La Fenice's pianist Diane Walsh describes her musical background, working with Peggy Pearson, her role in the Broadway play "33 Variations," and the future of chamber music.
How did you first get into chamber music? What was your first chamber music experience?
Well, my first substantial chamber music experience was when I was 16 years old. I went to the Merrywood music camp in Lenox, Massachusetts for two summers. And that’s when I first had the experience of having colleagues and playing duos and trios. It was just fantastic, and, coincidentally, that was the same summer that I met Peggy Pearson! (Although I didn’t play with her, I’ll never forget hearing her play in the Beethoven Eroica Symphony and the Brahms 4th Symphony.)
Pianists in particular tend to be kind of solitary creatures, because the piano is sufficient in itself, and we don’t naturally get thrown together with other pianists. But violinists or singers or oboe players almost always have to play with a pianist, so they’re always interacting. For me, this was a wonderful new thing and I really loved it.
Given the major differences in range and capacity between the piano and string or wind instruments—do you feel that the pianist has a distinct role in chamber music?
Yes. I believe the piano’s role is to support the other players. That’s something that I had to learn, when I was starting out. There’s a different kind of sound that the piano makes when you’re being a soloist. You want to project, and you want to sound brilliant and wonderful; that’s one kind of tone quality. But when you’re trying to blend with other instruments, that’s a different kind of sound. So I learned to make the kind of sound that blends, and also how to be responsive to colleagues. The goal is to blend your sound so that you have a unified tone color, which is hard to do when you’re playing an instrument that sounds so different from the others. So that’s a very rewarding project, that goes over many years and with many colleagues.
So from your experience both as a performer and, I’m sure that you’ve coached chamber music groups…
Yes I have.
And sitting back and listening when your colleagues play something in a quartet, or when you're not participating in a given piece, have you observed that they approach performing with you differently? Because, as you say, even the construction of the instrument is so fundamentally different from those of your colleagues.
Yes. I have occasionally had the experience, when I’m playing with new colleagues, that they’re sort of on edge because the piano can be such a powerful instrument, in terms of volume. It’s so big and you can play ten notes at a time, you know, so it can very easily overpower. So part of my job is to reassure them that I’m not going to drown them out, and I’m going to enhance their sound, rather than compete with it.
You mentioned new colleagues, but I’m going to ask you about some very long-time colleagues in La Fenice. You just told me that you met Peggy so young, and Peggy speaks of your group so fondly as some of her oldest and dearest friends, that the five of you just meshed so well together. You've told us how you met Peggy; how did you meet the other members of the group, how did it come together?
I met Marcy Rosen back in the 1980’s, I think, when we were both playing at the Caramoor Festival— I believe it was St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble that brought us together. I met Cathy and Maria both through Marcy, because she directs Chesapeake Chamber Music, a festival in Maryland that has been going for thirty years, and I’ve been there almost every summer since the beginning. I’ve been so lucky in meeting and playing with so many wonderful colleagues, but I particularly love playing with the four women in La Fenice.
Did you have a model or a mentor who influenced how you approach chamber music? And not necessarily a pianist, but they certainly can be.
Well, yes that’s a really interesting question actually. I had several mentors when I was still in school. My primary mentor was my piano teacher Irwin Freundlich, with whom I studied from the time I was eleven years old up until I was twenty-one, when I graduated from Juilliard. I didn’t actually study chamber music with him, but tone quality was very important to him, so that helped me when I played with colleagues. I was lucky enough to be coached by Felix Galimir at Juilliard, and also again at Mannes, when I went back to get a belated Masters degree. He was a violinist and played in the Galimir Quartet for over 60 years. He had deep, deep experience, having known Ravel, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg in Vienna, so he was like a conduit to decades of musical history and experience. So I was very fortunate to have been influenced by him. After I graduated from Juilliard, I studied with Artur Balsam for a year, too. He was a renowned chamber music player and accompanist, who played with Rostropovich, Milstein and Oistrakh, and I learned about being a supportive colleague both from his lessons and also from hearing him perform. Both Freundlich and Balsam taught me the importance of being versatile, someone who can be a soloist and also be a considerate chamber music partner.
I see what you mean. So I have to ask, having read your bio, I do have to ask you about "33 Variations."
Because it's such a unique point for a musician like you to have in your bio. And I want to know how you got involved in it and that sort of thing, but I also wondered if it was in any way comparable to a chamber music experience, because you were performing live every night with these actors.
Yes, it was actually very comparable. The way I got into it is that a colleague of mine, a pianist named Peter Vinograde, called me back in the mid-2000s, and told me had had gotten a call from a theater company called Tectonic Theater Project. They were creating a theater piece about the Diabelli Variations of Beethoven. Peter didn’t play then, and he knew I did, so he said, “If you’re interested, why don’t you give them a call,” so I did! It led to my auditioning for the playwright, Moises Kaufman, who also directed all four of the productions that I was in. I played for him in this little rehearsal hall near Times Square in New York. It was a bad upright piano, and I played through a bunch of the variations, including the Fugue and the Finale, and then we just chatted about it. At the time, he was obsessed with this piece and the idea of creating a play from it, and I had just performed it a few months before, and was similarly obsessed with it, and something clicked, and that’s how it all began. I took part in a few workshops where he worked out the scenes with actors, and the piece started to take shape into a play, and then we had an out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C., and two years later we were on Broadway! It was quite a journey! Playing the same music every night was a new experience, too. I was a little worried, but it turned out to be a pleasure, watching the actors perform every night. There were always subtle differences each night, which kept me on my toes. I never got bored, and I never got tired of the piece either, which is a tribute to the greatness of Beethoven’s music. Any other piece might have gotten very old after a while!
I don't know if this is possible, but can you give an example of one way in which you and the actors might have played off of each other in a performance?
Well, there were several monologues where the music had to be exactly times to finish with the end of the speech. A couple of speeches that Jane Fonda had, we rehearsed again and again so that it would time out exactly. The high point for me of the whole play, is towards the end there’s a duet between me and the actor who plays Beethoven. He’s creating the fugue, Variation 32, in his mind, and kind of stomping around the stage in the throes of creation, and he says, “now the theme is in the treble…now it sinks to the bass…pianissimo…forte!” and he describes what should happen in the music a split second before it actually happens in the music. He’s not reacting to what I’m playing, he’s evoking it, for me to illustrate—that’s the theatrical effect, but in fact he has to say it before it happens in the music, which is quite tricky. Plus, once I get going, it’s very hard for me to stop and wait for him—actually, it’s impossible! So we rehearsed that scene for many weeks to get it exactly coordinated. It’s very dramatic, and most nights there was applause which stopped the show. I also had to be loud enough for the music to have full expression, but not too loud so the words couldn’t be heard. That kind of teamwork really is the essence of chamber music!
Did Kaufman have any musical background, did he rely on you, did he use you at all as a resource, as the play was being created?
Yes, he used me as a resource. He does have some musical background, and he plays the piano and reads music, but he is not a musician. He did a tremendous amount of research about this piece, and he became an expert on this one piece by Beethoven, after reading many biographies and analytical works about the piece, but when the play was being workshopped, he did rely on me to answer musical questions. I also suggested some variations which would work with various scenes. When the play ran on Broadway, I was Music Director, and helped rehearse the actors when they sang sections of the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven, as well as teaching them their musical cues for certain monologues. The meshing of music with text was my responsibility too. It was a unique experience for me.
Obviously the last question about that play is, what was it like to work with Jane Fonda?
Well, it was wonderful. She was a great colleague. She’s so famous that the first few seconds meeting her were a little scary, but she was just so natural and welcoming—I mean the first time I met her, she immediately gave me a big hug. So it was very easy to work with her, and she was a really hard worker during the rehearsal process, too. She absolutely was not a diva at all. She hadn’t been on Broadway for over forty years, and preparing something for live theater is really hard work, and she was absolutely a workhorse.
One night when we were both leaving the theater at the same time, she asked me to come have a drink with her at Joe Allen’s. So we got in her limo and rode the four blocks to get to the restaurant, and when we walked in, there, at a round table in the back, was James Gandolfini (who was then starring on Broadway in a different play) waiting for us. So I had a martini with “Tony Soprano,” and he teased me about being a martini-drinking pianist. Actually, I never drink martinis, but it seemed like the right thing that night!
Is the play published in the Samuel French edition now?
Yes, and I helped to edit it before publication. It is a unique document, because it has all of the piano music incorporated into the script, note for note, right where it occurs in the play— about 35 minutes of music.
What an incredible experience. And did you ever think that you would see a play, or let alone be involved in a play, about a musicologist?
*laughter* No, I certainly didn't! And yeah, it really unfolded in a very surprising and wonderful way.
Before we wrap up, I just wanted to know about this upcoming concert. I know that you've rehearsed, and I think performed, most of the pieces from it already down at Chesapeake [Chamber Music], and I'm just wondering, what are some of your "wow" moments for this concert? What are you really looking forward to?
Well, I'm in just one piece, the Brahms G minor quartet, and that is always a sure-fire audience pleaser, because the last movement is a Rondo in Gypsy-style and it is always very, very effective and brilliant, and people always go nuts for it. The last movement of course is very effective and wonderful, and an instant crowd-pleaser, but the other three movements are really subtle and dramatic have a lot of feeling, and I always really enjoy playing Brahms chamber music because it has really special sensibility. And I'm also looking forward to, although I'm not playing in it, Lev Mamuya's pieces: he's a young cellist and composer who Peggy has mentored. You probably know more about it than I do, but I'm really interested in hearing it myself, because I don’t know his music.
Yeah! This is actually going to be Lev's fifth piece for Winsor, which is just amazing. I think he's only 20 or something, so...
There are videos on YouTube of him playing cello when he was eight years old... He's a phenomenon.
Exactly. So, to get the spirit of the season: it is our twentieth anniversary this season, so I wanted to know, what are some of the changes that you've observed in classical music over the last twenty years?
Yikes! I think it just gets harder and harder to... how can I say this? It feels like classical music is losing some of its popularity because it seems harder and harder to get audiences to come. And there's a lot of different reasons for that, but the funny thing is that the people who DO still come to concerts, are just so full of love and enthusiasm for it. So you just get this mixed message from the world, that some people get distracted by popular culture and whatever else is going on in the world that they sometimes forget about these wonderful, timeless masterpieces that are still so full of nourishment for all of us. And yet the people who do still go to live concerts, they're so full of gratitude for the experience. And so, I guess it's kind of a glass half-empty, glass half-full situation: you can look at it as a good thing, you can look at it as a bad thing, depending on your attitude. But just for myself, I'm happy to still be playing music and have people want to come and hear it; I guess that's the bottom line. I enjoy performing, and I'm very glad that performing classical music is still a thing.
What would you like to see happen over the next twenty years? Where would you like to see us twenty years from now?
Well, I think it's up to the next generation. I spent forty years as a teacher, and I've tried to pass along the musical values I learned from my teachers to my students, and and now it's up to them to take that out in the world. And if I look at it that way, I feel very hopeful, because I feel like they're ready to do it, and many of them are already doing it. And, oh gosh, so many issues come up. When I was first becoming a professional musician it was all about, well for a pianist at least, it was all about entering as many competitions as you could, and winning as many prizes as you could, which would supposedly lead to a career. But, I think that chamber music is the opposite of that view: it's more about communication and friendship and emotion and all those wonderful things, and so I think that chamber music may be the saving grace of the whole profession. That's what makes us really feel good as musicians, it's what makes the audience feel good, and so I hope that young people today who are going to be the performers of tomorrow, are aware of how important that is, and how it should be part of their lives. It seems like an increasingly kind of difficult task to take on these days anyway, to hope to be a soloist. And so, chamber music is a built-in, wonderful way to make a difference in the world as a musician. That's kind of a shortened version, but I hope that makes sense.
Well, on that note: this has been brilliant, thank you.
Well sure, my pleasure.