Interview: Stewart Goodyear and “the 32” of Beethoven
Canadian-born pianist Stewart Goodyear made his French debut recently as a headliner at a newly formed piano festival “Summertime Illuminations” near Limoges. Goodyear is a good example of the under-appreciated , little-known virtuoso talent that artistic director Ivan Ilic identified and attracted to his festival.
Goodyear has a healthy discography and an active record of performance and composing in North America, but has been slow to take off in Europe, particularly in France. He submitted to this interview after performing his electrifying solo piano piece “Panorama”. The audience, visibly stunned, gave him a standing ovation and demanded three encores.
In the interview, Goodyear discusses his much-debated ten-hour marathon recital of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, dubbed the “sonathaton”. Purists challenge the concept as an attention-getter devoid of serious music. Goodyear strenuously disagrees. “They need to take the plunge and experience the cycle in one day themselves and then after that, state their opinion,” he says in the interview.
“Being immersed in that sound world for the whole day is a very different experience as opposed to a sample or two.” His 32 may well turn out to be the cultural event of the year. New Yorkers will compete to last the entire cycle and then boast that they did not fall asleep.
At the festival, Goodyear rocked the audience with his own composition “Panorama”, a muscular, punchy personal statement suited to the Shigeru Kawai concert grand that Ilic had trucked in from Germany. Ilic says the Shigeru Kawai helped provide the difference he wanted – an absence of the Steinway sound that marks many other festivals. It also served as a showcase for Goodyar’s vigorous pianism.
Below is a transcript of our conversation
How did you become so involved with Beethoven?
It started with my initial response to a box set of Beethoven LPs in my childhood. These sonatas terrified me, made me laugh, moved me emotionally. And today I try to keep that freshness. That’s what I hope to give to the audience. I’m not exaggerating when I say there is a very strong “pull” when I play Beethoven. It’s always a very intense experience.
Aren’t you becoming the Beethoven 32 guy?
What do you want to be known as?
As “Stewart Goodyear, composer and pianist”.
Many pianists need physical strength to play big pieces, including your own “Panorama”. Seeing you play onstage, I wondered when your stamina would give out, but it never does because you prepare yourself?
I am careful to pace myself in programming. I start with low-key Orlando and J.P. Sweelinck and I go on from there to my own “Panorama”. What I need for energy is the audience and atmosphere so I don’t get tired. At this concert I had great atmosphere. "Panorama" was inspired by my Trinidadian heritage and originally composed as a movement of my "Callaloo" suite for piano and orchestra. The opening is a demanding passage.
Don’t you use physical conditioning before a recital?
Yes, I absolutely need it for upper body strength so I feel no pressure or strain. That helps me a lot.
In your Panorama, you didn’t feel you were straining?
At the end of each piece, you take a straight position onstage. You scan the audience with a blank stare. What’s happening in your mind? Something’s going on.
When I’m looking out at the audience. I’m not even mindful of the situation. It’s always about collaboration and the performance is always different. In France I had fine rapport with the audience.
What was happening in your head?
Absorbing what just happened. I love the response I get. It produces a lot of energy
You address the audience directly, especially during your encores. Laughing and making witty comments. Most pianists are afraid to do that, to drop the formal pose. They are not really present with personality. Are the Beethoven piano sonatas becoming a sort of calling card for you?Are you doing them again soon?
Yes, it might happen two years from now in New York.
This will be New York’s cultural event of the season. Do you know where you will be playing?
At the 92nd Street Y but it’s premature to talk details.
What’s the background for this marathon?
I have done it six times. First time was in Koerner Hall. That’s where my Beethoven journey began, so it was very meaningful experience.
Where else have you performed the 32?
Koerner Hall (Toronto), McCarter Theatre (Princeton), Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts (Davis, CA), AT&T Performing Arts Centre (Dallas, TX), Savannah Music Festival, and Chamber Music Cincinnati. In did this over a period of seven or eight years.
What are getting and what are you giving in these ten-hour recitals? What are you doing and why do they love it?
I divide the event into three parts with breaks for lunch and dinner. Everyone has a choice of attending one of the parts, or two, or three. A majority of the audience wants take in the entire event. It concludes at around 2 a.m.
How do you keep going for ten hours?
During the breaks, I have zen moments. I sleep the day before and I almost force myself to not touch the piano. So when I start the recital I have a lot of energy.
We normal people have trouble understanding how a pianist can retain all this repertoire—the 32 Beethoven sonatas and your many other demanding pieces. You have a rare facility for memorization, don’t you?
Yes, I have a great photographic memory. In my mind, I can “see” the printed score I am playing. And because I also compose, I am very fascinated by the architecture of a piece -- how composers come up with harmonies, phrasing. This is part of my memory process.
In your mind, do you see Beethoven staring angrily at a piece of paper?
I can only imagine this. He was such a compelling personality. In my analysis, I can see so many different sides to Beethoven – there’s a fun side, a tragic side, an intense side, etc.
Have you been teased your whole life about your last name?
No, not my whole life. But sometimes at school I was called “Stewart Bad Month”.
You are known for your improvisation interests and skills. What are you looking for?
I love challenges. In my improvisations I feel like I am going into extremely risky, dangerous territory. I become very inspired, ranging outside my comfort level and really immersing myself in the moment. In the coming season I’m hoping to do entire programmes of pure improvisation.
Not sure yet, but it’s something I’ll be doing a lot of.
(This clip of the late Georgy Cziffra ”“warming up” demonstrates where improvisation can lead.)
What is your discography looking like at this stage of your career?
I have recorded all 32 sonatas, the five Beethoven piano concertos and the Diabelli Variations plus the concerti of Rachmaninov and Grieg.
I don’t see Prokofiev in there?
No, I discovered him later in life, at about age six or seven.
Are you planning to do the Liszt transcription of Beethoveen’s Ninth?
Yes, I will be doing it next year It was postponed due to the Covid restrictions.
Going through the Ninth really takes me into the mind of Beethoven, and the mind of Liszt – how Liszt responded to the score and made use of the various instruments.
Various pianists have challenged the idea that playing the 32 in one go will result in a better understanding of Beethoven, ending after 10 hours. Isn’t it a bit like completing a marathon –fitting into a timetable, forgetting the subtleties and the sheer beauty of this music? Where do you come down on that?
I challenge that idea because what got me interested in Beethoven was hearing it as a full cycle of subtleties and nuances that travel from one sonata to another, and the way the phrasing is influenced. For audiences that have witnessed my sonatathon, they always talk about subtleties that they heard but had never had a chance to hear before because they were only hearing one sonata or a group of maybe three or four sonatas. They were not getting the whole spectrum of Beethoven’s evolution.
How do you know when you are achieving this noble aim? Do they come backstage and pat you on the head?
Well, I feel it in performance even before they come backstage. I feel they are paying attention and we are with each other for every note. I feel how invested the listener is, and it inspires me. It’s a very deeply musical experience and not a project that tries to set a world record. It’s a very pure statement. I heard it all the way through at age four, and I was not even thinking of endurance. The athletic side of this to me is just a part of practicing. In order to feel very natural, not straining my wrists or my arms, exercise if very important, nutrition is very important. That’s where I get a lot of energy.
Still serious pianists tell me they bristle at the idea of grouping the entire oeuvre.
I think that people who think it is not a deeply musical experience just need to take the plunge and experience the cycle in one day themselves and then after that, state their opinion. Being immersed in that sound world for the whole day is a very different experience as opposed to a sample or two.
Rudi Buchbinder tells us his five Beethoven concertos, conducted from his keyboard, are “nothing”. He does them all from memory. Are you at that stage with the 32?
It’s never “nothing” to me. It’s always “everything”. With the 32 you get almost Beethoven’s personal diary. I once did his five piano concerti at Niagra on the Lake in Ontario, with only one “toilet break” intermission.
Do you conduct from the keyboard?
I actually had my first experience recently learning how to conduct. I am fascinated with orchestration so I knew the scores very well. Cueing, sounds you need, gestures, how completely and controlled your knowledge will have to be. I haven’t conducted a performance in public yet.
Isn’t there a lot of phony conducting going on by pianists who are not really trained?
(Laughs) I’m sure there is. I have witnessed two or three conductors who shall remain nameless. The experiences were very, very challenging. Thankfully I’ve had the pleasure of working with conductors who know their craft, who know exactly what they’re doing.
It’s up to you to mold and create sounds to your liking. You’re playing God, in a way.
It does feel that way. There are so many intricate parts, and like in the body -- the cells and circulation, blood flow, all the inner workings.
Are you a fan of any particular conductors?
I grew up listening to orchestral music so I am familiar with Mitropoulos, Bernstein, Mengleberg, von Karajan. I never get tired of listening to many interpretations of the same piece because they are coming at them differently angles and the sound world is always different.
Are you still working with mentors or teachers from the past?
For me there are mentors who are not only are not only musicians but also actors. I studied acting the last two or three years that I lived in New York. I love film. If I were not a musician, I would be a film director. I have studied with David Lean, Martin Scorsese and others. I love great acting so I wanted to study the craft. I even signed for a course in method acting. It’s interesting how those classes freed up the way I played the piano. I wanted to skim the surface of this deep ocean.
I love collaborating with ensembles. It’s about giving. It inspires my composing It’s a real sharing art form.
The late Lazar Berman used to train students to memorize a new piano concerto every year. Where do you on that scale stand on this?
I would agree with that. I love learning repertoire. It keeps my mind limber and open.
How many concertos have you mastered?
What is it like to work with living composers?
Some can be very exacting in their demands. Others less so because they are interested in what the interpreter will bring.
Jennifer Higdon was the one who encouraged me to go outside the comfort level, almost anticipating the future.
Do you want your music to be played by other pianists?
Yes I would like that. I’m very open to hear what other players would do with my ideas.
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