Ludwig Treviranus, Pianist

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music
img_ludwigtreviranusThe promising concert pianist, of German Samoan heritage, on being an Orator, democratising classical music, and his admiration for John Psathas.

From Upper Hutt via a prestigious American university performance degree/PHD, Ludwig Treviranus is a highly regarded classical pianist. Having recently returned to New Zealand following the completion of his studies, his aim is to demystify classical music to ordinary punters—in other words, to try to show the complexity of classical music in the universal way it was originally composed. Treviranus is playing a show at Wellington St. Paul’s on December 7, but he is also planning a wider tour around the country.

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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why music? What got you into music?

LUDWIG TREVIRANUS: In the early eighties, my Great-Grandmother from Germany shipped over an old upright Piano. As a toddler I would climb up onto the piano stool and begin thumping away at the keys. I guess I was quite drawn to the sound and enjoyed making noises on this big toy. At the age of six my folks enrolled me into my first piano lessons. I was taught piano through the Suzuki method.

Born into a Samoan family, I have been surrounded with music, singing, and dance ever since I can remember. Although I also have German heritage, I feel that the ‘performing artist’ in me has definitely been influenced by my Samoan culture. The Islands are known for their Orators and storytelling. As clear communication plays such a vital role in performance, these Pacific Island traditions have definitely rubbed off on my playing and stage presence.

BG: How much of an influence was studying performance in an academic sense in Florida to shaping your ideas ideologically/musically?

LT: My major Professor while in Florida was Dr. Read Gainsford. He was an important influence in my understanding of how music is one structured, two developed, and three communicated.

Analysing music from an ‘academic’ standpoint helped with my perception of the score and increased my confidence in performance. When guided on how the music is structured and why it is structured that way, I gained a much clearer understanding of where the music is headed.  I liken analysis to a GPS. Knowing the directions to your destination make the drive much less stressful and more pleasurable.

In addition to my lessons with Dr. Gainsford, I also took classes in Piano Literature. These lectures opened my eyes to the vast repertoire available to pianists. Before attending Florida State University, I hadn’t taken to studying the lives of composers and how this understanding may shape my performance. So when I came to realise many composers have a strong story to back their music, I found myself transforming my performance to mirror their experience.

This knowledge of the structure and history of music helped me to demystify the notes on the page and bring the music to life.

BG: How much more is required to be a concert pianist beyond simply being technically skilled?

LT: To be a concert pianist, first and foremost, you must love to make music more than anything else. If this fire burns within, then your enthusiasm and passion will shine through during performance. Audiences love to see somebody on form and giving it their all.

As a concert pianist you must be a master communicator. Basically you are an actor. Your ability to share your musical ideas and story openly and clearly without shame or fear is vital to a successful performance. Technique can definitely help this cause, but will not suffice on its own. For example, an Orator may have a wealth of vocabulary. However, if they cannot deliver with charisma and conviction, then that rich understanding of language will not move the listeners.

These traits can be acquired through a study of the composer’s life during time of composition, openly sharing ideas and feelings with friends and family, drawing from past experiences, using your imagination to recreate the musical story in your head. As you can imagine there are many other avenues that will aid in the music learning and making process.

I believe these skills can be harnessed through continual curiosity and experimentation. Although a thorough understanding of the musical score and historical context is important, discussing your musical ideas with others may solidify and enrich your interpretation. When all is said and done, the pianist must use their imagination and constantly search for new ways to enliven the music and its characters.

BG: You’ve mentioned how you want classical music to be opened up to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be into classical music and to ‘demystify’ it—why do you think classical music has this reputation of elitism?

LT: To be quite honest, I’m still a little confused as to why many people create this stigma about classical music being stuffy and high-browed. This reputation of elitism spawned from the public and media. It was never the intention of composers or musicians to draw a divide between classes. These days the masses hear classical music most often in the movies (during a formal function), weddings, and in expensive stores.

The picture music accompanies is always of wealth and class. What baffles me is that this rang true in the 1700s when music was reserved for royalty and wealthy patrons. But fast forward the next 100 years, the music was written for the people of all classes. Then 20th Century, the music was written to please the composers who rebelled against tradition. Yet somewhere mid-20th Century, the 17th century, attitude was reborn, and perhaps people wanted to relive the experience of being an elitist, listening to ‘elitist’ music as they did 200 years earlier. One audience member decided to turn up in a Tuxedo, and then everybody followed suit. Soon concerts became a place to be seen, so one must always look their best during these events. So perhaps the dress code to a classical music performance also had something to do with painting this picture of elitism. A strange phenomena.

BG: In what ways do you consider it fun?

LT: As a performer I have a bias for this music being fun as I have a great time performing it. One, I can transform into multiple characters in a very short span of time. Two, I can take my audience with me.

As a listener the fun begins by trying to figure out what story the music is trying to convey. Classical music is filled with so many emotions and stories that can transport the listener to new realms. Within a short period of time, the listener may find they are feeling happy, nostalgic, sad, and comforted etc. Composers such as Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninov are few names that come to mind with the ability to transform a listener and take them on a journey.

The real fun begins when you hear this music over time, and you may find the story that you painted in your head begins to evolve. Just like returning to a movie or book for the umpteenth time, you can begin to decipher the motive of each character and unveil their true personality.

BG: What are you aiming to do with your ‘At Ease With Music’ project?

LT: The ‘At Ease with Music’ project aims to make classical music more accessible for everyday people. When I address this topic to my listeners, I refrain from using musical jargon and speak plainly about its special features. Basically, it is what makes this music appealing to me. First, what characteristics make this music ‘classical’? And second, how do composers bring their stories to life through music?

As a performer, I speak about what it is like to play this music. What I hear and how I perceive it. Then once I have explained this to my audience and I perform in front of them, I find there is a deeper sense of understanding and appreciation for what they are hearing. So my goal is to take this on the road in 2015. I would like to present AEWM in Schools, and also in Centres around the country prior to a live concert.

Through live performance, audience interaction, and visual imagery my hope is to continue opening people’s eyes and ears to the marvel that is classical music. Perhaps in return parents will share this with their children who will begin playing music for themselves. Overtime we may have a growing population of youth expressing interest in this timeless form of art. Ultimately this workshop aims to bring people closer to the Classics and help them feel At Ease with Music.

BG: Your concert at Old St Paul’s has the audience interacting with the music via art—are you tapping into many of the great classical composers who were influenced by other art forms (e.g. Beethoven with poetry, Mussorgsky with art, Wagner with theatre etc.)?

LT: Not entirely, however the majority of the composers I have selected for this concert have written music that evoke strong images—Liszt, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Psathas. As the concert invites the audience to draw during the performance, it was important for me to select pieces that have their own personality. The contrasting characters of each piece will hopefully vary their sketches. I am very excited to discover if there are any similarities behind the audience members and their drawings. At the conclusion of each piece I will offer the title and a brief history of that work. It will be interesting to hear and see their reaction as they compare their drawings to my commentary.

BG: That’s quite some company you’re equating John Psathas. How important a composer is he?

BG: I believe Psathas is one of the most important and influential composers in New Zealand. Not only has he written for the majority of New Zealand’s top ensembles and orchestra and professional artists, but he works hard to combine multiple genres in his compositions. Whether it’s a fusion of jazz and Western or Greek traditional, Psathas brings a fresh and unique sound to his music. His works are vibrant, edgy, and packed with energy. This is what the youth of today love in music. It is music that molds different styles and keeps you at the edge of your seat.

Because his music embraces multiple styles it is appealing on an international level as well. This does great things for New Zealand music as it attracts talent from overseas to perform his works, and also exposes our artists who take his music and present it worldwide. It is a great feeling to always have a piece of New Zealand music you can trust will stun the foreigners.

I have put him in this category as these are the composers who I have drawn close to over time, and I feel have something to say in their music. Also I believe these are composers worth sharing.

BG: He can be incredibly technically difficult to play, how ‘emotionally’ accessible do you find his work?

LT: I agree, his music can be feverishly hard. Because most of the works I’ve performed by Psathas are relentless in their rhythm and pace, I have found them quite easy to connect with as I thrive off energetic music. I find his intentions are very strong within the music, and as long as you follow what is on the score, you can create a strong image. For some pieces there may be no real story to grip onto. Sometimes I feel the music is meant to conjure up one emotion such as ‘excitement’, ‘instability’, ‘power’, ‘fury’. So although as a listener you may not always be able to follow what is going on, rest assured, you will feel a connection with the music one way or another.

BG: Does the audience interaction help ‘democratise’ the music, i.e. it’s not something that you simply sit down and listen to?

LT: I don’t feel it democratises the music as such, but the listening experience? Yes. From a young age we have always had somebody to lead us, whether it be parents, teachers, older siblings etc. We find that with our brains are more active and alert when somebody is there to guide or instruct us. As a result we react accordingly to what they are saying or doing. If we do not pay attention to their instruction or their actions we may be left behind or miss an important opportunity. Our minds begin to wander.

My belief is that the same applies to listening. If a performer creates an environment for which the audience can interact to the music, their awareness of what they are listening to is heightened. Our brains constantly need to be engaged or have some kind or purpose to operate in a specific manner. So when an activity is offered for our minds to relate accordingly to the music, it is possible that the rate of concentration and ‘conscious listening’ is increased.

Now this may not work for everybody but I am excited to experiment with a variety of activities during performance, with the hopes of drawing the audience closer to the music. As a result, listeners may discover increased focus toward the music as opposed to drifting off or god forbid, falling asleep.

As I develop ‘At Ease with Music’ and its sequel ‘Sonority to Imagery’ I feel my love and appreciation for music will only expand. This is music for everybody and you do not require high level education to appreciate its beauty and breadth.

Ludwig Treviranus performs ‘Sonority to Imagery’, a program of short pieces where listeners are asked to draw an image that best describes what they are hearing, at Old St Paul’s in Wellington on Saturday December 7, 6.30pm. Admission is free.