With the international piano scene growing increasingly crowded with top-level talents, it is more imperative than ever that soloists find a way to set themselves apart. Orli Shaham has done exactly that by combining eloquent, technically secure playing with a knack for intelligent, often unexpected programs and an ability to speak about music in a clear, easily understood way.
“I’ve always said that being a pianist is like having five or six careers all wrapped up in one skill,” said Shaham, 39, who will perform May 31 as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series. “You can be a chamber musician. You can be a solo recitalist. You can be a soloist with orchestra. You can be in small groupings. You can play music from 300 years ago; you can play music from today and everything in between. You can collaborate in all sorts of different ways.
“Because of the freedom, partly from a lack of strong record companies telling people what to do, pianists are just discovering all those different sides. And you are seeing more and more pianists who are able to explore all those incredible, different possibilities that the instrument has to offer.”
Shaham’s imaginative approach to mixing and matching repertory is very much evidence in her latest recording, a two-album set that will be released June 9 on Canary Classics, a small label founded in 2003 by her brother, Gil, a renowned violinist. Titled “Brahms Inspired,” it explores three late keyboard works by Johannes Brahms as well as eight pieces from the Baroque era to the present that either inspired the great 19th-century composer or were inspired by him. The six selections on her upcoming recital program in Chicago are taken from that recording. More on that later.
“First of all, I’m not ashamed to say that I’m madly in love with Brahms and have always been, especially with late Brahms,” she said. “And I’ve always been really fascinated by how a great composer like that is inspired. What makes them choose to put their notes down in the way they put them down and what happens afterward? Who gets inspired by that?”
While there have long been prominent female keyboardists, going back to Clara Schumann in the Romantic era, they were traditionally in the minority and had to fight a range of prejudices. Shaham believes that sexism in the field has largely fallen away today but also thinks that extra-musical qualities, including how pianists, both men and women, look still factor into why and how presenters book artists.
“A person going onstage is much more than the music that then happens,” she said. “There are expectations of what people might want to see in a show and some of those are physical. And those very easily translate into gender differences and what they are looking to see out of a man or a woman visually.” But by that, she doesn’t mean that they have to attractive, and in fact, at least in the case of women, she suspects that someone unusually attractive might be assumed to be less intellectually capable. “I’m not sure what the expectation is,” she said, “but I think there are still expectations out there.”
While Shaham is perhaps not as widely recognized as her brother Gil, she has built an enviable career that has taken her to some of the world’s most prestigious stages, including appearances this season with the Orchestre National de France, San Francisco Symphony and St. Louis Symphony. For several years, she enhanced her visibility by being a prominent voice on classical radio. From 2005 through 2008, she was host of “Dial-a-Musician” on the Classical Public Radio Network, a program in which she called well-known musicians and posed listeners’ questions to them. And in 2012-13, she helmed “America’s Music Festivals,” which aired on more than 100 stations nationally.
“I always thought of the radio as my kind of outreach, my slightly more educational focus,” she said. “And right now, those energies are put much more into my kids program, ‘Baby Got Bach,’ a series of concerts for pre-schoolers that I’ve been growing and adapting in different ways. Although it’s not the same radio audience I had, it still has a lot of the same elements. It’s about getting people excited about music, humanizing the musicians and making people realize that not only can they become audience members but in fact they can become producers of music in their own way.”
The series, which combines hands-on musical activities with chamber performances, is based at the 92nd Street Y in New York, with recent presentations as well in Aspen, Colo., and St. Louis.
Among the composers whose music Shaham has a special affinity is John Adams, best known for such works as Nixon in China and On the Transmigration of Souls. She has previously performed his piano concerto, Century Rolls, and a another work for two pianos, Hallelujah Junction, and earlier this year, she joined pianist Marc-André Hamelin and the San Francisco Symphony for three performances of Grand Pianola Music, which had its debut in 1982.
“I adore his music,” she said, “and I have from the very beginning, when I first started hearing his music in the early ’80s. I love his writing for piano. It’s so different than anybody else’s approach to the instrument. He’s not a pianist, but nevertheless many composers who aren’t pianists have some similarities in the way they approach the instrument. And John really doesn’t. He comes at it from a unique perspective. It’s quite physically satisfying to play. He doesn’t write for piano in four-part harmony. It’s a melody and rhythm instrument first that happens to have harmony as part of its voice.”
Adams’ music is both physically and intellectually demanding. “It’s big in the hands,” she said. “It can be very loud, and because of the repetitive aspect of the music, you are sometimes forced to do very difficult little maneuvers over and over and over again at full tilt. To great effect, but it is a very different kind of physical motion than one is used to on the instrument.” At the same time, performers cannot afford to lose their mental focus for even a split second. “It’s too easy to get lost,” she said. “It’s too easy to suddenly think you’re in one place, and actually you’re in a slightly different place. There isn’t space for complacency.”
She’s confident that Adams will be among today’s composers whose music will still be played 50 or 100 years from now. “I think his music speaks to the heart,” she said. “It speaks to the soul. It speaks to the intellect, and that is really what it takes. There are some wonderfully witty pieces he’s written. There is some incredibly deep and soul-searching music he has written. He has had so much to say, and he keeps having more to say, which is so lucky for the rest of us.”
Shaham’s “Brahms Inspired” centers on three of the German composer’s late keyboard works: Three Intermezzi, Op. 117; Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118, and Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 119. (The latter two will be heard during the May 31 recital.) “Before I really started exploring these pieces,” she said, “I didn’t know all the pieces that well. As a piano student, I knew they existed and I’d heard them. But Op. 118, No. 2, gets played by itself a lot, and when I first started performing the entire opus, I realized that as beautiful as it is and as easy as it is to extract as a single piece, it actually fits beautifully inside this six-movement set. It’s very clear that Brahms intended it to follow Op. 118, No. 1., and to come from that sound world into what he is doing.”
As part of the project, she commissioned two works inspired by these compositions: Bruce Adolphe’s Intermezzo, My Inner Brahms (part of the May 31 recital), and Avner Dornan’s After Brahms: Three Intermezzos for Piano. She was also about to write to a third composer, Brett Dean, about doing a similar work, when she happened to discover that he already completed just such a piece, Hommage à Brahms.
She was conferring with famed pianist Emanuel Ax about Six Piano Pieces before she recorded it, and she happened to mention to him her interest in commissioning Dean to write a Brahms-inspired work. Much to her surprise and delight, Ax showed her a score that had just arrived in the mail, Hommage à Brahms, which was meant to be interspersed with the movements from Op. 118. She managed to talk Ax into letting her be the first to record the piece (which was an SCP co-commission for Ax’s “The Brahms Project”).
Other selections from the album that will be heard May 31 include Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-Flat Major and Schubert’s Impromptu in G-Flat Major. Shaham knows of no earlier piano work that was written in G-flat major, an unusual and challenging key with six flats. In addition to emulating the song-like quality of Schubert’s writing, Brahms specifically chose E-flat minor — the minor side of the same key — for Op. 118, No. 1. Continuing this connection, another work on the album, Schumann’s Romanze, Op. 28, No. 2, was composed in F-sharp major, which has six sharps.
“It’s sort of three totally different approaches to essentially the same key,” she said, “which I just think it’s interesting. If you can’t tell already, I’m a bit of a musical nerd.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.