Bonnie Kellert's "Chopin with Panache"

by Dorothea Shellow and Louise Crane

On Saturday evening, November 20th, accomplished pianist and teacher, Bonnie Kellert, treated a full house to a very special AMSF event, "Chopin with Panache." The lecture/recital took place at The Piano Co. at White Flint. Miss Kellert is a graduate of the Peabody Institute where, on a full four year scholarship, she studied with Leon Fleisher. AMSF Founder Matthew Harre's Introduction provides additional information on Ms. Kellert's professional background.

Purdon, Shellow, and Kellert

Antoinette Purdon, Dorothea Shellow, and Bonnie Kellert


Ms. Kellert delved into the many meanings of panache for performing Chopin's music, liberally illustrating her points by performing a wide range of compositions--from polonaises and waltzes to etudes, ballades, fanstasies, and nocturnes. Scores projected on a screen by her husband, Allen Goldberg, helped the audience follow her points as she talked and played. The lecture was a quasi master class confirming Ms. Kellert's reputation as a gifted teacher. Attendees left with a comprehensive handout of discussion points and musical examples to review later.

Ms. Kellert performed on a Fazioli piano. This hand-made Italian instrument is made of wood that comes from the same forest Stradivari used for his violins. The piano and performance site were provided by Antoinette and Robert Purdon, owners of The Piano Company. Antoinette Purdon was on hand to welcome AMSF members and their guests to their showroom after the store had closed for the day.

Ms. Kellert provided extensive information about the musical influences on Chopin. For instance, achieving a bel canto singing sound was very important to Chopin, who instructed his students to seek opportunities to hear opera singers. He saw speech and singing as similar in creating a beautiful tone and shaping a line. Just as singers pay greater attention to longer and higher notes, to breathing and expression, so should players of Chopin. Although Chopin did not always enter dynamic markings in his scores, "having an ear for bel canto" provides a reliable guide to performing Chopin.

Improvisation played an important part, as well. Chopin was always changing his mind, scribbling different notes into the score. One day he might tell a student to "play it this way" but a few days later, "No, this way." Thus, it is difficult to identify a definitive edition of Chopin compositions. Without a definitive score and plentiful dynamic markings, a performer must rely on clues and devices imbedded in the music itself as well as an understanding of influences on Chopin to guide interpretation.

Dance influences expressed in Chopin's Mazurkas and Polonaises came from Polish folk dances he knew from childhood. In the Mazurkas, Chopin placed emphasis on the 2nd or 3rd beat. The polonaises reveal a rhythmic flair for the heroic. Ms. Kellert convincingly demonstrated how absurdly tiring it is to count a waltz on every beat: 1 2 3, 1 2 3, 1 2 3, compared with counting 1, 1, 1, as a means of retaining the dance quality and creating a longer line.

She cited the a minor waltz (posthumous)--a very early composition--as an example of a modestly demanding piece that is full of dance. She demonstrated how to play with ebb and flow, give and take, imbuing the music with personality rather than strictly adhering to the score. She stated there is no way you can play it straight.

Rubato also affects improvisational style. While Ms. Kellert focused on the individual elements, she emphasized that ideas overlap. Using Ballade #4 in f minor, she demonstrated tempo rubato, or stolen time. Phrases and themes are shaped by holding back in one place and then speeding up to make up the lost time, or vice versa. She used the term "agogic" and told performers to be elastic with the tempo--stretching, pulling and pushing--without losing track of the beat. Wider and smaller intervals can be indicators for rubato and expression. "You don't want to play all the repeated notes the same way," she said. "You want to lead somewhere." "Every time an idea comes in you are not going to play it the same way."

Chopin brought attention to the melody by enlarging the melodic notes and using stems. There are new interpretations of doing crescendos and diminuendos in a very small area of rising and falling notes. "Hair pins" and accents appear as markings, but pianists must be careful to avoid doing crescendos and diminuendos too often and creating a roller coaster ride.

Chromaticism that Chopin used during the Romantic period of the 1800's led to Wagner and Debussy. Abandoning adherence to the traditional harmonics of the Diatonic seven note scale and the tonic lent itself to more expressiveness. Half steps increase tension and melodic interest. Chopin was a master at incorporating chromaticism into his music without announcing: Hey, this piece is all about chromaticism.

In the Etudes, Chopin revolutionized everything. The Etudes turned exercises into concert pieces, making them musical instead of mechanical. Ms. Kellert played excerpts from the "Octave" Etude (Opus 25 No. 10), noting that in the lento section, Chopin made constant changes in the direction of the melody. Because of this, she said you can't rush through them because the listener needs time to take in the changes.

She cited Ballade No. 4 (Opus 52, f minor) as an example of surprises in modulation, the emotional roller coaster Chopin provides. An adventure of sequences occurs from g minor through many key changes to a far-away A Major.

Color permeates Chopin's music. Changes in color can be achieved through pedaling and the way you hold your fingers--for example, extending them to create a smooth ethereal sound--and through the weight of the arm. Ms. Kellert spoke of her teacher, Emerson Myers, who told her you have to first be a musician and then a pianist. "You could practice 10 hours a day," she said, "to achieve the technical part but you want to give a performance that is musical; go to the musical part rather than the technical part."

Ms. Kellert used the first Nocturne (Opus 9, No. 1, b flat minor) to illustrate the artful use of the pedal. She held the pedal down through many measures, never changing it until the harmonics changed. Listeners concurred with her that the sound didn't get muddy. Rather, because all the sounds have accumulated, she said, "you can play very, very softly and on top of the keys--something your teacher told you never to do."

Chopin's pedal markings are sometimes puzzling because of the gap between the "x" and the "Ped." Employing what is referred to as the "Chopin Pedal," performers change and connect rather than adhere strictly to markings that indicate a gap that could result in choppy playing.

Ms. Kellert stated that legato is an illusion because technically the sound decays once the hammers strike the strings. When trying to achieve legato you don't have to play legato, rather "you match sounds," she offered.

Other elements affecting Chopin's compositions included imagery that created a mood, Chopin's own melancholy and emotional temperament, and passion. Many composers influenced Chopin: Bach's fugues, counterpoint and chorales, Field's delicate style, Hummel's dexterity, Rossini's operas, and Paganini's sonorities and technical brilliance. All find their place in Chopin's music. A meeting with Mendelssohn is said to have helped Chopin gain confidence.

Ms. Kellert provided us with quite a wonderful ride through the musical genius we know as Frederic Chopin. Participants gathered around her to continue a dialogue afterward and show their appreciation. Many thanks go to Bonnie Kellert for the journey and to Antoinette Purdon for providing the welcoming atmosphere and beautiful showroom and for being there with us.