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A Conversation with William Grant Naboré Founder of the Lake Como International Piano Academy

CC-July-Aug-2009---16
Nabore, shown here at a market in Rome, enjoys gourmet cooking.
Naboré as a teacher (light) with student Alessandro Deljavan.

 The International Piano Academy at Lake Como in Northern Italy is one of the most exclusive and prestigious international piano academies in the world. Founded by William Grant Nabon! and Martha Argerich in 2002, it continues the pedagogical tradition of the International Piano Foundation, which was founded by Theo Lieven in 1993 and directed by Nabon!. Each year, there are 700 applicants from across the globe competing for seven openings at the academy. 

Naboré, a native of Roanoke, Virginia, began his formal piano studies at the age of eight with Kathleen Kelly Coxe. At the age of 18 he won a scholarship from the Italian government and continued his piano studies with Carlo Zecchi, a pupil of Busoni and Schnabel, at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome. Later, he continued his studies with George Szell, Rudolf Serkin, and Alicia de Larrocha. He studied chamber music with Pierre Fournier in Geneva and won the Premier Prix de la Virtuosite and the Prix Paderewski from the Geneva Conservatory.

During a 20-year period in collaboration with the City of Geneva, he performed the complete chamber works of Brahms, Schumann, Dvorak, Beethoven, and Schubert, plus the essential works of the French and Russian repertoire, with ensembles including the Amadeus, Talich, Gabrieli, and Brindisi quartets. He was also active as a member of the Studio de Musique Contemporaine, where he performed European premieres of several important American works. In 1988 he founded the Amadeus Festival on the outskirts of Geneva.

Nabore has received critical recognition across the globe, serving as a Cultural Ambassador for the United States and appearing as soloist with the Orchestra Verdi in Milan, Orchestra di Santa Cecilia, Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, and the Munich Chamber Orchestra. His distinguished discography is broad and eclectic.

An outstanding teacher of his instrument, William Grant Nabore has attracted outstanding artists to teach at the Academy and share their talents with upcoming young pianists. This unique collaboration has formed some of the finest and most finished artists of the young generation. In the following interview, Nabore shares his ideas on a wide range of topics, including teaching, artistic development, culture, and the current professional climate. 

Naboré as a student

The interview 

What can you tell us about your training, background, and passion for the piano?

I did not come from a musical background in the normal sense, and I was not exposed to music as a child. My grandmother, an amateur pianist, came to live with my family when I was 8 years old and discovered my passion for music. She gave me my first lessons, but very soon afterwards I was fortunate to study with Kathleen Kelly Coxe, who had studied in New York with a pupil of Liszt! Two years later I was accepted at the very exclusive Hollins College in Virginia as a special student of the noted pianist and musicologist Anne McClenny Krauss. At the age of 18 I won a scholarship from the Italian government to study with the legendary Carlo Zecchi, a pupil of Busoni and Schnabel. I also studied with the eminent pianist and pedagogue, Renata Borgatti.

How did the International Piano Foundation get started, and how did you first conceive the idea?

The International Piano Foundation was founded by the industrialist Theo Lieven, an amateur pianist who wanted to provide outstanding young pianists with the best instruction from great teachers who were practicing concert pianists. The first group of teachers included Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Rosalyn Tureck, Leon Fleisher, Dimitri Bashkirov, Fou Ts ' ong, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for lieder accompaniment.

What are the ingredients you look for when admitting pianists to the Academy?

We are looking for exceptional, original talent. Artists that can renew the art of piano interpretation.

How do you go about making that difficult choice in choosing seven out of 700? What qualities do you look for? Good musicianship? Passion for music? Good attitude?

Artistry is the most important quality we look for, but a certain ambition is also important. Needless to say, all of the young pianists that we finally accept have an impressive command of the keyboard and outstanding musicianship. We wouldn't accept less. I, myself, have to make the final choice, and that is often not easy. Leon Fleisher once remarked that I have one of the best noses for talent in the business (laughs). I take this responsibility very seriously.

How do you go about selecting the visiting professors?

All of our teachers here are not only great concert pianists, but also great pedagogues with vast teaching experience. We try to give our young artists as many facets of musicianship from as many different schools of pianism as possible. Students need to be inspired and encouraged by great masters. Our distinguished professors include pianists such as Dimitri Bashkirov, Boris Berman, Leon Fleisher, Claude Frank, Peter Frankl, Stanislav Ioudenitch, Alicia de Larrocha, Dominique Merlet, John Perry, Menahem Pressler, Charles Rosen, Fou Ts ' ong, Graham Johnson, and Andreas Staier. Martha Argerich is our president and she oftentimes recommends very talented young pianists. 

Naboré with Charles Rosen.

Can you tell us something about the record of the International Piano Foundation and The Lake Como International Piano Academy's students in leading piano competitions?

Students of the Lake Como International Piano Academy and the International Piano Foundation have won an impressive array of prizes in some of the most prestigious international competitions, including the Van Cliburn, Queen Elisabeth in Bruxelles, Artur Rubinstein, Gina Bachauer, Chopin, Busoni, Casagrande, Santander, ARD in Munich, Geza Anda Competition, and the Gilmore Award, among others.

Our students have included Alessandra Ammara, Piotr Anderszewski, Nicolas Angelich, Luisa Roxana Borac, Davide Cabassi, Katherine Chi, Naida Cole, Alessandro Deljavan, Fran"ois Dumont, Severin von Eckardstein, Ingrid Fliter, Davide Franceschetti, Kirill Gerstein, Stanislav Ioudenitch, Markus Groh, Benjamin Kim, Valery Kuleshov, Vladimir Mischuk, Claudio Martinez- Mehner, Aleksander Madzar, Eduardo and Sergio Monteiro, Enrico Pompili, Cedric Pescia, and Alexei Volodin, just to name a few! We have also had pianists who did not do the competition route who have major careers, such as Fran"ois Frederic Guy, Jonathan Gilad, Claire-Marie Le Guay, Constantin Lifschitz, Alexander Melnikov, HaeSun Paik, Roberto Prosseda, Eugeny Sudbin, Sergio Tiempo, Daniel Wnukowski, and William Hong-Chun Youn, among others. Ninety-seven percent of our former and present students are under major management, and we are very proud of this record.

How is the Academy financed? Is the tuition very expensive for the lucky few that are accepted?

In fact, the students who are accepted pay not a farthing! It has always been like this. We feel that great talent has to be protected. Many of our students could never afford to study with such professors. One enters the Lake Como International Piano Academy only on merit. This is our credo and we intend to keep it that way. So far a few private donors have made this school possible, however, in these very difficult times, we must imperatively expand our financial base to guarantee the continuity of this unique institution. We welcome all new sponsors! 

Do you encourage students to study pianists of the past? Can this be done without compromising the students' creativity? Piano students in the 1950s all wanted to be Horowitz and many ended up imitating him instead of being themselves. At the same time, listening to pianists of the past can expose students to interpretative options that they might never have known existed.

I have mixed feelings about this. I don't feel that it is advisable to copy the style of a past era. What is important is to appreciate the qualities of the great pianists of the past. For example, what did Cortot have that we find so rare today? I think he had a superb poetic license (not musical distortion) that is not necessarily a priority among young pianists at the present. The priorities of today are geared more to impeccable mechanics, efficiency, and reliability.

Young pianists should concern themselves more with tonal beauty, a sense of phrasing, an individual touch (the pianists' DNA), and a broad dynamic range. These are values that don't attach themselves to an epoch but have to do with quality and finesse. Young pianists must listen with greater attention to themselves. Unfortunately we are invaded with so much noise in today's world-how can we hear and appreciate finesse?

Once when Murray Perahia was here some years ago, he came out of his practice room and said to me, "Bill, we are the only ones practicing SLOWLY!" He was right. Everyone was going to town at full speed, emoting all over the place with haphazard pedaling.

Claudio Arrau used to say that your emotions are very precious. You just can't spin them; you have to hoard them to keep them intact. Your practice studio is your laboratory. There you have to work things out. You keep your emotions for the performance.

Our culture today demands that a young artist impress with spectacular playing of a sort (mostly loud and fast). Deep emotions are rarely expressed in this way. Teachers should teach students how to evaluate their own imagination and how to bring out the essence of each work with full respect for the score.

What else could be taught to music students (other than music) that could help them understand the music better? Cortot had a deep understanding of art and literature, as well as of music history... So did Richter. Are students now focusing so much on their piano playing and their technique that they don't see it in a larger context? What are your feelings about the importance of students acquiring insight and knowledge about the other arts and culture in general?

A person of culture is a rich person, rich artistically. The richer you are, the greater your expression. The question of the infallibility of the note seems to have taken over from the spirit of the music. There are young pianists who seem to no longer validate this quality. That used to be the hallmark of all the great pianists of the past. Today it is very rare.

The greatest luck a young and talented pianist could have would be to encounter a teacher at a very young age who is cultivated, capable, inspiring, and erudite. This is a tall order, as such teachers are a vanishing breed. Taste and culture cannot be picked up at the supermarket!

It would seem that to be a true artist, one must be curious of all the art forms. Here is a great paradox of today's world: The more information that we have readily available (Internet, YouTube, libraries, etc.), the less students seem to develop the natural curiosity and capability to connect the dots that link the arts. 

Naboré with Leon Fleisher (left) and Menahem Pressler.

Can this curiosity be taught?

Absolutely! Music teachers, from the very first lesson, should work to cultivate the imagination of their young students. As children have so much imagination, this should not be such a difficult task. However, the students should also be encouraged to seek their own solutions and answers to questions concerning their vision of the music.

I remember my beloved teacher, Anne McClenny Krauss, marching me down to the music library at Hollins College and showing me how to use the index to find the answers to my many questions concerning the music I was studying. I was twelve years old. A whole new world opened for me! I spent many hours in that library reading and listening to music. I found my vocation!

Self-cultivation seems to be a lost art today. I find many young musicians who don't have an idea about the complete works of major composers they are studying, let alone the context (artistic and political) in which the works were composed. And a lot of their teachers cannot help! The teachers should broaden their own horizons to be able to explain the connection between the arts to their students. The question of having this curiosity means that you have to take the time to read, go to museums, go to the theatre, etc. But one also has to have a knowledge of history to be able to situate the composers in their epoch.

I love to know the lives of the great composers. For instance, take the life of Mozart, which was so amazing! If you read his letters to his father, you can understand how he developed the psychology of the characters for his operas. Mozart's life was so eventful. The more you understand the drama of his personal life, the more you understand his music.

What is different about launching a concert career in today's concert world, compared to 25 years ago? 

In the not-so-distant past, only the very gifted studied to become professional musicians. Today, almost anyone studies music in view of becoming a professional musician, but it does not mean they are gifted! I don't know how these people can conceive to become performing musicians with mediocre talent. It used to be that conservatories would not consider students unless their talent was outstanding. So instead of 100 students in a conservatory you now have two thousand, three thousand. To me this does not make sense.

What are your thoughts and ideas regarding the right ingredients for career development?

I am not sure that I am the right person to answer this question, in the sense that if you are an idealist, which I think I am, then the many things requiring a compromise (that many upcoming talents think they are obliged to do today) in order to have a career, would not enter into my consideration. When the image of the artist is more important than the substance of the art, then we have a compromise. To give good interviews (excluding this one, of course) [laughs] is nice, but it is more important to be a probing musician, a great artist.

What are the ingredients for a career? I once heard that you must have the concentration of a Buddhist monk, the enterprise of a brothel madam, and the enthusiasm of a snake oil vendor! More seriously, I think you need passion, dedication, focus, musicianship, and great talent. If you don't have these qualities, forget it because it's not going to happen. Maria Callas used to say, "First get the Music right." One of my great credos in teaching is to go back to the essentials. Learn how to read music correctly (this is not so easy as it might seem). Take away the ego. It is not going to diminish anything; it will only make what you are doing greater.

What are the principal obstacles today in launching a career and what advice do you have for talented young pianists? How do you get into that closed circuit?

I think many concert agencies today seem to be top model agencies, seeking a glamorous person who is supposed to represent classical music. It's the image, not the substance. This is very degrading and depressing for the idealistic young artist today. Classical music in this way has become entertainment- light entertainment... and the profound musical message is cheapened, obscured, and invalidated.

The gifted young artist should not be discouraged by this. If a young pianist fail s a competition or an audition, he must have the humility to ask the jury, if possible, why and to accept criticism when it is valid. Artists are sensitive, but a positive view of life is required. If you have something to say, you will find a way of saying it.

lt is also disappointing to note that so many young pianists propose concert programs that are so banal, always programming the same competition warhorses. The piano repertoire is so vast and so interesting. Why do we have to repeat, ad nauseam, the same pieces?

What do you think about today's audiences?

The audiences today are getting much larger, and think they are craving something more spiritual in the concert experience that they are not often receiving. The mission of the artist is to uplift an audience, to give them a message that is important and inspiring that makes the fact of living something wonderful! 

What is the role of inspiration?

Inspiration is when the heart takes the lead. That is what we are practicing for every day: to be free when inspiration visits us because we have mastered the craft.

You have created a somewhat unique opportunity of mentoring for your students with world- renowned pianists and professors at the Academy. Could you make some comments about the impact and how this influenced the students through the years?

This concept of mentoring by great artists/teachers is the philosophy of this school. Our teachers all have had vast experience on the stage and the guidance they can give is inestimable, priceless, and essential. The great success we have had as a school comes from the fact that these great artists know that they have to give back to the art what they received so that the beauty continues.

We try to instill in our students a sense of mission to illuminate the place where they will be active as musicians. This means not only performing and teaching, but also organizing and participating in concerts that will illustrate the beauty of the art they have dedicated their lives to serve. 


For more information on the Lake Como Intemational Piano Academy, please visit www.comopianoacademy.com and www.lakecomausa.org or e-mail intpianaacademy@libero.it and lakecomausa@gmail.com

Currently nominated for the French Legion of Honor, international artists manager Jacques Leiser has represented and/or collaborated with many of the world's great- est concert pianists, conductors, composers, and singers, including Sviatoslav Richter, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli , Claudio Arrau , Georges Cziffra , Lazar Berman , Mau- rizio Pollini, Krystian Zimerman, Alfred Cortot, Edwin Fischer, Nikita Magaloff, Annie Fischer, and Maria Callas, to name just a few.

In 1956 he created the milestone EMI archive series "Great Recordings of the Century." He has participated in major piano festivals and competitions in Montreal (International Piano Festival) and Budapest (Liszt International) ; he has founded festivals in San Francisco (Liszt Festival) and New York (Liszt Festival at Lincoln Center in 1985); and in 1964 he created the Tours Music Festival in France with Sviatoslav Richter.

Very early in his life, Leiser became fascinated with photography, and throughout his career he has never been far from his camera. His celebrated photo archives of musicians have been featured at the Louvre museum and across Europe and North America. His next exhibit of portraits of legendary artists will take place at the 2009 Septembre Musical Festival in Montreux.

Leiser is currently preparing a book of recollections and photographs of famous artists including Richter, Maria Callas, David Oistrakh, Shostakovich, and numerous other 20th- century musical celebrities; he is also presently organizing masterclasses and recitals in Switzerland for the great Hungarian-born 92-year-old pianist, Livia Rev.

Jacques Leiser at Lincoln Center in the 19805. 

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