Portland Piano International review/interview: Tamara Stefanovich’s passionate pairing of past and present


“You have to put passion on a plate, and then everyone wants to have a share,” stated Yugoslav-born pianist Tamara Stefanovich, who performed the freshest piano concert yet presented by Portland Piano International under Arnaldo Cohen’s artistic direction. Portland’s piano lovers devoured the healthy portions of 20th century composers Olivier Messiaen and Gyorgy Ligeti that Stefanovich dished out Monday night.

Stefanovich proved a savvy musical chef, pairing Messiaen with late Franz Liszt on the first half of Monday’s concert and Sergei Rachmaninov with Ligeti on the second half. “There is a lot of work to be done [in promoting new music]. That is why I try not to dogmatically stress only new music, but I try to mix the past with the present,” explained Stefanovich. “I try to take the audience with me by saying, ‘Let’s see! Can we mix someone who is so backwards thinking like Rachmaninov with someone who is so forward thinking like Ligeti? Let’s put them in the same space and see what happens.’”

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Thomas Brill.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Thomas Brill.

The audience readily accepted this invitation for experimentation; usually a healthy 10 percent of the audience will at some point close a sleepy eye, especially on Monday evening. But no sleepy eyes this night. As Stefanovich used one hand to turn the page (Hooray! Another pianist who uses music on stage!) from Messiaen into Liszt and Rachmaninov into Ligeti, and the other hand to sustain the last chord into the beginning of the next, the audience’s energy and curiosity perceptibly heightened: how was this going to work? Pianists often pair Bach with Schoenberg to show off the analytical, highly structured beauty of these disparate composers. But Messiaen and Liszt? Ligeti and Rachmaninov? How would they ever get along? Living up to her role as a new mother, Stefanovich used these chords to say, “Now let’s shake hands.” Messiaen and Liszt exchanged thoughts on spirituality, despair, and triumph while Ligeti and Rachmaninov shared their love of pure virtuosity and pianistic poetry.

Under the hands of Stefanovich, these composers highlighted characteristics in each other that otherwise wash out in the static of their own voice. For example, the curlew calls charted by Messiaen in “Curlew” from Catalogue of Birds seemed echoed in the trills rising out of Liszt’s spiritual darkness. Liszt’s “Variations on Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing” begins with heavy, brooding chords which transform into an ending triumphant redemption. Stefanovich avoided the Listzian bog of dramatic density by often using faster attacks and crisper articulations as in the Messiaen. This clear-eyed approach didn’t sacrifice the music’s spiritual longing; in fact, the weighty fingers that Stefanovich sank into singular, yearning questions in the Liszt echoed the opening loneliness of Messiaen’s “Curlew.”

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Similarly, the seance between Rachmaninov and Ligeti surprisingly underlined a common musical spirit in these two alleged opposites. In particular, Stefanovich brought out the overlooked chromaticism in the ultra Romantic Rachmaninov’s lush landscapes while reaching deep inside the anti-Romantic Ligeti’s angular phrases to scoop out every ounce of unexpected tenderness. The most chilling moment happened when Stefanovich melted Ligeti’s eighth etude (ironically called “Metal”) into the beginning of Rachmaninov’s Etude op. 39 no. 8 and for two seconds they sounded like the same piece by the same composer.

The audience called Stefanovich back twice at intermission to accept their thunderous applause, and at the end of the concert Stefanovich awarded the multiple whoops and bravos with two encores, Scriabin’s Etude Op. 42 No. 3 in F-sharp Major and Debussy’s Etude no. 6 for eight fingers.

Stefanovich not only lived up to her nickname as the “dexterous wizard,” but through her masterclass at Portland Piano Company on Saturday and her brief, explanations on stage, she demonstrated a disarming ability to inspire students and listeners to explore new musical spaces. For example, she introduced Ligeti to the audience not as the serious, forward-thinker that he of course was, but as a poetic composer looking for virtuosic ways to inject humor. This description helped the audience open the door to Ligeti, and because Stefanovich demonstrated a short musical example before playing the piece, the audience responded with delighted laughter during her performance of Ligeti’s third etude.

OAW continued this conversation with Stefanovich about expanding one’s musical space, her own struggles to dig deeper, and her upcoming projects to promote contemporary music.

OAW: What is it like to be a concert pianist and a mother of a six-week old baby?

It’s a complete state of being in love, so everything seems to give me energy. Everything makes more sense and feels more natural. You breathe differently with a baby. You cannot be hectic, you cannot be hysterical, you cannot be neurotic and feed the baby. So the baby calms you down and puts everything in a different perspective. This is how all of life should be approached because accessing all your potential energy requires you to be calm. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to combine the two worlds.

OAW: How do you find your own space and energy while on stage?

Being on stage is just the resume of all the things you have done in your life and the way you live, so finding your own energy on stage should be something natural, just like going and communicating with people. For me this is the key word: to go and communicate. Not to go and triumph or make a sensational recital. But to really communicate.

While performing you cannot be swallowed in the neurotic kind of thinking that you have to make magic or that you have to do something unusual, special, or original. Those things happen when you’re not expecting them. The daily work, the daily preparation, everything that you do for years on end is much more important than the moment you are on stage.

OAW: Did you struggle with the obsession of becoming a virtuoso?

Of course! When you’re young you want to prove that you are the next big thing. It is very important to allow yourself to go through the phase of high tension. Good interpreters are those who have too much of something, but who find their golden middle as they age. When you are between twenty and thirty years old, you cannot expect to be as ripe as one who is fifty or sixty. The music business makes kids who are between twenty and twenty-five into stars, and then you watch these young artists become more and more explosive as they try to be sensational. Then they burst, and there is not much left. So you must allow yourself a long development process. This is the key for art.

As a teacher I see so much of myself in the young students who are pushing themselves so hard in the wrong direction and not seeing how well they are doing in a different area. They try to be the best in everything, and especially to be sensational. It is important to push yourself, to see what are the frontiers and what are the limits that you have and then to accept the limits. That is very important. There are many things that can be taught but mostly developing artistry requires time, age, and letting yourself ripen.

OAW: How do you combine intellectual pursuit with the artistry of piano?

The intellectual side is everywhere; it’s not a separation from artistic qualities. Artists talk about just being instinctive and just being natural and not thinking. This is funny to me, because composers do not write like in this manner. They sit. They plan. They structure. They form. They shape. They decide how every single note is supposed to be. And then they redo it. Of course there’s the initial impulse and the instinct. Of course it’s emotional, but it’s so much more! So when you interpret, you should use all these tools as well. To be the inspired dramatic hero while playing piano is naive.

You must approach a work from all parts of your brain and heart and muscles, from experience and non-experience alike. I had a student who was a wonderful musician but who had a bit too much wind around him and not enough earth. I tried to help him recognize and respect the composer’s written word by having him copy one page of a Mozart piano sonata, which in terms of composition does not have very many marks. After half an hour he was close to tears and said, “Oh, I need to stop, there is so much!’ and I said, ‘Yes! Even though Mozart composed with such incredible speed, for each note there was a decision.’ You go right, or you go left. You decide to put this marking or not to put this marking. It’s extraordinary how disrespectful we treat the work! When you feel like you are so important as an interpreter, just copy a page of any composer’s work.

OAW: Why learn contemporary repertoire?

For me, the question to learn or not to learn contemporary literature doesn’t even come to mind because I think to ignore today’s composer’s is extremely arrogant. I would rather ask people who don’t play contemporary music why they don’t. It’s unfortunate that learning contemporary music is viewed as unusual because we are ignoring a hundred years’ worth of music deliberately. It’s a choice, yes?

Ever 20th–21st century composer has his or her own grammar. Each composer is a new world that you have to learn. Before that we had the tonal system and all the structures were the same. Suddenly we had this explosion of new styles. So to be able to say, “I don’t like new music,” means that you must intimately know hundreds of composers! It’s actually impossible to say that you don’t like any of them.

OAW: What is the connection between liking and understanding music?

People say, “I like it. This is good.” Or “I don’t like it. This is bad.” We have this one life, and isn’t it incredible to hear pieces where you can’t feel the earth under your feet? Where you don’t know what you are listening to, but it opens up new spaces in you that you must discover?

We cannot know everything. Learning to stay open-minded and curious is extraordinary. Can you really tell me that when you go to a museum and see a Rembrandt that you really understand it? You don’t. Of course we have people who have done research and can explain things to you, but the last drop of mystery is still there. That’s a masterwork. We don’t know how nor why it is so strong.

Masterworks are not good or bad or even beautiful. But strong. New and extraordinary. Like a late Beethoven string quartet. Do we really understand that? I don’t think so. It’s a bit prejudiced to say, “Well, if I don’t understand a piece, it can’t be good.” I would just say, “Please explain to me that Mozart symphony.” Write a word for each bar. See if you can come up with an explanation. You can’t. There is something that escapes us, and that is the beauty of art. We want to escape into a world that is not defined by our prejudices.

OAW: What attracts you to particular piano works?

I like things that surprise me and challenge me, that aren’t easily understood on the first listen. The first time I came across new music, well, unfortunately I was studying at [Philadelphia’s renowned Curtis Institute]. Curtis, being such an extremely well known and exclusive school, has many positive sides, but one big negative side was that contemporary music was completely ignored, at least in my time.

The first time I heard a Boulez piece I was 24, and it was the first piece of music I didn’t know if I liked or not. I was just flabbergasted. I was in awe of what I heard, and I liked that feeling! I wanted the audience to experience this need to hear new things without the need to label it.

Stefanovich enjoys working (with piano students. Photo: Ursula Kaufmann.

Stefanovich enjoys working (with piano students. Photo: Ursula Kaufmann.

OAW: As a piano teacher, how do you incorporate contemporary repertoire?

I am a mother of a very small baby, and I hope that I become a good parent just by showing my child a good example. It’s similar with my students. My students and other young pianists hear me play, and they say, “I want to play the piece you played!” So something ignited them. My passion translated into them wanting to experience the same passion. It’s maybe not even about the work itself but about the way you live through the piece.

Also, I will take many, many scores of many composers and will present and explain them to my students. Then they are allowed to pick their own pieces. It is very important to me that they have the choice so they feel “I have picked this piece, so it is mine.”

For example, I presented Boulez’s Notations to young female students in Germany between thirteen and sixteen. These Boulez pieces are not the easiest: playable but difficult. The students are not wunderkinder with exceptional talent, but they are musical and are studying piano. So I said, “Here are twelve pieces. You can choose to play them or not. If you tell me you don’t want to play a single piece from this collection, that’s fine, or you can choose to play as many as you want.” They all decided to play. At the end I presented a concert of these teenage girls, dressed in their beautiful pink dresses with all the innocence of their age, playing Boulez with such passion! They were given the tools to understand and the freedom to choose to play. And they are still playing these pieces. It was not just one moment.

I come back to the United States to do a tour in March playing all the piano pieces by Boulez. I’ll be sharing the program with Pierre-Laurent Aimard. I hope that I can ignite some sparks in some young pianists to try and tackle some of these works!


If you missed the concert, try pairing this recording of Stefanovich performing the Sinfonia from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826 with her performance of Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s Dialoge for two pianos and orchestra.

Next up from Portland Piano International is pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who will also present more contemporary American sounds on her Monday, December 15 recital: George Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas and Nico Muhly’s You Can’t Get There From Here.

Jana Hanchett is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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