Music Scene

 Vol. 10, No. 47

November 21-27, 2002

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This Week at the Annapolis Symphony:
Brian Ganz’s Big Surprise
by Brent Seabrook

Brian Ganz wonders what will happen when he steps onto the stage at Maryland Hall this weekend. He knows he’ll wave to the audience and nod to guest conductor Arthur Post before he sits down at the piano. He knows he’ll play Fryderyk Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor, backed by Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. He knows he’ll play the same notes that a thousand pianists have played, the same notes he’s played himself a dozen times before.

But he also knows those notes are merely steps on a path. He has no idea where that path might lead.

“I’ve played this piece many times,” Ganz says, “and every single time I notice new things. As I was practicing earlier, I noticed a small difference between two very similar phrases in the second movement. One phrase includes a brief silence — known as a rest — but it’s not written into the other phrase. I never fully appreciated that silence. I experiment with how to highlight it and make that silence apparent to the listener. It seems minor, but those things add up.”

Such attention to detail has earned Ganz nearly hyperbolic praise from critics around the world. But he’s never rested on his laurels. Like athletes, there are three types of musicians: those who lack talent and rely on hard work, those who get by on talent alone and — rarest of all — those blessed with talent who work hard anyway. Ganz falls into that category. To raise the level of his playing to dizzying heights, he’s worked hard to develop the talent he was born with.
On the piano of his grandfather, an accomplished keyboard player, Ganz played his first note. His parents nourished his play, and at nine, he was playing in earnest.

“A little on the late side,” he says, explaining that most kids who go on to have a career in music start as early as three — seldom later than seven. “But I was blessed to have magnificent teachers and the support of my family to help me make up for lost time.”

A second incentive was Chopin, whose music Ganz “fell madly in love with” in his 11th year.

Repaying his debt, Ganz is now a teacher, nurturing students at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. On top of teaching, he makes time for his own career, with the demanding travel schedule of a solo performer. But there was a time when he wasn’t sure he would keep performing — at least solo.

“I had my first recital when I was 12 and performed fairly consistently from that point on,” he says. “My teacher invited her manager to hear me, and her manager took me on. I earned a little money to help offset the cost of all the lessons I was taking.”

But the cost of constant performance eventually outweighed the gains.

“There was a period where perhaps we overdid it, in that I was a little over my head,” Ganz says. “It was a little bit as if I’d never paused and looked at the big picture, so when I was 18 I had maybe the equivalent of a midlife crisis. I felt like I needed to stop. I needed a break.”

He stopped playing solo for the next seven years, entering instead a period of intense spiritual growth.

“Playing piano was no longer as satisfying to me and as nourishing for me,” he says. “I felt I needed to grow in other ways.”

Turning inward, Ganz spent hours in prayer and meditation. To support himself, he taught piano privately. When he performed, he played chamber music — disappearing into the orchestra. He studied liberal arts at Catholic University for two years but didn’t take a single music course.

“Then I felt called back into solo playing,” he says. “I felt I did have a gift that I wanted to share with the world.”

His manager was happy to take him back. Ganz gave the first concert of his second career in 1985.

“When I was a young man I performed a lot, but I didn’t have the flexibility of soul to feel peace in the deep challenges of a solo performing career.” On his return, he performed from what he calls “a place of greater inner flexibility.”

The challenges he speaks of come from within.

“Some of the very characteristics that helped you get you where you are — high standards, a willingness to work hard and be extremely judgmental of oneself — have to be transcended in performance,” Ganz explains. “I mean, you get on stage, and you never play a piece as well as it can be played, or even as well as you can play it, so one has to be very accepting. You have to let go and love and celebrate.”

That’s just what Ganz hopes to do this weekend at Maryland Hall. Not that he’s forgetting the concerto’s technical demands.

“A great deal happens in both hands,” he says. “At times a sort of parallel virtuosity is required. It’s hard to play, in other words.” But harder still, Ganz says, “is to play without pride or fear, only with love and the desire to communicate. I’ve glimpsed it during performances — a moment of freedom and joy that was ecstatic — but I haven’t been able to sustain it for an entire performance, and may not be able to in this lifetime.”

The mere possibility that Ganz could sustain that freedom and joy — for an entire performance, a single movement or even a single phrase — draws music lovers in droves to Ganz’s performances. For if he gets there, we might too.

Brian Ganz is soloist on Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. 8pm, Nov. 22 & 23 @ Maryland Hall, Annapolis; $25-35: 410/269-1132.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly