Sunday, October 25, 2009

AfriClassical Interviews African American Pianist Eldred Marshall

The website of pianist Eldred Marshall is AfriClassical interviewed him on Oct. 21, 2009:

You must have a busy schedule?
I do have a busy schedule!
What do you do these days; are you teaching?
Actually, I am a graduate student at Southern Methodist University.
So that's how you're in the Central Time Zone?
How long have you been a graduate student at Southern Methodist University?
This is my first semester. I pretty much just started!
I gather that this concerns Music?
It does. I am getting my Master's in Piano Performance.
What city is that located in?
Dallas, Texas.
I understand from your website that you started playing the piano at age 6, is that right?
That's right.
Your first public performances were at age 7?
Where was that; at a recital?
It was a student recital at a studio in Los Angeles.
Do you have musical influence from your family?
Did it help encourage you to a career in music?
Yes, they encouraged it. In fact my pursuance of piano actually is my Dad's idea. I went along for the ride!
Does he play too?
No, he plays trombone. But his Mom had dreams of being a concert pianist. But she didn't have the funds to finish Conservatory.
So it was passed down two generations to you?
It goes even further back in that line. It goes back – I counted back about 5-6 generations.
Is that right?
What part of the country did you grow up in, Eldred?
I grew up in California in the San Bernardino area.
So that was your entire experience growing up, in that part of California?
Yes, it was in the Los Angeles and San Bernardino area.
I see that you have two CDs out now, the first one, I believe, is called “Eldred Marshall: Live and Uncut”?
Could you tell us what's on that CD?
The CD begins with Liszt. Then it goes to Haydn's Sonata in C Major, Op. 15, No. 10; Bach Chaconne..
So Liszt, Haydn and Bach so far. Are there any others?
Liszt, Haydn, Bach, Schumann Fantasy in C Major and a work that I created.
Your second CD, is that entirely works of Brahms?
Yes, it is. It's the "Piano Sonata, Op. 5, No. 3 in F Minor," "Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119."
How would people order the CDs?
They can order from my website.
As for your music education, you indicated that you graduated from Yale with a B.A. with honors?
That's right.
I believe you had a major in Political Science?
Yes, that's right.
And the Music Minor Equivalent?
Yes, because Yale doesn't award minors. Most other institutions do.
While I was at Yale I studied Piano at the School of Music with Elizabeth Parisot. I took sophomore level theory while I was a freshman, and that pretty much constituted my involvement with the Music Department.
So during your entire period at Yale you were also studying Music as well as Political Science?
And Spanish, yes.
I see the connection to Spanish with the institute in Salamanca in Spain?
That was before you had graduated from Yale, right?
Right, I had taken a semester off to go study in Spain so I could speak more fluently in Spanish and take more classes.
What was it like to study in Spain, from January until June of 2002?
It was a good experience, the other culture, another country and to speak another language.
Were you in a language immersion?
Were you with other Music students?
No, I was with other general students.
What opportunities did you have to experience the music of Spain?
Well, while I was there, Mrs. Parisot had sent a letter over to the Conservatory of Salamanca, to let them know I was a student of hers, I'm a Piano student, I needed a place to practice, and if there were any kind of arrangements that could be made for me, so be it. So then I had an interview with the Director, who allowed me to pretty much use the school's resources while I was there. So because of that I was able to go to all the recitals, go to concerts at a discounted rate; it was really good! And also, Salamanca was the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2002, so there were even more artists and more orchestras coming in than would have normally come in.
Oh, so there were many guest artists there?
Yes. I didn't get to see all of them but I knew they were there.
After you completed your program at Yale in 2003, what did you begin doing?
I started working for my local State Assemblyman, John Longville, as a Field Representative.
How long did you work for John Longville as a Field Representative?
I worked for him during his last term in office...
Was that two years?
It was almost two years. Then I worked for my County Board of Supervisors Member, then I worked for other elected officials during that six-year period before I went back to school to get my Master's in Music.
So this is quite a transition for you to go back to school after six years?
Not really. I feel like I was in school yesterday and haven't forgotten how to be a student! But before I came back to school I did teach in my own studio. I accepted advanced students as well as some beginners. I really prefer the advanced students. I also did my own series of concerts, at least from 2007 onward. I also had competitions in 2006, to try my hand at them and see what they were like, while I was in Italy for five weeks.
How did it go?
It didn't go so well! I played well but I didn't know about competition politics and other things.
Is there anything else you'd like to say about that period of competition?
I will say it was good to meet other pianists my age, to see what else they were doing and learn from them, look at their experiences and what they've done. In that sense it was more of a piano festival.
When did you take up this project of performing all 32 of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas from memory?
I first got the idea when I was a teenager. I read that Camille Saint-Saëns had done it all by the time he was 13. Barenboim did it by the time he was 18. So I figured, well, “They did it. Why don't I try it?” So I pretty much cracked open the books, started from Page 1, worked my way through. I had already performed several of the sonatas for my teachers before – the “Moonlight”; the “Appassionata”; the “Waldstein.” I already had the Beethoven thing behind me, but I just wanted to see if I could actually go ahead and complete the project. So while I was at Yale I really spent a lot of time studying Artur Schnabel, studying other editions of Beethoven Sonatas, really finally looking at the Classical era as a whole, really getting back into my Haydn, into my Mozart and really seeing, okay, “How does this really work?” After I graduated, I started reading books on the Beethoven Sonatas, like a book by Charles Rosen, or Robert Taub. I was trying to get more of a specialized point of view. Before I performed the cycle, I sought a piano teacher, so I could get an idea how the Piano Sonatas are performed on original instruments. So that was my impetus to meet up with John Khouri, who's based in the Bay area.
That's the San Francisco area?
Yes, so he and I, while I was in Sacramento, where I lived last before I came to Dallas, he and I really worked through a lot of the execution issues and interpretive issues. He pretty much guided me through both the Portland and the San Francisco Cycle Projects.
Was that the entire cycle that you did in Portland?
That was the entire cycle from September to December of 2007. Then I moved to San Francisco and did the whole thing from January to May, 2008.
So two complete performances of it?
Two complete performances. I know that Andreas Schiff and others will take parts of the cycle and do it in different locations. In that way, it is working smarter, but for me, to go through the cycle once and then go through it again really was a revelatory experience!
Could you give some examples of things that you learned?
Things that I learned? One, I actually learned how to pedal Beethoven. A lot of piano teachers and pianists take a very dry approach to Beethoven, thinking that because the original instrument didn't really have pedals they way we have them, let's just not use it. After you go through the cycle you really see how Beethoven really was big on pedals! I bring that up to accentuate the fact that I discovered – Beethoven, I could see how truly farsighted he was in terms of composition! I could see how he would create Debussy at one point, how he could imagine Schubert, how he could picture Chopin, or even, at one point in the Opus 111 second movement, I felt Schoenberg's “Six Piano Pieces” were the next logical step, just the next logical piece to play, right after that, skipping almost a century of piano music! I mean it was all there! So I really got to appreciate the man as well as the composer, that when it came to pure piano playing, Beethoven is excellent for developing one's technique! Although Haydn and Mozart are working on scales and doing them in a great way, Beethoven just takes it to a whole new level. You're not only dealing with scales, you're also dealing with thirds, because he's also influenced by Clementi. And also, from Beethoven, through the cycle I really learned how to listen to what I'm doing! Because if you just go up there and just pull the pedals down and beat the hell out of the piano, you may get a standing ovation from those that may not know much about music, but in the end, you will not get anything out of Beethoven! So in doing that, I had to come back, look back, look at the bigger picture, listen to myself almost as if it were like playing a string quartet, or if it's more of an orchestral scene here, you think orchestrally, you pretend you're a conductor. So through the cycle, all of those lessons, plus many more, I learned.
Well, that's quite a bit!
Yes. And I would love to do the cycle again because, not tomorrow or anything, but I want to give it some time to rest. If I come back to it, it's like a whole new experience. Coming to it with a new set of eyes, new set of ears, I'm not tainted by my most recent performance.
Do you have a particular relationship with children's orchestras? I see several concerts that you have scheduled in the past and also in the future, one's in January?
The children's concert that's in January, I didn't pick that, the Symphony picked that.
I see.
But the special thing about that concert is that, instead of doing the traditional two-hour concert with intermission, just so everybody can applaud and go home, and drink wine, this concert is more of an hour, and there will be a lot of discussion of the music, for the families, for the kids. For that particular concert, there are two of them. Instead of just doing one subscription concert, there are two concerts. There's one on Friday morning for the children, one on Sunday afternoon for the kids and the families. I can be given an opportunity to speak if I want to; the conductor will say his words about the pieces or try to help make sense of it, it helps to be developing an audience for the next generation.
Was that your idea to choose the particular Piano Concerto No. 9, the “Jeunhomme”?
No, I didn't choose it, although I'm glad they did. Initially they chose No. 25, which is also in my repertoire, but somehow the conductor decided No. 9 would be a better fit, better choice for the program, and I know that one too, so it worked!
I see.
Actually I think he did make a better choice in doing No. 9 because of the Mozart piano concertos, that is one of the more accessible ones, for those who aren't piano or Mozart buffs.
I see.

And, what's special about the Mozart Piano Concerto is Charles Rosen felt that the “Jeunhomme” is really Mozart's Eroica Symphony; that's his equivalent.
That's his first great work and after No. 9 we really start getting into the Mozart we really know, not so much the juvenile.
It's a hefty work. It sounds easy but it's not easy to play or to put together.
Do you have any other incidents that you'd like to relate to us from your musical experience?
One thing that I would like to talk about is that even though Beethoven does figure fairly prominently into my musical repertoire and into my musical existence thus far, I refuse to say I'm a Beethoven specialist!
You want to be a generalist?
Well, I choose my composers and repertoire selectively, and I do an analysis of them in depth. And that's how I chose to do a Brahms CD. I at one point I was considering a Brahms cycle – didn't get to do it – but I worked up a lot of the piano work for Brahms, a lot of the intermezzi, some of the sonatas, the ballades, the Variation on a Theme of Paganini as well as the Handel, so I figured, “Well let's go ahead and finish that up.” I didn't get a chance to do it, but really working through Brahms allowed me to not only get a better appreciation of Beethoven, but also get a better appreciation of Mozart, and, eventually, Bach. So it was through that channel I decided, “Let me as a mature musician, not so much as a student or a little kid, take up Bach.” So after the Beethoven cycle was done, and I kind of caught my breath, I decided to pretty much retrace my steps for the Beethoven cycle. I had done the “Goldbergs” first when I was a teenager, at 17 years old. But of course, when you're 17, you're not really playing much!
I see.
But now, when I came back to it, I get really in depth into my Bach. So feeling out the “Prelude and Fugue,” feeling out the “English Suite,” the “Partitas” and the “French Overture,” really informed my performance of the “Goldbergs,” which pretty much went well! Some performances were better than others, but it was really refreshing to do that and to go back to Bach. And now, I am working on the Schubert “B Flat Major Sonata, D960,” and I will be playing that in a recital next month, pairing that with Beethoven's Opus 111. So having the two last words by Beethoven and by Schubert in one concert – I mean the program itself looks beautiful, I just hope I can play it as beautifully as it looks on paper!
It does sound like quite a challenge!
Yes, it is!

(At the end of our interview, Eldred Marshall told us about his program, “Classically Black”. We will present his comments on the topic tomorrow as an essay.)

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