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Malcolm Bilson. Pianist. Period.

February 23, 2010

American pianist Malcolm Bilson is a rare gem in the world of music. For nearly four decades he has been equal parts performer, scholar, educator, and a beacon in the period instrument movement. Emeritus Professor of Music at Cornell University, he is a key contributor to the restoration of the fortepiano to the concert stage and to seminal recordings of mainstream repertory as a soloist and chamber player. He has recorded the piano concertos of Mozart, collaborating with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists, as well as the complete Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven piano sonatas, typically using restored or replica pianos that the composers wrote for.

Bilson, 74, recently discussed his approach to period music and his passion for communicating his perspective on interpreting music as it was imagined by composers of various centuries. Malcolm Bilson will perform on a 1790 Regier fortepiano at Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley, on Friday, Feb. 26 at 8 p.m.

What does an Emeritus Professor of Music do exactly at Cornell?

I still teach graduate students and give concerts. For the last 20 years I’ve been half-time at Cornell. Being an Emeritus Professor means that I don’t have to go to meetings. This allows me to go to different music schools and talk about what I’m most interested in, and that’s that people don’t know to read music any more.

What do you mean when you say that people don’t know how to read music today?

I’ve been performing for 40 years and it’s my belief that when artists today play composers like Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven, for instance, a great deal of the meaning intended by the composers has been lost. What is lost primarily is the expressivity. For instance, the music of Mozart has slurs, little curves above the notes. And these notations have specific meaning. The music musical language at that time was very close to speech. To have speech have meaning there needs to be inflection. And Mozart was very careful about how he inflected his music. But around the mid-19th century the “long” line became in vogue. The idea of clear enunciation of consonants and vowels, so to speak, was lost. And we hear this in modern performances. You see, there are styles in each period that are determined by what is in musical vogue at the time.

How does it happen that we have lost the expressivity of classical composers?

Part of it is the instruments. The modern piano is very good at long lines and staccato. In 1870 the Steinway piano became the model for building all pianos; it is what is used today. But Chopin, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven never composed for a Steinway piano; they composed for fortepianos, and their variations. Fortepianos have leather-covered hammers and thin strings and a range of four to six octaves, while the Steinway is a little more than seven octaves.

Does that mean playing these composers on Steinway models is inauthentic?

I have an example that I like to use that illustrates my answer to that question. I was traveling in Europe and we stopped in Slovakia. We couldn’t speak the language and when it came time to eat, we settled on a restaurant but had a great deal of trouble deciphering the menu. I noticed one item described as Kung Pao Chicken. I couldn’t believe it, so I ordered it. The dish had absolutely nothing to do with the Kung Pao Chicken that I knew to be authentic; it was a Slovakian variation, with Slovakian spicing and ingredients. But it was a perfectly nice thing to eat and I enjoyed it immensely. So it is the same with performing music the way composers intended it. My point is not to throw out contemporary interpretations, but to know the difference. I really expound on this in my video Knowing the Score.

So would you consider yourself an “early” musician?

A reviewer recently wrote about a record of mine and referred to me as a “fortepiano specialist.” I consider myself a pianist. Period. I play all types of pianos. Franz Liszt loved pianos, and he played every kind that was available to him. I think it’s absurd to be called a “Steinway artist.” A performer should really play them all, in my opinion. I don’t understand the teachers who tell their students not to play period instruments because it will ruin their style. If anything, I believe it enhances one’s understanding of their music and their instrument.

Brian Gleeson is a communications consultant living in the Bay Area. Previously, he was a writer and producer of Rabbit Ears Radio, which was distributed nationwide by Public Radio International.