La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Introducing Canadian pianist Leonard Gilbert

Introducing Canadian Pianist Leonard Gilbert

Twenty year old pianist talks about pursuing the dream of a career in music

By Joseph K. So
The International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition is certainly one of the most prestigious in the world, given the number - and the calibre - of distinguished laureates it has produced in its august history. The road to Warsaw is a long and arduous one. In the case of Canadian pianist Leonard Gilbert, his unqualified success of First Prize, as well as the Mazurka and Polonaise prizes, at the Canadian Chopin Competition held last March in Toronto meant he received a grant to allow him to travel to Warsaw for the preliminary round 12- 24 April. Of some 180 aspirants who participated in Warsaw, Gilbert was among the 81 successful candidates invited to move on to the actual event this coming October. Gilbert has the distinction of being the only Canadian in this elite group. For those in the audience of the Canadian Competition and in the winners' concert at Koerner Hall afterwards, his playing with its trademark technical prowess, sensitivity of touch and singing tone made him a deserved winner hands down. Currently he is in Indiana University working with his teacher, world-renowned pianist and pedagogue Menahem Pressler, in preparation of the "big dance" in October. In July, Gilbert was in Toronto to give a private recital. In a long and wide-ranging interview, Gilbert spoke of his love of the piano and his aspirations for a career in music. For someone who only had his 20th birthday on August 30, his intellect, maturity, poise, and especially the way he handled questions in an interview situation was impressive indeed. Below is an abridged transcript of our long conversation:

LSM: How does it feel to be the only pianist representing Canada at the Warsaw competition? What do you hope to get out of this experience?
LG: I feel very honoured to be chosen. Of course, as with any competition I hope to win. But it’s the first time for me to go to such a big competition, I want to be able to show to myself and to others that I have what it takes to be a pianist. I want to show that I have something to say to the audience.

LSM: Do you remember the first time you sat in front of a piano?
LG: Yes, I was five or six…one day my mom was playing the piano. I sat down and I was able to figure out the same melody…

LSM: Do you come from a musical family? What attracted you to the piano? When did you take your first lesson?
LG: Yes, I do come from a musical family. My mom sings… she’s a classical singer. What attracted me to the piano? There’s such a big range to the instrument… people say it encompasses a whole orchestra. There’s such a huge repertoire. I also sort of like the physical part of it too. I wasn’t attracted to singing; I did the violin for awhile and I liked it, but I don’t think it was the same for me as the piano. I was probably six when I took my first lesson.

LSM: Who was your teacher?
LG: It was Derek Bampton. I stayed with him for four or five years. Then I studied with Patricia Parr for three years. I am now with Mr. Pressler at Indiana, officially for the last two years.

LSM: Which high school did you go to?
LG: I went to Earl Haig, in the Claude Watson arts program.

LSM: For a lot of people, the bane of learning the piano is practice! So have you always loved to practice?
LG: No! (laughs) When I was younger I didn’t want to practice, but the more I played, the more I enjoyed it.

LSM: How many hours did you practice in those days?
LG: Maybe an hour… then it became two or three hours. When I became serious, it jumped to five or six hours. Now it’s as much as it takes.

LSM: Do you have a pianist idol? After the recital the other day you mentioned to me that Horowitz was your idol…
LG: Yes it's Horowitz. I got more serious with the piano when I went to Derek – that's when I started listening more to pianists, and realized there’s this whole golden age of the piano. Other than Horowitz, I also like Wilhelm Kempff, Dinu Lipatti, and Emil Gilels.

LSM: Was there ever the temptation to emulate your piano idols?
LG: There’s always the temptation to want to play like them - Horowitz’s in a class by himself. Even my teacher Mr. Pressler said when he was young he wanted to play like Horowitz. But I think we have to develop ourselves - each person is unique.
LSM: When did you make the decision to have a life in music?
LG: I made the decision a little late – when I was applying to university in Grade 12 in 2008. I applied to Indiana, Juilliard and Curtis. At the time I also liked math and science, so I also applied to Toronto, Waterloo, McMaster for biomedical sciences. At that time I was trying to decide whether to go into life sciences or music. It was a difficult decision but I realized that I would really regret it if I didn’t’ try to go into music because I knew deep down that’s what I really wanted.
LSM: A pianist’s life is in front of an audience performing. How do you feel when you are in front of an audience?
LG: When I was younger, I was always afraid because of the pressure. I still do feel a little of the pressure, but I’ve changed my attitude over time. When I was younger I focused a lot on technique. As I performed more I realized it’s not about playing the fastest and the loudest and all that….I wanted to enjoy performance rather than worrying about the pressure of playing the right notes. In the end it doesn’t matter too much if you mess up a little, if you have something to say to the audience…that’s what they’ll remember at the end. I found out the more I performed the more I calmed down. I play better and now I'm more relaxed...I really enjoy it now!
LSM: When you’re playing, what goes through your mind?
LG: What should go through my mind is thinking about the music and not anything else. When I am practising I focus on the music. When I am playing I need to know what I’m going to be doing with each phrase, each note – I’m not someone who is so spontaneous and just do something on the spot. I try to concentrate, singing along in my head, but not try to place everything as it wouldn’t flow very well.
LSM: Would you say that when you are on your own , in a practice session, you focus more on technique while in front of an audience you focus more on communication?
LG: No, the practice shouldn’t be so different from the performance – then things won’t come out right. When I am practising, I try to focus on communication too. Ideally I try to solve whatever technical problems first, and then try to make something out of the music.
LSM: What are your thoughts on playing Chopin?
LG: For Chopin it’s easy to think of it as pretty, but just to play it beautifully isn’t easy… the more I play it the more I think there’s more than just surface beauty. Beneath the surface there’s lots of inner turmoil and tension, lots of frustration and pain. There’s also lots of nostalgia in his music. In a lot of his music, he goes back to the Polish folk traditions. His mazurkas for example, or the middle section of the first scherzo I played the other day. If you listen hard enough, you’ll hear there’s always a longing in the music.

LSM: How do you compare Chopin to other composers you play? Whose work do you play that you particularly like?
LG: I find it strange - I like Chopin but I don’t find myself listening to him very much on Youtube or on CDs, although I really enjoy playing and studying him. Another composer I like is Beethoven.. I love to listen to Beethoven all the time, but I find it much more difficult to play and to grasp his work. I don’t get as much enjoyment playing it as I do Chopin. I wouldn’t really think it is fair to compare Chopin to other composers… he’s obviously very Romantic, but not the heavy-Russian type of Romantics like Rachmaninoff or Scriabin. Chopin’s music is rather light, and you can listen to it a long time. You still get all the emotions, whereas something like Beethoven it’s totally different…it’s more strict, more dramatic, not very Romantic in the same sense.
LSM: Who do you like, other than Beethoven?
LG: I really like Scarlatti. I just think his music is nice and pure. When it’s played well it’s very uplifting. Right now because of the competition my focus is on Chopin. I think in a way it’s easier to play late Romantic and post Romantic 20th cc. pieces than Mozart and Beethoven. The earlier music is purer, you don’t have as many things going on…you have to deliver.
LSM: You have had good success in competitions in just a short period of time that you've been competing. Getting into round one of Warsaw is already quite an accomplishment… in a sense you’ve already won! What makes you a successful competitor?
LG: I've had some really bad experiences in competitions in the past - things didn’t go the way I expected. From those experiences I’ve learned to not put too much pressure on myself. I go into a competition and play the best I can, if something like a prize happens that’s great, if it doesn't that’s ok too as long as I played well, that I’m satisfied with myself. I ‘ve been able to perform more, like the Canadian Chopin Competition, and going to Indiana. The school is not a competitive school like Juilliard or Curtis. I play in masterclasses every week and I’m getting more and more experience. It settles me down and prepares me for Warsaw. Another interesting thing about the school is Mr. Pressler is not in the masterclasses – it’s a student-run masterclass, there is no “master” in the masterclass. We comment on each other. It’s a good way of learning; we are not afraid to say things to each other. Some students play while others don’t - I play every week. I record myself and listen – I think it’s one of the best ways to learn.
LSM: There must also be formal, “real” masterclasses too, right?
LG: No (laughs) there isn’t any…. it is strange. Mr. Pressler is away a lot so we end up having these student masterclasses. We don’t get that many guest artists to do masterclasses in Indiana, maybe one a year. You lose something and you gain something from it. At the same time I go to the Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy. I’ve been going there for the past three years – that’s where I first met Mr. Pressler.
LSM: What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses?
LG: One of my strengths is the sound I get out of the piano. People say I don’t have any problems getting triple forte, or ppppp. I am still working on the middle area! I try always to be inspired when I am performing, to have things to say to the audience. I feel it when the audience react to what I am trying to do. At the same time my weakness is that I’m not always consistent… it’s something I’m working on.
LSM: Do you find that sometimes you are rushing a little bit from one phrase to the next, you don’t have enough pauses? It’s like a galloping horse…you go faster and faster, and then you catch yourself and slow down….
LG: Yeah.. it is something I have to work on. That’s something my teacher says too - you start a phrase but there’s always an ending too.
LSM: What do you hope to say to the audience in a performance?
LG: Depending on the piece of course, I try to communicate, to give an emotion to the audience. I want the audience to feel the emotion too. I try to communicate part of myself. You can analyse a piece of music and say there’s such and such going on, but if you don’t feel it, it’s is not going to go to the audience. That’s why everybody interprets a piece slightly differently. We all have our own life experiences, bringing that to our playing helps us better connect to the audience.
LSM: One of my first questions that I put on paper but actually haven't asked you yet is - what does the piano mean to you?
LG: I think the piano is one of the best communication tools – for me it has always been a great way to express myself. Some people paint to express themselves, for me it’s playing the piano. It’s part of who I am.
LSM: Are you 20 yet?
LG: No yet - Aug. 30.
LSM: Well, for a 19 year old, the ways you’ve answered these questions... you've exceeded my expectations…I think you are very well taught! Tell me, is there a piece of music that has the greatest meaning to you?
LG: That’s something that have changed from time to time, but for now the piece that’s closest to me is the Ballade No. 4 of Chopin. I played the Second Ballade first and I liked it. But when I heard the Fourth Ballade it really struck me.. it's so different and so special. In some ways it had to do with my personal life – my parents were getting a divorce at the time. I could connect to the piece because there’s so much frustration and turmoil, and at the same time it’s a beautiful piece with many beautiful moments. It reflects what I was going through at the time, and at the same time I could appreciate the good things in it. I love this piece…I'll never get tired of it.
LSM: For someone who is not yet 20, you're articulate, smart, mature, and handle yourself well in interview situations. I wish you all the best in Warsaw...
LG: Thank you.

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