by Mike Telin
British pianist Imogen Cooper and British conductor Jane Glover will both be making their Severance Hall and Cleveland Orchestra debuts this weekend. I reached Imogen Cooper in London to talk about Beethoven’s first piano concerto, a piece that I tell her still gives me goose bumps and puts me in a good mood every time I hear it.
Cooper agrees. “I’m glad to hear you say that. I have played it a lot but each time I do, I think of what a masterpiece it is. It requires inner and outer energy, vast amounts of it, because it needs some very fast tempi. The first movement is definitely an allegro con brio and not an allegro maestoso.”
The pianist recently saw a 1970s performance on YouTube that supported her view. “It was incredibly ponderous and slow. That is the way you used to hear Beethoven #1 in those days: tempi much slower, much heavier, a very big orchestra. I must say that I don’t really see it like that. I think the first movement should go like the wind. It’s also such an incredibly witty work. During the outer movements we should be smiling a lot of the time. And that extraordinary middle movement in such an unexpected key as A-flat is so glorious.”
Speaking of that surprising slow movement, Cooper and Glover had gotten together in London the day before to go through the piece and decided to try an experiment. “Just for fun we started playing the slow movement in G-major and not in A-flat just to see how it felt, and it felt like a completely different piece. So I think Beethoven knew what he was doing when he went into this rather unrelated key of A-flat. He was obviously looking for this very glorious, operatic, sensuous sound. It’s a wonderful movement to play, too.”
Though Cooper and Glover are making their first appearances in Cleveland, they’ve worked together frequently elsewhere. “We’ve known each other for a long time. I met Jane first when she was conducting a rather wonderful chamber orchestra here, the London Mozart Players, and I work with her Music of the Baroque orchestra in Chicago sometimes. We always get on wonderfully well when we do and I think this is going to be fun.”
I mention having happened upon a lecture Imogen Cooper gave as Humanitas Visiting Professor in Classical Music and Music Education at the University of Oxford in 2012-2013 entitled The hidden power of the re-creative process in music. “That was a real labor of love,” Cooper said. “They offered me this professorship and initially I thought, this is very strange. It sounds overly modest and its not, it’s just that I haven’t had a very academic background and for an Oxford college to ask for a musician to do this was quite interesting.”
“Some people asked if I was going to talk about Schubert (which is one of my specialties) and I said no, I’m not. I’d much rather talk about something that I feel strongly about and that I feel maybe does come through in my playing — which is an awareness of this synergy that happens in the concert hall when there is some good playing going on. I loved writing the lecture, although it took me a long time. I’m very glad if you got something from it.”
Cooper began her lecture by quoting Mendelssohn: “Music is more precise than words.” I note that I often think about this. How do I write about a concert when words cannot possibly describe the beautiful music that I have just heard?
The pianist replied, “I don’t want to take away your metier, which is a wonderful one, but words are almost a step backwards from what one has experienced, are they not? Music bypasses words: it immediately gets to the essence of what it is that words are trying to express. And it does so in its own language, which is strangely comprehensible to everybody if it hits home in the right place.”
Cooper added, “People may use different words when describing their experience, but basically — and I hope this will be the case next week — the energies that come across light everybody up. That’s a very special experience and I think only music can do that.”
In her lecture, Imogen Cooper also addressed the need to do what one does and noted how much one has to sacrifice in order to do it. What keeps her going? “Passion for music and a passion for sharing it,” she said. “And it’s very cathartic. For me, ‘stimulating’ is too dull a word for it. It literally lights one up to be able to make music and to be able to make it in public. Something happens when other people are listening. Music takes on a new dimension and at its best is so wonderful that there’s no greater thing to do.”
Does she regret having made sacrifices in her own life to pursue music? “I find life more challenging simply because I realize more and more how such a huge amount of my life has actually been given up to this. There’s another world, another life out there but I probably won’t live it. This is what I love doing and I think I’m still doing it OK, so I see no reason to stop for the moment. I don’t think I should ever find anything better to do. I think that possibly the need to earn a living is what keeps me going. As long as I’m healthy, which I am, and energetic, which I am, that’s quite enough to keep me going.”
Our conversation ends with a further observation about the power of music. “The world as it is now is alarming, scary, and unpredictable,” Cooper said, “and there are some very terrifying things going on. I think there’s a feeling of speed and fear in a lot of peoples’ lives whereby they simply do not have time to sit down and go into themselves and find the best of themselves. I think that music helps to do that more then anything, and if I’m an instrument for that, well, how lucky am I.”
Published on ClevelandClassical.com April 22, 2014.
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