by Jeannette Fang
July 21, 2014
Yoshikazu Nagai likes to listen. He poses a question to you and then waits with slightly unnerving calm as you fumble, because the questions he asks are not ones that really have a right answer. They are ones that ask for your interpretation, opinion, and feelings.
In Tuesday’s masterclass, he made it a point to begin each commentary with a direct question to the student about how they think about the piece. And he didn’t just ask; he waited for their answer, letting them search for what they really meant instead of jumping in quickly with what he believed the piece should be about.
Dan Cao began the masterclass with the Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude from Liszt's Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses. He played with a strong singing line and passion. And his answers to Nagai’s questions of “what does this very personal piece mean to you?” were assured. It was clear that he had thought a lot about the piece, though perhaps not about how to word it in front of a large group of people. But Nagai let him speak for awhile, trying to honestly figure out the student’s brain before moving to the topics of Liszt and faith, and how religion was more important to Liszt in this particular time of retirement from the concert stage. He urged Dan to paint with broader strokes, to not follow the bar lines so much but to follow the phrase.
Euy Jong Choi followed with Ondine, from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. She played earnestly, hearing the line carefully, and building the piece into an impressive climax. Nagai approached her with the question of “can you describe for me how you would interpret this piece?” She considered her answer seriously, and it was through her answer that Nagai was able to see whether or not she was seeing the music vividly or more abstractly. He urged her to exercise her imaginative powers to convey the mystery and allure of the piece.
The last to play was Chuhan Zhang, with Scriabin's 2nd sonata.. She lingered beautifully, setting the perfect atmosphere with her perfectly controlled tone, and knowing the right moments at which to unleash great power. Nagai’s question to her was more a rhetorical opportunity; “do you want to tell us this piece is about, in your opinion?” This led to talk about the ocean, and about how the sonata was written about the Baltic or Mediterranean sea. He urged her to be less active at the opening, and to maintain the specific rhythm of the gestures as it is the stamp of so many of Scriabin’s works. In this way, the beginning of the piece would be less likely to be too fragmented.
It is refreshing not only to see such a formidable intelligence in such an unassuming mien, but also to see such an earnest desire to help young talent through music. After all, one only knows how to help someone if they take the time to truly know them.