The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations are modernistic like new music by Toru Takemitsu, Charles Wuorinen and Oliver Knussen, says pianist Peter Serkin, who will perform all four composers this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. | May 3, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Few pianists have such a long history of playing both revered classics and untested new music as Peter Serkin, who has won major awards for both.

This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., Serkin (below) will return to the Wisconsin Union Theater with exactly the kind of mixed old-new program that has become his signature.

The first half of his recital features three modern or contemporary works by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, the American composer Charles Wuorinen and the British composer Oliver Knussen – the last two were written for him – and the second half features Beethoven’s epic “Diabelli” Variations.

Having taught at Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute, Serkin, who lives in Massachusetts near the Berkshire Mountains, now teaches  at Bard College in addition to playing 50 to 60 concerts a year. He says he loves teaching because of the interaction. Learning from students, he adds, is like learning from rehearsals.

Serkin also says he drawn to out-of-the-way repertoire and rarities. These days he is working on solo piano pieces by Bizet and Carl Nielsen.

Tickets for his Madison recital cost $10-$42 and can be purchased through Campus Arts Ticketing by phone at (608) 265-ARTS or in person at the Union Theater Box Office or the Vilas Hall Box Office and online at:

For more information plus videos, visit:

Just back from concert tours to Scotland and Vienna, Serkin spoke to The Ear about the works on his upcoming recital, his approach to new music and to Beethoven, and his philosophy of programming:

Do you have new recording projects in the works?

Not really. I enjoy the recording process a lot, so I do home recordings. But they’re not for sale. These days I’m playing on a piano synthesizer and a clavichord.

You have performed in Madison several times. Do you have a reaction to the city and its audiences?

I always find it a very responsive audience, very musically informed to begin with. It is also very open to new things. There is a curiosity there about unusual music.

You have been a lifelong champion of new music. Why on this program do you mix new music with old music, especially such an iconic masterpiece as Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations?

For me, it’s somewhat natural to be up on and interested in the music of our own time. For me, new music isn’t exclusive of older music, although I tend to avoid the enshrined classics.

Some older music is very modernistic. That is the case with the “Diabelli” Variations by Beethoven (below). I included them because they are challenging and outrageous in a way. The work by Beethoven had and still has the intensity and adventurousness of new music. You need to impart some sense and coherence to it. Something that can be that daunting can be very exciting and appealing.

Is there some special approach or perspective you have on the Beethoven?

With the Beethoven, I try to come to it as something new. I have no particular take on it. I just jump in and meet the unexpected. I have played it for many years, but it always a new and fresh experience. I try to stay in touch with the outrageous aspects. Beethoven had distinct compositional ideas that were outlandish for then and are still outlandish.

There is an immensity to the Beethoven. One has a sense of the whole piece all at once, but at the same time there is a sense of jumping into the theme and variations and taking them one step at a time. There is a whole world for each one.

How do the “Diabelli” Variations compare to other works by Beethoven?

It is one of my favorite Beethoven pieces, but then there are so many. Of course, we venerate the piece because it is a remarkable achievement. But there is a fun-loving and mischievous quality that runs throughout it. It has humor and depth too, but it isn’t all deadly serious. There is a sense of lightness and possibilities, things you just can’t do but he does. That sense of playfulness really appeals to me.

How do people response to the new music you play?

There are no guarantees about how people will respond. It takes openness and good will. You have to allow for the possibility of relating to it.

Can you briefly walk us through the new music you will play from your point of view?

Oliver Knussen’s Variations, Op. 24 (1989): I have commissioned a piece of piano and orchestra from him. This is the 60th birthday year for Knussen (below). I also love to play his solo pieces, and these variations were written for me. They are very concise. He studied the “Diabelli” Variations when he was composing his own.

Charles Wuorinen’s “Adagio”: This was also written for me. It is a follow-up to a wild and energetic scherzo he wrote for me. This piece has a stillness and spaciousness to it. It lasts about 14 minutes. He is going to write a third piece for me, and then I can play them all as a suite or play sections individually.

Toru Takemitsu’s “For away”: This was written in the 1970s for Roger Woodward. But he also wrote many pieces for me. I have a real connection to Takemitsu (below) and his music. He was a great friend, and I love to play much of his music – orchestral, chamber music and solo works. It’s gratifying to keep coming back to such good music. It is it compelling and evocative.

Do you think there is more acceptance of new music today?

I’ve noticed that with many of the new composers I play that there is more acceptance. When I was young (below, Peter Serkin in 1976), Arnold Schoenberg had just died. His music was considered a forbidden difficulty. The same thing happened with the music of Messiaen, whom I have played a lot of. People didn’t know how to deal with it. Now music like that gets much more support. It is interesting to see the change.

Take Takemitsu. Only recently has he been declared a national treasure in Japan. Familiarity comes as one gets to know them. It is hard to say, but in some ways they will become standards. Now we are hearing a lot more of their music and it is performed well.

1 Comment »

  1. Harmonically and architectonically familiar music travels well-trod paths in our brains, and feels comfortable. Unfamiliar musical structures are neurologically unmoored; we must be curious and patient, listening until our brain organizes and recognizes what’s happening in the music. When the unfamiliar becomes commonplace, we wonder what all the fuss was about.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — May 3, 2012 @ 9:52 am

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