Master Class with Brian Ganz

November 22, 2015
by Sarah Aderholdt

Brian Ganz's passion for music and teaching have made his master classes popular special events with AMSF members. It was certainly no less the case on November 22nd when the energy and enthusiasm he imparted during the afternoon spilled over into the reception following.

Anand Ramanathan started the afternoon with a performance of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31 No.2, popularly known as The Tempest. Brian mentioned that he was finally on his way to understanding the dynamics of the piece. He had never read Shakespeare's The Tempest until just before he was about to see the play on his first date with AMSF member Diane Cormicle, who is now his wife. We learned the piece was called "The Tempest" when someone asked Beethoven what he had in mind when he wrote the piece and Beethoven replied, "go read Shakespeare's The Tempest." Brian acknowledged that it is not easy to see the connection, because "storm" does not play much of a role. However, if one thinks of the piece as more about sorcery, one can explore this sense of magic by exploring a suspended sense of time. Consequently, there needs to be drama in the dynamics. Brian explained that the assumption used to be that dynamics flowed with the contour of music. But when Beethoven came along, dynamics became a new player. The piece is full of crescendos that lead to subito pianos. Beethoven keeps us on our toes.

Brian showed Anand his "cluster exercise." In this exercise, the pianist uses his weight to gradually produce a crescendo. Brian demonstrated putting his right hand in the palm of his left and pressing for a springboard effect. To use this exercise effectively, one should play in the rhythm of the piece. This technique will help to get more drama out of the piece and the crescendo should be timed so that it becomes powerful at the end. Nobody does obsession like Beethoven, Brian stated. Theater is an important part of music making. Use your body to help play the notes.

Louis Reichwein followed Anand with Chopin's Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49. Brian was impressed with Louis's dramatic sense and very good concentration for such a "gigantic piece", as Brian described it. As Brian explained, Chopin did not let on frequently about his inspirational material. Consequently, performers can "imagineer" their own story line for Chopin. Brian cautioned that the rhythmic figure of the dotted rhythm often gets smoothed into a triplet, and Louis acknowledged that he was aware of this tendency from listening to a recording of himself. Brian explained that tempo plays a part in this issue. Dynamically, the piece could be even more funereally subdued. Keeping the tempo of the opening slower will help to maintain the dotted rhythm. As he has coached in previous master classes, Brian stated that pianists can gain a sense of security by hugging the keybed and playing a piece slowly for at least a week. Doing so allows the fingers to feel a degree of security that persists when gradually the tempo is increased.

Brian asked "What's the rest of the story with this piece?" He proposed that because Chopin was a religious man, yet did not let on about it, the piece might have been his grappling with death. Brian suggested that maybe Chopin knew he would not live a long life. After the funereal opening, perhaps he dwells on memories of his life. Chopin marked one section "tempi di marchi." Chopin did not write many marches, but the spirit of marching infuses the piece. "Striding through the knave of a great cathedral" was the way one of Brian's teachers described it. Finally, Brian recommended that Louis become more aware of wrist movement when a passage is not as clear as he wants.

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Brian Ganz with Simon Finlow.

Next, Simon Finlow played Debussy's L'isle Joyeuse. Brian was enthusiastic about Simon's performance and said that he "made the piece look easy." Brian added, if you were my student playing it so well, I would say, "fabulous work, let's move onto the next piece." He suggested that Simon get in the habit of putting down the music rack so that the piece could be better heard and so the audience could see him better. He asked Simon if he had analyzed the modes Debussy used in the piece. Brian discussed the whole tone scale that Debussy used, saying that the scale has an exotic quality. In a diatonic scale, there are whole steps and half steps that give the scale a sense of geography. In a whole tone scale, there is no sense of geography -- no home base. Brian suggested that Simon try to work in some new ideas to make the piece more colorful and to create more of a sense of mystery. "Rules do not make a work of art. Works of art make their own rules," Brian quoted Debussy.

Brian told participants that Debussy also said, "I intended to set music free from the stuffy halls of academe and take it outside to open air." Pleasure is the only rule." Brian and Simon then discussed the other modes employed in the piece and the use of modes in church music during the Middle Ages. Debussy employs a mix of Lydian and Mixo-lydian in the piece. In doing so, he creates a chiaroscuro effect. The raised 4th is the "chiaro" and the 7th is the "scuro"--an effect that creates strong contrasts between light and dark. Simon closed with a question about when and where to use the soft pedal. Brian replied that he encourages students to use the soft pedal cautiously because it is easy to become dependent on it. But in the end, its use depends on the piano and the space.

Patrick Shea closed out the afternoon with Passepied from Debussy's "Suite bergamasque." When Patrick finished playing, Brian commented, "the more I hear Debussy, the more I feel he was an underrated composer." Upon hearing Debussy, a person can "breathe". "It's as if he takes you outside. Harmony is the soul of music." Brian told a story about a time when he was playing an atonal piece at Tanglewood and he was asked to change a single note. When he asked why, the composer said "I hear a whiff of F major."

This led to a further discussion of modes. Brian recommended that students get to know the modes like the backs of their hands because they come up in so many places, even in Chopin mazurkas. He pointed out how the Dorian mode changes the natural minor to where the 6th degree is raised a half step. The Dorian mode turns up most often in Debussy's music, which the composer used to impart a quality of mystery.

As in other master classes, Brian recommended that students study theory as a part of their musical training for the duration of their lives. He stated that learning theory makes us think of music differently. To illustrate, Brian told of once reading a theory book in which the author described a minor scale as a major scale with a lowered third. For Brian, this was a revelation that had never before occurred to him.

Brian brought the afternoon to a close by telling Patrick to check out You Tube videos of people dancing the Passepied to get a sense of the dance aspect of his piece. Brian also discussed the meaning of staccato--i.e., of being detached. He suggested that Patrick look for opportunities to contrast the staccato of one hand with legato of the other.