Wisconsinite Aaron Wunsch majored in music and international relations at—and played water polo for—Yale before coming to Juilliard for his master's and doctorate in piano. He joined the Juilliard faculty in 2005 and five years ago created Juilliard PianoScope, which takes place at the Morgan Library on April 19 and is repeated at Juilliard on April 26. He's also the artistic director of the Skaneateles Festival in the Finger Lakes region and New York City's Music Mondays. Wunsch and his wife, Julia Bruskin ('01, cello), are the parents of Gabriel, 4, and Clara, 1.
How did PianoScope start?
As a way for Juilliard pianists, often solitary in their musical pursuits, to explore piano repertoire together—in the classroom, in master classes, and finally on stage. Our first project was to present all 24 Debussy Préludes, with 24 pianists, coached in master classes by Richard Goode; we've also presented dance suite movements with Juilliard dancers and music of World War I with poetry read by Juilliard actors. This year's features piano music inspired by the visual arts and includes commissions by freshman Tengku Irfan and alumna Paola Prestini.
It's not easy to realize these projects, but persistence pays off. As Mahler said when the court chamberlain told him not to beat his head against the wall by trying something new at the court opera, “I do beat my head against the wall, and it is the wall that will get a hole in it.”
When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?
It was 1990, and the Berlin Wall had recently started to come down. I was working on a reunification poster for my German class, and on the radio was a piece I had never heard, Schumann's Piano Concerto. In the last movement, the piano starts some arpeggios and it just can't stop. These irrationally exuberant arpeggios gallivant up and down, and finally the orchestra responds with the most optimistic, upward-swinging theme. It struck me that this music is like the optimism of Germany wanting to reunify despite all odds. It was the first time it occurred to me that music and life are essentially about the same things.
What's one thing you wished you'd known when you were a student?
Just how important it is to take your own initiative—and that doing so is empowering and rewarding, not an unfortunate penalty for losing too many competitions. I learned this only gradually, by building a performance series (Music Mondays), and managing to counteract my midwestern impulse to retreat into modesty. In the first chapter of Knigge's On Human Relations—the famous book that Haydn and probably most every other German-speaking musician after him read—there's a passage about how musicians and painters best gain their opportunities through self-promotion, not through talent. I guess that's still true, and it doesn't make their art any less valuable. Look at Beethoven—he was shameless.
What are you glad you didn't know when you were a student?
I suppose the “correct” answer is “how hard it is to be a musician”—and it's true that one pretty much has to adopt a Don Quixote-like attitude early on; you have to believe you can do it, despite the apparent circumstances. But I'm actually glad I didn't care too much at that stage about what it means to earn a living. There's plenty of time for that later!
What are your nonmusic interests?
They include hiking, German literature, learning Mandarin—but since I don't have time for any of that at the moment, my main nonmusical pursuit seems to be pushing swings in Central Park.
If you weren't in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
Perhaps something related to diplomacy—it seems to me the world could use more effective diplomats at the moment.
What are reading/listening to/following?
Reading: The New Yorker (silently) and Frog and Toad (aloud); listening: Bach cantatas; following: my children around.
You're a pianist and your wife's a cellist. Which music do your kids find more soothing?
I've never noticed music to soothe them. Our son loves Mozart's Magic Flute and can sing most of the arias in his own faux German—so as soon as I sit down to practice, he dresses up as one of the characters and requests a number.