by Jeannette Fang
As mentioned before, Barnes is an out of the box thinker, which he demonstrated at Tuesday’s masterclass by using his newly purchased shoes as a “dolce analogy.” Crazy? But effective! He passed it around the audience, having them touch the rather indecently delightful leather, which, truth be told, made quite an impression of connecting what feels SO good to what would sound as good.
Chia Yun Tsai started off the morning with a strong performance of the Beethoven’s Sonata op. 57, playing with energy and control. Pleased, Barnes was warm and friendly, chatting to the students like they were his best friends. (I believe this is the only way he can possibly treat people.) He talked first about how to make the musical surprises more obvious, expressing the interesting nature of Neapolitans; (“I am a total sucker for a flat ii”), and conveying how “the most important expressive tool that we have as a pianist is time.” He engaged the audience by asking “what is the greatest musical sin: to come in early, or to come in late?” (The answer is to come in early.) In the spirit of tying things together, Barnes makes a joke about how “Beethoven’s being a good minimalist here – he’s basing the entire piece off of the f minor triad.” He brought in good points about pulse, and about how “99% of the time, air space is your enemy as a pianist.” He stressed how one should not wait to bring out wonderful moments; “You only have one chance to make that chord beautiful…every single sound you play as a pianist has to have intent and has to be voiced beautifully.” Another wise comment was how “you’ve got to be able to emotionally connect to the way that Beethoven speaks, and not how you speak.” When giving technical advice, he was still the jokester, appending the advice of how “with repeated notes, I like to let the piano do all the work” with the side comment of “because I am fundamentally a very lazy person.”
Yi Wen Hou played next, with the expressive and sensitively rendered Sonata-Elegie in d minor by Medtner. One of the main elements Barnes stressed was noting the resolution of suspensions. “If you guys have the option of resolving things with your fingers, it’s always better”. He also emphasized having more consistent power in voicing, which he illustrated by singing along with her, which also showed her how stretch the expressive melodies. He put the student at ease when asking for more expressive chromatic resolutions, saying “if you haven’t already realized-I’m a sucker for half-steps.” His excitement was infectious, the energy never seeming to wane; he was so happy to talk about each beautiful moment, and really seemed fueled by each improvement the student made. Always entertaining, he advised her to play the coda more subtly and not like a “can-can”, telling her to taper the syncopated rhythms so that it was not uncharacteristic. He talked to the all of us with casual familiarity; “Did you know that you can do finger legato from thumb to thumb? Really cool.” And; “Do you know what my favorite articulation in the planet is? Slurs over dots! Portato! You know why it’s my favorite? It’s from Italian Opera! It illustrates every expressive point!” Enthused, he told us that “everyone out there should understand your articulation, everyone should understand that we have a physical way of communicating every expression.” This sentiment led him to expound on why he believes emotive expression is so important. “I don’t want to create this army of cerebral pianists. I think that’s the worst thing to call someone, because that means the focus is on the brain.”
Hanqian Zhu was the last to go, playing the third and fourth movements of Beethoven’s opus 110 with thoughtful and heartfelt conviction. He talked mostly about tempo relationships and how to “create a more special world” in the suspended timing of the opening. His thing was expressing through the fingers, using touch to create the emotional pull, stressing how “finger touch” is the pianist’s best friend. He gave fingering advice in terms of the repeated notes, saying how one should be “right on the key” and let the instrument bring one’s finger back. He mentioned how one shouldn’t forget to express with the left hand, illustrating the practice technique of isolating the left hand to be aware of its expressive nature. “You need to make sure that that left hand is so understanding of everything that’s going on.” For timing, he commented on how one should take time with decrescendos because “it’s much easier for human beings to crescendo”. The great fugue brought up good points on how to feel the register and entrances more fully. He even related the fugue theme to a chant, talking about the importance of its resolutions and how to make each theme distinct through emphatic use of space. He talked a lot of about sensible articulation, where he mentioned that the octave entry of the theme should be beautiful and regal. Timing was also an issue he clarified, especially in creating enough pause for the subitos. Throughout the class it was clear that he loved this piece dearly and was invested in maneuvering through it with Zhu.
All in all, Paul Barnes gave us an energetic burst for a morning and a great launch to a day of much piano music.