The Pianist as Narrator: Paul Roberts in Portland

Pianist Paul Roberts

Pianist Paul Roberts

by JANA HANCHETT

“How do pianists prepare for a performance?” asked British pianist, teacher and writer Paul Roberts in Portland last month. “What is it we actually do, apart from move our fingers, to communicate?”

To help answer these questions, Roberts publicly conducted ten lessons with students of all ages in his recent mini-festival “Performance and Communication” at Portland Piano Company. In these master classes, Roberts took care to engage the audience in the process of teaching young performers how to capture the audience’s ear.

First introduced to Portland in 1991 by Harold Gray and Portland Piano International, Roberts has performed at various Oregon colleges and has conducted over 50 master classes in Portland. In his master classes and books, Roberts revels in exploring the logic that supports the magic of pianism.

For example, 17 year old Eri Wong gave a solid performance of Ravel’s Noctuelles (Moths). After she played, Roberts suggested that the textures needed both more clarity and flightiness. Roberts first asked Wong to imagine moths while playing. After a few bars, Roberts stopped her and said, “I’m not sure what I really heard. I need the score.” After Roberts pointed out articulation markings in the score, Wong greatly improved her moth-like textures. “Aha!” declared Roberts, “This is a great discovery! We don’t need ‘moths!’ We need you to play the score,” concluded Roberts. “Communication and imaginative projection has everything do with the ability to play the notes.”

The concept of returning to the score for answers was further demonstrated when two students played separate movements from Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major op. 109. In the first movement, Roberts coached high school pianist Marie Luff to fulfill the musical expectations she set up at the beginning. “If you do not follow the logic you initially set up for us, you will lose us,” explained Roberts. “You must carry the listener from beginning to end with a complete sense of narrative. You must hold the whole in your head at every point.”

Luff and Roberts could not fully illustrate this concept within one lesson, and we were all still considering the problem of phrasing when pianist Colleen Adent performed the third movement.

“Now this is most interesting,” Roberts said after she finished, “as Colleen has demonstrated exactly what needs to be considered. I didn’t even think to discuss timing and spacing with Marie, but that is what is needed, the space for each note.” While Adent was able to keep the musical narrative in her head and thus keep the story alive, she did so at a loss of expressivity, and Roberts worked with her on strengthening and varying her tone colors.

Throughout the master classes, Robert’s open communication, his sharing of musical problems, and his willingness to acknowledge what he could not answer or had not before considered, kept the audience listening, nodding, and whispering to each other. Most telling, at the end of the master class series, the father of one of the masterclass students said, “I am a rock musician, but hearing you discuss these pieces has helped me so much to understand and enjoy classical music. Thank you.”

A Plenitude of Possibilities

Roberts followed his two days of teaching with his own lecture-recital at The Old Church that demonstrated his manner of engaging with the audience. “There’s a strong conservative element in the classical world that doesn’t want to change the traditions,” he explained to ArtsWatch. “You go to a concert, you dress up, you sit quietly and you clap at the end of each piece. The artist comes on in tail coat and white tie, sits at the piano, stands up, bows, goes off stage, does an encore, then everyone goes home.

“The music itself doesn’t need that,” he continued. “Music can survive under any kind of public situation as long as it’s listened to attentively. In general, young people are not attaching to the traditional presentation anymore. We must find different ways of presenting classical music, and one of the ways that I particularly like is talking to the audience. I don’t think one can explain music, but I think you can help people listen to it by giving just a bit of extra background. In my experience, audiences are incredibly grateful for just a few words.”

In his lecture recital “Liszt, Love, and Petrarch — The Pianist as Narrator,” Roberts discussed Liszt’s musical identification with Petrarch’s poetic description of love’s introduction, passion, and dissolution. “Liszt captured the essence of rhyme in his music,” he said. “The meaning of the poem invades your soul musically and syntactically.” To demonstrate, he read Petrarch’s poem partly in Italian and then played the opening antecedent and consequent phrase in Liszt’s sonata.

Roberts’ performances of Three Petrarch Sonnets and Obermann’s Valley were strong and passionate. “It is absolutely crucial to identify the pianist as actor, to identify with the text that Liszt has taken the trouble to place at the front of [Obermann’s Valley],” Roberts insisted. “Otherwise, we sincerely wouldn’t have the courage to play it as it should be played. Liszt makes a big statement exactly in the manner of Obermann about the storm in the heart and storm outside. The whole piece is about the inability to explain the world.” Appropriately, Roberts played the ending not with benign resignation but with angst and unsettled despair.

Unlike his master classes, which were attended by a good many young people and families, Roberts’ lecture-recital unfortunately was not attended by a younger audience. Mostly 50+ and core members of the piano teaching community, the concert attendees followed Roberts’ descriptions with great enjoyment, laughing delightedly throughout. While Roberts’ connections between the painting, philosophy, art, and geography of the 19th century to Liszt’s compositions were fascinating, the very detail and length of the lecture made me question whether young audiences would want to hear them after a day of classes.

To reach young audience members, the lecture-recital format is perhaps best suited during the day within a school setting when young minds are awake and eager. In the evening, with a school day behind and future tasks looming, the joy of a piano recital, especially of Liszt’s music, is found in hearing the sturm und drang (storm and stress) of the 21st century reflected by this 19th century composer. When recreated by an imaginative and fiery pianist like Roberts, a young listener will hear Liszt capture Obermann’s vital questions “What do I want? Who am I? What do I ask of nature?”

As Roberts constantly acknowledged in his master classes and in his lecture, there aren’t any answers, but many possibilities. Neither Liszt nor listeners today need answers; instead, by leaning into the tensions of multiple possibilities we find that uncertainty is a necessary companion. Hearing Robert end Obermann’s Valley with a biting insistence on the diminished sevenths instead of the spiritually joyful E Major chord was strong evidence of this necessity, and I left wishing more young people had heard it.

What solutions have you been a part of in getting young people to classical concerts? What works and what doesn’t, for high school students especially?

Roberts returns to Portland July 19 to conduct another master class. Stay tuned!

Jana Hanchett is a teacher, writer, and pianist living in Portland, Oregon.

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