You arrive, check in at your hotel, rehearse. Then comes the concert. Afterwards, you have dinner, maybe a reception. The next morning, it’s off to the train station or airport – and on to the next stop. This is how most guest appearances in the classical music industry tend to play out. As a result, our impressions of the places where we perform and of our encounters with the people who listen to us remain fleeting. A chance to spend time, before or after our own performance, with the colleagues who are sharing the stage is even more unlikely.
At the Lucerne Piano Fest, which will take place for the first time in 2023 under my artistic direction, I want things to be different. My aim is not to present stars whose schedules are micromanaged down to the last minute but individualists who take time for a somewhat longer stay, who become engaged in genuine encounters and who – just like me – want to make an impact through their art that lasts beyond the moment. I hope to create an atmosphere of openness and trust so that we have the opportunity to listen closely to each other, and I am convinced that the intimate atmosphere of a private concert can be conjured in the KKL Luzern as well.
All of us who make our living at the keyboard have been familiar since early childhood with the reality of endless hours of lonely practice. We spend that time not merely studying how to use our hands to get difficult pieces to “work.” Forced to rely on ourselves, we seek direct communication, a way to speak through music and to reach out and touch the people who come to hear us in the concert hall. These periods of isolation only intensify the need to share spontaneous feedback and community with you, our audience.
Two principles have guided me in conceptualizing the Piano Fest. The first is my desire for everyone who participates to stay in Lucerne for the entire duration, if possible, so they are able to interact not only with the audience but with each other as well – on and off stage. Second, I find it important to show how notated and improvised music, classical and jazz, discipline and freedom can coexist.
It was almost 20 years ago that I first met Alexei Volodin. Even then we were eager to collaborate. The Russian pianist, a longtime resident of Spain, is one of the most serious and conscientious performers of a remarkably broad repertoire. He combines a wonderfully luminous sound with a fascinating, profound shading of voices and temporal flow. Alexei and I will join to play the opening concert, interpreting classics for two pianos by Mozart, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy, and we will each play a solo piece as well.
Anna Vinnitskaya is a strikingly confident performer of some of the most demanding piano concertos whom I have admired for many years. I am equally excited by her technically superb command and by her richly imaginative approach to such pianistic visionaries as Chopin, Scriabin, and Ravel – composers who have decisively shaped the idea of a genuinely virtuoso piano style, but whose signature has till now remained less intuitively apparent to me personally.
This brings me to my own recital: while I begin by focusing on intimacy with shorter, songlike pieces that are tinged with melancholy, in the almost symphonically expansive second part I will explore private and political catastrophes from the first half of the 20th century. The Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony – performed here in a piano arrangement by Ronald Stevenson – is a deeply personal confession, while Prokofiev’s famous Seventh Piano Sonata from 1942 is a reflection on World War Two.
The American jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch, whose Variations on a Folk Song I premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2022 and which I also presented in Lucerne, will write a cycle of new Songs Without Words for me over a three-year period. The cycle will comprise three sets, each containing six of these lyrically suffused movements. The title, referring to Felix Mendelssohn’s precedent, is carefully chosen: Hersch regards his miniatures as “genre pieces that could be sung.” The result will be a small songbook comprising 18 numbers whose treasures, it is my hope, will endure beyond the Lucerne Piano Fest.
Fred Hersch, in his guise as a piano player, has impressed and influenced me more than anyone else in recent years. When I heard him for the first time years ago in New York at the Village Vanguard, he played his version of Billy Joel’s song And So It Goes as an encore. The way Fred phrased it, the way his fingers touched the keys and never quite left them, so that he basically seemed to be continuously exhaling: that was for me one of the truly great piano experiences. Fred will not only appear in Lucerne with his wonderful trio but will also play a solo program in which he and I will at times engage in a musical dialogue – just how that transpires will unfold with relative spontaneity.
The German pianist Johanna Summer, who was born in 1995, makes a very different connection between jazz and classical music. When I began to explore her program Schumann Kaleidoscope, which shifts from pieces in Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Album for the Young to improvisational excursions, I was immediately captivated by this young colleague’s poetry: headstrong, never merely agreeable. What she plays is clear, cool, unadorned, and precise. Johanna Summer treats her Romantic models with astonishing freedom yet at the same time impresses through the economy and precision with which she develops her own ideas.
To close the Piano Fest, we will present a “pianistic class reunion.” This will take the form of an entertaining relay race, with all participants appearing in turn onstage. We will participate in miniature competitions, much as Johann Sebastian Bach once faced his rivals at the organ – and much as they remain popular today in jazz or rap “battles.” But, ultimately, the important thing is playing together with a peaceful team spirit. In a variety of changing formations, we will join forces, enjoying the harmonious convergence of people who are normally used to creating a mood in the concert hall all on their own. I am sure that this will not only be great fun for us musicians – but for you as well, dear listeners!
I look forward to seeing you!
Founding Partners: Berthold Herrmann and Mariann Grawe-Gerber