Interview: Stephen Osborne

INTERVIEW

An Interview with Steven Osborne

by Tom Manoff

Steven Osborne on practicing, recording, and interpreting the written score and the music of Debussy, Rachmaninov, Tovey and Tippett.

MANOFF: I believe that many potential professional pianists do not succeed because of something seemingly mundane: they never learned how to practice efficiently, and, in some instances, developed practice habits that deepen problems rather than solve them. Would you describe your practice routines and philosophy?

OSBORNE: I think this is one of the most important issues an instrumentalist has to deal with. In the simplest terms, when I practise I try to keep my attention coming back to how tense or (hopefully) relaxed my body is, and what my state of mind is. The tricky thing is that these two are closely related: physical tension negatively affects one’s state of mind, and conversely when one is anxious about a forthcoming concert, or heavy workload, or indeed the argument you just had with your wife (very rare, of course!), then it automatically creates physical tension. So it’s easy to go into a downward spiral where one can become very uncomfortable and even develop pain.

I see practise at the piano as a process of removing physical and mental obstacles to allow the music to emerge as freely and naturally as possible, but the work which creates the intense sense of engagement with the music always occurs for me away from the piano, reading through the scores, singing them to myself. For some reason I always learn more about the music doing this for 30 minutes than I could working at the piano for a month.



“I see practise at the piano as a process of removing physical and mental obstacles to allow the music to emerge as freely and naturally as possible.” — Steven Osborne



The piano sound on your recordings with Hyperion is especially rich. While it starts with your actual sound, I would think that you are working with a very fine production team who capture your sound. What kind of relationship do you have with them, and, in your experience, how important is such a team –from producer to engineer ?

You’re right to think beyond what the performer is doing at the instrument. Certainly the sound engineer plays a crucial role, finding the right compromise between detail and richness which best suits the music; a significant misjudgement in this can seriously affect the impact of a record. This is a discussion which happens between the engineer, the producer, and myself at the start of a recording session, and it can certainly take an hour or more of recording and adjusting microphones to find just the right sound.

In the experience of making a record, though, my interaction is much more with the producer, and I’ve been lucky enough to have made all my records with a great friend, Andrew Keener. I can’t overstate how much he brings to our records: he has fabulous ears and I trust him to hear both problems of detail and also larger structural issues; he is very savvy at getting the best out of performers in simple ways like knowing when it’s time to have a break, or when it might be worth going back to that one bit that you never got quite right; above all, though, the comfort I feel around him is enormously helpful because making a record is a very exhausting process which can make one elated, frustrated, sore, self-doubting, despairing, elated again, and so on for three days solid. To have someone you can trust with all of that excess emotion is worth its weight in gold.


I was surprised by some of the lovely music in the Tovey Concerto, and embarrassed that I really knew nothing about his music. Perhaps were I English that wouldn’t be the case. You’ve recorded quite a few composers whose music isn’t especially well-known. Which composers (not just those you’ve recorded) deserve more audience attention? Do you have any such projects coming up?

Honestly, if you were English, I think you still wouldn’t have known any of Tovey’s music! It’s strange the way fashions in music go. His crime was probably being too successful a musicologist, and his music is basically never played in the UK even though it has very fine qualities. Although I’ve made some records of little know works I don’t actively go out looking for them. Kapustin’s jazz-inspired music I first heard in the background a friend’s house while playing snooker, and most of the other unusual stuff I’ve done has been suggested by Mike Spring at Hyperion, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the piano repertoire. The one composer I passionately feel has never quite been given his due is Michael Tippett whose music, though idiosyncratic, encompasses more depth and variety of human feeling than all but the greatest of 20th century composers..


You have also recorded a CD of Debussy’s Préludes. These have somewhat different harmonic designs than Rachmaninov’s (at least for me) — especially in the manner the harmonic plans help animate the form. Were there differences in your musical approach to these different sets of Préludes? 

To describe that is difficult, like trying to explain the intimate aspects of a friendship. Laying aside the obvious stylistic differences, I think for me the most significant difference is that I feel Rachmaninov’s music is essentially about himself and particularly his terrible sadness in life, whereas with Debussy the emotion is often more at a distance, and the pieces can be as much representative (of a picture or story) as they are expressive.
That’s not to say the music isn’t moving, but that it’s not so clear that Debussy is putting down on paper the emotions he was feeling at the time. With Rachmaninov, it feels to me that he couldn’t help but be confessional. So naturally, these instincts put me in very different frames of mind when playing the two composers. I feel an element of detachment (but not coldness) is often necessary in Debussy whereas Rachmaninov forces me to play with the greatest emotional force I can muster.



“I feel Rachmaninov’s music is essentially about himself and particularly his terrible sadness in life, whereas with Debussy the emotion is often more at a distance, and the pieces can be as much representative (of a picture or story) as they are expressive.” — Steven Osborne 



 

Considering your interest in jazz, I’m interested in some of the jazz players to whom you listen, and any who influenced you as an artist.

I listened a lot to Miles Davis and Bill Evans in my 20s, and more recently Kenny Wheeler, Oscar Peterson, Bobo Stenson, Brad Mehldau, Chick Lyall, Brian Kellock, Keith Tippett and others, but the biggest influence was certainly Keith Jarrett, to whom I listened obsessively all through my college years. Because of his playing I started experimenting with free improvisation, and that exploration taught me things about sound and structure that have been enormously helpful to my classical playing. Free improvising forces you to take complete responsibility for the music, whereas in classical music it can be tempting to hide behind the written score: “The composer wrote staccato here, I’ll play staccato even though I feel it sounds better legato”.

I think a classical performer needs to have the courage to disagree with the composer if his insticts lead him strongly in another direction; for me, excessive respect for the written score is as bad a fault as a lack of interest in the composer’s markings. But I know colleagues who profoundly disagree with me on this! I think the crucial question for a performer is, “How can you reveal the music as vividly as possible?” I believe to do that you need a balance between an intensive study of the musical score and a profound examination of your own feelings about the music; grappling with the differences between your instincts and what is on the page is one of the most stimulating parts of getting to know the music.



“….excessive respect for the written score is as bad a fault as a lack of interest in the composer’s markings..” — Steven Osborne 



The only works of Tippett’s that I have known are A Child of Our Time and The Midsummer Marriage. The oratorio seems a difficult piece stylistically for singers, and, in my opinion, there isn’t a convincing performance on CD. The Midsummer Marriage I know from a fine BBC production in the 80’s. But your Tippett release has been quite a revelation, easily the finest single recording of his works I have heard thus far. You are especially able to reveal the composer’s lyricism within sometimes dense structures.

Tippett’s instrumental works strike me as more comfortable stylistically than his vocal music. Tippett seems especially “pure” as a composer in instrumental works, even as he moves through various “outer” styles to support a very refined and focused artistic vision. Nothing pretentious despite the complexity at times —especially the counterpoint — and nothing fussy. I’m not sure how many high-caliber recordings of his works exist. Perhaps this contributes to the neglect of his work. Can you suggest some other Tippett recordings?
I think you’ve hit more than one nail on the head. I find all the operas problematic except for King Priam, which is wonderfully pure and bracing. There is some marvellous music in the others, particularly The Midsummer Marriage , but Tippett all too often got bogged down in what he wanted to say to us (and being the humanitarian he was, he always had a lot to say). Ironically, I think that the lack of political or psychological messages in his instrumental works led to stronger music which communicates more potently. Having said that, it’s very difficult music for the performer to get to grips with both technically and conceptually – it’s unfailingly awkward to play and Tippett’s musical intention is sometimes very obscure. So probably one reason there aren’t that many good recordings of his music is that not many people want to invest the enormous energy needed to learn his music. I had to do it though; I was obsessed (and still am) with his musical world.

Recordings I particularly admire:

Pretty much anything with Sir Colin Davis; particularly The Midsummer Marriage and the Piano Concerto with John Ogden (Ogden’s 2nd piano sonata is amazing too).

The Lindsay Quartet doing the 5th quartet, one of Tippett’s greatest works I think and sublimely played.

David Atherton and the London Sinfonietta in King Priam.

Solti and the Chicago Symphony in the 4th Symphony; an enormously rich, if sometimes puzzling, work.

Sir Andrew David and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in The Mask of Time. In some ways this a preposterously ambitious work which can’t sustain the weight of its aims: what other composer would dare to critique the entire history of human civilisation in a single work? It’s uneven, but it contains some truly great music.

St.Martin-in-the-Fields doing the Concerto for Double String Orchestra – a childhood pleasure! I’m not sure if the recording I knew is still available – I thought it was directed by Iona Brown but I can only find it with Marriner conducting the orchestra; this version is good but the recorded sound is too resonant.


I found Tippett’s life fascinating and relevant —especially his politics. Clearly, his beliefs and the events of his time influenced his music. How has Tippett’s life affected your sense of the music, and —more broadly— to what extent does knowledge of a any composer’s life (if we know of it) affect your interpretations?

Instinctively I’m not very interested in the lives of most of the composers I play: I’m drawn to music that grips me and putting across that inner conviction is my main goal as a musician. If I’m honest, I’m slightly sad about this lack of curiosity – one’s perspective on music can only be deepened by knowing about a composer’s life; but then there are only so many hours in the day and generally I’d rather be practising or thinking about music than reading about it.



“Instinctively I’m not very interested in the lives of most of the composers I play: I’m drawn to music that grips me and putting across that inner conviction is my main goal as a musician.” — Steven Osborne 



 

As if happens, with Tippett I actually read most of his writings before doing the recording. They are a fascinating mirror of his music – idiosyncratic, eclectic, yet full of feeling and conviction. Whether that knowledge affected how I played the music is doubtful; however it certainly increased my affection for the man.

There are other cases where I’d say biographical knowledge of a composer is very helpful, for example Schubert’s obsession with Beethoven and the reaction in his music to Beethoven’s death, especially in the C minor sonata. But even here, I’m not sure that knowledge significantly changes my interpretative instincts.


Lastly, can you mention some of the music we might hear from you in the next few years?

In terms of CDs, I’ve got some Beethoven sonatas coming out in the spring, Schubert duets with Paul Lewis at the end of the year, and the complete solo piano music of Ravel in 2011. Longer term, the main big project is performances of the complete Schubert piano sonatas, but that won’t be for 3 years or so.



Steven Osborne’s extensive website includes all his CDs and tour dates. It also plays excerpts from his recordings.

 

Eugene Symphony Conductor Search

UPDATE: Francesco Lecce-Chong Chosen as new director of Eugene Symphony.

This piece also appeared at Oregon ArtsWatch.

The Eugene Symphony has announced three candidates to succeed current conductor Danail Rachev: Dina Gilbert, Ryan McAdams and Francesco Lecce-Chong. As ArtsWatch’s feature about the selection process showed, all three young, rising conductors offered strong credentials in the race to join a distinguished lineage that includes stars Marin Alsop and Giancarlo Guerrero.

Dina Gilbert

 

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Active in Quebec, Gilbert has been the assistantat the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and has also conducted a number of youth orchestras around the world. Compared with the other two candidates, her bio is particularly thin.

At her December 8 audition concert, Gilbert seemed quite nervous walking to the podium, which carried into the first piece: the overture to Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute.  Perhaps these nerves prompted her too-fast tempo for the overture’s opening, a pace the orchestra had a hard time keeping up with.

This Mozart overture is widely known, and, as it happens, has a tricky part for conductors, a section that many conducting students struggle to master. Mozart wrote a threefold utterance of an Eb -flat chord at the opening on the work (in homage to the Masons,) each of these chords with a short “pick-up.” Under Gilbert’s baton, the initial series of threefold statements was a bit shaky, but passable. However, when the threefold statement with pick-ups returned midway through the work, one was botched quite badly. The mistake revealed a flaw in Gilbert’s conducting technique, a problem that dogged her throughout the night.

Because I’m especially interested in conducting technique – there are so many styles that work – I was sitting in the balcony as far left as allowed. From that vantage point I could see most of what the conductor was doing. Gilbert has a hitch in her beat, coming down and then bouncing forward, a confusing motion, and certainly the problem with that missed Mozart chord.

Best performance on this night came next – Korngold’s schmaltzy Violin Concerto, played by a wonderful violinist , Elena Urioste. While Gilbert rarely imparted phrasing to the orchestra, the violinist did, and the result was satisfying.

After intermission, Gilbert conducted Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Aside from Gilbert’s odd conducting hitch, the performances lacked any sense of interpretive shaping. Phrases seemed isolated. Overall, the impression was mechanical.

The buzz in the audience was about Gilbert’s French accent when she spoke from the stage. Accent aside, Gilbert doesn’t measure up to this post.

Ryan McAdams

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Compared with Gilbert, the second candidate’s bio is impressive. A Juilliard graduate, McAdams has appeared with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the Israel Philharmonic, and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, among many. McAdams’s January 26 program opened with a straight-on reading of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni. No complaints, nothing to write home about.

Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto followed, with a fine soloist, Andrew von Oeyen. I haven’t heard this work for 50 years. But its muscular mid-20th century American idiom still seems solid and refreshing.  It’s a difficult work for orchestra, soloist and conductor. I don’t know the score well enough to hear missteps, and none struck my ear. Everything held together. The music’s complex gestures came across splendidly. I assume this work received the most rehearsal time, which showed in the performance. McAdams was in charge throughout. His command was topnotch.

Last on the program, Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor, was a disappointment. The problem was McAdams’s conducting.

All great conductors face the complete orchestra straight-on for most of the work. In his performance, however, McAdams faced the first strings for perhaps three quarters or more of the performance time. The result was a completely out-of-balance sound both interpretively and in dynamics. When you face a section, they tend to play louder. When you exhort one section for more expressiveness, they play louder still. Such over-attention comes at the expense of the other sections, who are left, more or less, on their own. And the Brahms suffered from this very problem. While the familiar themes in the first violins came across with energy, the important secondary material – so vital in Brahms’s style – was underplayed, under-phrased, and often not even heard.

I have two possible explanations. First, McAdams conducted from memory. Perhaps in that effort he didn’t have the entire score under his belt, and only knew the main themes. Understandable but not commendable. Better to use the music until the entire score is memorized.

The other explanation potentially portends a more serious issue. If this is the way he conducts all the time, attending mostly to the first strings, it’s a real problem. The ESO has just completed eight years with such an out-of-balance, look-to-the-left, habit of Rachev’s. Hiring another conductor with this same problem would be “lights out” for me.

Francesco Lecce-Chong

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The final candidate, Francesco Lecce-Chong, brought an excellent bio: appearances with the National Symphony, Toronto Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, and Hong Kong Philharmonic. Currently the assistant conductor of Pittsburgh Symphony, he is deeply involved in bringing new music to the fore in various venues. Of the three candidates, his resume is the best.

Yet, if one had to choose a single quality most important for a conductor, it is excitement. And in his audition concert last Thursday, Lecce-Chong was exciting beyond my expectations.

He opened with Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, a foot-tapping, barn-burner that electrified the air in the hall. Lecce-Chong conducted from memory. He faced and conducted the full orchestra. The musical fireworks went off, as did the audience response.

Next was Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 , an extraordinary work in which Balkan modes and rhythms are absorbed into the classical concerto genre. Soloist Soyeon Kate Lee was excellent and I would like to hear more from her. The orchestra supported the pianist with lovely phrasing, delicate timbres, and reliable rhythms. Such a high level performance suggests that Lecce-Chong knows what he’s doing in rehearsal time, especially with an orchestra he just met.

As the second half opened, Lecce-Chong gave some playful remarks that touched on the Viennese elements in Mozart’s overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio, including a Turkish ensemble dropped into the Viennese mix. Conducted again from memory, the performance was splendid.

Lecce-Chong’s concern for the Viennese style was particularly important with the last piece, Richard Strauss’s Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Many American orchestras have difficulty with Viennese phrasing, a European style essential for performance of many composers, from Mozart through Brahms, Mahler and Strauss. In 15 years observing the orchestra, I’ve never heard the ESO perform with a true Viennese phrasing, melody somehow joyous and bittersweet, leaning here and there on melodic motives and chromatic lines.

But on this night, Lecce-Chong brought Vienna to Eugene. Conducting from memory, he led his musicians with apparent ease,  shaping lines, balancing timbres and cuing entrances with precision. There were lovely Viennese moments when he expanded a phrases’s  rhythm, then pulling it back in. This was the conductor’s  real interpretation of the work, not merely a reading from an orchestra he had just met.

Occasionally the phrasing got of hand – the delicate waltz rhythms slipping from a Viennese Sacher Torte into an “oom pah pah” Wiener Schnitzel.  And there were times when Lecce-Chon’s own physical excitement exhorting the orchestra became over-the-top. But at this moment in Eugene’s musical life, heightened energy is far more desirable than less.

The audience’s  enthusiastic cheers for Ecce-Chong were not  pro forma Eugene theatrics. The excitement for the music, the orchestra and conductor was genuine.

Considering the three candidates: Gilbert is a rookie; McAdams is a talent; But Lecce-Chong has the real gift.  He’s going to be a fast rising talent in the music world. He’s the obvious choice for Eugene right now.