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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 7 April 2008

Anton Kuerti: Making Connections

by Lucie Renaud / April 13, 2008

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One of the truly great pianists of this century,” “a superb Schubert player” (CD Review, London), “his playing had a remarkable consistency” (Houston Chronicle), “the best pianist currently playing” (Fanfare), “an intellect playing at the highest level” (Die Welt), Anton Kuerti has concertized in forty countries, mastered fifty concertos (one of which he penned himself) and has recorded a number of discs, including the complete Beethoven sonatas and concertos, which continue to be regarded as highly influential. According to Die Welt, “There is no other Beethoven sonata cycle with such mystical inner excitement.” American Record Guide raves: “It is difficult to say whether to marvel at Beethoven or at Kuerti, because they seem to become one. Here is a moving experience which allows us to glimpse eternity.” Clearly, his playing stirs up superlatives, but it would be a mistake to limit him to these labels alone. A generous artist, he doesn’t hesitate to offer recitals in smaller or more remote Canadian communities, often at a reduced fee, or to take part in a variety of benefit concerts for charitable organizations such as OXFAM, SOS Children’s Villages or Water Can. “An ideal chamber music musician” (New York Times), he has collaborated with some of the most influential artists on the international scene, such as Gidon Kremer, Yo-Yo Ma, Janos Starker, and the St. Lawrence, Tokyo, Guarneri, Cleveland and Colorado Quartets. Friendships have been formed over the years through performances: violinist Angèle Dubeau, with whom he recorded a definitive version of the Schubert sonatas, didn’t hesitate to invite him to take part in a March 2007 concert celebrating her 30 years as a concert violinist. Cellist Denis Brott, a frequent collaborator with Kuerti (notably at the Festival of the Sound, an annual event founded by Kuerti in 1980), invited him to take part in the opening concert of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, which is dedicated to Beethoven this year. The next day, May 2, he will be honoured with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award. “I’ve developed a wonderful collaborative partnership with Anton for about 35 or 40 years,” explains Brott. “He’s a true friend. I consider him to be one of today’s great musicians, and I have a great deal of respect for him, both as a person and as a performing artist.” For the May 1 concert, which is shaping up to be an exceptional one, Kuerti will perform Beethoven’s monumental Appassionata sonata, and will be joined onstage by Jonathan Crow, Marie-Ève Poupart, Marcus Thompson and Denis Brott in Brahms’ Quintet in F minor. Also appearing is Wonny Song, one of his protégés, in piano works for four hands by Mozart and Schubert. “He is a very accomplished artist and he has developed an excellent style of his own,” according to Kuerti.

Born in Vienna on July 21, 1938, Kuerti grew up in the United States before immigrating to Canada in 1965 (he has held Canadian citizenship since 1984). At the age of four and a half, without consulting his parents, he asked his preschool teacher to give him piano lessons. At nine, he added the violin to his curriculum. Two years later, he played the Grieg concerto with the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler. In 1957, he earned the coveted Leventritt Award, the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Prize and made his Carnegie Hall début with the New York Philharmonic. He reflects on the influence of his two mentors, Arthur Loesser and Rudolf Serkin: “They were very different,” he underlines. “Rudolf was an inspiring and inspired person: devotion for music, respect for the score. You could learn so much from watching him. Lessoer was my best teacher. He had a scientific analysis, basically, of which note to play louder and which note to play softer, which is one of the main things we can influence. At the same time, he also radiated a great joy of playing and an appreciation of music, not only by the great masters, but also music of lesser value with great charm. He enjoyed music of many sorts. He was a great antidote to the snobbishness of many other musicians who were not at all interested in music that was on the borderline of salon music.”

Kuerti aims to break down the barriers between genres (in 2002, he assumed the directorship of the world’s first festival dedicated to Czerny). He also hopes to break down barriers between generations, which is why he offers his gifts as a teacher to young pianists in masterclasses, academies, festivals, or in his capacity as visiting professor at the McGill University Schulich School of Music this year. “I find it surprising and encouraging that many of the fine young musicians that I have encountered don’t come from families where music is particularly treasured: they found music on their own, and I think this supports the notion that it should be introduced to young people, that all of them should be exposed. Some will find great meaning and happiness in it.” When he speaks of music education, his convictions are clear: “We can never take any artistic or cultural status as necessarily permanent. It depends on people needing it, appreciating it and wanting it. Music has been a part of every known culture; it has great meaning and value, and it deserves to be sustained. Receiving the Governor General’s Award is a great honour for me, of course, but I think what is most important is to recognize the arts community beyond who got the prize: to demonstrate our concern, interest and support of the arts, which is unfortunately not so evident in many of the branches of government. The arts are of vast importance in human as well as economic terms: keeping them alive is a wise investment.”

For Kuerti, actions speak louder than words: “In my teaching, I work with people who are already very committed to great music and I try to help them achieve the highest standards and the greatest understanding they’re capable of. I think that a great deal of teaching can be accomplished simply through performing, just by exposing young people, many of whom may have had very little experience with music, to great music. It’s crucial not to try to play music in order to protect one’s own reputation, but rather to feel the responsibility of the art form resting on one’s shoulders.”

It would be needlessly simplistic for him to speak of music strictly in terms of technique, phrasing, or musical intentions alone. “I think it’s all part of a whole, and in order to express music beautifully, you must have technical abilities: what great performers do is really on the border between the possible and the impossible. If that’s all there is, it is not going to convince people. You’ve got to have some humanity and deep emotions. It’s all tied together, the technical understanding, the interpretation…it’s all part of a whole.”

Music, in all its forms, has always been a part of Kuerti’s public and private life, which he has shared with cellist Kristine Bogyo, founder of the Mooredale Youth Orchestra and the concert series of the same name, who lost her battle against cancer in April 2007. (This relationship was featured in a documentary presented in 2002 by CBC Television: A Marriage in Music). He is also the father of Rafael, a cellist who currently works in a music store, and Julian, the assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On March 11, he didn’t bat an eye when he replaced Leon Fleischer, at a moment’s notice, in Beethoven’s Emperor concerto; in so doing, he had the pleasure of playing under his son’s direction. “It was a great thrill to play with my son last week. When you’re called at the last moment to perform like that, you feel less pressure. You tell yourself that if things don’t go so well, people will understand. In a way, you can play in a freer and more direct way.” Even if the perfect concert doesn’t exist, perhaps this one came close: “When you lose yourself entirely in the meaning and expression of the music, when you have no problems with the instrument or unwanted noise, once you forget the vulnerability of the situation, you can devote yourself entirely to the feeling of transmitting the beauty of the music.”

When asked on what terms he hopes his artistic mission will be remembered, he pauses: “I like to think that I try to join together the responsibility of a performer who really respects the composer with a more individual, more romantic approach that does not bind you so closely to a traditional way of performing.” In spite of all the honours, Anton Kuerti conscientiously looks forward to performing in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, the United States, Germany, participating in major festivals, learning new things, composing new works, teaching a new generation of pianists, and finally, making a wide variety of connections...one note, one phrase at a time. n

[Translation: Graham Lord]

-Montreal Chamber Music Festival opening night, May 1, 2008, 8:00 PM. St. James United Church, www.festivalmontreal.org

-Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, May 3, 2008, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, 613-755-111, www.nac-cna.ca/ggawards

-Kuerti’s new CD of Six Piano Sonatas by Hadyn on Analekta (AN 2 9933) will be out on April 1, 2008

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