecting with the music—but I do think that sometimes one needs to have experiences like being exposed to the folk dance. This is why with especially the Mazurkas, and maybe to a lesser extent the Polonaises, one really has to have experience with that music to be able to convey it in a convincing manner.

1997 American Pianists Awards winner Peter Miyamoto

NING

Yes of course. This goes the same for many composers: Chopin just like anybody else. People think how many times he has been in love. Or why was he not married? For instance, the second scherzo—nobody has a story on the second scherzo. I calculated the date he wrote the piece and also what he was doing around that time. It was one of the only times he truly fell in love. He proposed to her and was rejected quickly, and it broke his heart.

It is so easy to be inspired when you have just a little of the background of the composer and then you use your natural musicianship and artistic qualities. So there are certain qualities in Chopin that I am looking for: poetry, beautiful sound and ability to sing at the piano.

I am looking for understanding of the piece—of its actual character. But I am also open to different interpretations; I would allow for someone to do the opposite of what I would do as long as I can feel their story or logic.

LEE

Compare judging competitions that have strictly prescribed repertoire to our American Pianists Awards which allow nominees and finalists to choose their own repertoire.

PETER

I think what distinguishes the American Pianists Awards is the freedom to make more of a statement with your programming. If you are interested or have some sort of expertise in certain music, it can be to your advantage. Or you might have a broad range to demonstrate. This is an important aspect more so now than it was when I was growing up and doing competitions, because more and more is expected of today's performer, the 21st century performer.

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Given the composer’s influence on American Pianists Awards winners throughout the decades, we will honor Chopin’s upcoming birthday with an exclusive video series featuring 2013 American Pianists Awards winner Sean Chen’s concert program, “Hommage to Chopin.”

In July 2019, Sean Chen performed his “Hommage to Chopin” at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival. The program highlights how fellow composers were inspired by Chopin’s work.

  • Chopin-Godowsky: Study No. 45 (after Trois nouvelles étude No. 2)
  • Chopin: Étude Op. 25, No. 7
  • Scriabin: Nocturne for the left-hand alone, Op. 9, No. 2
  • Chopin-Godowsky: Study No. 22 (after Étude, Op. 10, No. 12 "Revolutionary")
  • Mompou: Variations on a Theme of Chopin
  • Liszt: 6 Chants Polonais (after Chopin Songs, Op. 74)
  • Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22

We will start here with the first piece that Sean calls “an appetizer” for the program: Leopold Godowsky’s Study No. 45 (after Chopin’s Trois nouvelles etudes No. 2).

Ready to hear the rest? Here is the entire concert with program notes!

Let us know if you enjoy!

 

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