The Piano is Calling Me: Nicolas Horvath’s New Music Pilgrimages


Nicolas Horvath Lyon

Nicolas Horvath at the piano in Lyon

I first heard of this young Monacan pianist and composer when a composer friend, David Toub, told me that he was going to program one of this piano pieces.  That piece along with quite a few other performances are available on Nicolas Horvath’s You Tube video channel here.

Horvath developed a strong interest in contemporary music from Gerard Frémy among others and has been programming a great deal of new music ranging from the more familiar such as Philip Glass to a host of others including quite a few pieces written for or premiered by him as well as his own transcriptions and reconstructions.  He is known for his concerts in non-traditional venues with very non-traditional lengths of performance as well as traditional concerts.

His current projects include Night of Minimalism in which he performs continuously for 10-15 hours with a wide variety of minimalist and post-minimalist pieces and Glass Worlds in which he performs the complete solo piano works of Philip Glass (approximately 15 hours) along with pieces by an international list of composers written in tribute to Glass.  He is also an electroacoustic composer (he counts Francois Bayle among his teachers) and a visual artist all with a passion for contemporary works.

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The artist standing in one of his installations.

We had corresponded via e-mail over the last year or so and when I suggested the idea of interviewing him he responded by arranging time after a (traditional length) concert he gave in Minsk, Belarus on December 1, 2014.  I prepared for what I anticipated would be a one hour interview after which I imagined he would probably need to get to sleep.  But when I attempted to wrap up our conversation (at a couple of points) he immediately asked, “Don’t you have any more questions?”.  What followed resulted in approximately three and an half hours of delightful and wide-ranging conversation about this man and his art which he ended with the comment, “I must go, the piano is calling me.”  It appears that his seemingly boundless energy extends well beyond the stage.  The following January (2015) he gave the world premiere performance of all of Philip Glass’ 20 Etudes in none other than Carnegie Hall.

Nicolas Horvath (c) Jean Thierry Boisseau

Horvath with spent score pages as he traverses one of his extended performance ventures. (copyright Jean Therry Boisseau)

Since that time we have continued our correspondence and this affable, patient young artist continues on various projects and no sign of his interest or energy waning.  He recently sent me various photos of him in various settings pursuing his varied artistic interests for this article.

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Composer as well as performer in an electroacoustic performance without piano.

Horvath was born in Monaco in 1977.  He studied piano at the Académie de Musique Rainier III de Monaco and the École  Normale de Musique de Paris.  At 16, Lawrence Foster took notice of him in a concert and, securing a three year scholarship for him from the Princess Grace Foundation, was able to invite him to the Aspen Music Festival. After his studies in the École Normale de Musique in Paris, he worked for three years with
Bruno-Léonardo Gelber, Gérard Frémy who instilled in him a sensitivity to music of our time as well as Eric Heidsieck, Gabriel Tacchino, Nelson Delle-Vigne, Philippe Entremont and Oxana Yablonskaya. Leslie Howard got to know him and invited him to perform before the Liszt Society in the United Kingdom. He has been playing professionally for 7 years and puts his own characteristic style into his productions and performances.

In a move reminiscent of Terry Riley’s all night solo improv fests Horvath has performed several lengthy programs.  He has performed Erik Satie’s proto-minimalist Vexations (1893) in performances that ranged widely in length. One notable performance at the Palais de Tokyo lasted 35 hours, the longest solo piano performance on record as far as I can determine.  Previously this piece has been performed by tag teams of pianists (the first in 1967 in New York was curated by John Cage) to perform the 840 repetitions of the piece whose tempo or recommended duration is not specified.  Horvath, taking on a musicological mantle is preparing his own edition of this unique work.  He has published an 24 hour version on his You Tube channel here.

Given his intense schedule and vast repertoire he has been remarkably responsive and has an irrepressibly strong appetite for new music.  He tells me that he had worked on a project in which he planned to play all the piano music of the French composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005),  some 35 hours of material (in a single program, of course). Unfortunately that composer’s relative obscurity seems to have resulted  in insufficient support for the project which is, for now, on hold.  Here’s hoping that this can be realized sometime soon.

Horvath’s fascination with authenticity, completeness and performances of unconventional lengths uninterrupted by applause where audiences are invited to lay on the floor with blankets and sleeping bags and approach the piano seems unusual but he has been getting enthusiastic audiences and has enjoyed overflow crowds.  Like Terry Riley and perhaps even some of Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts there is a ritual feel to these marathon performances.  Regrettably I have not yet been able to attend one but I would love to partake in what must be a powerful shared experience.  He invites people to come to the piano and to watch, look at the score.  It is unlike the conventional recital and therein lies some of its charm.  At least one of his videos features a small sign which reads, “Don’t feed the pianist” and attests to his warmth and wonderful sense of humor.

His passion has parallels in his spirituality and he has pursued sacred pilgrimages which require a great deal of time and energy but without doubt fill a very deep and sincere need. More details and photos are available on his blog.  And, as with music, he is very open to discussing this very personal aspect of his life.

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The artist braving the elements on one of his pilgrimages.

There are conventional two hour with intermission style recitals in more conventional concert venues that he has played and Horvath also enjoys playing with an orchestra.  His performances of both of Philip Glass’ piano concertos can be viewed on You Tube and you can see the intensity of his execution.  This came through in the course of our interview as well when Mr. Horvath would speak of the music and then verbally imitate the rhythms (no doubt endlessly practiced) which drive his enthusiasm.  The music seems to be deeply integrated into his very being.

His first solo commercial recording was released in 2012.  It consists of Franz Liszt’s ‘Christus’, an oratorio composed in 1862-66 for narrator, soloists, chorus and orchestra.  Horvath plays a piano reduction done by the composer.  This is the first known recording of this unique and virtuosic set of piano works.  It is certainly an unusual choice for a debut recording but it is consistent with his very personal tastes.  (He lists Scriabin and Chopin as among his favorite composers.).   He is in the process of recording all of Philip Glass’ piano music for Grand Piano records distributed by Naxos.  At the time of this writing four well-received volumes have been released.  He is also planning to record all of Satie’s piano music and he has just recently released his rendition of Cornelius Cardew’s indeterminate masterpiece, Treatise.

I have seldom encountered a musician with such intensity and drive.  He is also one of the most skilled in using the internet to promote himself and his projects.  And though this is no doubt a man with a considerable ego he is in fact very unpretentious and very genuinely turned on, driven by the music itself.  Don’t get me wrong, he is concerned with developing his image and career but he seems happy to be doing the work he has been doing and he is, like any really good musician, self-critical and a perfectionist.

A quick look at his YouTube channel here reveals some of the range of his interests which include the standard repertoire along with interest in contemporary works.  Just released is a creative video with Horvath playing Glass’ Morning Passages while he apparently experiences a reverie involving a beautiful woman which could have been on MTV at its height.  Perhaps he is even channeling Oscar Levant who embraced roles in films along with his pianistic talents.  His website is a good resource for updates on his various projects and performances.

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Focused concentration at the keyboard.

As of the time of this writing his discography includes:

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Hortus Records 100 (2012)

A very unusual choice for a debut recording.  Nonetheless this is a distinctive recording which reflects the virtuosity as well as the careful scholarship which continues to characterize his work.  He managed to locate a couple of previously lost pieces in this set of composer transcriptions.  One also can’t miss the spiritual dimension here, as close to his heart as music and an equally important aspect of his personality.

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Grand Piano GP 677 (2015)

This first disc in the series manages to provide the listener with truly inspired interpretations of Glass’ keyboard oeuvre and gives us a world premiere recording of How Now as well.

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Grand Piano GP 690 (2015)

The complete Piano Etudes by the man who premiered the set at Carnegie Hall.  These etudes were also recorded by the wonderful Maki Namekawa and the opportunity to hear these really different takes is positively revelatory.

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Grand Piano GP 691 (2016)

The third disc in the traversal of Glass’ piano music (original and transcribed) also offers world premieres.  Horvath’s inclusion of Glass’ early Sonatina No. 2 reflects his work under the tutelage of Darius Milhaud and provides insight into the composer’s early development before he developed his more familiar mature style.

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Grand Piano GP 692 (2016)

Haven’t yet heard this disc but I have in queued for ordering in the next few weeks.

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Demerara Records (2016)

Haven’t heard this one yet either but, again, it’s in my Amazon shopping cart.

 

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Horvath’s interpretation of this important work by Cornelius Cardew

Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was sort of England’s John Cage, a major voice in 20th Century experimental music.  Scholarship has yet to do justice to the late composer’s work but this disc is an important contribution toward that end..

Horvath’s career is characterized by innovation and passion combined with astute scholarship and a keen sense of what is new and interesting in music  while clearly being schooled in the classic repertoire.  The piano calls him as do his other passions and I highly recommend paying attention as he answers those calls.  He is truly an artist to watch.
N.B.  Mr. Horvath generously read and approved an advance draft of this article shortly after arriving in the United States for concerts at Steinway Hall in Rockville with a Chopin program and a recital at The Spectrum in New York City which will include two pieces written for him by Michael Vincent Waller along with some Chopin pieces.

Right of Spring, Left of Spring but Not Necessarily in Spring


Disruptions, dissatisfactions and even stronger reactions are not actually that uncommon in classical concerts. But some of these disruptions have taken on a sort of mythical dimension while others remain lesser known. The significance of these disruptions is usually based on failure of expectation or fulfillment of a foregone conclusion. Either the audience is unpleasantly surprised by the music or they come with preconceived notions of the inherent difficulty and/or insignificance of modern music. I think that these events signal a revolution not so much in music as in hearing. Audiences’ horizons are being expanded and many rebel against being taken out of their comfort zones. It is much like the paradigm shifts in science delineated by Thomas Kuhn in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. Indeed some of these concerts seem to signal aesthetic revolutions.

English: Kiss to the Earth. 2nd variant. Scene...

English: Kiss to the Earth. 2nd variant. Scenery sketch. 1912 (from a reproduction) For Diaghilev’s production, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1913 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

May 29th, 2013 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ at the then newly constructed Champs-ÉlyséesTheatre in Paris. The performance was a dance concert with the Ballets Russe with the mercurial Vaclav Nijinsky and with choreography by Serge Dhiagalev and sets by Nicholas Roerich with Pierre Monteux conducting the orchestra. The audience reaction disrupting the performance and the composer subsequently sneaking out the back way is the stuff of legend now (if not strictly truth). The public and the news media love anniversaries so it is no surprise that a great deal of writing, lectures and concerts fill this, the year of that anniversary.

The score went through several revisions (1921, 1926, 1929 and 1943). It is the 1929 score that is the one most performances now follow. Curiously the 1943 revision of the Sacrificial Dance has never been performed as far as I can determine. The Paul Sacher Foundation is making the 1913 version of the score available for the first time in celebration of the centennial.

The first work on that concert was a performance of Les Sylphides, a ballet consisting of piano music by Frederic Chopin orchestrated by Alexander Glazounov. For this concert orchestrations were commissioned from Anatoly Liadov, Nicholas Tcherepnin, Sergey Taneyev and Igor Stravinsky. It was followed by the Hector Berlioz 1841 orchestration of Carl Maria von Weber’s piano piece,’Invitation to the Dance’ (1819). This certainly satisfied mainstream expectations but provided a stark contrast for the next work which was the now infamous Rite of Spring. In the tradition of well-trained professional performers the musicians and dancers continued in spite of the disruptions and even concluded with another tamer work, the ‘Polovetsian Dances’ from Alexander Borodin’s Opera ‘Prince Igor’ (1887).

Musikverein - Dumbastrasse - Innere Stadt -Vienna-

Musikverein – Dumbastrasse – Innere Stadt -Vienna- (Photo credit: Million Seven)

Almost two months before on March 31, 1913 there was a concert in the Musikverein in Vienna by the RSO Wien (Vienna Radio Symphony) under the direction of Arnold Schoenberg. Alex Ross brought this incident to my attention in his blog. The music on the concert was Anton Webern’s ‘Six Orchestral Pieces’ (1909-13), Alexander Zemlinsky’s ‘Four Songs on Poems by Maurice Maeterlinck’ (1913), Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘First Chamber Symphony in E major Opus 9’ (1906, played in version with an augmented string ensemble of 1913), two (out of five) of Alban Berg’s ‘Altenberg Lieder Opus 4’ of 1912 (“Sahst du nach dem Gewitterregen den Wald”, op. 4/2 and “Über die Grenzen des All”, op. 4/3) and the last programmed (but not played due to the police shutting the concert down) first of Gustav Mahler’s ‘Kindertotenlieder’ (1904).

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, bel...

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, believed to be taken in 1948. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even before this there was the unwelcome reception of musicians and audiences to Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera ‘Pelleas and Mellisande’. Both the musical language and the frank treatment of sex in the libretto contributed to the initial hostile reception. Of course the work is now acknowledged as a masterpiece.

The 1926 première of George Antheil’s ‘Ballet Mecanique’ (1924) in Paris was promoted as radical new music seemingly to create another controversy like that of the Rite of Spring some 13 years before in the very same theater. As near as I can determine there was only one other work on the program (Symphony en fa) and it is not clear whether or not it was the first or last piece on the program (though I suspect it was last). The audience was clearly divided and perplexed by the music and likely also by the technical failures that occurred in this complex work whose demands on mechanically operated instruments wouldn’t actually be executable as the composer intended until the year 1999 . The première in Carnegie Hall New York in 1927, again a concert entirely of Antheil’s works also created controversy and supposedly the controversy continued outside the concert hall with some minor rioting in the street. This concert was duplicated by conductor/historian Maurice Peress and recorded on CD. That concert began with the 1925 Jazz Symphony (played by the W.C. Handy orchestra) followed by the 1923 Sonata for Violin, Piano and Drum and then the String Quartet of 1925. The second half of the concert contained the Ballet Mecanique. While both the Paris and New York premieres were significant and somewhat controversial they did not quite have the impact of the Rite of Spring.

English: Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (lef...

English: Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (left) and John Cage performing at the 1971 festival.(Photo courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation archive) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On August 29th, 1952 pianist David Tudor performed one of the most controversial musical pieces of all time. In Woodstock, New York audiences sat (mostly perplexed) as Tudor opened and closed the lid of the piano and marked time with a stopwatch. It was the première of 4’33” by John Cage in the aptly named “Maverick” concert hall. Kyle Gann writes in his book, ‘No Such Thing as Silence’ (written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the première) that, like the Schoenberg concert, the program consisted of other contemporary pieces. Morton Feldman’s ‘Extensions 3’ (1952) began the program followed by one of the pieces from Christian Wolff’s ‘For Prepared Piano’ (1951) and then the very complex Piano Sonata no. 1 (1946) by Pierre Boulez.

Cage’s was the penultimate work which was followed by Henry Cowell’s ‘Banshee’ (1925). The concert was followed by a question and answer session. There was no riot in the cool intellectual atmosphere of this concert venue but Gann states that one artist exclaimed at one point, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town.”

John Cage would have a much more unpleasant experience at the hands of the New York Philharmonic with the première of his ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ (1962). On February 9, 1964 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein this piece was performed as part of a series of contemporary pieces played by the orchestra that year. Concert programmers sandwiched the work between performances of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and the Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony.

Benjamin Piekut, in his excellent book, “Experimentalism Otherwise”, investigated the circumstances surrounding this concert attempting to separate history from legend by interviewing some of the musicians who participated. He reports that there were technical problems with contact microphones, mixing consoles and amplification. But there was also rebellion by the musicians some of whom destroyed the contact microphones and/or declined to play the notes provided. These technical issues which occurred seem similar to the Antheil concert in that technology was behind the composer’s intentions but the willful destruction and misuse of the technology by the musicians themselves suggests an added level of hostility which of course did not help the audience’s reaction which was anything but favorable.

A 1971 concert by the Boston Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas included a work for 4 organs and maracas by Steve Reich. The piece, titled simply ‘Four Organs’ (1970) is a study in ‘augmentation’ the lengthening of notes and musical phrases, stretching time as it were. The maracas simply play steady 8th notes creating a pulse that the musicians can count. They wind up having to count up to 120 beats at times and concentration is paramount in a successful performance of this music.

The first recording of Four Organs

The first recording of Four Organs

The piece had been premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970 and was reportedly pretty well received. The context of a new music concert in a non-traditional venue no doubt contributed to the more favorable response because the audience was expecting a challenge. Reich was skeptical about the presentation of this music in a more traditional venue and indeed he was correct in assuming that it would receive a different response.

The theme of the concert was ‘multiples’. The first piece on the program was the Sinfonia for two orchestras by Johann Christian Bach (one of the sons of J.S. Bach). It was followed by Mozart’s Notturno for four orchestras and the Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936. Again the newest and most controversial piece would hold the penultimate position followed by Franz Liszt’s Hexameron Variations for six pianos.

English: Michael Tilson Thomas

English: Michael Tilson Thomas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Tilson Thomas, who was at one of the farfisa organs (along with the composer, Ayrton Pinto and Newton Wayland), reports that there were wide differences in the reactions to the music, a great deal of noisy reactions both pro and con. Thomas appeared to like the music (and likely the reaction to it) well enough to program the piece again in 1973 in New York’s Carnegie Hall to an even more hostile response which, according to Thomas, included a woman who came to the stage and banged her head against it saying, “Stop, please, I surrender”. Clearly the issue here in not one of technology but definitely one of failure to meet expectations of many listeners. It was a very different sound especially in the context of the concert hall and programmed with far more conservative music preceding and following it.

These are just a few of the most prominent such responses in the twentieth century. One is left to wonder when and where such a strong reaction might occur again. It is one of the joys, I believe, of going to concerts. The audience response is a valuable part of the experience.