Panorama American piano virtuoso Stephen Beus: I do not remember a time when I did not want to be a pianist.
American pianist Stephen Beus is one of the star performers at the American spring music festival currently underway in the Czech Republic. The internationally acclaimed musician, who performs with renowned orchestras and gives solo recitals the world over, has been described as a strikingly original, confident and gifted player with a rock-solid technique. On what is his second recital tour in the Czech Republic he visited Radio Prague’s studio and talked about the joy he derives from music, the inspiration he draws from it and the secret behind his ability to captivate an audience.
“The inspiration I find is in the music itself. It is the genius of Beethoven, of Bach, of Mozart that inspires me. Studying this music and spending time with it - living with it - is such an incredible honor. It is so inspiring and there is so much to learn from it. Even in a piece that I have played for many years, that I have studied, that I have memorized and know every note of –there are still many new things that you discover with time. This music is greater than any single performance of it and the more I play it, the more I study it –the more I learn. It is fascinating for me and as long as it holds my fascination I am able to express that somehow to an audience.”
Do you connect images in your mind to different compositions?
“Sometimes. It can be easy when you are thinking about technique just to worry about hitting all of the notes, but after I become comfortable with that, I do like sort of thinking about light and darkness and how they relate to emotions and how that is incorporated in the music and how these black and white notes on a page turn into a brilliant array of colours or how they can turn into that. Absolutely.”
Who are your favourite composers – and how do you go about mastering pieces that you may find it more difficult to relate to? Do you try to find out how they were composed, when they were composed, in what circumstances and what country?
“That’s a difficult question. In terms of my favourite pieces and composers –it does depend on the day, on what I had for breakfast, on the weather….there is so much amazing music that it is hard to choose just one but I do love Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. I love Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin is one of my passions, there’s an American composer called Charles Griffes whose music I love. But like you said, occasionally I am asked to play a piece that maybe I don’t love –an orchestra may ask me to play a specific piece for example and it can be a challenge sometimes to be interested in a certain piece of music. But I find that, if it is relatively good music, you can find something interesting in it. I mean why did the composer write it, why is it interesting to him, why is it interesting to somebody else? And sometimes you just have to pretend that you like it -in an extreme situation-and there have been a few times when I have had to go on stage pretending that I like a piece. I don’t like doing that and I don’t often do that, but occasionally it is necessary. “
What about Czech composers? Do you play any?
“I played a Janecek concertino with the Hamburg symphony a few years back and that was actually a piece that the first time I heard it I was confused and I did not understand what was happening. But I did some reading about it and actually it was a really fascinating piece of music. It was meant to depict different forest animals. One of them was a squirrel and all of a sudden all of these different musical patterns made sense when you took it in the context of what Janacek was trying to express. And then it was actually a lot of fun. There is a great deal of humor and witty interplay between the different instruments and I ended up enjoying that piece very much. “
“That’s very generous of you. I would not call it perfect, but there is a great deal of work certainly that goes into getting the notes right. It’s a constant thing…and it changes with pianos because pianos respond in very different ways. I can do something as well as I want to on a certain piano but then I go to a piano with a stiffer action and it is like the difference between running on a paved sidewalk and running on sand. You have to change your approach to it. So part of it is learning to be comfortable with different instruments and that can be very challenging. “
How many hours a day do you spend at the piano practicing?
“When I was a teenager I was very consistent. I practiced five hours a day, six days a week and I did not miss a practice session. These days when I’m travelling –I have a family, a wife and two kids –I don’t practice as regularly as I used to and I don’t think I need to in the same way as when I was a teenager. I like to do four, five hours on a serious day, but when I need to take a break I will go for several days without playing and I think that that is sometimes the most useful time that I spend as a musician. “
You can go for several days without playing? I was going to ask for how long you could stay away from the piano before your fingers start itching to play…Do you need it now as an essential part of life?
“I do, yes, I actually do. And when I say I am not practicing - I am still playing. Maybe I will find some music I have never looked at before or some music I have been dying to look at and maybe spend 20 minutes with it. Or else I’ll take my little boys on my lap and let them play and we’ll play silly little duets together…so the days when I am not practicing I am still playing, certainly.”
You started at the age of five I believe? That’s awfully early for a child to accept the drills and discipline involved. Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?
“I do not remember a time when I did not want to be a pianist. I always wanted to be a pianist. I started lessons at the age of five, but I actually started playing the piano when I was two.”
How did that come about?
“My mother taught piano. She taught piano in our home so we had small children coming to our house –four, five days a week –playing these little children’s pieces. And when I was two I would go to the piano and play some of those very simple little things. Looking back on my life I think the most unusual thing that I can see is that I was so interested in it –that I wanted it so much. Not that I was the most amazing two-year-old pianist that’s ever lived –that’s certainly not the case -but the fact that that I wanted to as a two-year-old. I mean I have a two-year-old so now and I don’t think he feels that way about the piano. He likes coming and banging on it, like any two-year-old, but when I was his age I wanted to play these little pieces on it. I played them by ear and I liked it. I have always liked it. My parents never forced me to play the piano. I have seven siblings and my parents didn’t have enough attention to force one of their children to do anything and so I did this because I wanted to and I still do it because I love it. “
“Well, I think it is important that as classical musicians we are aware of our audiences and aware of the need to work on having audiences in the future. I am not sure about this country, but in the US classical music audiences tend to be older and it is difficult sometimes to get younger people interested. Not because the music is dull or uninteresting, but because they are not familiar with it and it is not part of the education –at least not in my country. That’s a serious problem, but I do find that when people of my generation in my country hear this music and I have a chance to explain something about the pieces then they respond. Not everyone loves it and not everyone has to love it and that’s fine, but there is certainly so much about this music that is thrilling and fun and that is everything that you want from music. “
At the age of 30 you seem to have the world at your feet –you are widely acclaimed internationally…are there any unachieved goals? What are you still reaching for?
“Well, musically –I want to be a better musician. When you think about the great athletes when they are in their mid-20s or early 30s usually that is a peak time for them and by the time they are 40 they are maybe not playing quite as well, there are more injuries and things like that. And when they are 50 they are not playing professionally any more. But in music – well, I’m still very young. I mean the great Russian virtuoso Horowitz he was playing into his 80s and he was playing VERY well. In fact I think he never played better. In some ways maybe he was more agile when he was in his 30s, but in his 80s he was magnificent! And so I still consider myself an infant musically. I have so much more to learn.
On a personal level, I mentioned my family- my wife and my kids – and this is such a meaningful part of life to me that I think life is only going to get better.”
When you speak about being a better musician – where do you see room for improvement –in what way can you grow and mature as a pianist?
“Maturing is definitely part of it. Listening better to what you are doing, making more interconnections in the music, the articulation - how connected are the notes - how separate, how does your right hand and left hand interact, how does a melody interact with the accompaniment –all these things can be done in so many different ways. Also there are different acoustics. It is an active creation every time you play a piece. The music should not necessarily be the same every time. There should be a sense of spontaneity, improvisation and creation. It is a process of exploring and finding new and different ways of bringing the music to life.”