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Bachauer Winners Search for Truth Between the Notes

In early 1930s Paris, a young woman sat down to play for Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of the giants of late-Romantic pianism, in a rare pedagogical appearance since his self-imposed exile from his native Russia. She would later say of his teaching style, “If I asked him ... ‘How do you do that passage?’ The answer was always the same. He sat at the piano, illustrating it, and saying: ‘Like that.’ He could not explain what he wanted me to do. He would always add: ‘When you will show me what you want to do with that phrase and if you can convince me, then it is right.’”

Sean Chen and Eric Zuber.

Eric Zuber (left) and Sean Chen, the winners of this year’s Bachauer Piano Competition, perform on September 22.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

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The pianist was Gina Bachauer (1913-76), not yet 20 years of age, in the waking hours of what would prove to be an illustrious career. Thirty-four years after her death, Bachauer’s legacy lives on in the form of eponymous competitions around the world, including Juilliard’s own, held annually in May.

If there was a lesson to be learned from her experience with Rachmaninoff, it was, as she remembered, that “he made me realize that there are several ways to interpreting the same phrase, as long as it is convincing, as long as this comes from one’s own judgment.”

This year’s winners of Juilliard’s Gina Bachauer Piano Competition are Eric Zuber and Sean Chen, both of whom have spent the bulk of their lives struggling to define the parameters of convincing artistic judgment. Their recent success is a testament to years of training, which, through a combination of intrinsic drive and world-class instruction, has carved out an individual and recognizable voice in each of their respective styles. 

Just as in Bachauer’s interwar Paris, the lurking demands for ideological conformity continue to pose an obstacle to artistic clarity. 

As any musician knows, the inherent structure of a competition breeds in its participants a tendency towards a common, homogenized style, born of the psychological contradictions the performer faces in attempting to collectively appease an anonymous jury representing an unknown array of sensibilities. Over the course of his development, Zuber has marshaled a defense against this tendency built from the insights of his teachers, most recently Juilliard’s Robert McDonald, whose “exceptionally gifted musical ears can make a score that one is already quite familiar with come to life again in a fresh and new way,” Zuber said, “motivating one to keep searching personally for new truths hidden within it.”

Perhaps it is those elusive truths concealed between the notes of the score that hold the key to Rachmaninoff’s ideal of the “convincing” interpretation. In speaking of McDonald’s teaching, Zuber, a current master’s student and a co-winner of the 2009 Bachauer competition, refines Rachmaninoff’s notion of “independent judgment” invoked by Bachauer:

“It is the mark of a quality teacher that he does not make judgments based solely on his own interpretational standards,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Journal, “but instead he lets the printed score, funneled through the imagination of each individual student, guide the refining process.”

By recognizing the dialectic between the predetermined, raw materials of the score and the individual creative input of the performer, Zuber implicitly resists two tendencies that most often polarize the discussions of musical interpretation: the purely subjective, idiosyncratic approach grounded in one’s own fleeting emotions, and the purely objective, deferential approach that fetishizes the score and makes sacred the intention of the composer. Rather, just as Rachmaninoff hinted at decades before, Zuber emphasizes a synthesis between the contradictory contributions of the score and the imagination. History suggests that both elements are indispensable to that “search for hidden truths” and few 20th-century pianists have personified that search as much as Bachauer’s primary teacher in Paris.

Bachauer was sent to study with Alfred Cortot at the École Normale de Musique at the behest of her teacher in her native Athens. Twenty years after teaching Bachauer, Cortot found one of his last prized students in Juilliard faculty member Jerome Lowenthal, whose raison d’être as a pedagogue has been to preserve the organic lyricism of Cortot and impart the wisdom of the tradition to his students. Sean Chen, co-winner of the Bachauer Competition with Zuber, finds in Lowenthal’s teaching a groping towards understanding. 

“With him it is not really about the notes you play or really the way you play them ... but more about the attitude and approach to interpreting and learning and performing a work of art. It is always about comprehension,” he wrote in an e-mail. Lowenthal’s approach to the search for musical truths is a more existential one. In Chen’s words, “I believe it is harder to teach why than how or what, and I think Mr. Lowenthal has really done that.”

Chen will start his master’s studies this year at Juilliard, splitting his time between Lowenthal and Matti Raekallio, the latter a formidable analytical mind who operates with a kind of motoric, superhuman consistency.

“After teaching all day, Mr. Raekallio still manages to have studio classes until past 9 p.m., eyes still wide open,” Chen said. With the same wide-eyed stare, Raekallio is able to dissect passages of music and expose the bare ribs of a piece in a matter of minutes.

For Chen, the most important qualities uniting both teachers is an eclectic fascination with the repertoire—ranging from the mainstream to the obscure—and a prolific performing career. Chen’s own eclecticism and spontaneity will be on public display in the Bachauer winner’s concert on September 22 in Paul Hall, as his unorthodox style meets an unorthodox program of Dallapiccola, Carter, and Liszt/Paganini. Zuber will begin the program in complementary fashion, presenting the virtuosity, lyricism, and craftsmanship of a single composer: Frederic Chopin, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year. 

The program is, however, more than just the sum of its parts. It represents the convergence of years of personal dedication and sacrifice for both performers with the legacies they embody and the composers in whose names they perform. Perhaps the tensions and contradictions of piano playing are never fully resolved, but as Chen and Zuber have found, the struggle for meaning is a worthy one. Though the truth between the notes will never be fully exposed, the beauty revealed in each new performance is sufficient.

After all, “the beauty of these pieces,” as Chen remarked, “is the first and foremost reason I even play music.”

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