Can you play me a memory?

Famed pianist Murray Perahia believes that practice alone does not make perfect; study and analysis are critical to success.

Murray Perahia 88 248 (photo credit: Watanabe/Sony Classical)
Murray Perahia 88 248
(photo credit: Watanabe/Sony Classical)
Murray Perahia, one of the most sought-after pianists of our time, was recently appointed the president of the Jerusalem Music Center. During his current visit to Israel, he is holding daily master classes in Jerusalem and giving a charity recital featuring pieces by J.S. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv on April 26. The proceedings from the concert will be used to support young and gifted musicians. Sitting on a Friday morning in the spacious parlor of his Tel Aviv apartment on the 22nd floor of one of the city's luxurious residential towers, with an impressive Tel Aviv cityscape behind a glass wall, the New York-born musician speaks about what he - according to his own admission - likes most: analysis of music and the connection between analysis and emotion. Soft, gentle and tranquil, with very attentive eyes reflecting his passing moods - amusement, emotion, irony, concentration - he is a wonderful interlocutor. "I am very green at the Jerusalem Music Center," he confides. "I still have to look over some of its activities to see what is to be done, and to learn what best serves the institution." That said, the overall approach is clear to him. "There is a common belief that if you just sit in your room and train for long hours, you will finally get there. I do not believe in this. Granted, the importance of training is not in question, but playing piano or violin well, and even performing chamber music - which I strongly encourage, because when [musicians] play together they realize that there is not only one way to play it right, and the more musical personalities they get to know, the better they can decide their own point of view - all of this is not sufficient. "I believe that a musician has to know the essentials of music, namely counterpoint and harmony, which Bach, Mozart and Beethoven studied. Not that it is neglected, but it is not considered as important as just training," he accentuates. Perahia reveals that he was deeply influenced by theories of musicologist Heinrich Schenker. "The irony is that Schenker's writings were banned in Nazi Germany because he was Jewish, but Furtwangler, their leading conductor, was his main pupil," grins Perahia, adding that all the major conductors said they owe a big debt to Schenker. "I think he did for music what Freud or Einstein gave to their respective worlds, reducing them to fundamental principles. Schenker tried to show that three or five chords or a very simple thing underline the whole piece. So this is not strange that Mozart said 'I can see the whole piece in a flash' or Chopin said 'I have the whole piece, I just need to get it out,' because they were dealing with the same materials and they had to make the connections - and make it through counterpoint. "Anyway, without getting too technical," he interrupts himself, "this is the kind of thinking which I have to get young musicians to understand. That's my role, that's what I want to do." Another important thing is "to question their concepts. If you don't think like a composer, you will never get there. It is all about getting out of the everyday 'practice makes perfect' kind of thinking and trying to have a richer concept. For instance, in the case of Mozart - how do you know what Mozart is saying if you don't know all of his works, his operas, his sense of understanding humanity, his education?" THE PIANIST recollects that he was first acquainted with Schenker's theories at Mannes College of Music, where many of the musicologist's pupils were still teaching. "…Yet I kept it in the back of my mind, because I am a performer and I did not have much time to think analytically." But then his finger was injured and he could not play for two years, so he decided "to get down to what music is, because I can't live without it." He read more Schenker and studied many pieces by J.S. Bach, "just sitting on my couch, and I found it helped me when I got back to play." Perahia accentuates that analysis does not destroy the magic of music. "Everything in music is emotional, even counterpoint is. You just try to reach what the composer is saying, what the emotions are about." The renowned pianist says that people who are not musicians know these things instinctively, and "when they speak about the emotions of darkness or lightness of this or that piece, they do not know that they are actually speaking about very deep concepts. Everybody who loves music knows instinctively more than they can articulate." Perahia's advice to music students and the general public alike is to listen to a piece repeatedly to better understand the music and "first of all, to ask how long the musical phrase is. In German, they keep the verb for the end of the phrase, the same as the music. Great composers think in very long phrases, they are almost flying." Then Perahia switches to Israel. He gently but firmly refuses to talk about politics: "I have no authority for this. When asked about it in Italy by a La Repubblica correspondent not long ago, I thought - well, you don't ask Silvio Berlusconi about Mozart concerti, why do you ask me about politics?" he says with a laugh. But Israel obviously is of utmost importance to him. "My wife bought this apartment about two years ago in order to spend more time in Israel. Our son served two years in the Israeli army, he's got a job and is building his life here." Why so? "Because this country represents something of what we are," he says simply. "It has to flourish, so we do what we can." Murray Perhaia plays a recital at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium on April 26 and will return for a concert series with the Philharmonic in July. For reservations: 1-700-70-30-30 or (03) 621-1777.