The piano is music itself laid bare, or Western music, at least: the whole theory and matrix of it spread out as upon an axis. Perhaps other instruments are better suited to lyrical and emotive expression — those on which you blow, for example, and those on which the wiggling finger and the language of touch produce a direct, less mechanically mediated effect. But to the purpose of solo composition and performance, the piano is a world alone.
With ten of its 88 notes addressable at any time (more with fancy pedal work and finger gimmickry), the full resources of harmony are always on tap. The piano’s capacity for complexity and counterpoint is limited only by the imagination of the composer and neurological conditioning of the player. And the piano offers the gaping and dramatic dynamic range that one would expect of the instrument named the “softloud.” For all these reasons, the pianoforte issues a standing invitation to musical invention and performance virtuosity.
Almost all composers wrote at least some solo piano music, and some notables (Chopin, Scriabin, Mompou) are known for little else. In symphonies and other large-scale works, composers stake their claims, craft their legacies and position themselves in relation to the traditions. But if symphonies and operas are flagship branding, then solo piano music can be heard as something more akin to experimental diaries and heartsong. And that, ironically, may be what gives the solo piano canon such resonance and relevance here in the age of personal memoir. Solo piano music offers a striking and intimate view of individuality.
Musical revolution after revolution, paradigm shift after shift, each generation produces its own corpus of piano music in which the personal aesthetics and harmonic languages of the composers are distilled and codified. The piano is so unquestioningly accepted as the privileged voice of the tradition that its repertoire grows in both temporal directions, and much of today’s favorite piano concert music (J.S. Bach, D. Scarlatti) was written before the piano was invented. Meanwhile, many orchestral hits, like Ravel’s suite of war time elegies Le Tombeau de Couperin, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Faure’s irresistible Dolly Suite began as confessions on piano.
All of which is to say that in the cultural marketplace, there is always demand for great pianists, young pianists, interpreters and innovators. And Vladimir Feltsman’s PianoSummer program at SUNY New Paltz has, for nearly three decades, been stocking the pond, recognizing and training the top talents of the future wherever they might be found. When, seven years ago, Piano Summer went to a tuition- and board-free model, sacrificing resources formerly allotted to the popular Symphony Gala finale in order to do so, the Russian emigré and decorated concert and recording pianist Feltsman told me, “It was an easy decision. PianoSummer has never been about anything glamorous. We attract the top emerging young pianists from around the world based solely on their ability to play, not on their ability to pay.”
After a two-year hiatus attributable to you know what, PianoSummer has returned. This year’s class of 20 students range in age from 17 to early 26. They were selected from a pool of over 70 qualified applicants, and they come from all over the world. As Feltsman points out, there may be other more famous piano festivals out there, but PianoSummer has established a reputation among students for being among the most rigorous and hands-on of all such programs. Instructional time at PianoSummer exceeds that of better-known programs by almost five to one. And it is not just more instructional hours; it is more instructors. Each PianoSummer student will receive instruction from five master pianists. Feltsman has always emphasized the value of this robust diversity of approaches and repertoire. “None of us,” he said, “has any exclusivity of truth.”
PianoSummer 2022 is already underway at the time of this writing, but many of the program’s highlights are still to come, and Feltsman urges the Hudson valley to take advantage of the musical riches “right in our backyard.” The structure of the program will be familiar to anyone who has partaken in the past. Free events include student recitals and master classes and the final rounds of the Jacob Flier competition (in which students compete to receive a debut recital in New York City’s Carnegie Weill Recital Hall). The only paid events are the concerts, delivered by world class pianists in McKenna Theater.
Free student recitals take place on two Thursdays — July 21 and 28 — at 7 p.m. in Shepard Recital Hall. Two master classes at Shepard remain as well, the first with the Russian prodigy Pavel Nersessian on Friday, July 22 at 3 p.m., the second with Artur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition winner Alexander Korsantia on Tuesday, July 26 at 3 p.m. Feltsman stresses that these master classes are hardly for musicians alone. “You don’t need to be a professional musician to get something valuable from watching a master teacher working with a student. It’s about learning how we learn, what works and what doesn’t, and in the process you will learn something about composers, about style, interpretation and period. The master classes are for anyone who is curious about music.”
Finally, two marquee concerts remain. On Saturday, July 23 at 7 p.m. in McKenna, Pavel Nersessian will perform a program that includes works by the witty 20th century French Les Six composer Francis Poulenc and by Valentyn Sylvestrov, who is regarded as the greatest living Ukrainian composer. Nersessian has been a touring pianist since the age of eight and has won numerous international competitions. Since 2013, he has served as a professor of piano at Boston University.
PianoSummer concludes with a performance by English concert pianist Julian Trevelylan. At 22, he is the youngest guest artist in PianoSummer’s storied history. The Second Price Winner of the last Gesa Anda International Piano Competition in Zurich will perform works by Debussy, Schubert and Chopin. Tickets to both Guest Artist concerts are $30, $25 for students, faculty/staff, and seniors.
Whenever classical music is being written about, questions over its viability and future inevitably arise. While Feltsman does believe that serious piano performance is in good health, he is quick to point out that “pop” values are prevailing in concert halls, to the great detriment of the art. “What is popular is show business. There are wonderful and serious young musicians, but the most successful ones have to be flashy; they have to be visually attractive; you have to have antics. To me, that has very little to do with music. We are trying to emphasize what real value is, what real music is — not what is successful but what is real and what is good and what has value.”
For tickets and additional information, visit https://www.newpaltz.edu/fpa/piano/.