In Townsville for the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, the pianist pulls one composer apart and puts the other back together.
“Brahms is somebody that I think you could safely say I’ve been in love with for most of my life,” pianist Orli Shaham tells me ahead of her performance of the composer’s Third Piano Quartet later that evening at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. “Probably since about mid-teenage-dom – I think that’s when you finally get past the complexities of it,” she says. “You start to see right through to the soul.”
It was this love of Brahms that led to Shaham’s 2015 recording for Canary Classics, Brahms Inspired, which presents the composer’s piano music alongside works Shaham commissioned from Bruce Adolphe and Avner Dorman, the world premiere recording of Australian composer Brett Dean’s Hommage à Brahms für Klavier and other works that either inspired, or were inspired by, Brahms.
A rather unique tribute, the recording was the result of preparation for a different Brahmsian project. “I was getting close to turning [Shaham clears her throat] 40, and I thought that by my 40th birthday I should at least programme the B Flat Concerto,” she says. “Kind of a big, life-long goal.”
Orli Shaham playing Mozart with Jack Liebeck, Christopher Moore and Francis Gouton at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music
“It’s a piece that I stayed away from,” she explains. “I play the D Minor, and I play other very big pieces – I play Rachmaninov Second, I play Rachmaninov Paganini Variations – but I somehow have always stayed away from the B Flat, even though it’s probably my favourite piece (although I’m not allowed to have favourites)!”
So Shaham programmed the work and began thinking about what she would need to do to feel ready for the performance. “This was around when I was 36,” she says. “I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got four years.’”
“I started working out with a trainer,” she laughs. “But most importantly, I thought: ‘I want to delve into late Brahms and really just live in that world for a long time.’ And as I played more and more of these late Brahms pieces I realised his incredible influence across the centuries.”
And the connections went both ways. “He was such a reverent composer, so thoughtful about those who proceeded him – he very much felt himself to be part of a continuing tradition,” Shaham says. “He edited many of the complete piano editions of Chopin, Schumann – of Couperin – so he really felt himself very much part of a lineage.”
He also, of course, influenced the composers who came after him. Something Shaham sees as even more pronounced recently. “I feel like his influence was quite strong right after he died and it’s become even stronger in the last 50 years again,” she says.
Hence the project approaching the music that influenced Brahms and the works inspired by him. “It turned out to be a great thing to do,” Shaham says, “because you learn so much from how another composer sees a composer. They have a completely different perspective than the rest of us do.”
This stood out for Shaham in the works of the composers she commissioned for the project. “They had completely different takes on how to be inspired by Brahms, but each one of them brought out an aspect of Brahms’ writing that has changed the way I approach the Brahms,” she says. “And that’s very cool!”
Orli Shaham at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music
Working with violinist Francesca Dego, violist Christopher Moore and cellist Jiří Bárta on the Third Piano Quartet, the question of influence came up again. “We’ve been talking in rehearsals,” Shaham says, “He’s clearly banishing the ghosts of both Beethoven and Mendelssohn from his chamber writing with this piece. The most obvious reference is the last movement, which sounds exactly like the Mendelssohn C Minor Piano Trio – and I mean, like, note for note – except, that that’s the accompaniment and the tune is somewhere else.”
“And in the first movement there are bits of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and his Sixth Symphony – and the Fifth as well, there’s a bunch of da-da-da-duns! – so you could hear all this stuff interacting and creating a very Brahmsian sound,” she says. “You would never mistake this piece for sounding like anybody else.”
“I think I approach this quartet differently now having lived with the late piano pieces for so long,” Shaham says. “For example the third movement, which is so beautifully lyrical, could easily be an intermezzo, and it has so many of the same ideas – except that it’s with four instruments instead of the one. It doesn’t make any difference, it’s the same building process.”
It was a very different building process that Shaham took to American composer John Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances, which she performed the next morning with the Goldner String Quartet.
The work, which opens with a clacking ostinato pattern inspired by San Francisco’s Muni N Judah light rail line, was written for string quartet and recorded prepared piano, but Shaham’s desire to perform Adams’ piano part live threw up some challenges.
“He used a prepared piano,” she explains, “but he would prepare a specific loop and record it, and then take the preparation out and then prepare another loop. Eventually he had probably about 25 different loops and he just put those on tape. So normally the piece is played with live string quartet and tape.”
A friend of Adams as well as a fan of his music, Shaham had long been frustrated by how little piano music was in his catalogue. “I said, ‘look, this is ridiculous, you haven’t written enough for piano, and I love this piece, so how about I get a young composer to figure out how you could actually put all those sounds on a single piano at once?”
“Of course, he hadn’t kept any notes of how he had made any of those amazing sounds,” she says. “So it took me and this young composer Simon Frisch about two months – working on my piano at home – to figure out how to reproduce, more or less, all of those incredible sounds and do it in a way that it’s all on one set-up, so I don’t have to make any changes on the inside of the piano between movements, or between loops.”
Orli Shaham’s prepared piano at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music
The result is a somewhat messy, but nonetheless very carefully positioned, array of Blu Tack, mounting tape, bulldog clips and other bits and pieces under the Steinway’s lid, designed to modify the sound of the instrument to create effects evoking various cymbals and percussion instruments as well as, of course, the required tram sounds.
“It took me about an hour last night to prepare the piano for it,” Shaham says. Her favourite sound – a beautifully resonant woodblock – takes the longest to prepare, with a piece of Blu Tack positioned carefully on the string’s harmonic.
Shaham also has two pedals – squeaky toys that make a different sound when they are pressed and released. “I can’t practise them at home because I have a small dog,” she tells the Concert Conversations audience on Saturday morning.
“If you hear me playing anything that sounds like a piano sound, I’ve missed something, or one of my preparations has come out,” she warns, demonstrating the different colours the instrument is now capable of.
Adams’ rhythmic dances, with names like Toot Nipple, Dogjam and Hammer & Chisel, are “alleged” because at the time of writing, there were no movements for them (though this has since been rectified by a number of choreographers), but they had the audience tapping their feet and laughing or gasping as the unexpected sounds emerged from the piano, the Goldner’s feeding the energy with bustling string parts. The enthusiastic audience took to the stage following the applause to peak beneath the piano’s lid.
“I’ve done this piece only twice before, but it’s so much fun to do,” Shaham says. “Normally as a pianist I think I tend to be particularly concerned with tone – and there’s no tone here. There are just the percussive sounds that are coming out and that’s it. It’s a very different experience.”
And it’s these kinds of exciting and varied musical experiences – Shaham played Mozart and Schubert earlier in the festival and will bring some Cole Porter and Rogers and Hammerstein to the Festival Farewell concert this evening – that make events like the Australian Festival of Chamber Music special. “We’ve been having a great time – there’s so much music in such a small number of days,” Shaham says. “It’s been a wild ride.”