Echoes of a Grand Age: Cleveland’s Vanished Euclid Avenue

At one time, Cleveland was the host to more millionaires than any other city in the world, and they all lived on Euclid Avenue, described by travel guides and America's voice Mark Twain as "the most beautiful street in the world." A glimpse reveals cultivated and manicured lawns with sculptures from around the world, quadruple-lined with handsome American elms, and a parade of 400 mansions in every style, some unbelievable in size.

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The arrival of Martha Argerich in any musical community is greeted with a sense of disbelief often dispelled only the moment she walks onto stage—“yes, it is happening”—only to be replaced by another form of disbelief and incredulity when witnessing her musical powers. Joining her for this occasion is a pianist of equally staggering prowess, long known to Cleveland audiences, and with quickly-growing fame throughout the world: Sergei Babayan.

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My Search for the Old Russian Soul

When I was 23, I embarked on a feverish journey in search of the old Russian soul–if one can call it that. Every evening at 5pm, I locked myself in and immersed myself in Russian music, cinema, art, literature, biographies, history, and even the language, until 4or 5am each morning. This went on for many months, and I share some of the gems I found here–perhaps some will be a revelation. I imagined there were arcane truths and spiritual awakenings and unprecedented discoveries of arresting beauty passed down through the ages in the very soil and air there. Here I limit myself to discoveries on Youtube, and a couple of images that captured my imagination and have stayed with me ever since–it’s really too many to take in all at once here, but perhaps something will resonate with you. I would love to hear about favorites of yours, as surely you have many to add?

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Reflections on the Lake

If you were placed next to two living legends for a week, would you feel inspired, intimidated, overshadowed, amazed, or all of the above? I am still processing a period I just had at the Martha Argerich Project at the Lugano Festival with these two great musicians–memories that will last a lifetime. Two years ago, I had a similar opportunity with the two, but this was even more intense, more incredible, and more inspiring. Still, the lull after such a period is admittedly an enormous comedown.

Because of my close proximity as page turner for the rehearsals, recording session, and concert, I again have to severely limit what I can say publicly so as not to be intrusive into the private workings and process of what I witnessed. But I can say that these are the two hardest-working musicians I have ever witnessed.

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Pennsylvania Station: Destruction of an American Masterpiece

It was a masterpiece of American architecture that evoked the great halls of Rome and the palatial railway stations of Europe, and was a crown jewel in New York City. At its peak in 1945, it handled 100 million travelers a year. Its destruction in 1963 after only 53 years provoked international outrage and was considered a “monumental act of vandalism” and started the historical preservation movement in the United States, saving Grand Central Station from a similar fate.

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Nicholas King and The Art of Giving Back

If I had to feature one young person who represents what living a dynamic life in classical music is all about in the 21st Century, it would be Nicholas King. Daring in his entrepreneurial vision and bold in his unusual pathways, he is quickly finding success and recognition both as a pianist and as a mentor to others in the organization he founded, The Art of Giving Back. From a childhood set of charity concerts in the meat department of a local grocery store, to an early appearance on the Rosie O’Donnell Show, to paying his tuition for summer study abroad by selling donuts in high school, Nicholas King is a man and musician who gets his way. Focused, articulate, and passionate, he was a pleasure to join in in conversation this spring at the Slow Train Cafe in Oberlin.

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InterviewZsolt Bognar
Friendship with an Artist: Kaupo

Usually the most illuminating friendships–the ones that inspire us and change us–are the ones that happen by accident. I first met award-winning Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas through his famous portraits of the composer Arvo Pärt. I was drawn to the inner radiance, peace, and loneliness of his language–the same qualities that draw me, for example, to the works of Franz Schubert and the paintings of Edward Hopper.

When my publicist Jonathan Eifert suggested I arrange to have more photos taken of me, he first suggested Kaupo. It was a dream that I thought would be out of reach–the cost, and the ocean between Cleveland and Estonia. As it turns out, this photographer is a highly sensitive, perspicacious artist who connects first and foremost with people and subjects. I wrote to him, and thanked him for the inspiration I got from his work.

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“Living the Classical Life”: Why Bother?

“Living the Classical Life”. So, what is it? Why do I bother hosting it when I should be practicing piano? How did it start? Why should anybody care?

The show seeks to illuminate the world of classical musicians, to interest new audiences, and to provide hope and wisdom for aspiring musicians from the experiences of seasoned performers. It is neither a blog nor vlog, nor merely an internet venture–though sometimes, for lack of category, people have referred to it as such.

Few people know it started out as a filmed portrait about me that accidentally turned into interviews within a series. Some of my closest friends in Oberlin wanted to help establish a short film to put on my website, but after filming in Ohio and in New York, it became clear that I was asking others about their paths.

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A Half-Light between Heaven and Despair

Two years ago, I was in Positano for an unforgettable period in October 2013–somehow the sense of awe was so much that I could not bring myself to write about it until now. Every year, eight pianists from around the world participate in an intense two-week course on the interpretation of Beethoven Sonatas, which were a specialty of the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff. These take place in the Amalfi Coast of Italy, which is of a jagged, stark beauty. Started in 1957 by Kempff, the courses are today led by the very illuminating Bernd Goetzke, who was the final pupil of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. I was very ill for weeks before I arrived, and was still very unwell during my stay; the impressions were nevertheless for a lifetime. Anybody who has had any type of extended convalescence understands the type of transformation that one goes through–almost as though a soul has aged through years of wisdom in sped-up time that simultaneously seems frozen while going through it.

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A Winter Journey: The Making of a Recording in Berlin

What’s in a recording? The published reviews for my debut CD recording were dizzying, but I had had a tremendous amount of help from fellow musicians with the psychological preparation. For me, this sense of calm made all the difference. So, what was required of the intense world of the studio? Many of my colleagues have written to me to ask how I did it, and so I recall those intense three days in December 2010 here. It seems the feeling among all of us is that the stress of an unfamiliar process necessarily means a meltdown, given the costs involved. How does one not get bogged down in an impossible pursuit of committing perfection to disc?

My album was released last October–in fact three years after I recorded it. I was starting to think the disc would never see commercial release, even if this was a labor of intensity to which I had given everything of myself. Surely this sense of not feeling needed by the musical world or otherwise is familiar to many of my colleagues. There is rarely a market for new voices in a world that no longer buys CDs in the volume it once did.

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Have Piano, Will Fly

Musicians are great at freaking out, especially in the face of deadlines. Notes have to be learned and settled. The calm but sharp focus required ahead of concerts feels frighteningly ethereal. Memory has to be checked continually. So, what if you are scheduled to join a family vacation for two weeks, in the two weeks leading up to concerts in Europe? I did not see canceling a rare family vacation to Athens, the Greek Islands, and Rome as a happy solution at all. Had I not been sick for a very extended period this spring, I would have been ready for my concerts by now. But I wasn’t. I was at a total loss for what to do and feeling unwell about it.

The solution was suggested to me by Elizabeth DeMio, and then I remembered that Christopher O’Riley does this regularly and advised me in great detail–to fly an instrument over there. Great solution, but the problems only piled on from there.

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Preview: The Birth of a Russian Concerto

Seemingly only the realm of comparisons satisfies in the 21st century: there are hints of harmonic language and rhetoric that have moved beyond the territory of the exploratory Rachmaninoff Fourth Concerto, and the manic energy of the Prokofiev Second and Third. There is a narrative sense of an epic fable, as only Prokofiev’s orchestral works could tell–the expressive and atmospheric string glissandi in the finale of Trifonov’s work recall the Scherzo of the Prokofiev Third Symphony, and a fairy-tale quality in quieter moments seems reminiscent of the “Tales of a Grandmother”. The darkness of the opening has hints of orchestration by Richard Strauss, as does the seductive waltz section of the finale with instrumental solos. Harmonies in the second movement are of a complexity and luminosity of middle-period Scriabin, while the interplay of orchestral and piano resonances sometimes goes beyond romantic-era discoveries–surely under the influence of composer Keith Fitch, who supervised the composition of the work. Despite all these comparisons, and a Russian character sometimes derived from Orthodox harmonies and rustic rhythms, this concerto is an energy that can hardly contain itself.

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“God is in the (Philadelphia) Details.”

The great German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said about buildings that “God is in the Details”. If that is so, then Philadelphia has shown me that its essence as a city takes flight in the timeless beauty of its decorative elements.

I have been in Philadelphia for two weeks for an extremely intense period of study with Robert Durso, with whom I studied this summer in Princeton and with whom I shared a concert here in Philadelphia in March. Because of long daily walks to lessons from where I am staying on Walnut Street in Center City all the way north of Fairmount in the Museum District, I have had a chance each day to take pictures along the way. This was a very time-consuming project, but the beauty of the city made it worth my time, and gave me all the photos you see below. All the photos are my own.

Eastern State Penitentiary was a Quaker prison, and America’s first penitentiary (the idea of reformation in total isolation). Prisoners never saw each other or were made aware of the others’ presence. It was in a wagon-wheel spokes design and ran from 1829 to 1971. Al Capone was briefly here, and the location is one of the most luminous and haunting I can imagine.

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artsJournal/Norman Lebrecht Feature about Zsolt Bognár

Cleveland, Ohio—on the shores of America’s so-called North Coast of Lake Erie, at the heart of a recent Rustbelt cultural renaissance fueled by ingenuity in education, medicine, food, and the arts—has placed 25 pianos outside around the city. Placed in conjunction with the Cleveland International Piano Competition taking place this summer in University Circle—a unique cultural mecca that was listed by Forbes magazine as one of America’s ten most beautiful neighborhoods—these pianos aim to bring the community together through shared experience. Having returned the previous night from Berlin and Vienna from concerts to promote my upcoming first CD release, I had witnessed an outdoor piano with a single performer near St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The spectacle drew passing glances and spare change, but the scene in Cleveland was on a different scale. Construction workers, mothers, fathers, children, friends, coworkers on break—all seemed to have a tune to sit and play in solo or duet performances, and I added my own throughout the day on various pianos.

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InterviewZsolt Bognar
Stages, Stagecoaches, Airplanes, and Old Europe

Two trips to Europe with two weeks between, in Cleveland and in Princeton. The first was in the presence of Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan. The second was for my own concerts. The atmosphere is of course very different as such–it is tricky for a pianist to be on the road and find adequate time to practice. Chopin, for example, found great difficulties in the days of stagecoaches in which transcontinental travel took months–he had in one instance three days to practice “as he never had before” and to get into shape, physically and mentally. But, he did not have to do so too many times, as his lifetime total of concerts (upon which his reputation as one of history’s greatest pianists rested) totaled only 30. Liszt, however, gave over 2,500 concerts in countries that reached as far as Turkey and Russia. Thankfully I had neither to travel by stagecoach, nor by ship, but I was still in a constant state of wondering the condition of my peak performance. I wondered about my friend and upstairs neighbor in my building in Cleveland’s University Circle, Daniil Trifonov–he gives over a hundred concerts a year and is seemingly always on the road.

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106 Degrees of Princeton: Golandsky and the Piano

A mere week in Cleveland separated two trips to Europe, and between these was a week in Princeton I cannot ever forget. This intense week impressed in a lush setting for the Taubman approach for piano at the Golandsky Institute. I truly had no idea what I was about to experience.

The return to reality after spending a week with Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan at the Lugano Festival was offset by the hosting of a very old friend for the week in Cleveland. We prepared simultaneously for our respective musical projects in rehearsal sessions lasted into the wee hours every night. I wonder how productive the piano world would be, if in fact everybody had such practice buddies.

I must admit that I was flooded with apprehensions that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, as I headed to Princeton. “What is the Taubman approach to piano playing, and why do I need to study it intensely for a week?”

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After Lugano-The Loire: Wine, Chateaux, and Roses–to Stormy Cleveland by Night

From Lugano to Tours in the heart of the Garden of France in Tours–wine country, a journey to see chateaux, cooking feasts, cool summer evenings, and a journey back to Cleveland to see the tall ships. Although my Lugano project blog finished with the Martha Argerich Project, there were so many people who requested more photos and tales of my travels, that this photo-post from France came about. The dream-like experience and lushness of central France is unlike anything elsewhere~

Departure from Lugano to Milano and then to Paris via airplane. Not a full flight and no excessive announcements, so I was able to sleep. SNCF and its horrendous disorganization should be sued for incompetency, but the train itself went like a dream, topping 300km/h. My teacher and I spent most of the ride in the dining car over espresso and old-recipe butter cookies.

I had arrived to Tours first in 1999 on July 4, exactly 14 years to the day before my arrival this time. The city had an other-worldly, sequestered feel to it–almost as though quietude and removal were hallmarks of the locale.

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Part 5: Conclusion of the Festival, Beethoven, and Bewilderment

I woke up to this somber, half-luminous scene—the light over the lake was almost primordial, and then I suddenly remembered a book I had read years ago by Max Frisch. It was a reflection of my mood, which did not want the end of this festival of music in paradise. My hotel, after all, is in the aptly-named part of town called Paradiso. A taxi conveyed me to the hall and cost a fortune. I noted that people here drive like maniacs. It’s a small town. Why go so fast?

Max Frisch’s “Man in the Holocene” was a story of fate, acceptance of mortality, and one man’s struggle against nature in solitude. Incessant rains and waiting for the instability and landslide in the valley had the unsettled mood of uncertain doom. It was set in Ticino, the region which cradles Lugano. That suddenly struck me as I looked out the window. Sometimes, artists trying to define their work’s role in the world are also in their own Holocene.

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Part 4: In Close Quarters with Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan

These past three days were a whirlwind, and have felt exactly rather like five. To experience in the work, rehearsals, and behind-the-scenes life of two enigmatic great pianists—Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich–is almost unthinkable. These days were apart from any sense of time and were dictated by the musical tasks at hand.

Because of my unique vantage point—an intimate look at the private world of artistic preparation and work, I must be especially careful in how I write this entry and to respect the privilege and trust I was given. What I can try to do is give a general sense of their uncompromising work, their incredible humanity, and the excitement I was able to derive from first-hand learning and observation.

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