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Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Robert Taub




e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noteworthy artist/educator on various aspects of piano performance and education. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you'll find hypertext links to the interviewee's e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you're interested. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler.



The April 2000 artist/educator:

Dr. Robert Taub, Pianist, Performer and Educator, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ USA

Robert Taub is an internationally acclaimed leader in the new generation of virtuoso pianists. His appearances at Carnegie Hall most recently included the world premiere of Milton Babbitt's Concerto No. 2 with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under James Levine. Since his debut at Alice Tully Hall in 1981 he has performed several times on the Great Performers Series at Lincoln Center and appeared throughout the United States, Europe, the Far East, and Latin America.

Taub has performed with the San Francisco Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Utah Symphony Orchestra, Montreal Symphony, BBC Philharmonic, Bonn Philharmonic, Orchestra of St. Luke's, Hong Kong Philharmonic, and the Singapore Symphony. He has also participated in major festivals: the Saratoga Festival where he collaborated with Charles Dutoit, the Lichfield Festival in England with Sir Edward Downes, San Francisco's Midsummer Mozart Festival, the Geneva International Summer Festival, and others. In addition, he has given solo recitals in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Manila.

Mr. Taub is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton, where he was a University Scholar. As a Danforth Fellow, he completed his doctoral degree at The Juilliard School where he also received the highest award in piano. His principal teacher was Jacob Lateiner. From 1990 to 1992 Mr. Taub served as Blodgett Artist-in-Residence at Harvard University, an appointment that entailed a week of performances and master classes four times during each academic year. In 1993 he led the chamber music program at Princeton University, and the following year he was a guest lecturer for the doctoral program at Rutgers. He has led music forums at Oxford University, Cambridge University and The Juilliard School.

Mr. Taub was appointed Artist-in-Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1994, becoming the first musician to be so recognized in the Institute's sixty-five year history. This residency was recently extended for an additional three years. (The only other artist who has been in residence at the Institute was T.S. Eliot, in 1948.) During his initial appointment Mr. Taub performed the complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas in nine programs over three years in the Institute's Wolfensohn Hall. This transversal of the Sonatas was mirrored by performances on the Music for Galway series in Ireland and more recently at the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts in East Lansing, Michigan. Sonatas from each of the Institute concerts were aired on National Public Radio's nationally syndicated arts program Performance Today, which has continued to broadcast Institute concerts featuring Robert Taub collaborating with such artists as Matt Haimowitz and the Vanbrugh String Quartet.

Robert Taub has recorded the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas for VOX. He has also recorded the Sonatas of Scriabin for Harmonia Mundi. Other recordings on this label of Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, and Babbitt have been selected as "critic's favorites" by Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gramophone, Ovation, and Fanfare.

Robert Taub's repertoire embraces music from the Baroque era to the present day, and he has been chosen by a number of prominent contemporary composers to premiere their music. In January 1990, he gave the world premiere of Mel Powell's Two Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and was released on the Harmonia Mundi label. He gave the world premiere of Emblems, a major solo work by Milton Babbitt at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall with further performances in New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Berlin. Between these two premieres he played the Persichetti Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit, recorded by the New World label. Also for New World, Taub made the first recording of Roger Sessions' Piano Concerto (1956) with Paul Dunkel and the Westchester Philharmonic. Among other important Babbitt premieres were Preludes, Interludes, and Postlude, in 1992; the Piano Quartet in 1996, commissioned by the Library of Congress and premiered at the Kennedy Center; and Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1998, which was commissioned for Robert Taub and James Levine by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

In recent months, as featured soloist in the Asian Piano Festival, Robert Taub performed in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, and Malaysia. He also performed solo concerts in Los Angeles and Cleveland, and with the Utah Symphony, performed Prokofiev Piano Concerto No.3. Highlights of the current season include Beethoven Sonata concerts in Cleveland and San Jose, as well as the Beethoven Sonata cycle at the Wharton Performing Arts Center in East Lansing. In addition to the concerts at the Institute for Advanced Study - which this season include Schubert's Winterreise (with baritone Randall Scarlata) and chamber music of Bartok and Brahms (with clarinetist Charles Neidich and violinist Curtis Macomber) - Robert Taub will also perform a solo recital at the Library of Congress. Robert Taub has just completed a series of critically acclaimed Beethoven Sonata concerts in New York's Merkin Concert Hall. In June 2000 Mr. Taub will perform again with James Levine, this time with the Munich Philharmonic (Stravinsky: Petrouchka 1947 version) - three concerts in Munich, and five on tour in Germany.

What drew you into music?

I don't remember a time when I wasn't involved in music. I was about three years old when I started piano. I remember playing and listening to many records when I was a young child; I liked to manipulate the volume knob of the amplifier of the stereo system as a way of being "involved" with what I was hearing.

Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano and why?

When I was fifteen, I first started studying with Jacob Lateiner. He told me then that his goal as a teacher was to give his students enough of an education so that they could begin to think for themselves convincingly and cogently, and therefore ultimately become independent of any teacher.

What do you enjoy most about making music?

There is no single thing I enjoy most; my involvement in music is too multifaceted to single out only one aspect. I suppose that on one level, I revel in sharing my feelings about the music at hand by playing concerts and making recordings. But I also enjoy the hours spent in private rehearsal sessions, discovering (and sometimes re-discovering) the myriad wonders of a particular work, whether it is already classic or a new work that is destined to become classic.

Is there a"best" way or "method" to learn to play? Any that should be avoided?

I think that there are many ways to play the piano, but it seems to me that one thing that all convincing "methods" share is learning to produce a wide palette of tonal color from the instrument, and maintaining a relaxed stance to avoid tension and resulting injury.

What "deficiency" in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano?

Too often there is a lack of awareness of how to coax many different types of sounds from the piano - no well-defined strategy (or craft) of playing - and far too much unnecessary tension.

What kinds of things would you tell students of the piano and their teachers to try to avoid?

In terms of playing the instrument, avoid tension and monotone. In more musical terms, avoid bad, uninformed editions, or editions which make a pretense of authenticity, but which lack responsible research and ultimately lead to interpretive confusion and even misunderstandings.

What advice would you give to students of the piano?

The simplest advice - and the most meaningful - is to listen to yourself as others hear you. Developing the ear is a continual process, and making sure that what is coming out of the piano is what you want to project is the crux of the matter.

How do you motivate yourself to do the long hours of practice necessary to be a successful performer?

I can blithely say that I practice as little as necessary in order to achieve what I need. That's the simple answer. The reality is that I feel that if I needed to practice ten hours a day, something would be wrong. The amount of time I spend at the piano varies considerably, depending on all types of circumstances. I like to practice less right before concerts so that I remain as fresh as possible. But I also think about music in a concerted manner away from the piano, and occasionally interesting interpretive ideas might occur to me while I am out running or doing something completely different.

Can you give us your reflections upon music as a career? Specifically, what do you like most about performing and what do you dislike most?

I have to say that I revel in every aspect of performing. Of course the actual traveling - so much time on airplanes - loses glamour quickly, but the performances are always new, different, and exhilarating to me. If this weren't the case, I'd do something else.

What does it take to be a "successful" musician or music educator?

Musical vision, and the burning desire to express it.

As the first musician appointed as Artist-in-Residence at Princeton's famed Institute for Advanced Study, can you tell us about the Institute and what working there as a musician is like?

The Institute is a wonderfully unique place, where I'm given the freedom to pursue my goals. I play a series of nine concerts there each season (three programs, each of which is performed three times) and give a series of talks during the concert weeks devoted to the particular program at hand. Wolfensohn Hall, where the concerts are performed, is an ideal intimate venue, with excellent acoustics, which seats close to three hundred. The audiences are wonderful, and are drawn from both the Institute community and the public at large. The concert series, which started when I performed the cycle of Beethoven Piano Sonatas in my first years here, is very popular. From the start, the Institute could not accommodate all the requests for tickets, and now I believe that the Institute turns away more than 500 requests for tickets for each program. In addition to the concerts, this past year I developed a series of informal discussions about new music, bringing in colleagues - performers and composers - to discuss the various issues and styles of music that is being composed today. I relish the interaction I have had here with other faculty members and visiting members, all of whom are at the forefront of their fields. I have had inspirational conversations with mathematicians, astrophysicists, historians... conversations about their work, and about other things that are of interest to us, both musical and non-musical topics.

What do you do to prepare a work new to you for performance and how long does it take?

I suppose that I go through many stages when learning a work that is new to me. Regardless of whether it is truly a new work or just an old one that I haven't played before, I read through the piece to try to form an initial general impression. Then I start working from the very beginning, usually in small groups, phrase by phrase, until I have a concept of a section. Gradually the music seeps into my subconscious as I begin to internalize it; I realize this is happening when I hear the work in my unconscious moments, such as sleep. Finally, when I feel a work is almost ready to perform, I play it through several times for friends, inviting all manner of commentary. This process can take anywhere from several weeks to considerably longer: I worked on the "Hammerklavier" Sonata on and off for more than eight years before first playing it in public.

What was it about the "Hammerklavier" sonata that made you work on it for eight years before playing it in public?

The "Hammerklavier" is an obsessive piece. Uncharacteristically, Beethoven completed no other work during the two or so years that he composed this piece. Looking within Op.106, Beethoven became obsessed with the dramatic and expressive potential inherent in manipulations of thirds, both in thematic construction, and in large-scale structural determinants of the work as a totality. Not only is Op.106 the most epic of the Piano Sonatas, it is also the only one for which Beethoven specified metronome markings. Although one hears all sorts of performances of this piece which disregard these metronomics, I actually think that they play an important role in reflecting the ways in which Beethoven considered the wide spectrum of character of the movements, from the extraordinary, unbridled enthusiasm of the first movement to the plaintive profundity of the Adagio, to the slow, searching quasi-improvisatory nature of the Largo, to the stern brilliance of the fugue. Internalizing all of this, bringing the work to a level with which I felt I could do it justice and convey and express all that the work can offer, took me longer than any other piece I have performed. But now, I feel as though I have lived with this piece for a long time, and I love it dearly. I also love to perform it.

How do you deal with pre-performance "jitters" and what is your pre-concert routine?

Possibly because I began performing at a young age, I don't really have performance jitters. I like to rehearse the morning of a concert, then relax the rest of the day so that when it is time to perform, I feel fresh and able to concentrate fully.

What was your most memorable performing experience and why?

The times that I've played in Carnegie Hall have been very memorable for me, but there have been other concerts that stand out in my mind. I must also say that I love recording, and the way that I recorded the Beethoven Sonatas for VOX - basically live performances in an empty hall - is something that I enjoy very much.

In carrying out a project as monumental as recording the Beethoven sonatas, what personal vision(s) of the sonatas did you try to bring to your performances?

My performances of the Beethoven Sonatas have certainly influenced the ways in which I consider each work - both individually and as part of a larger group. It seems to me that the general terms "early, middle, late" that are often applied to describe characteristics of Beethoven's works are simply too superficial for the Sonatas. If I group them at all, I prefer to do so in five periods that arise naturally from formal/expressive characteristics with which Beethoven was concerned at specific times. Another aspect of these works that I constantly keep in mind is how new and revolutionary many of them were when they were first published. Therefore, I try to perform and record these pieces as if telling the story for the first time. I am most interested in bringing these works to life as if they were new today. Part of this involves tracing, as much as one can, Beethoven's creative processes from sketch material to autograph score to letters addressed to publishers indicating revisions and corrections. The more I know about a piece - and I don't mean just the notes, but rather the artistic reasons that the piece was composed in the first place - the more I can internalize about that work, allowing it to come to life, as if spontaneously, in performance. My recordings for Vox reflect all this.

Aside from the obvious differences, what aspects do you find most different between performing live and performing for recording?

When I record, no one unwraps cellophane candy. All joking aside, I like to record in ways which mimic live performances, and in fact, several of my recordings are truly live, such as the Persichetti Piano Concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Charles Dutoit. That was part of their main concert series, and the three live performances were recorded. We just used the best one.

Do you have a favorite pianist(s) and, if so, what attracts you to that person's performances?

My favorite pianist, if I have can have only one, is someone I know unfortunately only through recordings - Rachmaninoff. I am compelled by everything I hear of him. His pianism is consummate, and there is a level of sophistication about his playing that is highly individual. I cannot imagine better playing.

You have premiered new music on several occasions. Can you tell us a little about the process of preparing a piece of new music for performance? What is different about it from preparing a well-known work?

When I prepare a new work, I go through the same sorts of processes as I do when learning an old piece. I try to get a superficial overview of the piece, then go back and start working on the small details, still keeping in mind the general architecture. Of course, I ask myself why the piece was written, what it means to the particular composer, how it fits into the general scheme of the rest of his works. After a certain level of preparation, I play the piece through for the composer (which is something I wish I could do for old music), relishing any comments that are forthcoming. When I was in LA working with the Philharmonic on the premiere of his Two-Piano Concerto, Mel Powell told me that he thinks the secret is to play old music as if it is new, and new music as if it is old. By that, he meant to tell the story of an old piece as if it is being told for the first time, and play a new work with as much conviction as one has for a work that is already classic. I think he's right!

What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in classical music?

Create an environment in which children are simply exposed to classical music. Since music education in this country has lapsed to the point at which at least two generations of American adults are basically musically illiterate, it is not reasonable to expect that children will receive any musical education at home. Perhaps it is time for the schools to begin to reverse this process. Whenever my schedule allows, I go into the schools - particularly elementary schools - in a city where I am playing and donate my time to offer to play and demonstrate a bit about classical music and what concerts are. I sense a great hunger for this, particularly if it is presented in a way which assumes that everyone thinks it is not "uncool" to like classical music, but rather that classical music - and a lot of new classical music today - was and is at the leading edge of art. All children that I have encountered like the music if given a chance. Sadly, very few are given that chance.

What would you like to say to students, parents, and teachers of the piano?

Listen to yourself, develop your instincts and trust them, and don't be afraid of new things. I know that I don't want to be relegated to a museum as merely a curator of an old and dying culture - so be involved in new art too. Music is a living art; although many of the composers whose music we play are dead, there are many good living ones too.

Learn more about Dr. Taub and his recordings by reading the Vox Music Group site. To comment or ask questions of Dr. Taub, send e-mail to for forwarding to Dr. Taub.

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