Brian Ganz Dazzles

Review by Pat Malmgren

Brian Ganz, gifted pianist and equally gifted teacher, dazzled and delighted us as he skillfully displayed his magician's techniques of practice and performance. Ganz is so cheerful a teacher, so joyous in his appreciation of musical intent, it would be hard to imagine an easier way to learn some really hard stuff.

The first really hard stuff came with the opening performance by Jan Zischke of Chopin Prelude No. 4 in E Minor. This is a deceptively simple little piece that is almost impossible to play well. (This is a personal opinion based upon my inability to play it well.) Jan played it well and was suitably rewarded with Ganz's enthusiastic comments. "Beautiful playing! Really lovely playing! Beautiful sound!" Did we realize that Chopin did great counterpoint? Well, Brian did.

Had we noticed the nature of the right hand melody in this piece? Was it almost, well, banal? This is because Chopin is creating great counterpoint by raising the level of interest in the left hand, where interesting chord changes are taking place. Get inside the mind of the composer, he encouraged us, understand something about the creative process that gave birth to this music. What is Chopin doing here? Left-hand chord changes occur when the right hand is banal; when left hand stays the same, interest reverts to the right hand.

At this point Ganz inserted what he called "a little plug for music theory." This little plug became a major theme of the whole afternoon. Without theory, he said, we are like ones who read poetry in a language not understood. Study theory, study modes, it will clarify and add dimension to your playing. When asked to recommend books, he advised Schecter on harmony and Tosca and Payne's Tonal Harmony.

Ganz's view of performing is that all of us should do it as often as possible. He is strongly in favor of AMSF and the opportunities it offers to amateur performers. The one overriding principle in practice and performance, he says, is pleasure. He himself finds that performing allows him to enter an altered state of consciousness which he can't get to any other way. But since it is the nature of the beast for something to go wrong during performance, it is necessary to perform as often as possible to learn how to wrestle the bear of performing to the ground.

Early on, Ganz pointed out that music is a highly freelance art and asked that whatever he said was not to be taken as the one, right way. We were to take his ideas and massage them for a while; find what works for us. What feels good, what pleasure we find in playing, is what drives us to play the piano. There is no one right way to play piano and masterclasses are a way for us, both teacher and student, to explore other musical minds.

Anne Williams' highly complimented performance of Grieg's Notturno enabled Ganz to talk about beautiful legato sounds and point out that they could just seem to slither along. Did we know how to make a legato slither as it went? Dig into each key a bit, massage the key, then add pedal. Legato highlights the nature of a nocturne, and, by the way, had we noticed the word "Andante"? Did we know that in Italian it means "moving along," while in Spanish it means "walking?" The Grieg, then, is relatively slow but "moving along" with a slithering legato.

After praising Alan Rieter's fine performance of the Chopin Nocturne in C Minor, Ganz again took us back to the importance of theory by noting the way Chopin used the key of the sub-dominant. This piece, as so many of Chopin's, uses the sub-dominant to slow the momentum as it heads towards the close. With Sue Golan's enthusiastically received performance of the first movement of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata, Ganz took us another route to the value of theory. Had we noticed that Beethoven is always doing the unexpected; how the music seems to head in one direction and then go another? He pointed out a chain of dominant seventh chords that we expect to go to tonic chords but, in fact, don't. Instead they go to the submedient to form a series of deceptive cadences. He pointed out how often Beethoven accents on the second and fourth beats of the measure instead of the expected first and third.

With Victor Dyni's performance of Chopin Etude Op. 10, No. 9 in F minor ("What a fine natural musician you are!"), Ganz talked of the value of using different accents and rhythms in practicing. He did this with a warning, however. It can be quite strenuous. He suggested gentle warming up be done before practice and advised us to consult with an appropriate professional to best understand how this is done.

Joyce Morton's performance of Ravel's Oiseaux Tristes from Miroirs elicited Ganz's comment that he'd never particularly liked this piece until he heard Joyce play it. He used her performance to remind the audience that in counting, divide, divide, divide to conquer. He discussed the need to play and understand hands separately to gain an understanding of the total piece.

The afternoon concluded with Linda Fornes playing Debussy's Hommage a Rameau from Images, Set I. This is Ganz' favorite Debussy piece and fortunately Linda did a really good job. Again, going back to theory, he talked about the beauty of the progression of the minor tonic moving to the major sub-dominant and then back again. He also talked of the need of the body to move to give the music the lift and dance-like character of the piece.

It was a long afternoon, almost four hours, including an intermission of tasty and delicious refreshments provided by Joyce Morton. We were all grateful to Joyce for her hospitality and willingness to provide her lovely home and piano for this occasion.

The good news is that Brian is willing to come back next year for another masterclass for AMSF.