Story by Carrie Beth Wallace
Images courtesy of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra
*Photo by Mike Grittani
Henry Kramer is a world-renown classical pianist who won the 2019 Avery Fisher Career Grant. Kramer lives and works in ColumbusGA where he also teaches piano at the Schwob School of Music. This weekend, he's set to return to the stage as a featured soloist with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Though Kramer's played numerous times with the CSO, Saturday's concert will be the first time he's performed with an orchestra in a year.
Read on for a look beyond the stage and into the heart and mind of one of the top classical pianists in the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Henry, what has the last year been like for you as a musician?
A: Well, you know, I remember my student was giving a recital on the last day before everything shut down. It's been a kind of marker for me as a music educator, because during this time it's become so clear to me that what the infrastructure of our industry really needed was for educators to nurture their students. The question for me has been, how do I how do when there's so much uncertainty for all of us - but especially my students right now. What do they need from me? I went, almost unknowingly, into this kind of nurturing mode to just try to get people to stay connected to what drew them to music initially.
I needed them to focus on what expression, what feeling of love, what feeling of excitement propels them toward music, you know? Because in this time, it's not the time to be like in a traditional conservatory mindset. The pressure needs to be off, and I knew my students needed to go back to the basics and just focus on what makes them love what they do. It was only from this place in the midst of the chaos of the last year that we could really get to making music in a way that would sustain us through this time together.
Q: What an incredible way to look at your role as an educator. Were there other things that you felt came to light this year?
Yes. With everything that happened this year confronting racial justice, I'm actually really grateful for how that made me grow as an educator and as a musician. All of us had have to really confront this issue headlong. Music is so rooted in a very traditional conservatory model, and I'm just thinking like how do I serve my students the best as performers? What does that look like? It's an essential thing for us to continue working through, and I'm thankful that the conversations have started.
Q: Have you had any opportunities to perform this year?
A: I was lucky to have some opportunities to play, and it was very different. I was asked to perform in Rockport, Massachusetts to play a recital in a beautiful hall, but there was nobody in the audience. We recorded it. That was like a whole different thing because you have to really imagine your audience on the other side of that camera.
I did something in Columbus, Ohio, but they weren't really comfortable with me flying, so I drove from Columbus to Columbus to play the concert. That trip was wonderful because I finally had the space and time to see a lot of the South in ways I've never had the chance to before.
Q: You performed all over the world before the pandemic hit. What has it been like to not be able to travel as much?
A: It's actually been really nice because it's given the space to kind of really appreciate Columbus and the surrounding areas of Georgia. I feel so much more rooted in this community now, because I've been here consistently for the last year.
I'm really looking at this whole year from a positive standpoint. I mean if you want to talk about the negative, believe me, there's been a lot of it just like there has for all of us. But I've chosen to find the good in it.
For example, one of the most important ways I've grown is in trying to be really compassionate to my students. To really attempt to remember what it was like to be at the point in my career, and to do everything I can to support them. This is happening all over the industry. You know, so much of my musical training came from this very high pressure traditional conservatory atmosphere. It's just how it was. But this pause we've all had? It was probably really overdue and really needed. I believe that we need to find a way to produce results without killing somebody's spirit, you know? I want to be an educator that supports and nurtures my students to their potential. Not that I wasn't before, but it's just been a really great reminder to stop and encourage and support them as much as I possibly can during this stage of their lives.
Q: What a gift you are to your students! I am so thankful they have you, Henry.
A: Thanks. Also, another positive thing is that my partner is working remotely, so he's been able to live here and that's been a godsend.
Q: Where was he living before, if you don't mind me asking?
A: San Francisco. And now he works for a company in New York, but he's been here for a year because everyone's working remotely. I'm really grateful for the time with him. We've gotten to really know this city and we absolutely love it here.
Q: Wonderful. We're so glad you're here!
You recently gave your first recital since the pandemic hit. What was that like?
A: I was so incredibly nervous. Really. I was under the covers all day because I forgot, you know, what's like to play for people. I was so nervous because it all has felt so different for a year now. I felt like that was part of my re-entry in a way. So I was nervous, but then I went and played, and it was like riding a bicycle. It just came back and I had the best time. It was a really special evening, and I was so grateful to have been asked to play again.
Q: Will Saturday be the first time you've played with an orchestra since everything shut down?
A: Yeah, it will be. I am so excited! There's nothing like it, you know?
Q: Yes. I'm interested to know what specifically you're looking forward to most about the CSO concert?
A: Well, the last time I played with was for Rachmaninov 3. It was just like the first time I performed, it was just like riding a wave of sound. So exhilarating. This is actually my first time to take the Schumann on onstage, and it's a piece I've loved my whole life. I'm just so grateful that we have this orchestra right next door to where I teach and that they're such an awesome ensemble. The idea that I get to have this first experience with this piece with them is really exciting.
Q: Schumann is one of my favorite composers. What do you love about this piece in particular?
A: It's such a incredible concerto for so many reasons. One of the interesting things about it is how much the orchestra's featured. It's almost, at times, like a chamber music piece.
Something that might be fun to know is that Schumann encoded a lot of words into his music. This concerto's opening motive (the first notes on the piano) actually spell out musical pitches of his love and wife, Clara. It's's really this passionate declaration of love. It's energetic almost to the point of exploding. I really cannot wait to share this piece with the audience. I really love the CSO, and I'm just grateful to be asked to perform with them again.
Q: Henry, thanks so much for sharing all of this with our audience. Is there anything else you'd like for them to know? Anything else this past year has taught you?
A: Just that Columbus is an absolute gem. It has a small-town feeling, but there are just so many surprises here. If you're willing to look for it, you can find it here. That's what I've learned from being here more regularly this past year. I'm excited for Columbus. It just continues to get better and better. ◼︎
If You Go:
What: Henry Kramer and Beethoven
When: Saturday, March 27 at 7:30 p.m. Where: RiverCenter for the Performing Arts Get tickets.