The first time I came across the pianist Murry Perahia was back in the 80ies, when I bought a tape cassette of him playing the 24 Chopin preludes. His playing intrigued and impressed me and I marked him as one if my favorite pianists, although I wasn’t sure how to pronounce his name correctly for quite a while.
Since then I’ve been following him with interest, so when I heard that top notch pianist Perahia will be giving open piano master classes at a time and place I could get to, I was delighted.
What are masterclasses?
Piano masterclasses are more or less the same as your usual piano lesson, only public. Only, meaning “only”. The additional pressure on the students is obvious. They are very exposed and are in a unique mix between playing as in a concert, and trying to apply what the instructor is telling them, while sensing that many people in the audience may be judging them critically if they don’t absorb the new instructions into their playing right away.
The pressure on the teacher is also not insignificant: the students usually come very well prepared to a masterclass and the audience is awaiting interesting and new insights or criticism for their enrichment and entertainment.
Murry Perahia the Teacher
The masterclasses I watched had three talented young players perform works by Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. This was the middle of a one week course with Perahia so they all knew each other and were familiar with the working routine, which sharpened and enhanced the musical experience, cutting out the ice breaking phase.
Not every great musician is a great teacher. What comes intuitively and naturally to an outstanding musician will need to do verbalized and broken down for the students in a way that they can connect with and grow into.
The first student opened the morning with part of the Appassionata sonata by Beethoven. While he was playing through the first movement Perahia listened attentively, his facial expressions and slight body movements expressing his own interpretation of the music, that didn’t always coincide with what was being played.
I wasn’t expecting Perahia to start speaking about Hamlet and the ghost at this point, but he painted the shuddering and explosive scene demonstrating the dramatic atmospheric changes and applying them to Beethoven’s music.
Actually, Perahia did this with all three students: using vivid, unexpected images he pulled them out of the micro where they were getting lost in the details of playing numerous notes into the macro. “Think in large sections, not little segments” he said, and got everyone in the room to zoom out and see the fantastic music as a whole, interrelating beauty wisdom and energy. Perahia often demonstrated what he meant either by conducting the students or by generously applying his wonderful playing which was an extra bonus.
By the end of the hour, the student was playing the piece very differently. There was drama, excitement, movement and direction in his playing. “What is the composer saying here?” was the question he put to the students over and over again, helping them to shift their attention from themselves to the source of the music, to what the composer may have wanted to express here.
Although Perahia was focused on the macro, he dived into the details too, as a means of serving the macro. Precise harmonic analysation and close examination of hidden themes and tunes made the music transparent and clear to both students and audience.
These three hours of intense musical work were an inspiring gift and an opportunity to hear Murry Perahia from a different angle.
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