Program Three: The Orchestral Imagination
Five Questions, Five Fingers: A Conversation on the Left Hand with Orion Weiss How has Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music influenced your career?
My introduction to Korngold came with his suite for the left hand, two violins, and cello. I love that piece and the amazing challenges it offers. I love the beauty and creativity in the music. Korngold writes out incredible rubato. I also played the Much Ado About Nothing suite for violin and piano. That piece is charming beyond belief. It makes you want to jump into the air.
Once I started playing Korngold, I sought out his music every chance I could get. It’s really hard not to love it. We all know the sound of Korngold, even if you don’t know it’s him — just from the way people write movie scores now. It’s lush, romantic, and sweeping, and filled with so much humor and so many surprises. So to get to learn this Concerto...I’ve been looking forward to playing it for a long time.
What do you find unique about Korngold’s Piano Concerto for the left hand?
You’re on one path, leading to one place for half an hour. It seems like there’s only one main idea in the music, but Korngold transforms it in so many different ways. For instance, the second and first themes are basically the same in structure but they’re worlds apart in energy.
What I think is amazing about the feeling of the piece is that it builds, builds, builds, and never really gives you a satisfying, comfortable climax until about 22 minutes in. And then you finally get to this glorious return — 8 minutes of everybody celebrating what we’ve arrived at. It’s one of the great arrivals in music.
What is it like to play a piece for the left hand?
Playing pieces for the left hand is a unique feeling on the piano. For instance, I remember when I first played Ravel’s left hand Piano Concerto, I was playing it on the same program as one of Mendelssohn’s two-handed Piano Concertos. After rehearsing the Ravel, I went to start rehearsing the Mendelssohn, and found that my right hand had become completely incapacitated.
When you’re playing a piece for only one hand, it feels like your neuro-pathways all switch. The connection from your mind to your right hand just drops. It gets diverted.
The challenge...you know, a lot of people ask, “Why don’t you just take some of those notes written for the left hand and play them with your right hand? Why does it matter?” Well, you ruin the excitement. If you were to start cheating and stealing notes with the right hand to facilitate the difficulty, you lose a lot of what makes a left-hand piece so special. The struggle of it, the surmounting difficulty, the climbing of the mountain gives a visual story to the music, and also a physical story for the performer. It’s completely inseparable from the musical content.
It definitely takes endurance, but just by consistently practicing, you build up the muscles and the energy to play for half an hour with just the left hand.
What do you do before you perform? What is your pre-performance ritual?
I don’t necessarily have a plan for what I do. I just go with how I’m feeling. If I’m feeling tired, I nap. I try not to practice too much, and not practice too little. Concentrate. Take a few deep breaths. I just try to feel as centered and focused as possible. Sometimes meditating, sometimes talking with a friend, sometimes practicing. Every night is different.
What do you hope people take away from your performance of Korngold’s left hand concerto?
With any first performance of a great work, there’s a sense of exploration and discovery that I can’t anticipate. I’m going to know every note of it, have rehearsed it thoroughly, and understand the feeling of it, but for the first time I’m sharing it with an audience...I can’t expect what they’ll feel. It’ll be surprising and exciting. Hopefully it’ll sweep them off their feet.
It’s one of these pieces that’s just swashbuckling, like The Sea Hawk. It’s incredibly bravura with all kinds of showing-off techniques in the writing, and swooping lines of the piano. That’s the plan: to have everyone carried away with this utterly wild piece. It’s definitely wild, but with real moments of beauty and ecstasy. As a listener you should feel ecstatic. It’s not understated music. It’s whatever the next level is beyond “heart on your sleeve.” It’s like “heart on your friend’s sleeve.”