Story by Carrie Beth Wallace
Images courtesy of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra
Henry Kramer. Photo by Vanessa Briceño.
Columbus Symphony Orchestra is set to open their 2019-20 season this week with a concert featuring one of the finest classical pianists in the world.
Henry Kramer, a recipient of the highly-coveted 2019 Avery Fisher Career Grant, will play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor on Saturday evening at the RiverCenter. Originally from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Kramer graduated from the Juilliard School and the Yale School of Music. He has studied under internationally renown pedagogues like Julian Martin, Robert McDonald, Boris Berman - giving him a pedagogical lineage that extends directly back to Beethoven and Chopin.
In short, the CSO's first guest performer of the season is expected to draw quite a crowd. Saturday's concert is expected to be one of the top attended events of the Fall arts season, as word of Kramer's exceptional performances have skyrocketed after he won the Avery Fisher Career Grant earlier this year. In addition to a highly successful performance career, Kramer is on faculty at Columbus State University's Schwob School of Music where he maintains a private studio composed of some of the finest rising young artists in the genre. His pupils have won international competitions one after the other, and continue to elevate both their own future careers and the reputation of Schwob School of Music at every turn.
But how does a world-renown performer balance an international career with teaching at the collegiate level? What does someone like Kramer like to do for fun? And, perhaps most importantly, what does the man behind the Steinway on Saturday evening want his audience to know before he takes the stage?
Read on for a behind-the-scenes view into the life and mind of Henry Kramer, a world-renown modern classical pianist and educator who is more than content to call our community home.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: This Rachmaninoff concerto is considered one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. How have you prepared? What is your process? What do you find best enables you to perform works of this magnitude?
A: Often with big famous works like this concerto, us pianists have listened to them for our whole lives. The process of learning them isn't so much learning the notes and score, because these are already so familiar, but rather finding our own personal interpretation of the music away from the famous recordings we know and love. I have worked on parts of this concerto since I was a teenager but this is my first time to perform it. One of the challenges is understanding the structure of such a large piece. I try to map out each movement by key areas, major climactic points (both big and intimate), as well as knowing exactly where the orchestra is prominent and where the piano is. It also is very important to record oneself and play for others before getting in front of the orchestra.
Q: You have just been awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. Congratulations! What does this award mean to you? What was the process for competing for it? How do you feel as though it will continue to advance your career in the future?
A: The Avery Fisher Grant was a wonderful and humbling honor for me. There is no process to compete for it. A committee of recommenders send in their nominees and then the Avery Fisher program's executive board determines each year's awardees. I actually had no idea I was under consideration until I received the phone call that I got it! I think any kind of recognition has a way of helping your career not just because others know your name or because you get money, but simply because it tells you the artist that your work is appreciated and keeps you motivated to continue pushing yourself. I believe the career is never the goal and that the harder you work and more honest you work (and that you aren't afraid to present that work to people) you will get more and more opportunities. This is something I try to instill in my students.
Q: As a performer and an educator, what made you eager to move to Columbus, Georgia? Do you like it here? Why or why not?
A: I came to Columbus because I was offered the job at Schwob. I already knew this school had a great reputation and wonderful performance venues, but what really made me want to come was when I first heard the extraordinary level of the piano students. It is so exciting to work with such talented musicians. Columbus is very different from where I grew up in Maine, but I find the people here are genuinely kind and that, if you know where to look, there are a lot of wonderful things here. I just wish there was a train to Atlanta (if any politicians are reading!) I'm fortunate to work with such a wonderful and supportive faculty and staff and to be able to teach while also continuing my concert career.
Kramer as photographed by Kuapo, Kikkas.
Q: What is your greatest challenge maintaining the stamina to perform and teach full time? How do you balance work and life? What else do you enjoy doing in your free time?
A: I don't feel there is any stamina issue performing and teaching. I'm actually quite energized by teaching and I love that performing allows me to travel and reunites me with friends and family from all over. The one thing that is a challenge is to practice after teaching. I find in teaching you give so much of yourself that afterwards one is rendered useless, haha! I have a few years of teaching experience under my belt and I have learned to space out my lessons so that I can give the best quality teaching without sacrificing my own practice time. In my free time I love to read, watch tv shows (there are so many good ones now!), cook, and do outdoors-y things like hiking and skiing.
Q: What else would you like for our audience to know? What would you like for listeners to have in mind before they see this week's concert?
A: I think of this concerto as a great dramatic love confession. It has incredibly tormented sections where the piano and orchestra are essentially fighting one another, but these are punctuated by the most tender, levitating love melodies. The second theme in the first movement returns in the third movement in a distant key, almost as a memory of the past until it morphs into incredible fluttering piano writing that feels as though your soul has been taken into outer space. I think people are too focused on the difficulty of this concerto, that sometimes the incredible musical message is lost. In fact, and Rachmaninoff said this too, the piano part fits wonderfully in the hands and once you understand the main melodic line, or harmonic motion, the part really feels just delicious in the hands. I hope some of these ideas will be felt in our performance on Saturday. ◼︎
If You Go
What: Henry Kramer Plays Rachmaninoff
When: September 28, 7:30 p.m.
Vaughan Williams | Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1
Brahms | Symphony No. 3 in F Major
Rachmaninoff | Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor
**More to Know: Saturday's season opener also unveils the CSO's new mobile app. Free to download on Apple and Android devices, the new app will provide patrons with the ability to access important information about the orchestra's season. Highlights include information on upcoming events, tickets, musicians & bios, photos & videos, directions & parking information, special concert night content, and live streams of Know the Score and Symphony U presented by Maestro George Del Gobbo himself. Download your version of choice here.