Lofty airs in different keys

Though she admits that "there was never a particular moment when I knew this was what I wanted to do," Gili Loftus is today a professional classical pianist –and she’s only 24.

Gili Loftus 521 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Gili Loftus 521
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Gili Loftus hasn’t done too badly thus far. At the age of 24, the Toronto-born Israeli classical pianist is enjoying a burgeoning performance career, and recently won second prize in the fortepiano competition at the prestigious International Competition Musica Antiqua in Bruges, Belgium. In addition to the jurors, the men and women on the Belgian street also clearly took to Loftus, as she garnered the Audience Award as well.
I caught up with Loftus in Jerusalem, when she made a trip over from Montreal, where she is studying for a doctorate at McGill University.
Today, Loftus sticks strictly to the confines of the classical world but in the past, has strayed somewhat beyond the boundaries of the genre.
“I did a bit of jazz for a while, although that was a long time ago, but I still enjoy it. But I ended up doing classical music.”
Loftus muses that despite the commonly held view that the two musical domains are worlds apart, there are in fact some common threads there, too. “They are very different, but there are also a lot of similarities.”
Such as? Surely one of the fundamental contrasts between the classical and jazz areas of musical endeavor is that the latter is largely based on an improvisational element, while classical musicians are mostly thought to eschew out-of-the- box forays. Loftus begs to differ.
“I think you do tend to improvise in classical music,” she states, although adding that off-the-cuff playing generally pertains to a bygone stage of the classical music evolutionary continuum. “It is more in earlier music. In the 18th and 19th centuries improvisation in classical music was very common, to do and to study. It has kind of been lost at this point, but it used to be very common.”
LOFTUS FIRST set her infant fingers on the ivories at the age of six. She comes from a musical family – both her siblings play instruments, as do her parents – and says there was no premeditation on her part. “My older brother played the piano, and my mother had suggested that I come to try a piano lesson. I was very easygoing and I just said ‘OK,’ and I guess I enjoyed it enough to stay with it. I played around with it for a while and then I got serious about it.”
Loftus says she became a diligent student of the piano around the age of 10 or 11, but that there was never any epiphanous point in her young life when she knew that music would be her career. “There was never a particular moment when I knew this was what I wanted to do.
Over time I was always reflecting on whether it was what I wanted to do, how I want to do it, what interested me and what was pulling me in different directions I have taken. I suppose it just got stronger and stronger all the time.”
The pianist’s adolescent years did not witness any weakening of her will to maintain her musical trajectory, and there were no teenage tantrums or dramatic changes of heart. “I was never much of a rebel,” says Loftus with a slightly apologetic smile.
Considering her first real piano teacher, Michael Minivsky, was something of a strict disciplinarian, Loftus’s willingness to toe the line was probably a boon. “He used to make us give recitals something like 10 times a year,” she recalls.
“That was good because it made us feel comfortable playing in public, and we got used to it pretty quickly.”
Even so, Loftus had some personal drawbacks to overcome. “I was very shy when I was younger and, when I got near the end of a piece, I had this sort of fixed smile on my face because I knew people were about to start clapping, and I found that very embarrassing.”
When she was 14, Loftus began studying with Prof. Eitan Globerson of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and when she joined the army, as an outstanding musician, she started a bachelor’s degree under Globerson’s tutelage.
She completed her two years of service and subsequently the final year of her degree in music performance.
While Loftus has not yet ventured into the compositional side of the business she says her use of the fortepiano – the early version of the piano, which was used from around 1700 up to the early 19th century by, inter alia, Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart – on which she plays earlier music, allows her to explore improvisational elements that offer compositional-like pursuits. “I also play the modern piano. I enjoy playing on all these different keyboards, from different periods.
I get to play, and it caters to different aesthetics and qualities that I like within each period.
It’s nice to walk through all these musical doors and pick and choose. It’s refreshing and exciting.”
Different instruments also demand different techniques and physical approaches. “The mechanisms [of the fortepiano and the modern version] are different,” says Loftus. “The fortepiano is all wood and leather, no iron, no metal, no nothing. The modern piano has a metal frame.
The fortepiano is lighter, and you need a lighter touch to depress the keys. You need to have different sensitivity in your fingers for the different keyboards.”
After completing her bachelor’s degree in Jerusalem, Loftus knew she wanted to continue her academic education, and relocated to Montreal where she completed a master’s degree and has embarked on a DMA in harpsichord, fortepiano and piano. And it is not just about perfecting her technique on the three instruments. “There is a very strong research component involved in the performance degree,” explains Loftus. “The performance aspect informs the research, and vice versa. I have chosen three topics and they inform what kinds of recitals I put together.”
The aforementioned areas of study include improvisation in 17th- and 18th-century music.
“It was very common to improvise while in concert,” says Loftus. “There are many manuals and pedagogic books written for students in those times – mostly for women.”
It seems there were some gender-social constraints on the casual study of instrumental skills. “It was not considered suitable for men to play the piano, unless they were professional.”
Loftus is certainly a professional but, degrees and experience notwithstanding, she still found the fortepiano competition in Bruges something of a daunting experience. “Some people might like competitions, but they are not easy for me,” she states. “Competitions aren’t fun but they are an important experience, and you learn a lot from them. I was happy to do so well in Belgium.”