Frank Conlon Masterclass - A Stimulating Session

Edited from Review by Carol Barth

On Sunday, September 29, 2002, Frank Conlon led a masterclass in which seven AMSF pianists participated. Congratulations to our participants for your very competent performances. Participants and their selections were:

  • Jan Zischke - Bach Sinfonia No. 793 e minor BWV 7
  • Jodi Lipson - Mendelssohn Songs Without Words Op. 19, No. 1
  • Richard Sawyer - Chopin Nocturne e minor Op. 72, No. 1
  • Mal Cameron - Brahms Intermezzo Op. 116, No. 6
  • Ellen Tenenbaum - Beethoven Sonata Eb major Op. 26, 1st movement
  • Allan Reiter - Gottschalk Minuit a Seville Op. 30
  • Bob Zener - Brahms Capriccio Op. 76, No.1

It was immediately apparent that music is very important to Frank and that he was delighted to be talking with a group of engaged amateur musicians. He was warm and encouraging and indicated he was honored to be working with the AMSF performers. He offered specific suggestions to each pianist, covering such topics as touch, pedaling, dynamics, and interpretation.

Frank suggested that performers acknowledge their nervousness rather than attempting to hide it. "Don't hide your nervousness," he said, "work with it." He advised several performers to bring out the melody in their selections. And he cautioned performers that when polishing a piece of music, don't necessarily think it should be played faster. Frank stated that there is almost nothing you can slow down too much. He created various analogies to make the music more meaningful to the performers. He remarked that "A piece of music needs a performer to bring it to life!"

Frank shared some insight into the lives of the composers and elements of their compositional styles. He explained to Jan that Bach experimented with composing the Sinfonias in different keys, just as he did with the Inventions. He told Jodi that Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words were a bit more Romantic than many of the composer's other works that are more classical in style. When working with Richard, he explained that Chopin was a real gentleman--elegant and passionate--and that these characteristics should be reflected in performances of the composer's music. Frank mentioned to Mal that Brahms composed long thoughts, and that her playing could benefit from forming longer sentences. When talking with Ellen, Frank explained that the grandness of Beethoven's personality should be expressed in his sonatas.

Frank remarked that Allan really knew the Gottschalk piece he played. He then coached Allan to make the melody more prominent and to not be so careful in his playing that he couldn't be expressive. With the kind of facetious statement that is designed to make a point, Frank laughingly remarked, "Just play a beautiful tune with some stuff in between each note." In response to Bob's playing of the Brahms Capriccio, Frank suggested that he use the piano to connote ocean waves, saying that he wanted to "hear more melody, less ocean."

When Ellen Tenenbaum was asked what she thought about the masterclass, she said, "Frank wanted to convey a perception that while my interpretation of Beethoven's Op. 26, first movement was true and elegant, it was also somewhat circumspect. He conveyed the idea very skillfully, by telling of the difficulties and struggles Beethoven bore as a person, from a very young age, and yet how responsible he was and how beautifully he wrote music. Beethoven, Frank said, was a romantic born in a classical age. In this way, Frank encouraged a more deeply felt, full-bodied rendering of this piece. I know I'll bring these insights to any Beethoven that I approach. This illustrates the reach of Frank Conlon's insights. He communicated ideas to us that we can use in so much of what we're working on."

"Working with Frank Conlon is so enriching," stated Jodi Lipson, who performed Mendelssohn's Song Without Words, Op. 19, No. 1. "He's so respectful and affirming, he makes you enjoy touching the keyboard and brings out sounds you've never made before. And he is such a storehouse of history and pedagogy; he added depth to a piece that I thought I knew well. A friend came to hear me play who is not even a pianist, and even he was very moved by the whole interaction. I remember thinking, 'this is a high point of my life. This is worth a year's dues in AMSF.'"

Both audience members and performers thought this was truly a worthwhile afternoon.