Festival Monday at San Jose State University celebrates composer Franz Liszt

Originally posted by the San Jose Mercury News Oct. 15, 2011.

By Richard Scheinin

Pianist Gwendolyn Mok has performed with orchestras ranging from the London Philharmonic to Symphony Silicon Valley. A Ravel specialist, she owns and cherishes an 1868 Erard grand piano — the very brand of piano Ravel loved, because it produces rippling colors and harplike effects, and allows for unusually rapid note repetitions. It helped him “paint” with sound.

Ditto for Franz Liszt, the composer and rock-star pianist of the 19th century, born Oct. 22, 1811 — 200 years ago this week. His bicentennial is being celebrated worldwide, including at San Jose State University, where a daylong Liszt festival takes place Monday. Organized by Mok, the university’s coordinator of Keyboard Studies, it culminates with an evening gala concert that will find her and three Liszt specialists (William Wellborn, Michael Boyd and Chih-Long Hu) performing on that 1868 Erard. As a result, Mok suspects, listeners will get to hear Liszt’s music in strikingly new ways.

I recently spoke with Mok about Liszt and the festival.

Q So let’s hear about Liszt’s love affair with the Erard.

A He not only favored it, but toured with it exclusively; the Erard is indelibly connected to Liszt. He made it his personal mission to spread the music on this great piano, at a time when there were over 300 European piano manufacturers — any of whom would have killed to have the great Liszt use their pianos, because any keyboard that he would touch would become legendary.

Q Gwen, over the years you’ve told me about composers — Ravel, in particular — whose compositions were shaped by the instruments they played. How does Liszt fall into that category?

A Anything Liszt wrote required a lot of rapid repeated notes — he might not have composed those works had he not played on this piano. I think the Erard, with its double escapement action — the mechanical device that allows for rapid repetition of a single note — really inspired him to compose the “Transcendental Etudes.” You could say the same about the “Hungarian Rhapodies,” the “Mephisto Waltz” and the B minor sonata — any of these masterpieces that require rapid repeated notes.

Q Will hearing Liszt played on the Erard really “change” his music for listeners?

A I think so. There were certain colors that he was going for — a lot of color and nuance in his music that gets lost on the modern piano for a variety of reasons. People tend to play his music really fast and really loud; there are many subtleties that people miss and that we rarely hear as a result.

The Erard allows the pianist to transcend the technical difficulties and get closer to the meaning of the music. It allows this, because of its lighter action, the clarity of the instrument, and the fact that this particular instrument that we’re playing is parallel-strung instead of cross-strung, so there’s an even greater clarity between registers. For instance, Liszt’s “Campanella,” one of his Grandes Etudes, is really about the sound of bells. With this instrument, it’s so transparent and wonderful to hear.

Q If only we had recordings of Lizst himself at the piano.

A It’s such a shame that there are no recordings. We don’t have a real idea of how he would have approached his own music; we don’t have the benefit of YouTube to see what he actually did. There are some reports of how he taught. He would listen to a student, then sit down and perform certain passages, bringing out alternative voicings and lines. He was as great a listener as he was a player.

Q Tell me about Liszt as a man, beyond the musician.

A The bicentennial is an important occasion, because Liszt was not only a great composer and pianist, but a great citizen. He contributed hugely to relief for natural disasters and floods in Europe; he played many benefit concerts for the victims. He would give away his own fortune, always willing to lend a hand.

And he always was searching for meaning in his life, beyond being this great virtuoso pianist. He lived a religious life; a complex person. He didn’t die rich. He gave away most of his money.

Q Not everyone loved him, though. Brahms sure didn’t. Some people thought he was all about Liszt.

A True. Some people felt that he was vain, and he had this reputation as a womanizer. But there was a lot more to him.

Q Tell me about the festival’s afternoon concert.

A OK. I was talking a while back to William Wellborn, founding president of the American Liszt Society’s San Francisco chapter. He is a great, great Liszt scholar. And as we started to discuss the bicentennial, I mentioned that San Jose State has in its possession — at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies — a very rare publication the 1841 Album Beethoven, published by the European publisher Mechetti. It’s an anthology of compositions by Liszt’s contemporaries. About 500 copies were made in a beautiful edition, with beautiful plates, with scores by these great virtuoso pianist- composers. Proceeds from the album’s sale went toward building the monument for Beethoven (who died in 1827) in Bonn, Germany.

Because there’s only one album left in the United States and just two or three in the world, many of its most interesting pieces have never been heard. So we’ll be playing all these delightful salon pieces by Chopin, Mendelssohn, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles, Taubert, Thalberg, Döhler and Henselt.

One of Mendelssohn’s best piano works, “Variations sérieuses,” was composed for this album. In fact, Liszt stepped in and contributed one of his own works to the album, his transcription for piano of the “Funeral March” from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.

So we’ll be “premiering,” you might say, works from this incredible album that showcases Liszt and these other pianist-composers. Together, they represent a certain time and place.

Q A time when Liszt was a celebrity, really like a rock star.

A Right. We look at him from afar, and we realize that he was actually the first-ever matinee idol that we had as a pianist.

His music isn’t as profound as, say, Beethoven’s. But it represents an era, one that saw the explosion of the virtuoso on the keyboard. I don’t think we would have our current era, when virtuosos are practically a dime a dozen, without Liszt. He broke the mold. He was a trailblazer. As pianists, we wouldn’t be where we are today without him.

Franz Liszt
200th Birthday Celebration

A daylong festival Monday, at San Jose State University

With pianists Gwendolyn Mok,
William Wellborn, Michael Boyd and Chih-Long Hu, and tenor Joseph Frank

12:30 p.m. concert, Ira F. Brilliant Center for Research Studies, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, fifth floor (Schiro Room), free

3:30 p.m. master class, Concert Hall of the School of Music and Dance, free
7:30 p.m., gala concert in the Concert Hall; tickets (at the door) $15 adults, $5 students/seniors

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