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Pianist Well on Her Way: Tamara Stefanovich

March 1, 2010 | By Sedgwick Clark
MusicalAmerica.com
The program of solo works by Bartók, Carter, Ligeti, and Rachmaninoff at New York’s hot Greenwich Village music salon, Le Poisson Rouge, looked like fun. All I knew about this young pianist before that January 27th concert was that she studied with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and that she would perform Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra with him and the Chicago Symphony under Pierre Boulez at Carnegie Hall the following weekend (Jan. 31). Also that the three recently had recorded the work with the London Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon.

It turned out to be her New York recital debut and the first truly memorable concert I’ve heard in this new decade.

Her name is Tamara Stefanovich, and if the music world’s stars align, we’ll encounter her often in the years to come. I was struck by her tonal vibrancy, variety of touch, natural rubato and expressive but never exaggerated turns of phrase. The invigorating rhythms of Bartók’s Fourteen Bagatelles were never compromised by the aggressiveness and banging one so often hears in this music. Her intriguing interweaving of Ligeti and Rachmaninoff etudes had all the requisite power and dexterity. But it was the two Carter works—“Catenaires” (2006) and “Matribute” (2007)— that especially caught my fancy. So often, one hears the complexity of his music but not the puckish wit amid the cascade of notes. Stefanovich captured Carter's twinkle.

Speaking with the 36-year-old Belgrade native two days later revealed a young artist of striking intelligence and insight. Her thoughts, delivered in impeccable English, were laced with laughter as she recalled events in her studies and career. Clearly she knows what she’s about and where she’s going.

Stefanovich’s career has been closely linked with the acclaimed French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, with whom she began studying in 1997 and playing in 2003. “He was giving a workshop in Cologne on Boulez’s “Structures.” I went there because I didn’t know the piece. Afterwards I came to him and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m very confused, I don’t know what I just experienced here, I don’t know what to think,’ and he said, ‘Great! Stay curious.’” Laughing heartily, she says, “This is the moment I decided to learn from him.”

Moreover, this was the epiphanic moment she discovered contemporary music. The young pianist who had concentrated on “a lot of Bach, Chopin and all the things pianists do” became Aimard’s assistant and now teaches with him at the Cologne Hochschule. She also began playing duo-piano concerts with her teacher and mentor, mainly in Europe and Great Britain. In the United States she played a major role in Aimard’s 2007 “Perspectives” series at Carnegie Hall. Besides the Chicago Symphony she has also appeared with the Cleveland Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. At last summer’s BBC Proms she performed with the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. Conductors other than Boulez with whom she has enjoyed collaborating, are Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jonathan Nott and Peter Eötvös.

Working with composers became a major goal. “These are the people who hold the truth, and you learn from them for the old pieces as well. I worked with Mr. Boulez on his Second Sonata. The score is a nightmare!” she exclaims, laughing —“one of the most impossible and fascinating pieces I know. I analyzed it for two months before working on the piano for four months. I played it a lot, and he heard it in concert and seemed to like it. Then I decided I had to find the courage to work with him. I thought that he would scream at the first dynamic marking that I was not doing. I finished the 35 minutes of it and he was so adorable and said, ‘It’s great, don’t worry—just do a phrase here.’

“He has such wonderful hands that are so telling, so economical, and just the way he wanted the phrase to go was so obvious. Suddenly you realize that you have to go back and look at it from a different angle, and that was a big lesson. Claude Frank has said that you need to learn each little detail, and then when you play you have to forget all that. It’s very hard!”

It was Frank with whom Stefanovich studied in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute. She was 17 and had just finished her bachelor’s degree when demonstrations leading up to the Bosnian conflict began. Her far-seeing parents insisted she had to leave, so she applied to Curtis and came to the United States upon acceptance there. Her work from 1991-94 with the warm-hearted pianist was, she says, “a big shock. I had great teachers in Belgrade, but they were the kind who sometimes would scream at a wrong move before I could even play a note. We had exams every three months, with scales and arpeggios—just like boot camp,” she laughs. “And I came to Curtis and Claude Frank would just expect me to have a new piece every Monday morning. It could be Op. 110 Beethoven or a small piece—it didn’t matter, it had to be a whole piece by memory. At the end he would always thank me for the performance and make what I thought at the time were small comments. In the beginning it was very difficult to be confronted with so little criticism. But years later I started learning in reverse. I’m so grateful.”

So what’s next? News that she is preparing a cycle of Bach partitas for next season is enticing. The more opportunity to hear Stefanovich perform solo, the better. With her gorgeous tonal palette and subtle touch, Debussy and Ravel cycles would be number one for this listener. Messiaen and Boulez, too. (One can also imagine a scintillating all-French two-piano recital and recording with Aimard.) If those stars align, we’ll be able to hear just about any favorite composer who comes to mind.


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