This is how a listener plays
New music pianist Eve Egoyan pays attention to every detail, including the silences
National Post, October 26, 1999
Go ahead, judge Eve Egoyan’s debut CD by its cover — an artistic, blue-tinted photograph of the pianist’s ear. Apart from its aesthetic qualities, the image on ‘New Music for Piano: thethingsinbetween’ captures the essence of a performer whose powers of listening cast a hypnotic spell over her audiences, opening their own ears — and hearts — to repertoire that’s conventionally considered “a hard sell.”
Egoyan (sister of film director Atom Egoyan) was born in Victoria and lives in Toronto. She has specialized in contemporary music since 1994. She’s by no means the only young Canadian pianist to do so; her generation has produced a bumper crop of new music specialists — Montreal’s Louise Bessette, Calgary’s Colleen Athparia, Stephen Clarke and Gregory Oh of Toronto, among others. But the 35-year-old Egoyan, whose New Music for Piano comes out this week, seems poised to break out of the contemporary music ghetto and bring the music of her peers to mainstream classical audiences — perhaps even beyond.
Next month, the pianist embarks on an eight-city tour of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland — a rare instance of mainstream presenters signing up a contemporary music specialist. And while New Music for Piano appears on the independent Artifact label, two major record companies have made overtures to the pianist.
Composers whose works she plays have responded ecstatically; after hearing her play her piece The Art of Touching the Keyboard, Britain’s Judith Weir entrusted her with the North American premiere of her piano concerto.
So what’s Egoyan’s secret? Meticulous preparation. Discerning choice of repertoire — she only plays music she loves and supports herself through teaching. An innate love for piano sonorities and texture. Abundant technique that never advertises itself. A passionate desire to get under the skin of the music she plays — one of the reasons she decided to devote herself to new music, she told the Post, is that she loves being able to pick up the phone and ask composers what they meant in a score.
And again, there’s Egoyan’s magical quality of listening, not only to the notes, but to “the things in between” — the silences and resonances after the notes of a piano are struck.
It all adds up to a trustworthiness: Even though one generally puts up a certain amount of chaff at new music concerts, your chances of having your time wasted at an Egoyan recital are very slim indeed.
Egoyan’s strong sense of program design deserves special mention. In a recent conversation in her studio — a sun-filled space in a converted factory in Toronto’s garment district — she blushingly confessed that she loves planning elaborate meals. That makes sense: Her recitals take the listener through a journey that offers a pleasure and sense of discovery comparable to four-star gastronomy.
Egoyan put the same care into the program on her new CD. It opens with three fantasies on ‘Strauss waltzes’ by British composer Michael Finnissy; Egoyan hopes listeners will find their opulent textures, which recall Scriabin, “very welcoming.” Things then start to disintegrate with ‘Piano Diary’, a fragmentary work by Victoria composer Michael Longton, with whom Egoyan studied as an undergraduate. Alvin Curran‘s ‘For Cornelius’ starts off in the style of Eric Satie. But its central section — a long, sustained, minimalist shimmer — is “about pure resonance.” It marks a break with the past and should feel like “the beginning of a new CD,” Egoyan said.
The Curran opens the door into the final works: Linda Smith‘s ‘Nocturne’ and Stephen Parkinson‘s ‘Rainbow Valley’, both of which take the listener into new realms of sound and structure. Smith’s meditative piece is the still centre of the disc: One feels as though the pianist is dipping into a deep pool, stirring up fragmentary echoes of the past (Debussy often comes to mind), which dissolve into ripples of sound and silence.
With Rainbow Valley the CD reaches its farthest remove from traditional repertoire. Scraping the piano strings with loonies and rubber wedges, the pianist conjures a Kafkaesque sound world that reminded me of metallic, insect-like scrabbling.
Egoyan makes no claim to being a comprehensive “expert” in 20th-century music. Her repertoire, she said, goes up to Scriabin, then stops, and picks up again with the music of her time; her “adventure” in modern music, as she likes to call it, began with her playing the music of friends. “I hate music that sounds like ‘modern music,’ ” she said with a laugh.
She also, in part, turned to contemporary music because she was dissatisfied with many aspects of the mainstream music world, in which she was rigorously trained in Canada and Europe. “I hated the competitiveness of it,” she said. “And I love coming to [new] music free, with no history of interpretation, no multiple editions or multiple recordings [with which] to compare.”
One endearing (to me) aspect of Egoyan’s taste in music is her dislike of bombast. “Even in standard repertoire I never felt comfortable with the heroic-romantic stuff,” she said. “I just couldn’t get into it. I’m the same way now — I love hearing Liszt’s B-minor Sonata, but I can’t enter into it [as a player]. I feel silly and self-conscious.”
Whither Egoyan? “I’m prepared for slow growth on this one,” says the pianist, who has averaged about five to 10 solo recitals a year and studiously avoided the word “career” throughout our conversation.
But with a slew of new commissioned works on the way — the CBC is trying to line up two new concertos for her — and with a major record label knocking on her door, things may move much faster for this gifted musician.
copyright Tamara Bernstein 1999
re-printed with permission of the author
first published in the National Post, October 26, 1999