Interview with Steven Masi
Steven Masi is an artist at the piano. He not only plays all the notes with a fine technique, he also captures the spirit of the pieces he chooses to perform. He has played chamber music with illustrious ensembles and toured both Europe and the United States. He also loves to teach, so his affection for great piano music is now being passed down to the next generation.
Q: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
A: I was born in the Bronx and grew up in North Bellmore, Long Island. My family were working class and not particularly musical. Although my dad, who was Italian, liked to sing, it wasn’t always a pleasure to listen to him. My mother, a former Cooper Union student, was artistic. She worked as a retoucher for some of the great photographers at
Magazine. One of them was Irving Penn. Her skill was a little bit outside of the framework of our family’s working class sensibility.
Q: What was your first musical instrument?
A: My first musical instrument was the accordion and I took lessons on it for a while. When I grew and it became time for me to get a bigger one, money was tight and my family was hard pressed to find some for a new accordion. My aunt was able to get a good deal on a secondhand piano, so one day when I came home from school I was told that I was switching to piano! I did not really like the idea. However, shortly after that I was home sick from school and watched a movie about Chopin on television. It starred Cornell Wilde. The muscular actor looked nothing like the composer, but when I saw that movie I fell in love with the piano. I wanted to grow up to be Chopin.
Q: What did you do after high school?
A: I went to Juilliard, where I studied with Sascha Gorodnitzki. After I saw that one movie I never had another thought in my head. I knew I would be a pianist, but I have not always been smart about how to pursue my dream. I did well at Juilliard and enjoyed being a student there, but maybe another school would have been better for me. Gorodnitzki was a fine pianist. He had a rather middle-of-the-road approach and he wanted his students to play that way. He didn’t impart any particular philosophy, but he was very much concerned with having us follow the score. That was positive, but his teaching had little poetry to it, at least for me. He used to say things like, “You don’t want to do anything that might offend someone.” It was the way to become a good pianist, but not necessarily a great artist. He was a great teacher for those entering competitions, but the playing that he encouraged was not very interesting, especially with regard to rhythm. Ultimately, I did not get that much out of his classes. At that time Juilliard was grounded in the old Russian tradition. You got the teaching method and philosophy of Josef Lhévinne. They also promoted the Russian repertoire: Rachmaninoff, the Tchaikovsky concertos, etc. Unfortunately, that’s music that I don’t really respond to. There was a bit of a conflict there. They wanted me to be a burning virtuoso and I had a very good technique, I could handle all of that. It just was not what I was interested in. I was interested in Mozart, Schubert, and of course, Beethoven. The pianists I was listening to were not the pianists Gorodnitzki liked. When I said I loved Wilhelm Kempff and Claudio Arrau, he would simply dismiss them. Thus, there just wasn’t a great deal of rapport between my teacher and me. He was a fine man and I liked him personally. He was a really good pianist and had a beautiful sound. It was just that his sound was always the same, no matter what music he played. It’s important to have a variety of sounds. The way a passage is conceived, and the resulting sound you give that passage is what matters to me. In the light of this, it’s interesting to note that national characteristics are disappearing. In the first part of the 20th century, pianists of different countries had particular ways of playing. You don’t hear that much any more. Now, we use all the technology available to us and it tends to even things out. Years ago, every great pianist had his or her own wonderful color. People had their preferences and they were all valid. It made for lively discussion among music lovers.
Q: How did you come to go to Germany?
A: When I was playing at the Busoni Competition in Bolzano, Italy, I met some people there who invited me to play chamber music with them in Bonn, Germany. Their pianist had left the group and they were looking for new people. I read with them and I ended up staying there. I lived there for about three years and then I went back and forth for a while longer.
Q: What was Bonn like?
A: I lived in Bonn for a while when it was the West German capital. I think the Germans were a little bit embarrassed that this tiny town was their flagship city. It was flooded with American singers because the government was building up its opera company at the time. Since the Germans were pouring money into the arts, we all reaped the benefits. There was a lot of money available for artistic pursuits, including the city chamber group. I do not know what it’s like there now, but life was great there for musicians in the 1980s. I haven’t been back for a few years, but I think the downturn in the economy has affected Germany just as it has every place else. I don’t know if they still have the kind of support they had then. I did a great deal of recording for German radio. I was part of a superb chamber music group that was very active. Chamber music is an immense pleasure for a musician and I love it. We played a lot of concerts and met musicians from all over Europe. It was a great experience. There are still many more opportunities to play chamber music in Europe than there are here. It was kind of crazy to come back, but I did it anyway because I missed my friends and I really missed baseball. It was an odd thing, but it bothered me that I couldn’t just go to a ballpark and see a game. I was born in the Bronx and I’m a Yankee fan. It had been part of my life and I missed it. Sometimes I regret returning when I did, but for the most part I think I made the right decision. Eventually, I stopped going back to Germany and I did not keep up my connections. Once things started to go well for me in the States, I could not accept their engagements, but not going back there meant giving up a lot. Here, I play a great deal with other people and that’s very gratifying. My wife, Diana Petrella, is a clarinetist and I often play with her. I also collaborate regularly with cellist Barbara Mallow. Solo concerts are exciting and I love them, but there’s nothing like the thrill of working with inspiring musicians.
Q: How did the Chopin movie come back into your life?
A: Once, when I played in Phoenix, Arizona, the local newspaper interviewed me and I mentioned the effect that the Chopin movie had on me. The next day a lady who had read the story and owned a video store brought me a copy of the very old movie. Only when I watched it again did I realize that it was in color. We only had black and white television when I was a child.
Q: Where do you live now?
A: Now I live in a great town for musicians, Leonia, New Jersey. A charming little town, it’s an island of musicians in a sea of shopping malls. I feel that I have found a home there and I teach at the Jewish Community Center Thurnauer School of Music in nearby Tenafly. I have a busy life because I teach at least four hours every day. I’m very interested in younger kids and I have some amazing students. My pupils range from five years old through college age. I really like teaching at the elementary and high school levels. You have a lot of responsibility with these youngsters because you’re shaping their musical lives. When they are truly gifted, the rewards are immeasurable. My students are really wonderful. I hate to sound corny, but they do bring me a lot of joy. They’re great kids.
Q: What do you like about teaching?
A: People ask me why I don’t teach in a university or conservatory, but I did not start teaching until fairly late and frankly, I like teaching this younger age group. Right now the music world is changing in a way that I don’t particularly enjoy. I like to keep people playing the piano and thinking of it as an art rather than a sport. It’s not just for display. You need to have a technique that supports your expression, not one that draws attention to itself. The youngsters I teach are being brought up in kind of an old school approach. I’m their teacher and if that’s what they choose, it’s what they get. In a competitive world, music seems to have become a leading extracurricular activity, a means of helping students get into good colleges. It’s a big thing now. There are even ads for local music schools that offer to help students with their Ivy League school applications. The public education in New Jersey is pretty good, but most of the time it does not include music. We’ve always taken for granted that Schumann and Beethoven were part of the firmament, but they are in danger of disappearing. Budgets are cruel.
Q: What kind of music do you listen to for relaxation?
A: If I am just listening for pleasure, I’ll put on songs from the American Song Book with its music by Kern, Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and the others. I particularly like to listen to Fred Astaire because I think he was an amazing singer. You can learn a great deal about musical line from him. You know, more great songwriters wrote songs for him that any other singer. I also like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, and I have a soft spot for the Beach Boys.
Q: Is it a problem to have a different piano every time you play a concert?
A: That’s the life of a pianist! Basically, you always have to play whatever is available to you. Sometimes it’s a pleasant surprise and other times it is a complete disaster. I’ve found some of the best pianos in the most unlikely places. There are times when I was expecting something a bit better than I got and I was disappointed. As a pianist you have to roll with the punches because if you don’t, you are beating your head against a wall. You simply have to deal with what you are given. It’s a good life lesson in any case. I know it makes the Steinway people angry, but I love Bösendorfer pianos. The German Steinways are wonderful, though. My recording of Volume 1 of the Beethoven piano sonatas was done on a wonderful Hamburg Steinway, but I also love the purity of the Bösendorfer. You have to know how to play them, though. They are not as cushy or as comfortable as a Steinway, but the rewards are great. Also the kind of music that I like to play is suited to that sound. You want different instruments for certain types of music. If you are well known enough, you can have your instrument altered by your piano technician so that it gives you the sound you want. I saw an interesting documentary about a German piano technician who worked for various pianists. It showed the things that he would do to prepare pianos for different players. Some of the well-known pianists seemed to be very demanding. They wanted the sound completely changed, especially if they were going to play Bach. I don’t perform a lot of Bach, but I love that music. I’m shy about playing it in public because his music is from a different world. When you play his music on the piano you are basically playing a transcription, and you need to have a great deal of confidence in your ideas. It’s something that I think I might put on my plate for later.
Beethoven had no idea of what kind of instrument his music would be played on today. We always assume that composers from the past would have liked our modern instruments, but it might not be true. Some of the qualities that could be heard when the music was played on the old pianos have been lost now that we made the instruments stronger. The old ones had completely different sounds in the different registers. Modern piano technology has evened out the differences in the registers. If Beethoven were alive today, he might consider the sound of our pianos rather muddy. He might have composed a different type of music if he knew he was writing for our pianos. I do love period instruments, but I don’t play fortepiano because I also love the sound of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven on the modern piano. I think it can be done very convincingly if you compensate for the differences and take advantage of the strengths.
Q: What is it about Beethoven’s music that attracts you?
A: More than anyone else, I think Beethoven represents a meeting of the opposites: the sacred and the worldly. I think he is the absolute embodiment of the Divine within humankind. It’s a non-musical answer, but I think it is important to think of Beethoven that way. To me, he expresses the entire spectrum of what we all experience and feel: our struggles, losses, victories, descents, and those moments when we reach for the beyond.
Q: What other composers’ music do you like to play?
A: I love playing Schubert almost as much as I love playing Beethoven. Schubert was a remarkable genius. One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I’ve never performed regularly as a song accompanist. Last year I played a recital with an English singer named Liz Clark. That was the first time I ever performed Lieder. We did a Brahms program and I loved it. It’s a specialized field, though. Collaborative artists are thoroughly immersed in that field. I remember meeting Martin Isepp who used to play for Janet Baker. He was an interesting musician and I learned a lot about music from talking to him when I was at Juilliard. I love playing Brahms, Schumann, and Debussy. Schumann is my favorite romantic composer. I also like to play new music and to grapple with its problems. I enjoy meeting the composers and working with them to create something that’s never been heard before.
Q: Do you have other recordings out now?
A: No, this Beethoven disc is the first one that has come out in some years. It is the only one easily available now, although I recently came across one of the Beethoven Piano Quintet and the Thuille Sextet for piano and winds that I made in Germany. I bought it because it isn’t in the current catalog and I no longer had a copy! I will have recordings of all the Beethoven piano sonatas coming out during the next couple of years. The current disc is Volume 1 of a projected nine-volume set. I’ve already recorded enough for five discs, but we are going to space out the releases over several years. Actually, they may come out as 24 bit FLAC files because that’s the way technology is going these days. I like having the CD in my hand because that’s much more personal. Now you can no longer hold the thing in your hand before you buy it. You have to get it online. That’s foreign to me, but it seems to be the way the world is going. I’m rather old fashioned. I don’t even like cell phones!
Piano Sonatas: No. 15 in D,
No. 25 in G; No. 8 in c,
No. 28 in A
Steven Masi (pn)
CONCEZIO 2012 (78:10)
Anyone who records the Beethoven piano sonatas will find himself competing with all the great interpreters of that composer’s works. A quick perusal of the recordings currently available shows renditions of the complete sonatas by superstars such as Claudio Arrau, Alfred Brendel, and Vladimir Ashkenasy on Decca, Artur Schnabel and Daniel Barenboim on EMI, Wilhelm Kempff on Deutsche Grammophon, and András Schiff, who has only begun to release his discs, on ECM. It’s rather daunting competition. Steven Masi is an American pianist with an extensive background as a soloist, chamber musician, and teacher. In 2011 he began the gargantuan task of recording all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. Masi has released Volume 1 of the projected complete series and it is clear that his artistry allows him to compete in this rarified atmosphere. Like Arrau and Kempff, he concentrates on the introspective aspects of the sonatas. In 1798, the young Ludwig van Beethoven had moved from Bonn to Vienna. Although not yet renowned as a composer, he had a good reputation as a soloist and chamber musician who played concerts for the nobility. It was in this atmosphere that he wrote one of his most widely known pieces for the piano, the “Pathétique” Sonata, No. 8 in C Minor, which is thought to have surpassed his previous compositions by far in originality and depth of emotion. By 1800 he was regarded as one of the most important composers of the generation that followed Haydn and Mozart. The following year he wrote the “Pastorale” Sonata, No. 15 in D Major. The Sonata No. 25 in G Major dates from 1809, Beethoven’s middle period, and is one of those works that is said to extend the musical language Beethoven had inherited from Haydn and Mozart. In 1814, after illness and a difficult period during which he composed very little, he composed a piano sonata for the first time in five years. That was his No. 27 in E Minor. Two years later he wrote the final piece on this disc, the Sonata No. 28 in A Major, the first of his earth shaking last group of sonatas.
The first time I listened to Masi play these sonatas I thought there was something missing at the end. If it had been a live performance, the air would have been alive with bravos. If Beethoven’s music reminds us of our humanity and the fact that we are constantly reaching for that which is a few centimeters beyond our grasp, Masi reminds us that ordinary human beings can perform wonders when given the chance. Obviously, he has spent a great deal of time analyzing these pieces because he plays with fresh insight. His interpretation has a solid structure and his execution appears to be effortless. The clear sound on this disc gives the listener the impression of being in an intimate concert hall and the tone of the piano is perfectly transmitted. I recommend this recording to lovers of the piano who would like to hear a new, totally valid take on these familiar pieces.