Koji Attwood

Koji Attwood

Koji Attwood


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Critics have raved about Koji Attwood's "ice-water" clarity, the "ability to create beautiful transparent textures and evanescent splashes of colour," at the piano. A native of Kansas, Attwood studied at the Curtis Institute under the instruction of Seymour Lipkin. In 2004, he completed his DMA at the Juilliard School under Jerome Lowenthal. Attwood now teaches at Utah Valley University and The Gifted Music School in Salt Lake City. Below is the transcript of our August 5, 2011 conversation with pianist Koji Attwood.

EH: You’ve worked with the legendary dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov. What are your thoughts today on this great artist ?

Attwood: I was just playing with the American Ballet Theatre, and the concertmaster of the ABT orchestra had worked at the White Oaks project with Baryshnikov. We were talking about how much we’ve gained musically from working with the artist. In a certain way, with his timing and phrasing, it gets absorbed after a while. It really is extraordinary. Any of the pieces that I play, recorded while he was dancing, I can’t play them without seeing the choreography now, which is kind of ironic.

To put it bluntly, he is the greatest artist I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. He’s just this pretty comprehensive person, as far as talking about art, work, literature, or anything. And he’s really a very humble person, great to work with. He also plays a little piano himself, and it’s been an amazing experience working with him.

EH: You attended two of the most prestigious conservatories in America. What kind of repertoire were you playing at the time you entered the Curtis Institute ?

Attwood: Mostly Germanic, actually. I was studying with Seymour Lipkin, who had been a pupil of Serkin, Horszowski and Saperton - which I find interesting because Saperton was Godowsky’s son-in-law. One of the greatest recordings of the complete Chopin Etudes is by David Saperton: huge technique, incredible ideas.

I was playing Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert -- I was in my Schumann phase, and there was a little bit of Chopin, too. I don’t know what the case is now, but Curtis back then was mostly Germanic repertoire. There was a bit of Debussy and Ravel, but anything after 1920 would have made people a little twitchy (laughs). It was very conservative, really living up to the conservatory-billing, but it was great because you have to have this grounding. The Germanic repertoire is such a basis of almost everything else, I think it’s important that you learn as much of it as possible. It was at Juilliard that I branched out a bit and got to explore different things.

EH: In your experience, is the competitive atmosphere at Juilliard as fierce as it once had the reputation of being ?

Attwood: It was actually very supportive, at least with the Lowenthal studio that I was in. That’s the way I think it should be. I don’t know how it is with the other instruments, but it’s kind of like a fraternity or a sorority because we’re all ‘in it’ together. There are positive aspect of competition, and that was my experience of it, which was a relief.

EH: Tell me about your teachers at Curtis and Juilliard: what are your memories about their methods and music-making ?

Attwood: Seymour Lipkin is probably most well known as a Beethovenian. As much as I admire his Beethoven playing, I was most captivated by his Mozart and Schubert. I think that’s where he was really top-notch. I remember once when he played the Mendelssohn Gm concerto, it was such fantastic, rhythmically dynamic playing, with a good, strong sound.

It’s funny because we’re now on such good terms, but he was really rough on me! Every week, people could hear my lessons down the hall because he’d be screaming so loud. The funny thing is I thought I’d be studying with Frank, as he was the one who had encouraged me to audition. But the way it works at Curtis is you don’t pick them, they pick you. For some reason, Lipkin picked me. At one point I almost asked him, ‘Why did you pick me if you hate my playing so much ?’(laughs).

But in the last two years, things got much better and I actually learned a lot from him. I even stayed an extra year because I had skipped my senior year of high school. At Curtis, it was kind of nice because we got to play for other people, and there weren’t any political ramifications to it. I played for Graffman once in a while, I would play for Frank, and I played a lot for Edward Aldwell, who was a theory teacher there and also a piano teacher at Mannes.

Aldwell was known more as a Bach specialist, but I played tons of repertoire for him. I actually ended up playing “Gaspard de la Nuit” for him. He had studied with Adele Marcus at Juilliard and was just an incredible musician. I learned so much from him. He would bring in his lunch and hear what I had to torture him with that week.

I also had a memorable two-hour private lesson with Radu Lupu on the Schumann “Symphonic Etudes”. He had a lot of interesting ideas on that piece, and I still use some of them to this day.

EH: When did you realize that your life would be devoted to music and the piano ? Are you from a musical family ?

Attwood: I’m not from a musical family, although I can trace an ancestor back to a Thomas Attwood, who was a student of Mozart, and someone very close to Mendelssohn. Apparently, when Mendelssohn was in London, he would often stay with Attwood, who was a father-figure to him. There are actually two pieces of tribute that Mendelssohn dedicated to him.

Attwood was mostly known as an organist and he wrote a lot of church music. If you check up on the complete Mozart-Ausgabe, there’s a section in there called the ‘Attwood Notebooks’, which basically chronicles his two-year period of study with Mozart. It’s quite fascinating because not only does it shed light on Attwood, but it also sheds light on Mozart as a teacher. For some reason, over the years, Mozart got this bad reputation of not being a good teacher, but these notebooks repudiate that notion. There’s one rather amusing part in one of the earlier sections of the notebook, where Attwood accidentally switches the clefs. In red-ink, twice, Mozart writes in bold letters, “You are an ass” (laughs).

Both my parents are classical music lovers, and I grew up listening to classical music. I started piano lessons and golf at the age of five, and for a time, I did both. When I was eleven, I won a piano competition and a golf tournament in the same year. Unfortunately, I had to choose one.

People think that pianists wake up in the morning, walk out on stage, and play a concert. But it’s the same thing with golf. Guys like Phil Michelson and Tiger Woods don’t rush out of bed, go out on the golf course and shoot a 65. They practice, if anything, maybe even more than pianists, hitting thousands of balls each day. There just isn’t enough time in a day to devote to golf and music, and so I went with music.

I was very fortunate as a kid to study with a professor at the University of Kansas, from age nine until the time I went to Curtis. At the time, the university would bring in pianists for masterclasses, and I got to play for Leon Fleisher, Claude Frank, Menahem Pressler – all of these amazing pianists. It was very important during those formative years. Claude Frank was actually the one who suggested that I audition at Curtis.

EH: What are your thoughts and experiences on the issue of stage fright ?

Attwood: It’s completely unpredictable, which is incredibly annoying. Sometimes you’ll wake up in the morning, feel fine all day, you’ll walk out on stage and completely freak out. Other times, you’ll freak out all day, walk out and feel fine. And every possible combination in between (laughs). Apparently, Emil Gilels would puke before playing, and they had to push Vladimir Horowitz out on-stage. I’ve had the great privilege of performing with Mikhail Baryshnikov many times, and he admitted to me at one point that he gets more nervous now than when he was younger. This was a revelation to me and also a great sense of comfort. 

EH: Because every pianist has a different answer, which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for you ?

Attwood: (laughs) For me, personally, I think it’s Op. 10 No. 1. I’ve never felt comfortable performing it. Op. 10 No. 2 is hard, too. I think if you can play both of these etudes, you can pretty much play anything at the piano -- if you can play the Chopin Etudes, you can play anything. But Op. 10 No. 1 and No. 2 are in completely different ways extraordinarily difficult. Part of the difficulty lies in the heaviness of the modern instrument, and I think that playing them on a Pleyel would no doubt improve one’s speed in those pieces.

There’s actually an early edition of Op. 10 No. 2 where I think it’s quarter notes for the chord in the right-hand, which would be insane on the modern piano (laughs). The piece is hard enough. But the double-notes etude has never really given me that many problems. I’ve always been able to do the double-notes fairly well. Op. 10 No. 10 is also hard, for some reason.

EH: I spoke with Horowitz pupil, Ronald Turini, and he said that over the course of a year, he covered 23 of the 24 etudes with Horowitz. The only one they never looked at was Op. 10 No. 10, because Horowitz claimed he couldn’t play it.

Attwood: That’s interesting. There was another Chopin etude that he claimed he couldn’t play. It might have been Op. 10 No. 2. I think there were probably aspects of the Horowitz mechanism that wouldn’t lend itself to certain pieces. I know that he loved the Godowsky “Passacaglia”. He never performed it because he never felt that he lived up to it, technically – I mean, he probably would have played it fabulously, but it’s definitely interesting, with his obvious prodigious gifts. I think the thirds etude (Op. 25 No. 6) was also one that he felt was very difficult, but he also felt that most people played it too fast.

EH: On this note, of the great pianists of the past, which ones have kept your attention and admiration over time ?

Attwood: There are some performance that you come back to, and you’re almost scared because you thought they were so great when you were younger. Sometimes, your tastes change, your aesthetics have changed, and what you find important in a performance has also changed. You might say, ‘Wow, what was I thinking ?’(laughs). But there are so many of these golden-age pianists that I admire.

Someone like Benno Moiseiwitch, or Ignaz Friedman, had such an individuality and understanding of what they were trying to bring to the table, especially with their expressions and phrasing. One of the great things about modern recordings, when they’re cleaned up, is you can really hear what these guys were all about, with their pedaling, rhythm, and phrasing. I was just speaking with David Dubal this morning, and we were discussing which pianists we would love to go back and hear if we had a time machine. We agreed upon 1911, in Berlin, to listen to Busoni and his series of concerts dedicated to Liszt, or Rachmaninoff playing the Third Piano Concerto with Mahler conducting. These were probably pretty good (laughs), or even Liszt playing his First Piano Concerto with Berlioz conducting.

Unfortunately, some of the pianists who have been preserved for posterity were unaware of their time, people like Moiseiwitsch, Rachmaninoff, and Hofmann. People haven’t really heard what their artistry was all about. It’s a shame because it’s a very rich legacy to draw upon. Whether you agree with what they did or not is completely irrelevant. It’s being exposed to the artistry that’s important. They had their individual sound, their individual voices, individual ideas, and these are things I consistently admire. Thankfully, there are small pockets of people who keep their legacies alive with these historical recordings. But it’s really to see what kind of magic they could create, bringing these ideas across the footlights.

EH: Leon Fleisher called him, “the greatest pianistic talent this country ever produced,”. Few people on this planet know more about him than you. How did you become fascinated by William Kapell, and what can you tell us about him that we cannot already find online?

Attwood: Kapell was the first American-born big-time pianist, who really put America on the map. He was a big star in Europe and South America, and they still talk about him to this day. It’s a real tragedy that he passed away at such a young age. I’ve always been kind of a piano geek, and as far as historical recordings go, it’s just something that I’ve always been very interested in. I actually didn’t encounter Kapell’s playing until I was a teenager at Curtis. A friend of mine introduced me to the recording of the “Mephisto Waltz”. I must have listened to it twenty times in a row. I think Kapell was 22 when he made that recording. When I ended up studying at Juilliard, one of the reasons I wanted to study with Jerome Lowenthal was because he had studied with two of my all-time favorite pianists, one of whom was William Kapell (he also studied with Alfred Cortot and Eduard Steuermann).

I was doing my doctorate and trying to figure out what I was going to write on. I was fortunate that Kapell attended Juilliard - otherwise I don’t think they would have allowed it – and so I wrote this part-biography, part-discography, part-interview documentary. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to speak to Fleisher. I had wanted to interview him because he was closer to Kapell than anyone around then. Istomin, unfortunately, passed away while I was still writing.

I did get to speak with Graffman and Kapell’s widow, who had many interesting insights about him. She described the several times when Horowitz and Kapell, who were almost next-door neighbors in NYC, visited each other. They would play for each other all night, which sounds extraordinary. The thought of it is really kind of mind-boggling!

The thing that kind of always fascinated me about Kapell is how he was always growing as an artist. He died at 31, and in some ways, he was fully mature as an artist. In other ways, he hadn’t reached anywhere near his full potential. That’s what’s so tragic about his path, the things he would have done, etc.

For the American music scene in particular, there are so many things he could have contributed to, in terms of contemporary music. He was already a champion of contemporary composers in this country. Ned Rorem really put it well, “[repertorially], the past is on par with the present”. I think the gap that we see nowadays, between composer and performer, would have been helped a bit if Kapell had been able to stick around. He was going to join the faculty at Juilliard, and one of his first students would have been Van Cliburn. That would have been very interesting, as Cliburn then took over the mantle of the great American pianist.

It’s a shame that there are still some unpublished recordings of Kapell out there that probably won’t ever be commercially released. Supposedly floating around is an “Appassionata” of his, which he performed in Australia. There’s also a Tchaikovsky piano concerto with the Philadelphia orchestra – Lowenthal was actually at that performance. I’m convinced that a copy has to exist, as some of these had been broadcast over the radio. I’m not sure if it's on Wikipedia, but Kapell was an extremely skilled amateur painter, he had a penchant for red-heads, and he came perilously close to punching out a critic at a dinner party once, after the critic had penned a negative review of a Horowitz concert, which Kapell had apparently taken great offence to!

EH: Are you happy with the direction that classical pianism has taken, commercially ?

Attwood: Well, one of the trends that I do like is the direction back to the composer-pianist. There was a time from the 1950’s to the 1970’s when any transcription to the score was so completely frowned upon that it was akin to musical suicide. But it seems the pendulum has swung the other way, and people are more receptive towards individualism and music-making. I think that’s definitely a nice trend, judging from some of the pianists that I’ve heard. Marc-Andre Hamelin has a great deal to do with popularizing that.

I’d probably have to send you a list of pianists that I enjoy listening to today. Many of them are actually personal friends of mine. I just heard Cyprien Katsaris play. He’s very popular in Europe and Japan, and he’s definitely one of them. There are a lot of great people playing. They just don’t have the PR machines that some others have to draw upon.

EH: What experience can you offer as advice for aspiring young pianists ?

Attwood: You have to get to the point where you trust your own instincts. You learn very quickly that sometimes you have to sit there and just take it. But eventually, you need to trust your instincts – that which makes your playing unique. You have to go with that. Whether it’s repertoire choices, freedom or tempo choices, you have to go with it. You need to please yourself, because you can’t please everyone. That’s really the only advice. It’s not very practical, but it’s important.

EH: What are some of the most ridiculous musical feats you have ever witnessed ?

Attwood: I saw Cyprien Katsaris sight-read the “Norma” fantasy (laughs). That was pretty ridiculous. The first time through, he sight-read it; the second through, he already had a conception of the piece, and the third-time, he was adding stuff! And of course, the G Major section with the octaves, he was playing it ten times faster than everyone has ever played it, giving running commentary on the side. He’s an incredible sight-reader. I’ve seen him do other sight-reading feats, but that’s the one that made me think, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me’.

I have a friend at Juilliard, Chris Guzman, who’s also an amazing sight-reader. He accompanied someone in the Ravel G major concerto, and he read it from the orchestral score (laughs). It was kind of flabbergasting. I am a horrible sight-reader, but these guys are just unbelievable.
I know someone who studied with Bolet, and he said that Bolet could sight-read the Diabelli Variations!

EH: Prominent musicians of the past have said that in order to mature as a musician, it is necessary to read, experience, and know many things outside of music. Is there a particular medium of art that has always drawn your attention ?

Attwood: Both my parents studied Art History – they met in Italy - so painting has always interested me. But even more than that, I would say literature. I actually wanted to be a writer as a kid. Maybe it’s because of the abstract nature of it, but it seems that any time there has been a trend in Art - whether it be Baroque, Classical, or whichever period we’re talking about - it seems that the first one to grasp the trend is literature, then painting, then architecture, and then music’s always last, always a couple years behind. I think for many great musicians, composers in particular, they were always drawn to great literature. The Lieder tradition is an example of that. I always find it interesting to explore the time-period of the composer that I’m immersing in. I’m also a fan of science fiction, a big horror buff. H.P. Lovecraft is one of my all-time favorite authors.

EH: Some performers believe that there is a spiritual element in music. What are your personal feelings about this ?

Attwood: You know, Kapell talked about this sort of thing, that these composers are sending out messages, needing the audience to actually receive that sort of spiritual transmission. That’s why live performances are so special. I think Schnabel likened his role to a spiritual guide. You know, he was very close to nature, and he was like an alpine guide, showing you the sites; in other words, he would take you there, but you’d have to have someone there to appreciate the view. Personally, you do feel an emotional connection to whatever piece you’re playing at that particular time; and hopefully, an emotional connection with the audience. It doesn’t always happen, but you do sometimes feel that the audience is with you in a certain way. It’s not necessarily tangible. It’s a bit more abstract than that.

EH: Is it necessary for you, as it was for Arthur Rubinstein, to have an audience, then ?

Attwood: Sometimes, when things aren’t going well on stage, you feel terribly self-conscious and that’s one of the worst feelings in the world. On the other hand, when you’re completely ‘un-self-conscious’, it’s one of the best feelings in the world. It seems that every fifty years or so, people talk about the demise of the concert hall, but these go by. We’re still having live performances. You really can’t replicate that feeling of a live performance, even with recordings and technology.

EH: If there is a particular composer that you feel most connected to, what in particular about their writing inspires you, over and over again ?

Attwood: It probably goes back to the whole literature thing. The composer I’ve always felt most comfortable with is Schumann. The aspect that is so interesting to me about Schumann is he had that very strong literary connection. His music is quite unlike any other kind of music; it almost reads like a novel. Music sometimes unfolds itself like a novel, and in a way, I think he kind of reinvented the way we listen to music, especially with those early piano cycles. The narrative aspect of his pieces is so profound; I think that’s part of the reason why they often don’t come across the concert hall as well as they should, pieces like the “Humoreske” and the “Davidsbündler”.

It’s true of so many other composers, but on human emotions, what Schumann was able to express even in a small piece was incredible. But there are many composers. I mean, we’re talking about some of the most comprehensive human beings ever to walk the planet, as far as emotional intelligence is concerned. People like Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt, we probably can’t even comprehend how great these guys were. But they were still human beings who were able to express themselves in extraordinary ways.

EH: If a Classical or Romantic composer were to come back and listen to the way that their works are being played today, what are your thoughts on what they would have to say about our current times and performance practices ?

Attwood: I hate to be critical, but I think most composers would hate the way their pieces are performed today (laughs). I’m thinking particularly of someone like Liszt, since we’re celebrating his bicentennial. You have these two extreme schools of playing when it comes to Liszt. One is to play it very straight without any rhetoric at all, and the other is to play it over-the-top and vulgarize his music - both methods which I completely abhor.

Luckily, we have recordings from composers, which are fascinating, particularly when it comes to pianist-composers like Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Debussy, and Scriabin. I do wonder what Beethoven - assuming he could hear (laughs) – would think after a modern performance of his Ninth Symphony.

I think there are probably certain technical aspects that these composers could appreciate, but as far as capturing the spirit of the work, I don’t know. I imagine they would be pretty appalled. With Chopin, I’m sure he was the type of pianist who never played the same way twice. And now, we basically have ten different versions of the piece. He was constantly changing his mind. The thought of ‘Urtext’, where you have the final version of a piece, would be anathema to some of these people.

EH: What can you tell us about the composer, Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952), whose works remain largely unknown ?

Attwood: He led a pretty fascinating life, actually. Unfortunately, his career was obliterated by both World Wars, in particular the Second World War. He kind of scraped-out a living. He was Ukrainian by birth, so the Soviet authorities never really claimed him as a ‘Soviet composer’, and yet, he was living in Germany. Obviously, he wasn’t a Germanic composer either. I think if he would have settled in the United States or even made it to London, like Rachmaninoff or Medtner - not that Medtner’s that famous - he’d be a little bit more well-known today.

There aren’t any recordings of Bortkiewicz, but judging from his piano works, he must have been one hell of a pianist. He basically had the same timeline as Rachmaninoff. Regarding his non-popularity, I really can’t explain it, other than to state the fact that people just aren’t aware of his music. Everywhere I’ve played it, audiences have gone crazy over it. If you like Rachmaninoff or Scriabin, there are even some Chopinesque elements to his music. It’s really tremendous piano music. He never penned a “Hammerklavier”, but it’s very effective piano music, and it’s a shame he isn’t more well-known. I first became aware of his music through a CD that Cyprien Katsaris had recorded.

EH: After a Koji Attwood performance, what impression would you like audiences to come away with ?

Attwood: I was talking to someone about personal artistic growth. As a kid, you mark with a ruler how much you’ve grown, etc. You may not even be aware of it. You’re immersed in it, you’re in the moment, and you don’t really think of the impression or afterwards. Take something like the Schubert transcription of the quartet. If the audience was already very familiar with the piece, hearing the piece in a different way, having it presented differently, might bring out different emotional aspects. Or, say, I’m performing Bortkiewicz, I try to present the very best aspects of the composer’s art, and hope that it strikes a chord with the audience.

E.H.: Koji, we sincerely thank you for taking the time.

Attwood: It was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.