The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Teenage pianist Joseph Hauer discusses his life, the music of Beethoven he will perform at the first free Concert on the Square this Wednesday. Part 2 of 2.

June 29, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, June 30, at 7 p.m., the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell, will kick off its 27th annual series of Concerts on the Square up around the state Capitol.

The six free Wednesday night concerts, each running about two hours, that run through Aug. 4 feature all kinds of music. (For more information, including food, parking and other programs, visit:

But the opening concert this week will feature classical works. And the featured soloist is a student – Joseph Hauer, an Appleton, Wis., resident who won the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Young Artists Concerto Competition. He will perform the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 (1803), the same piece Hauer (below) played to win to the competition.

Other works on the  “Summer Romance” programs includes Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” Wolf-Ferarri’s Overture to “Il segreto di Susannah,” Edward MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose,” Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” two Slavonic Dances by Dvorak and two “new” tangos by Astor Piazzolla as well as the love theme from “Cinema Paradiso” by Morricone.

Hauer and the entire concert will be broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television this Friday at 8 p.m. and then again on Saturday at 6 p.m. (In the Madison area, tune in to Channel 21 or Channel 600.)

Hauer recently agreed to an e-mail Q&A with The Well-Tempered Ear. This is the second of two parts:

What other academic fields of study or classes do you like and do well in, or dislike?

I was home-schooled. I dislike school in general. This year, I had to take a course in Apologetics — the reasonable defense of the Catholic religion and its doctrines. I may not have enjoyed the “doing” of the class, but I liked it because it was extremely useful and necessary to me. I learned a lot from it and I plan to continue studying it.

Do you have other extracurricular activities or hobbies?

I have a few hobbies. I love snowboarding, but I take a lot of flack for it since the risk of injuring limbs doesn’t go very well with a career in music.  I water-ski in summer, and my goal for this year is to learn how to ski slalom. I disc golf at least once a week in summer.

Our family has a golden retriever, but the general consensus is that she’s my dog. I trained her from when she was 8 weeks old. I’ve taught her all the basics — sit, down, stay, come, and heel. She can do all those by voice command or hand motion. I also taught her to freeze on command, cross her paws (as if praying), roll over, play dead, and shake hands.

What is the hardest part of playing the piano well?

Piano is a percussive instrument: the hammer hits the string and makes a sound. The hardest part of piano is getting rid of its percussive quality and creating illusions — making it sound like a voice, a bowed string instrument, a brass instrument, or any other beautiful non-percussive sound.

It is very easy to get caught up in the technique of “pushing the right buttons in the right way” on the piano. Anyone can push a button and no audience wants to hear a performer hit buttons, even if he hits a lot of buttons very accurately. Just making beautiful sounds still isn’t enough — only a few people are satisfied with that.

Most people want to be affected by the music, they want to feel something from it. The key to doing this is simply to be human; that is, to listen to the sounds that the piano is making and react to them.  Only a person can react in the moment to what is happening on stage right then.

Performing is a complete experience — the energy of the audience, who is in the audience, and how I am feeling on that particular day all contribute to how I perform.

Are there concert pianists you especially admire or like to listen to?

I haven’t listened to as many recording as most people because I am afraid of becoming a “copier.” I’d rather figure out for myself how I feel a piece goes by what is written in the score than construct a performance by “cut and paste” from recordings I’ve heard.

I do have a few performers I admire: Evgeny Kissen, Yefim Bronfman, Ilya Itin and my studio-mate at Lawrence University, Michael Smith. I’ve actually listened to more violin music than piano music. I like Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin, Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlman. I’ve noticed a trend in my listening habits. My favorite professional performers are all Russian, whether on violin or piano.

Do you have favorite composers and pieces, or less favorite composers or periods of music?

“Favorite” is always hard to answer. I usually like best what I am playing at the moment. I would have to say, though, that my favorite composer is Sergei Rachmaninoff (below). And my favorite piece is Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. I like music from the Romantic period the best – Tchaikovsky, Chopin et al.

I enjoy Classical music but less than Romantic. Baroque music is very good to play, but I don’t enjoy performing it that much. It is very intellectual. I like to have music that focuses on feelings, music that speaks directly to the audience.

I  don’t like 20th-century music and beyond. It is rather obscure, I don’t relate to it. I appreciate some Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but very seldom for the melodies. I like a few pieces by Debussy. To sum it up, I could say that I don’t like anything that another musician would consider “genuine 20th century.” If the music is stylistically romantic, I like it.

What would you like the audience to know about Beethoven’s Third Concerto and especially the first movement?

I ‘d much rather not have the audience know anything about the piece. However, it helps to have heard the piece before if one is going to relate to it more easily. I’m sure most people have heard it, so I’m not worried about that.

If I tell the audience what I practice at home, or if they have an idea of how the piece “should” go, they’ll listen for what they want to hear or are “supposed” to hear, rather than just enjoy the music. The critics can listen for what they want to hear, but I play the piano because I want the audience to ENJOY the music, not judge whether I followed the “directions” or not.

I had a lot of trouble relating to this piece, since it is relatively early Beethoven – VERY classical and not very romantic. My teacher told me to come up with a story to go along with the music. However, music conveys emotions, not ideas or stories. So even if I do have story I’m thinking about, I don’t want the audience to know about it. I just want the audience to hear and feel the emotions that the story helps me call up.

So, I will not tell you what the story is. I rarely think of a story, I just listen and play; this was an exception.

What does it feel like to play a concerto with an orchestra when so often piano play solo?

Playing with an orchestra is the best thing possible for a musician. When I play with an orchestra, I have the best of both worlds: I get to play with all the wonderful orchestra musicians (as if I were a violinist and a part of the orchestra), yet I am still the “soloist” and get to play the piano. It’s a collaboration. When the musicians and the conductor are all on the same page, the power of that bond is terrific. No solo recital can match it.

I find it MUCH easier to play with an orchestra because I have so much more to listen and react to. For a solo, I have to come up with everything on my own. With an orchestra, we’re all listening to each other, reacting to each other, and combining all our feelings into a single performance. It’s like when a hundred people all say the same thing in a normal tone of voice: it may not be loud but the power it carries is almost frightening.

Do you have advice for other teenagers or young people who are serious piano students or music students?

Love what you do. If you want to go into music, do it because you love it and don’t want to quit. Otherwise, it will be just another job that brings in cash. That attitude will come through in your music — it will be boring and matter-of-fact.

If you do love it, then don’t let anything get you down. Practice carefully, find solutions to your problems, and keep your goals high. Never settle for “good enough” when you’re practicing, but when it’s time to hit the stage, forget about all your “ideas.” Do what you have to do to keep from getting completely out of control, but always remember that you can make a lot of mistakes without anyone noticing or caring. Don’t show the audience what you’ve practiced, just allow the music to convey your feelings.

Posted in Classical music

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