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Record Geijutsu; Tokyo

October, 2009

Interview with Craig Sheppard

by Daisuke Hirose, Ph.D

(translated from the Japanese by Yukiko Nakada)

"Bach is my very favorite composer
of all time."

Craig Sheppard's Interview in Japan 2009In our ‘Critics Report’ in vol. 5, Mr. Peter Cossé had introduced the pianist Craig Sheppard. My interest in him grew because, although Mr. Cossé is usually an outspoken critic of pianists, he highly praised Mr. Sheppard. Fortunately, I was able to get hold of Craig Sheppard in Japan in June and had the opportunity to have an interview with him. The interview lasted for more than one hour, and the topics touched on various issues. He had a special skill of soothing people with his humor and intelligence while answering every question sincerely. I can only write a part of it, but the readers will discover his charm through this article.

Fulfilling Musical Activities,
both in America and Europe

Hirose: Mr. Cossé introduced you as a famous ‘unknown pianist’. I don’t think you are unknown, but would you please talk about yourself?

Sheppard: I was born in Philadelphia and graduated from both the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School. After winning the Silver Medal at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1972, I moved to London in the following year. For 20 years after that, I had fulfilling musical activities, both in America and Europe, and performed with many wonderful conductors and orchestras while teaching at Lancaster University, The Yehudi Menuhin School, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Also, I gave numerous master classes at both Oxford and Cambridge universities. But, gradually, I was becoming tired of being a freelance musician, always flies around from city to city, and often becoming alone and lonely in foreign places. So I came back to the US in 1993. Since I loved teaching, I accepted a position as Professor of Piano in the Music Department at the University of Washington in Seattle. Maybe, at that point, I quit being active in the front lines as a performer. It was impossible both physically and mentally to fly around the world while working as a full-time professor. First of all, it would be unfair to my students if I did that.

Hirose: You seem to have no regret of having chosen that way.

Sheppard: No, I don’t. My life had been good, and since choosing this way, my life has been even more fulfilled. There are so many wonderful young musicians in today’s music world. Their enthusiasm and passion bring a tremendous amount of energy to our field, and their passion will support and sustain it in the future. Communicating with those young people motivates and encourages me. As one of the older generation, I can communicate my experience as a teacher and a performer to those young people.

Hirose: You look very busy.

Sheppard: Yes, I am. For these 16 years since coming back to the US, I have had no time to be bored. My students at the University of Washington – mainly doctoral students (two or which are Japanese) – bring in new material every day, which I find both challenging and gratifying. I read a lot, and am constantly learning new repertoire. At age 61, I’m still making every effort to educate myself, not only in a technical sense, but also in an attempt to reflect the knowledge that I have acquired through my experiences. There is countless music and knowledge to be learned, and time is limited. This does not mean I am planning on dying tomorrow! But I want to have the opportunity to perform those splendid pieces in the years to come. I believe I have a responsibility to enhance my abilities to their maximum.

Recording the last three Schubert Sonatas

Hirose: How do you plan to do that?

Craig Sheppard's Interview in Japan 2009Sheppard: I had recorded a collection of Liszt Operatic Transcriptions and Paraphrases, which was issued from EMI, when I was young. For example, Norma was tremendously difficult, and it is never easy to perform Tannhäuser with the appropriate tone and balance in accordance with the original orchestral sound. I recorded the études of Debussy and Chopin, and Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux about 10 years ago, and all of the Beethoven sonatas about five years ago. I also perform a great deal of chamber music, and do the occasional lieder recital. Recently, I have played a great deal of Bach, and have recorded the six partitas, which I had performed in London many years ago. I felt that these works really fit me (they were issued on the Romeo label). I love Bach from the bottom of my heart, but there is also a great deal of music that I would like to record in addition. For example, I am going to record the last three piano sonatas of Schubert. Since I have played Schubert a lot, I would like to record much more of his music, but my schedule of the university does not allow for it. Also, I would like to record all of Brahms’ solo pieces.

Hirose: Wow! That would be fantastic!

Sheppard: Sounds like you like Brahms, don’t you? I divided them into five concerts and played the complete solo works at London’s Wigmore Hall in February and March of 1979. I was 31 years old at that time, and played a different concert approximately every 10 days. Since that time, I have played the works repeatedly, and have also taught them. Those are the works I wish to record. You might think that I focus on The Three ‘Bs’, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. But, that was never my original intention. I just played what I wanted to play. I like much contemporary music, especially by 20th century’s composers such as Ligeti, and ‘forgotten’ Holocaust victims such as Ullman, Klein and Schulhoff. They composed splendid works that have few opportunities to be played. But, Bach is my favorite composer of all time. I might start to record Bach’s works again. After finishing the recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier, I thought it would be wise to stay away from Bach for a while, but that has proved impossible! I will always continue to play his works.

Deep spirituality of Bach,
the greatest composer.

Hirose: What makes Bach such a special composer?

Sheppard: It is surprising that a person who never traveled more than 300km from his hometown had such a wide view of the world. Bach essentially never left the area where he grew up. The longest ‘trip’ in his life was when he walked most of the way from Arnstadt to Lübeck in order to meet with the great organist, Buxtehude. Although Bach didn’t travel around the world, he exhibited remarkable talent. It’s no doubt that he read all the books he could obtain. I think there is another reason why Bach was very knowledgeable in every field. Do you know Eisenach, his birth town? When you look at a map of Germany, you will notice that Eisenach is located in the center of the country. Eisenach is exactly at the intersection of European trade routes, that is to say, the point where various ideas and thoughts come and go. Bach had a very inquisitive mind, so he absorbed new information and assimilated the newest ideas in the fields of science and social science. It defies the imagination, how Bach was able to find the time and energy to create such a great number of masterpieces that are still played.

I think the reason why I feel the most ‘satisfaction’ when I play Bach rather than other composers lays in the origin of its inspiration. Bach had a deep spirituality, which I would not say is religious in the strictest sense. His intellect, extraordinary tolerance and deep understanding of the human condition allow for a depth, a warmth and a great humanity in his music. For me, the composer who can best exemplifies the wide range of human activity and emotion is Bach.

Bach noticed several problems when he heard Silbermann’s piano in about 1742. He then suggested how to improve the instrument. When he heard that same piano again six years later, he was very satisfied with it. Musicians sometimes say that, since Bach’s keyboard pieces were originally composed for clavichord and harpsichord (excepting organ music), they should not be played on piano. I think this is total nonsense. I am sure Bach would be very delighted if he heard his keyboard music played on modern pianos. Bach’s works can be arranged for every instrument, and it still sounds wonderful, because it is pure music. Therefore, it is nonsensical to object to playing Bach keyboard music on modern instruments. The piano has unlimitedly variety of tone, color and touch, and is very orchestral.

Affection and humor
in Beethoven’s works

Hirose: You have also played a lot of Beethoven.

Sheppard: The greatest pieces of Beethoven are heart-wrenching, full of humanity and affection, and bring the listeners into a celestial world. They are also full of humor. A good example is one of my favorites, the piano sonata no. 16 in G major, Opus 31/1. The first movement is just like a restless child, often startling the listener with a sudden explosion and quick mood changes, akin to slapstick comedy. The slow movement, which reminds us of a bel canto aria of Rossini, is also nice. Many people see only affection and feeling in Beethoven, but I sometimes feel that these idea come into conflict with that I know of this composer’s personality. For example, his tyrannical nature made him conclude that his younger sister-in-law was the root of all evil in the upbringing of his nephew, Carl. Also, especially in later life, he appeared to be lacking in thoughtfulness toward ordinary people through mean behavior. There is no doubt that, because he lost his sense of hearing, which is the most important sense in communicating with others , and for his music, he became increasingly difficult. But, due to this very condition, it became his destiny to create many miraculous pieces late in his life, which we cherish.

Hirose: How do you recreate a composer’s works into meaningful sound?

Sheppard: Kids play, lacking a perspective, such as in world affairs, and the culture and history of the time during which the composer lived. Kids put their hands on a keyboard and, in most cases, express how they feel the music should sound, not how the composer wanted them to feel. It takes a lifetime to discover and try to understand the composer’s intentions, rather than what we think those intentions are. As the performer himself grows, so does his/her understanding and interpretation at the keyboard.

Read Haruki Murakami

Have interests in wide range of areas

Hirose: Mr. Sheppard, your own life must be pretty fulfilled.

Sheppard: I am attracted to pianists who have a broad range of interests. Once we become familiar with one area, usually our interest in another begins. For example, I like foreign languages. This creates an opportunity to encounter new people and to acknowledge and deepen the understanding of their culture. Traveling to places where we don’t go for performances makes us grow. Also, I like to read novels from different cultural areas, such as Gabriel García Márquez and the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Their stories strongly attract readers by introducing us into very interesting worlds, very different from our own. The garden of my house in Seattle gives lots of pleasure and challenge, and I enjoy every aspect of it. I enjoy calculating the best place to grow a certain plant, for instance, and get angry if I’m wrong! Seattle is surrounded by two mountain ranges and I go hiking, if time allows. It is the best place to live. There are so many elements that benefit musical activities. I don’t think that just sitting at the piano for many hours creates grounds for good art. Artists need to be balanced and rich human beings in all senses. It is necessary to study seriously, have various experiences, deepen one’s spiritualism and communicate with nature to become a good artist.

Hirose: Do you have any messages for Japanese music fans?

Craig Sheppard's Interview in Japan 2009Sheppard: First of all, I like the Japanese culture very much. I am fascinated by it. Human relationships here are totally different from those in the U.S. I think that people are respectful of the individual’s deeper spirit in Japan. I like Japanese food. Also, I am always impressed by the attitude towards ones occupation. I think that also reflects the quality of music making at every level. I would like to perform with major orchestras in Japan, and also would like to have recitals in large halls. I would also be very grateful to give more master classes.

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