The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Shai Wosner talks to The Ear before his Madison debut in Beethoven this Friday with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

April 4, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most exciting events of the season for The Ear is this Friday night’s Madison debut of the young Israeli pianist Shai Wosner (below, in a photo by Marco Borgrevve) with  the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. He is filing in for Anne-Marie McDermott, who had to cancel a performance of Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto.

To close out the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s winter “Masterworks” season, Wosner will perform Beethoven’s gorgeous Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 (The Ear’s favorite Beethoven concerto) this Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under the baton of WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below top). Also on the program are Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (The Ear’s favorite Beethoven symphony) and a contemporary work “Orawa” (1988) by the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar (below bottom).

The concert is Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Tickets are $15-$62. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit:

For more information about Wosner, visit:

And if you want to know still more about Wosner — a student of Madison favorite Emanuel Ax while he attended Juilliard – check out the two sites below.

The first is my review of Wosner’s unusual recording debut Brahms and Schoenberg CD for the Onyx label:

The second is his well-designed and impressive website with fine performances and lots of information:

The Beethoven concerto should be exactly Wosner’s kind of work,  playing to his rich tone, poetic fluidness, quiet virtuosity and transparency.

Wosner (below , in a pohoto by Marco Borggreve) recently granted an email interview to The Ear:

Can you provide a brief summary of your approach to the piano and your philosophy of performing music?

I am not sure I would say I necessarily have a philosophy on playing the piano. However, what is perhaps most fascinating for me about the nature of the instrument in relation to the music that has been written for it is the fact that although it is a percussion instrument, for centuries it has been expected to play smooth singing lines.

The result is that the bulk of the ‘standard’ piano repertoire in many ways goes against the nature of the piano itself. We pianists are expected to produce the smooth legato of a bel canto soprano when playing a Chopin piece on an instrument that has no legato. Because of that, a lot of the time playing the piano is really about creating an illusion.

But I think that’s also what makes playing it so interesting and also difficult. The illusion goes beyond mere sound production and legato and is a frequent element of piano music in general because many times when composers write for piano they imagine other instruments, and sometimes whole ensembles. Many early Beethoven Sonatas, for example, use the texture of a string quartet and a lot Liszt, whom no one suspects of being “unpianistic,” aims to turn the piano into an orchestra.

It’s important for any musician to get to know as many significant works as possible, and all the more so for a pianist since our repertoire is so closely linked to other kinds of repertoire that don’t involve piano at all, from string quartets to symphonies to opera.

I somehow grew up being more interested in listening to orchestral music and opera more than piano music, and while I probably should have been practicing more seriously, I feel that at least I avoided a separation between what I was supposed to practice and all those other works by the same composers.

How would you situate the Beethoven Fourth Concerto, which you will perform in Madison, among piano concerti? What would you like the public to know about it and about your interpretation of this famous work?

Each time I practice one of the Beethoven concertos, I feel it must be the greatest one! But what’s amazing is how different each of them is from the others, with its own personality and sound world. In the Fourth, I think Beethoven (below) seeks to revisit the relationship between the piano and the orchestra.

It’s not so much the fact that the piano plays in the very beginning (after all, Mozart famously did that in K. 271 many years before). For me, it’s the mystery in the orchestra’s reply to the piano when it comes in with a highly unexpected chord.

That enigmatic quality in the relationship between the piano and the orchestra as expressed in the very beginning is retained more or less for the rest of the concerto. It can be felt again in the way the piano comes in again after the first long orchestral passage, and especially in the middle of the movement when the piano interrupts the orchestra in the beginning of the development.

Generally, the harmonic language of the concerto reflects this mysterious, searching quality and it explores many remote keys throughout the first movement in a very sharp contrast with the tonic-dominant-tonic-dominant of the “Emperor” Concerto, for example. It’s as if these two pieces were written by two different people.

The second movement is even more cryptic in its character, of course. There it’s almost as if the orchestra and the piano are in two different rooms. And Beethoven even keeps some of the mystery in the last movement, with its pianissimo opening and unorthodox ending of the main theme, A-D-B. Perhaps as an “inside joke,” he hides the “correct” ending in the violins who play the A-D-G in pizzicato just before the coda.

What are your plans for future recordings? Will you follow the mixed format of the Brahms/Schoenberg CD for Onyx? Do you have other unusual programming ideas and do you do them in live recitals as well as on CD? Why do you take such a “sandwiching” approach?

The next recording is supposed to come out in the fall (also for Onyx) and consists of a few Schubert works that uses elements of folk music.

The mixed-format of the Brahms/Schoenberg CD isn’t really relevant in this case. In that recording the juxtaposition was meant to give context to both the Brahms late pieces and the Schoenberg ones, with a “meeting point” in the middle. Since Schoenberg specifically asks for a substantial separation between the pieces of Op. 19, I thought that alternating them with the Brahms pieces of Op. 116 would both separate them and highlight the incredible originality of both sets.

Is there a certain repertoire you are attracted to or specialize in?

I tend to be attracted to what is often called the “core” German repertoire (although not only!), so I usually try to look for connections that are hopefully intriguing within that repertoire and between it and later composers.

I don’t necessarily think that programs have to be always thematic, of course. But I think looking for various angles to examine familiar repertoire can also make us rethink some things musically.

In terms of “unusual” programming, right now I hope to start including more improvisation. It’s something that has always been important to me, but although I’ve done it in concerts on some occasions (as encores, for example) I am looking for the right way to include it as part of a program.

Madison has often heard Emanuel Ax (below) play here. You studied with him at Juilliard. What were the biggest lessons you learned from him?

Studying with Emanuel Ax was an enormous privilege for which I am forever grateful. I feel I learned from him so much (and still do, every time we meet) that it would be impossible to put it in just a few words.

One of the most important things is certainly to appreciate how crucial it is to be aware of the difference between the way our playing sounds in our mind and the way it actually sounds to the listener. It seems simpler than it is perhaps, but bridging that gap is the Holy Grail.

Was there an Aha! moment — perhaps a performer or a piece — that told you wanted to become and were capable of becoming a professional musician and concert pianist?

There were a few that etched themselves somehow.

The first that comes to mind is when I was given the score to the Mozart Requiem. I was grinding an LP of it endlessly and when I saw the score for the first time – I think I was 9 or 10 – the idea that such glorious music could come from what is essentially a collection of notes on the page started to sink in and that made an enormous impression.

In terms of performance, I would have to mention a Radu Lupu (below, in a photo by Mary Robert) recital in Tel Aviv, just a few years later I guess, in which he played the big Schubert A Minor Sonata. I will never forget the end of the first movement, which was so incredibly powerful it felt the world was coming to an end. That was a truly defining experience.

Is this your Madison debut? Have you heard anything about the city, its audiences or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?

I haven’t been to Madison before, but I have heard that it is typically ranked as one of the top US cities to live in, which sounds good to me!

Posted in Classical music

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