On Sept. 29 in St. Mary’s Hall, artist-in-residence Brian Ganz held the first Piano Talk of the semester as a celebration of piano composer Franz Liszt’s 200th birthday. Ganz performed two pieces by Liszt and one piece by Chopin.
Before he began to play, Ganz opened the performance with a brief explanation of the purpose of a Piano Talk and what exactly they are. It is “a kind of very informal lecture in which I take a topic and make an effort to take you all behind the scenes and give you a peek at the performer’s task,” said Ganz. It is meant to be accessible to everyone, even those with no musical training.
As an introduction to Chopin’s Mazurka in B flat minor, Ganz gave a brief explanation of harmonies and demonstrated different three note chords. He also explained the concept of harmonic ingenuity, which is “doing something that is cogent, yet explores new sonic territory.” Chopin is a genius at this.
Mazurkas were Chopin’s most numerous compositions. The number of Mazurkas that Chopin wrote is more than double that of any of genre, explained Ganz. A Mazurka is a form of the quintessential folk dance of Poland.
Ganz played bits and pieces of the Mazurka and broke down how the different sounds and chords illicit different emotions in the listener. Ganz showed how there were many sounds created by Chopin that are “intentionally puzzling to the ear.”
Some parts of the piece illicit very specific emotions in the listener, but the emotion itself is often unclear until it is discussed. Ganz played a part of the Mazurka and then asked audience, “Did you sense how much [Chopin is] searching?” There was a strong sense of sadness and longing in the music.
Ganz played one line from the Mazurka that he dubbed “one of the spookiest moments in all of Chopin’s music.” But, since Chopin is what Ganz calls a “very astute composer psychologically,” Chopin knows to comfort the listener with something that almost sounds like a hymn after the especially spooky moment.
Then, after having explained all the different parts of the piece, Ganz began to play. He put his entire self into the music; from his body language alone it was clear that he was completely invested in the music. As he played, Ganz’s back, shoulders, and head moved with the music. He jerked his body when the music made a sudden jump and changed his facial expressions based on the feelings conveyed in it.
As the piece came to a close, Ganz slowly exhaled and almost made a sound, as if he had been holding his breath for the entire piece. It is clear that Ganz loves the music he plays, and it is an honor to be able to watch him put his whole heart into his music. While he played, he pulled the audience into the music and took everyone on an emotional journey from the beginning to end of the piece.
The second part of the Piano Talk focused on Franz Liszt and was more piano-playing than talking. Ganz briefly compared and contrasted the styles of Chopin and Liszt. While Chopin played only about 33 concerts in his entire life, Liszt probably played closer to 33 concerts every two months when he was in his prime.
The pieces that Ganz played by Liszt were more upbeat and faster paced. At times, his hands were moving so fast that they were a blur. They would even cross over each other sometimes in frenzy.
“This was the first time that I’ve ever gone to a piano concert,” said first-year student Caitlin Whiteis, “I’m not a music major but this was incredible.”
“It was really interesting,” agreed first-year Elaina Kohles, “I took piano lessons when I was younger and this made me interested in learning to play the piano again.”
Ganz has been part of the piano faculty here at St. Mary’s since 1986 and is an award-winning musician. He has performed in concerts and piano competitions worldwide, including the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington, D.C. Ganz is now part of the piano faculty here at St. Mary’s and at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, from which he is a graduate.
Over the course of the semester, Ganz will be holding a series of Piano Talks in his Chopin Discovery Series, in which he will be playing pieces by Chopin that he has never played before and is discovering for the first time. The first in the series this semester took place on Oct. 7. The next Piano Talk will be held in the Auerbach Auditorium of St. Mary’s Hall at 12 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 1. It will feature Impromptus and Mazurkas by Chopin.