5 Pianists Who Are Winning the 21st Century

It’s safe to say that people are experiencing classical music differently today than in the past. The internet has put music resources immediately at hand that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. I can search for a really obscure piece of classical music on YouTube or whatever, and chances are I’ll be able to find it, and maybe there will even be a little discussion in the comments, with people giving a timecode for their favorite part (“that climax at 7:46 – OMG”) or arguing about aesthetics (“more modernist rubbish”). Blogs, forums, and news websites help to maintain classical culture for the growing demographic of people who like classical music but maybe can’t go to concerts, whether because of cost, location, or dislike of the concert hall environment.

Social media is another hugely important outlet for engagement with classical music. Musicians can now give fans a window into their lives on the road, share little clips of practice sessions, and help to cultivate a personal brand, whether funny or sexy or mysterious.

So I wanted to recognize a few concert pianists who stand out in a crowded field because of how they’ve used these exciting new tools of the twenty-first century to promote themselves, and subsequently the music, and enhance the piano lifestyle. I’ll admit I’m not active on Twitter or Instagram, so this list basically draws from YouTube and blogs. If you know of another pianist who should be on this list, leave a comment!

Daniil Trifonov: The Innovative Superstar

Trifonov has all the makings of a superstar: outstanding technique, riveting and original interpretations, exciting physical presence, and a sidetrack of composition. And as he continues to rise, his label Deutsche Grammophone is taking some marketing risks with this major pianist.

Case in point: this “Departure” video. I’m trying to imagine the planning meeting: “How do we promote this recording of Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto? It’s the least-popular of the concertos but still has Rachmaninoff’s melodic sweep and lush harmonies and has wide appeal.” So they came up with this video, a true “music video” for the first movement of the piece.

I’m not sure how much of it was Trifonov’s idea or the label’s, and I’m not sure if it completely works, but I’m glad they did it. What they got right was a cinematic element, a bit of visual narrative. We find Mr. Trifonov at a lonely train station in the country, alone, wearing an outfit of yesteryear. Where is he heading? The train pulls into the station, he boards, and the rest of the video alternates between him wandering the train, playing either a real piano or a paper replica of a keyboard, and scenic vistas of the countryside. The video is smart to use compelling imagery at climactic points to give a film-score vibe, something lay audiences can relate to. At the biggest climax of the movement (6:47 – OMG), we cut to a big overhead shot of the train rounding the corner of a mountain. It’s wonderful. The train theme works both as a symbol of Trifonov’s journey/rise to fame/etc. and as a parallel to Rachmaninoff’s own train trips across the United States when he toured.

Trifonov has also popped up in NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series, where he remains seated at the piano during applause and gives some friendly commentary between pieces (which include Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66). The intimate atmosphere is a pretty ideal way for a casual classical music fan to encounter this pianist. Another notable YouTube treat: Trifonov playing Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin at Berlin’s Yellow Lounge. It’s a similarly intimate environment, with some audience members sitting on the floor just feet away from the pianist. These kinds of unorthodox performances show that Trifonov wants to this music to reach a wider audience.

Vicky Chow: The New-Music Specialist

As the pianist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, one of the most beloved contemporary music ensembles, Vicky Chow has become a fixture of the Manhattan new-music scene. She’s been willing to take on some of the most punishing contemporary repertoire, like Tristan Perich’s Surface Image, which she premiered, and Michael Gordon’s Sonatra. She has performed at hip venues like Le Poisson Rouge, and sometimes these performances find her reading music on a tablet, eliminating the old-fashioned construct of a page turner and heightening the solo element. She’s comfortable with click tracks and electronics, even to the extreme of Surface Image’s setup of forty 1-bit speakers. Suffice it to say, she’s a pianist of the future.

Like Trifonov, Chow has experimented with music videos. Look at this video collaboration with composer Andy Akiho, who wrote the piece Vick(i)y for her.

Capitalizing on the dark timbres of the prepared piano, the video places her in a dim warehouse space and then playing a chipped-paint piano in some quiet woods. Composer Akiho appears several times as a foreboding figure, sometimes wearing tribal paint. Overall it’s a pretty exciting media experience that makes me think more deeply about the music, and about issues beyond the music.

Jeremy Denk: The Writer

Jeremy Denk is the most laugh-out-loud funny music writer I’ve ever encountered, and if you love classical music, you owe it to yourself to check out his blog (sadly not updated since 2013). In this legendary blog he covered his rep of the moment with equal parts sublimity, self-loathing, and bewilderment in the face of genius. The strength of the blog has led (to the benefit of all music lovers) more writing gigs, including work published in The New Yorker, video segments, and more. The best of his writing leaves me laughing, exhausted, and amazed at the technical feat, similar to reading something by David Foster Wallace. In videos, like this one where he talks and plays, you get the experience of having a super-fascinating music friend sharing their revelations.

He’s notably an Ives specialist, having released an album of both Ives piano sonatas. I once attended one of his Ives recitals, where he spoke about the Concord Sonata for twenty-or-so minutes and then played it. It was a privilege to hear to him play anything after reading so much of his blog, knowing how deeply he thinks about music, and to hear his Ives lecture-recital specifically was enough to inspire me to launch my own mini-tours.

I guess what I’m getting at is that Denk understands the importance of educating audiences, both those who know the music and can learn more, and those who are new the music. Whatever the case, his passion and wit are contagious, and he had the foresight to create a really good blog in the internet age (which is still a huge influence on me as I attempt to write my own).

Tiffany Poon: The Quirky Vlogger

I discovered Tiffany Poon’s channel by accident. I was looking for a good video of one of Scarlatti’s sonatas, and her performance just blew me away.

Then I saw that she had dozens (maybe hundreds) of videos documenting life at Yale, topics in practicing, discussions about different composers, and travels. It all adds up to a charming look behind the scenes of being an emerging pianist. She’s enthusiastic, cute, and thoughtful. Her editing style focuses on funny details or adds self-deprecating touches. Besides the Scarlatti video, she has some other performance videos that show her talent, like this scintillating performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata. One of her best continuing segments is a “sightreading challenge,” where YouTubers send requests and she sightreads pieces and comments on them. It’s such a great way to engage with an audience. In the last year or so, she has gotten some big performance opportunities, which have generated great new videos about the preparations, like the one below:

Tiffany has also posted some thoughtful videos about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, as she is a Hong Kong native. With 133,000 subscribers, she has created a real community and it will be exciting to see her career grow.

Cathy Krier: Perfect Promotional Videos

Who is Cathy Krier? A pianist from Luxembourg that you probably haven’t heard of. I’m including her here on the strength of two promotional videos that deserve more of an audience. First, to promote her Janacek album, she’s got this video that beautifully sets the mood and draws you in, letting you focus on the music while she talks about it. Like a true European, she has a version of the video in both English and French.

Her more recent video for an album of Rameau and Ligeti emphasizes playful qualities in the music. We see her tapping out the notes of the music on a bench, railing, or in a patch of flowers. One great moment is when she plays a simple alternating note pattern from Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata on a water surface, sending ripples. It evokes a childlike sense of play. All of these images convey a feeling that the music is part of you, in life, outside of a concert hall. At the end, an energetic bit of Ligeti forms the soundtrack to a shot of Krier heading out into a city at night, connecting Ligeti’s rhythms to the pulse of nightlife. I truly had never thought about the music that way. Imagine if other pianists promoted themselves this way, showing what the music means to them. I mean, that’s the whole point, right? We get into this business of classical music because we find personal meaning in it, and the best we can do is to show audiences why we love it.

I suppose there’s one more pianist I should mention in this discussion, who was the subject of my last post: Ludovico Einaudi. I’ve been pretty critical about Einaudi’s music in general, but with Elegy for the Arctic, he created one of the most harrowing and moving “music videos” imaginable.

In collaboration with Greenpeace, he flew out to a glacier somewhere in the Arctic Circle, a crew somehow set up a grand piano on a little man-made floating platform, and he played his piece with the glacier literally melting behind him (see 1:22 in the video). Listening to this deeply sad music, with the backdrop of ice, and wide camera shots showing how small he is against this vast landscape, is profoundly moving. And then it ends with a simple message to “raise your voice” at voicesforthearctic.org. It really makes you think. And today, as people strike in cities around the world to bring awareness to the global climate emergency, this is on my mind.

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