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An Interview with Anton Nel

An Interview with Anton Nel

Solo recitals in Mexico and South Carolina, featuring works by Granados, Debussy, Beethoven, and Chopin. Performances of the Grieg and Schumann concerti with orchestras in Indiana and Illinois. A violin and piano duo recital in Austin performing sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, and Franck. Another duo recital the following night, featuring sonatas for cello and piano by Bridge, Britten, and Franck. Masterclasses and a performance of Gershwin's Concerto in F in Macon, Georgia. Concerts in Texas and California performing the Brahms and Dvorˇák Piano Quintets. All in the span of six weeks.

This grueling schedule is impressive not only for its locations, but also for the breadth and scope of the repertoire performed. It would be daunting for any pianist, let alone one who maintains a thriving studio and serves as Chair of the Piano Department at the University of Texas at Austin. A true performer-pedagogue, Anton Nel has more than 100 concerti in his active repertoire, in addition to exhaustive lists of solo and chamber works. A busy summer season, with performances at festivals and a visible role teaching and performing at the prestigious Aspen Music Festival and School, augments his demanding schedule during the academic year.

Anton Nel was born in South Africa and he is still considered a national treasure in his home country. Almost every year, he returns to his birthplace to perform. As a fellow South African, I grew up hearing about the legendary Anton Nel almost as soon as I had learned to find middle C on the keyboard. It was during one of his many concert tours to South Africa that I finally met him after a performance, and several years later I would study with him in Aspen. I remember how incredibly approachable and encouraging he was in our first meeting, and he has remained that way ever since. He possesses not only pianistic finesse, commanding technique, and an ability to play virtually anything that he wishes, but also a warmth and genuine love of music and musicians. It was therefore a great pleasure to interview him.

The Interview

You started playing the piano at the comparatively late age of ten. Were there reasons why you did not start playing the piano at a younger age? 

I grew up on a farm in Rustenburg, which is about two hours from Johannesburg, South Africa. Being a small town, there was a waiting list at the local music school, and when I was about ten they had an opening. The rest is history!

Had you shown any musical aptitude prior to taking formal lessons? 

My mother (and everyone on her side) took piano lessons, so between family and the radio I heard a lot of classical music as a youngster. I am told that I was always attracted to it, but it was not until later, when I successfully picked out Schumann's "Happy Farmer" with chords and all after hearing my mother playing it, that it was decided that I should take lessons.

Do you feel that your late start hindered or helped your musical development in any way? 

I took to it like a duck takes to water, and to this day I still love playing the piano. I think I was fortunate to have had excellent teachers from the beginning, as I never had to step back and undo anything along the way. I think a later start and poor initial training might have hindered my development.

Dr. Adolph Hallis was one of your earliest mentors. What do you remember about time studying with him? 

Those were incredibly important years to me. To have had the privilege of working with someone who was a pupil of Leschetizky and who knew Ravel, Britten, and other important musicians of the past was invaluable. He had fantastic recollections about hearing Rachmaninoff, Schnabel, and many other incredible artists perform. He was a totally committed teacher, and he knew exactly what I should be working on at a specific time, how to build my technique and repertoire, and what I needed to prepare for the future.

As you mentioned, Hallis was a pupil of Leschetizky, but he also studied with Matthay. Did he talk much about his studies with these two icons of piano pedagogy? Do you feel as though you inherited anything pianistically from either of these two traditions through your studies with Hallis?

He spoke of both of them quite often, and over the years I have read several of Matthay's books. I had the sense that, technically speaking, Hallis used some of each teacher's principles and made them his own. I don't think he really followed one more than the other.

Of all the personalities that Hallis talked about, do you remember any interesting anecdotes that you might like to share? 

I remember his accounts of Rachmaninoff's playing quite vividly: his description of the gigantic, unsmiling man coming on stage and making the piano leap to life with his electrifying performances. Hallis recalled many things that he heard, but one thing that forever stood out to him was Rachmaninoff's performance of Debussy's Children's Corner. He said that the accelerando at the end of "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum" was positively hair-raising! Other unforgettable moments included Cortot playing Chopin's Berceuse and the "Minute" Waltz. Hallis was also once at a Vladimir de Pachmann concert, where, after the usual fussing with the piano bench, de Pachmann would not start the concert. He did not approve of the looks of a lady who was sitting in his line of sight—she had to move!

After your undergraduate studies in South Africa, you moved to Cincinnati for your graduate work. I have heard that your first teacher at CCM, the legendary Bela Siki, can be quite exacting with regard to the interpretation of a specific work. Would you say that this is true?

Up to a point, but I must say that Mr. Siki contributed something very important to my education: he taught me how to find my own voice. This is probably the greatest gift a teacher can give a student, and I'm very indebted to him for that. With Hallis I was very much (and rightly so) the student and he was the teacher. Mr. Siki allowed and encouraged me to become an independent thinker. After Mr. Siki moved to Seattle, I spent my last year at CCM working with Frank Weinstock, who was enormously supportive of all that I did.

As a teacher, you are very open to more than one interpretation of a specific work. Do you actively try to foster individuality and interpretive freedom amongst your piano students? 

Yes. I firmly believe that performers should not sound like clones of one another. I certainly do not want my students to sound like me! Our first duty is to respect the wishes of the composer and then to add some of the individuality of each person.

So as a performer, would you consider yourself to be more of a spontaneous artist, such as Martha Argerich, for example, or are you more studied and meticulous like Krystian Zimmerman? 

I would say that I am someone who studies a lot, but who (hopefully) lets go in performance. For me an ideal performance would be one that is a happy combination of spontaneity and faithfulness to the score.

What else is required for a performance of yours (or of someone else for that matter) to be ideal or successful? 

If a performance moves me on any level I am very pleased. I admire technical prowess, but I am not impressed by it unless it is used to serve the music. I am not always the best judge of my own playing in a concert. What I often perceived as a success is often not as successful as times when I thought I did not play my best. I generally wait a while before hearing the recording.

Is there a pianist you especially admire? 

Of modern day pianists, I have to say that Murray Perahia is my idol. His total service to the music sets a wonderful example for all of us.

Legend has it that as a graduate assistant, you were the most sought-after accompanist at CCM, and that you would literally accompany a different recital every night. How did you find time to practice your solo repertoire?

I have such fond memories of my days at CCM. Yes, in high season I used to play a recital, sometimes two, every night. I am so grateful for that now, because that was the time when I learned a large portion of the chamber music that I now know. I was also playing solo concerts at this time, and I definitely practiced this music as well. I spent many hours a day at the piano, but even now this is something I truly enjoy doing.

You have performed chamber music with so many wonderful musicians over the years. Are there any specific collaborations that you have particularly enjoyed?

It is a privilege to make music with wonderful artists, as they always inspire you to play better and better. I played a number of concerts with the great cellist Zara Nelsova, and these I shall never forget. Other very memorable experiences include playing Bartók Sonatas with Robert Mann, playing Dvorak with the Cleveland Quartet, Brahms with the Takács Quartet, and tours all over the world with Sarah Chang.

I have heard that you are not a big fan of contemporary music and that you would prefer to play the core repertoire of the piano canon, say from Bach to Prokofiev. Is this true, and, if so, why?

I do not play a lot of contemporary music. I admire a lot of it, but it is just not my calling to play it. Part of it is the amount of time it takes to learn. Some of my students have been superbly gifted in this medium, being able to learn and absorb contemporary scores with ease, but it is not my thing. I've also reached an age where I truly have to love something in order to commit the time and energy to learning it. A lot of this kind of music does not touch me in the same way as the "core canon."

That said, you do play a lot of non-contemporary repertoire that is outside of the traditional canon, such as works by Clementi and Rameau, for example. Are you always in search of unusual pieces to play?

Oh yes. The piano repertoire is so rich and a lot of the "second tier" repertoire needs to be explored and heard. For example, I am interested in learning the "other" Franck work for piano and orchestra, "Les Djins," which I think is a superb and neglected piece.

I love that you embellish the exposition repeats of the Classical sonatas that you play. This is both stylistically accurate and it makes for a more interesting performance. When did you start doing this and why?

I started to get very interested in performance practice a few years ago, and I have always enjoyed the way in which period instrument groups embellish with such flair and aplomb. Once you start doing it yourself, it opens up a whole new way in which to be creative. I am also encouraging my students to explore this now. I was very pleased when I listened to the most recent Leeds International Competition and heard a number of competitors doing very stylish ornamentation.

Your memory is very reliable. Do you possess a photographic memory?

I do not. While my memory is consistent and reliable, it is something that I constantly work on and never take for granted. I absolutely do not recommend muscle memory alone: while the fingers do know where to go after a certain number of repetitions, I find that this method alone is unreliable. I study music away from the keyboard a lot (on planes, on the treadmill at the gym), making sure that I know the structure, harmony, left hand alone, and voice leading (especially in more contrapuntal music). The number one fear of every musician who performs without the score is probably a memory lapse in a concert. Knowing your music well enough can ease this a great deal, if for no other reason than being able to rescue yourself in the event of a mishap; we are all human, after all.

Some seasoned pianists still practice scales, arpeggios and other drills every day. What is your current practice regime?

I am an early-morning practice person, and I can start as early as six a.m. I no longer practice scales, but of course I give these and other drills to my students as needed. I am always playing a lot of repertoire, so one of the more important components of my practice regime is the organization of it all—making sure that new works, works in progress, etc. are arranged in proper fashion in order to be ready at the required times.

Some performers prefer not to teach, but you started teaching at the university level quite young, in addition to maintaining a very busy concert schedule. Why do you teach?

I am strongly committed to passing on what I have learned from my teachers. I feel very fortunate to have had great training from the beginning! I also feel that being a teacher strengthens the performance side of my craft. I know that teaching has made me a much better listener with regard to my own playing!

You have taught at several fine academic institutions. What advice would you give to aspiring pianists and pedagogues looking to venture into the world of academia?

The principal difference between being in academia and being a private teacher is that you are no longer your own boss when you work at a university. I have only had college appointments at excellent schools—Eastman, Michigan, and Texas—and have thoroughly enjoyed all of them. I love the academic schedule, benefits, and the built-in network of colleagues who share my passion for music. I know that if I had to "do it all over again" I would follow the same path, even though I definitely had the option of a performance-only career.

Could you share some insights about your teaching approach? 

The piano has such an unbelievably diverse repertoire and it is a treat to explore (at least some of it) with my students. To me the composer always comes first, and trying to find clues on how to make the music come to life better involves some very detailed work! I expect my students to do research on the piece they are working on, since any work has a reason for its creation, and the composer was in a certain place—literally and figuratively—when the composition took place, and all of this most certainly has an influence on the performance. I also insist that my students know a lot of music by the same composer and his/her contemporaries, and I will often supply listening lists at lessons. I do demonstrate (though I don't want my students to sound like replicas of me— quite the opposite!), and I will use imagery, comparing the passage being worked on to others I know by the same composer. In addition to all the expected musical/technical work, I also spend considerable time talking with my students about time management, practice habits, career goals, etc. The whole process is endlessly fascinating to me.

Do you prefer to teach pieces that you do not play, including repertoire that is unfamiliar to you? 

It doesn't matter to me. I enjoy thinking "out of the box" if a specific piece is unfamiliar to me (which is rather rare!). In the event that I do not know or perform a work and it poses unusual challenges to the student, I'll practice it myself to see how I can help the student.

Is it difficult to teach repertoire that you play a lot? 

I often enjoy teaching pieces that I've played frequently, as there is always more to discover. 

Many orchestras and opera companies within the U.S. and Europe are struggling to cope financially at present. Do you believe that so-called "classical music" is dying out?

Classical music is such a highly specialized art, and it is viewed by many as a luxury and not a necessity. Therefore, in difficult financial times, like the present, there are unfortunately many cutbacks: organizations are putting on fewer concerts and smaller orchestras have to fold, for example. Finances and age contribute to the shrinking of audiences in the U.S. In places like Asia, however, the halls are packed with young, excited people, eager to hear music.

Can artists make a difference and help to stop audiences from shrinking so dramatically in the U.S.?

I think that in the U.S., artists must work hard to try to get younger people coming to concerts. What a lot of us do now is to make ourselves more readily available to the public by speaking from the stage, meeting after concerts, and doing what we can to reach out and make a case for live music instead of recordings. In New York, some of the cabaret clubs, like Le Poisson Rouge, have started having classical programs in order to bring art and revelry closer together, and they've had enormous success. Other musicians, like the cellist Matt Haimovitz, play frequently in rock clubs to much acclaim.

What advice would you like to give established music teachers to help them stay motivated and continue to give of their best?

Schumann was right when he said "Es ist des Lernens kein ende." (There is no end to learning.) What keeps me constantly fresh is simply the sheer richness of the repertoire and the constant quest for discovering yet new things in even the most often played/taught chestnuts. Combine that with individuals who are there to specifically work with you and who have the same ideals in mind, and I think you have a winning recipe!

You can find more information about Anton Nel on his website, His latest recording on the Artek label is a collaboration with the celebrated cellist Bion Tsang, featuring live performances of music for cello and piano by Johannes Brahms. 

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