A Conversation with Pianist Findlay Cockrell
I wonder at times whether the fact that classical music is increasingly lacking in popularity, particularly among young people, does not stem in part from the image classical musicians project. That is, whether by choice or otherwise, many high priests in our temple of worship come across as aloof, unapproachable, and seemingly unaware that a world exists around them, waiting to be reached. To the uninitiated, this aura of impenetrability makes the music we love intimidating and, slowly but surely, the number of consumers of classical music dwindles away, classical music stores close their doors, and concert hall audiences get smaller and smaller. One need only spend five minutes in the presence of pianist Findlay Cockrell to understand that things really do not have to be that way. Classical music can be tons of fun, and it can also be enjoyed by listeners who have yet to take a music appreciation class. All it takes is imagination, commitment, and master performers like Cockrell. In connection with his release of a recording on the Albany label titled “Findlay in Blue” (Albany 1414), featuring short works by George Gershwin, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Morton Gould—or the “Three Gs,” as the pianist calls them—I interviewed Cockrell in New York City. Joining Cockrell for the interview was his “best friend” and producer William Carragan, a harpsichordist who just happens to be one of the world’s foremost Bruckner authorities.
At the beginning of the interview, I asked Cockrell (who was previously interviewed by Robert Schulslaper in
34:3) how he reconciles his commitment to the core works of the pianistic repertoire with the fact that all of his recordings (including the most recent one) include works that are rarely heard in the concert hall. Cockrell responded: “Like most of my colleagues, I am very attracted to the core works of the repertoire, but I am also aware that most of the things I would like to play and record have been played and recorded
. So, as much as I can, I try to keep things fresh, which at times means presenting well-known works in an original—and perhaps even provocative—way. Take, for instance, my all-Bach CD, which is titled
The Well-Tempered Steinway
and was recorded on a modern grand using Bach’s tuning temperament. The album, which can be ordered through my website, findlaycockrell.com, includes all of the preludes from Book I of
The Well-Tempered Clavier
, alongside several little-known works, such as the
and the three-voice Ricercar from
The Musical Offering
. Most listeners would probably find it somewhat curious that I omitted the fugues, but the fact of the matter is that, expectations aside, it is perfectly acceptable to perform only the preludes. It bears mentioning that W. F. Bach’s
itself includes nearly a dozen of the preludes minus their accompanying fugues, so there is every reason to believe that Bach conceived a great deal of the preludes as free-standing works. Plus, linking the preludes as I did, by following the circle of fifths, seems to me to make a lot more musical sense than following the canonical formula everyone has heard, which was put together based on catalog, rather than musical, considerations.” I asked Cockrell why he thinks the
are so rarely performed. “Frankly, I don’t understand why they are not heard more. They are so inventive and ahead of their time. Many music theorists seem to believe that bitonality is a 20th-century invention, but Bach used it a long time ago, in the second
. I bet that if you played some of this music for someone who has not heard it before, he or she couldn’t tell that it is Bach and might even think it was written in the 20th century.”
Given that the world is yet to fully accept and appreciate some of Bach’s works, I asked Cockrell (who studied piano at Juilliard with Eduard Steuermann, a staunch advocate for then-contemporary music) if he still believes that there is hope for relatively new works to make their way into the hearts of classical music enthusiasts. He responded: “I am an optimist by nature, and I think there are always ways to get people interested in hearing new things and then wanting to hear them again. Over they years, I’ve played a fair number of 20th-century works, for instance Morton Gould’s
for piano and orchestra, which I recorded for the Albany label. I think that the key to getting an audience interested is making sure that they don’t feel threatened by the program. In my experience, that usually means that you need to surround new or less popular works with things audiences affirmatively want to hear. Let’s face it—it does not happen very often that someone buys a ticket to hear the ‘new work.’ Audiences come to hear Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and that is the way things are likely to be for as long as we will have classical music. But once people show up at the concert hall, you usually have their attention for the duration, or at least until the intermission hits. And that presents the opportunity for the performers to offer the audience something out of the ordinary. It’s all about being resourceful and imaginative.”
Has he had to be resourceful and imaginative over the course of his career? “Of course. Some of it was by choice and some of it wasn’t. Here is a story you will appreciate. Since the mid 1980s, I’ve been going to Barbados (where my wife and I now own a condo) to perform concerts in all kinds of venues. During one of my trips, I was supposed to play a chamber music concert in a school, with a woodwind quintet and a double bass player. When I arrived with my ensemble, I heard the sound of the piano, but oddly enough it wasn’t coming from the room that was supposed to be the concert hall. And when we walked in, much to my surprise, there was no piano on stage. I asked the school official, ‘Where is the piano?’ and he pointed me to another building. I thought to myself—‘What to do? Could I possibly play the piano from the distance?’ That clearly wouldn’t have worked, so we had to change the plan on the spot. My colleagues ended up playing the entire Haydn Divertimento, rather than just the one movement they had programmed. Since I never pass up an opportunity to perform, I decided to still make a contribution even if I didn’t have a piano on which to play, and, in fact, I ended up
a single line from the piano part of the ‘Fugace’ movement from the programmed
for Flute and Jazz Trio. The kids loved it, probably much more than if everything had worked out according to plan.”
Does he split his time between Albany and Barbados? “My wife and I spend a good part of the winter in Barbados, and, thanks to the organization Partners of the Americas, I usually play concerts and recitals every time we visit. We spend the rest of the time either in Albany or in Napa, California, where my wife and I have a property. It’s actually not ours anymore, since we sold the land to a very fine winery, but we have the right to use the farm for as long as we want. The new owners were also nice enough to build an amphitheater on the property, where I perform outdoor concerts. I keep my old Chickering in California, and every year I roll it out to the amphitheater to perform Liszt and whatever else. (Chickering was Liszt’s favorite American-made piano.) My Napa recitals usually end up with a potluck dinner, which is really just an excuse to meet the people who were kind enough to come hear me play.” Does he like interacting with his audience outside the concert hall? “Very much so. I always think of recitals and concerts as an opportunity to meet new people, and there is no reason to end the conversation once the music is over.”
I asked Cockrell if he’d ever performed two-piano transcriptions of Bruckner’s symphonies with Carragan. “Yes, we did that once, in the late 1970s. Will, who I believe is one of the greatest Bruckner scholars, decided to complete Bruckner’s last symphony, the Ninth, based on hundreds of pages of sketches Bruckner wrote for the fourth movement. Will did an absolutely wonderful job, so he asked me to record his completion with him, in a two-piano reduction, so that he could send it around to get conductors interested. We made the recording and sent it to a few conductors. Moshe Atzmon, who was then the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, was very enthusiastic about Will’s work, and he performed the premiere of the completed Ninth at Carnegie Hall in 1984. Since then, many conductors and orchestras have used Will’s completion. I am glad to have played a role, however small, in the project. I should add that, while I have not performed a lot of Bruckner in two-piano transcriptions, Will and I have collaborated in many other regards, and we’ve played a number of two-harpsichord transcriptions he has made, including of Brahms’s
. Maybe some day we will even make a recording of some of his (very good) transcriptions.”
I asked Cockrell how he came up with the idea for his “Thee Gs” disc, which in addition to including works by three composers whose last name begins with the same letter, is also organized around the number three, in that it consists of three Gershwin preludes, three miscellaneous works by each of Gershwin, Gottschalk, and Gould, three works from Gershwin’s
Porgy and Bess
, three etudes based on Gershwin songs by Earl Wild, and an encore by Gottschalk. “That’s a good question,” replied Cockrell. “This may be my only recording where things just fell into place without there being a grand design at the beginning. About eight years ago, I played a recital (which was recorded) that included 12 of the 19 works on the disc, and I was quite happy with how that turned out. So I thought about what else I could include to make it a worthwhile recording. I picked a few more works to complete my groups of three and to allow the recital to be presented as it is on the disc, in sets of three, plus an encore.” What about the title (
Findlay in Blue
), I asked. “Will came up with that, and I think it is pretty clever! Incidentally, the booklet that accompanies the recording has an interesting mini-essay on the meaning of ‘The Blue Note.’”
Are there more recordings in the works? “As a matter of fact, there are. I am working on a two-disc recording of Schumann and Chopin. The Chopin selections will include one of each of the genres Chopin wrote in, i.e., one mazurka, one prelude, one ballade, one polonaise, etc. I am sure you find that odd, but believe me, it will all fit together very nicely. And, of course, the Schumann disc will include ‘Chopin’ from
and the ballade Chopin dedicated to Schumann [i.e., the second ballade, in F Major/A Minor].” Sensing that Cockrell had come up with a clever title for the album, I asked him if he’d picked a title. “Of course! It will be called ‘A Couple of MEN from Eighteen-TEN.’”
Sleepless Night. Merry Andrew. Novelette in Fourths. Jasbo Brown Blues. “
Summertime.” “I Got Plenty o’Nuttin’.” Three Etudes.
Souvenir de Porto Rico. Berceuse. Manchega. Le Banjo.
Blues. Pavanne. Boogie Woogie Etude
Findlay Cockrell (pn)
ALBANY 1414 (54: 41)
Artur Rubinstein reportedly liked to refer to himself as the happiest man he had ever met. I suspect that if Rubinstein had run into his fellow pianist Findlay Cockrell, he might have given some serious thought to revising his aphorism. Cockrell, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person, is indeed a happy man, someone who lives to perform and communicate through music, and his optimism, enthusiasm, and vitality shine in this new recording, featuring short works by George Gershwin, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Morton Gould. To cut right to the chase, Cockrell’s imaginative recital provides nearly an hour of pure fun, and while it is true that none of the featured music leaves much of an aftertaste, I doubt that anyone who hears it will care. Put differently, Cockrell’s recital is all about enjoying the moment and being inspired by it.
There are several reasons why the recital holds together remarkably well. First, it is cleverly organized: Although Gershwin receives top billing, the album features three composers and works that are presented in groups of three. Second, Cockrell keeps things interesting by mixing works that are relatively well known (e.g., Gershwin’s preludes, Gottschalk’s
Souvenir de Porto Rico
, or Gould’s
) with works that are rarely heard in the concert hall or on record. Third, the spirit of jazz permeates the entire performance, including the Gottschalk works that were heavily influenced by Creole music. Finally, Cockrell supplies consistently fresh and technically astute performances throughout. Although he is not a jazz pianist, Cockrell’s nimble pianism and intuitive music-making fit this repertoire like a glove. It is true that there have been pianists who occasionally bring more light-heartedness and élan to some of the featured repertoire—for instance, I will never forget how stupendously the young Benjamin Grosvenor played the
in his New York debut—but, at the end of the day, Cockrell’s seasoned artistry is hard to resist.
The quality of the sound engineering is very fine. The album was recorded on two different concert instruments during recording sessions separated by nearly eight years, but, at least to my ears, the sound is consistent, warm, and transparent.
A terrific recording, which I enjoyed a great deal.
Radu A. Lelutiu