The Prepared Pianist: Paul Roberts returns to Portland

Paul Roberts gives a lecture-recital and master classes in Portland this weekend.

Paul Roberts gives a lecture-recital and master classes in Portland this weekend.


 “There are two aspects of preparation,” explains concert pianist, master class clinician, and writer Paul Roberts about learning to play a classical composition. “One is simply practicing at the keyboard. The second really interesting aspect is reading around your piece. For example, you find out who Liszt was, then you discover that he drew inspiration from Petrarch; you therefore become very interested in Petrarch and discover how Liszt identifies with Petrarch. You then in some way bring that to bear on your interpretation, and that is when things get a bit difficult.

“In the final stage, which is most mysterious of all, you figure out what you’re actually thinking about when performing these pieces. For me, when I am playing I don’t think of the poetry at all. I’ve sublimated all the preparation into the music, but I’m profoundly aware that somewhere along the line that preparation has gone into my interpretation of the music.”

 Roberts will demonstrate his penchant for preparation February 22-24 during his mini-festival called Performance and Communication, which includes a lecture-recital and two free master classes. Roberts first came to Portland through Portland Piano International in 1991 and has since given more than 50 master classes to Portland’s piano students. At his lecture-recital “Liszt, Love and Petrarch: The Pianist as Narrator,” Roberts will elucidate the connection between composer and his inspiration. Franz Liszt composed three sonatas each inspired by a Petrarch sonnet for voice and piano in the 1840s, and then made his more popular version for solo piano that Roberts will perform in Portland.

Despite his fascination for the source of composers’ inspiration, as a performer, Roberts ultimately returns to the artistry of the composition itself. “In the end, the musical work of art is autonomous,” he says, “and, in one respect, I do believe that we can actually find our understanding of it purely from the music itself.”

Or does he? “And yet another side of me insists, ‘Ah yes, but nevertheless I want to find out about what inspired the composer.’ So I face both ways,” Roberts confesses. “I feel the music is an end of itself, and yet the inspiration going towards it is essential. It’s a paradox that I have not resolved in my mind and maybe that’s one of the essences of art: unresolved paradoxes that create this kind of spark.”

Master Classes: Expanding Possibilities

In his master classes, which this time cover works by Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt, Roberts promotes an inquisitive approach to teaching analogous to his own exploratory attitude toward composers, one that encourages open dialogue between performer and audience to achieve meaningful communication.

“I don’t have any answers,” Roberts told ArtsWatch, “but what I’m doing is asking questions. What is it that we musicians do in order to communicate? I hope to get some discussion in one of my master classes with the audience by asking, ‘What is it that you received? Was it successful?’”

This connection with the audience is essential to Roberts, both in teaching and performing. “The real interesting aspect of a master class is that the audience can sit there and listen to these fine pianists give lovely performances and think, ‘Oh, what could possibly be said? It’s just lovely!’ and they are absolutely right,” Roberts says. “Then the so-called ‘master’ comes in and subtly suggests different ways and subtly demonstrates other possibilities. That’s very exciting for the audience because they suddenly start re-judging their original perception of the performance and it deepens their understanding of what is possible. There are many possibilities; the master class doesn’t show the way it shows other possibilities which can be tremendously enriching for everyone concerned.”

Roberts will present master classes (free and open to the public) on Saturday, February 22, 9:30 am-12:30 pm; 1:30 pm-4:30 pm and on Sunday, February 23, 1:30 pm-4:30 pm at Portland Piano Company, 711 SW 14th Avenue. His lecture-recital follows on Tuesday, February 25 at 7:30 pm at The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., Portland. Adults $30, Students $15, tickets available online.

Listen to the fascinating interview Portland writer David Abel did with Roberts for ArtsWatch last year.

Jana Hanchett is a Portland pianist, teacher and writer.

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