Of Patience, Restlessness, Sonatas, and Transcendency

One often asks, “What are the ingredients to a lifelong career as a concert artist?” There is certainly no precise recipe. Diligence? Of course. Talent? Hopefully. Hard work? Definitely. Yet very often one crucial ingredient is forgotten: patience.

Hinrich Alpers

Hinrich Alpers will present this year's William Petschek Piano Debut Recital on March 27 in Zankel Hall.

(Photo by Chad Johnson)


Having pursued professional studies for more than seven years, at last I find myself on the cusp of becoming a musical grown-up. As an assistant to my teacher in Hannover, I see many young, energetic, and very often impressively gifted students who also aim to start their own journeys toward a professional career. They have the same sense of restlessness and adventurous spirit that continue to invigorate me—and, like me, they will face obstacles along the path. First, that eager pursuit of success can sometimes, ironically, be a barrier to success. Second, every situation in life (including artistic life) asks for a pair of well-fitting shoes. Walking in a too-large pair before your feet have grown to size gets you nowhere fast, and the old saying that one must learn to walk before running holds true.

So, what am I getting at? Perhaps it’s as simple as saying the stars have thankfully aligned. Had I been told seven years ago that in 2008, I would have the privilege of performing a debut at Carnegie Hall—something about which every young musician dreams—I would have hardly believed it. Somehow, I never took success of any sort for granted; after all, what, exactly, defines it? Despite the initial frustration, couldn’t being eliminated in the first round of a competition be an educative and eventually motivating experience? I’m realistic enough to see without rose-colored glasses, but I do find that, with every kind of “failure,” there can be a positive lesson learned, bringing one that much closer to success of one kind or another. Perhaps patience is the toughest lesson of all—but the sharing of exquisite music-making that results is most rewarding.

When I began this journey to Carnegie Hall, I had no idea what fulfilling experiences lay ahead—the greatest of which is perhaps my encounter with the never-ending realm of music, by no means limited to the piano repertory! The inspiration I gain from the wonderful personalities with whom I work is more of a treat every day. I have been blessed with the chance to share my musical weltanschauung with others by playing the most wonderful pieces of music literature. That said, putting together a program for this Petschek Recital that reflects my personality and invites the audience to enter my musical world was certainly no easy task.

Yet a simple leitmotif was found in each work: the sonata. In history, that term underwent constant changes in meaning. For Scarlatti it simply meant “a sound piece” (from the Italian sonare, “to sound”). He had no regard for the actual form of the piece—unlike Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who always seemed to have an imaginary template (however, as scholars like Charles Rosen have proven, this was likely never the case, as no two classical sonata movements are alike!). Their successors during the Romantic period dealt with an overwhelming Classical heritage in a very personal way. Liszt, for instance, even managed to blend the three-part sonata form and the three-movement sonata into a whole, seasoned with just a little fugue. This approach eventually cleared the way for the protagonists of the 20th century to take a new and modern stab at the sonata.

Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata is such a work, and its enchanting magic and rich colors still fascinate me after years. I’m more and more intrigued by how Scriabin bends the sonata concept to an extent where it is barely recognizable, yet omnipresent. I often see his sonata as a dream-walk through an exotic, fragrant garden—certainly one of those dreams one wishes would never end! Schumann’s Sonata in F-sharp Minor is in complete contrast. One of his earliest works, it is a cry for Schumann’s beloved but far-off Clara, so iconically romantic, so furious and so tender all at once, that taking the Classical sonata as a model seems almost presumptuous.

Another of my dreams will come true at Carnegie Hall: I have commissioned a new work for piano by Benedict Mason, one of the most original and ingenious composers I have ever met. I’m delighted and very proud to have him as part of this debut. His new piece will also be a sonata, but (having spoken of patience) I don’t even know the exact title yet, and am curious to know what kind of sonata between Scarlatti and Debussy it will be!

There are few pieces that could finish such an exciting journey, and even fewer that bear such legacy as Beethoven’s final Sonata No. 32 Op. 111. Held sacred by many, it is one of the works of the piano literature that perfectly reflects a central idea of the Classical period: the sonata as image of the world. To me, the Opus 111 represents sublimation of mundane human concerns; after a first movement of true turmoil, performer and audience start to float, as if to reach for heaven, as if to join the masterful spirits they’ve already discovered during the past hour and a half.

I can hardly wait to get on the airplane to New York! However, I guess I’ll have to be patient …

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