Kate Liu, Kathryn Stott and Steven Spooner, renowed pianists, will play in District


Pianist Steven Spooner. (Courtesy of the Artist/Courtesy of the Artist)
November 18, 2011

Kate Liu, Kathryn Stott and Steven Spooner, three renowned concert pianists who are vastly different from each other, will conduct solo performances at three venues around town in the next few weeks. Their ages range from 17 to 52. Their programs span musical periods from baroque to romantic. They’ve trained in London, Moscow and Singapore, and their influences are as diverse as their passports.

When asked hypothetical questions that make little sense outside the confines of 88 keys, they give varied responses that only pianists could give.

They know which composers they’d conquer in the game “Kill, Marry . . . um, you know.” “I’d kill [Argentine composer Alberto] Ginastera. Definitely,” Spooner says. They have eccentric practice rituals — bananas for Liu, mental self-flagellation for Spooner — which they don’t find odd. They have regrets. “I wish I had been told to believe in myself more,” says Stott, who became famous overnight at 19. And while their particular trajectories don’t change the repertoires they’ve perfected, the details have influenced their tastes.

If forced to live their lives in any key, what key would they choose?

“Oh my God, that’s a bizarre question. Where did you dream that up?” Stott asks.


Pianist Kate Liu. (Courtesy of The Phillips Collection)

Answers follow, for three pianos.

The young gun

You wouldn’t guess that Liu, 17, dreads performing. “I go into panic mode a week or two before. I’m in it now,” she says, speaking of performance jitters that precede her concerts. She can’t imagine her nerves will one day go away, but so far, they haven’t deterred her successes at Carnegie’s Weill Hall or at the Kennedy Center. Last year, the tiny teen, originally from Singapore, won the New York International Piano Competition. She says she started “taking piano seriously” when she moved to the United States at age 8 and soon after began her studies at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Academy program for pre-college musicians.

Next week, she takes a break from mounds of college applications — she’s applying to Juilliard and the New England Conservatory, among others — to perform at the Phillips Collection. Her program features Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in E-flat, Op. 7; Chopin’s Fantaisie in A-flat, Op. 61, and Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 in A, Op. 82.

She doesn’t have regrets, but she does have advice for younger musicians. “Until a few years ago, I didn’t think about emotion in the pieces. I worried I wouldn’t hit the right notes,” Liu says. “I wish someone had told me to think about the character, to express the emotion according to what the composer has given you.”

Composer she wants to stay dead: (Russian composer) Mily Balakirev. “He wrote ‘Islamey: Oriental Fantasy,’ which is probably one of the most technically demanding pieces on Earth,” Liu says. “I played it too early. I’d kill him just for that.”

The key she’d live life in: “I probably shouldn’t say a minor key, that would be sad. I really like E major. It’s very calming and not disturbed. It’d be nice to live a life like that without any real panic or C minor chords.”

Kate Liu. $20 adults; $8 ages 5-18 and members (includes museum admission for day of concert). Nov. 27 at 4 p.m. in the Music Room at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Call 202-387-2151 or visit phillipscollection.org/music for reservations.


Pianist Kathryn Stott. (Jonathan Wilkinson)
The partner

Don’t call her an accompanist. “I prefer duo partner,” laughs Stott, 52, whose been performing alongside Yo-Yo Ma for more than 25 years. The British concert pianist began training at age 5, with her mother as her first instructor. Showing tremendous promise, three years later she began studying at Yehudi Menuhin School, a music boarding school in Surrey, England, where she credits her instructors — Vlado Perlmuter, who studied under Ravel, and composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger — with giving her a love of the French repertoire. “I remember playing a piece of Gabriel Fauré’s to [Boulanger] as a young girl,” Stott says. “These things are in the subconscious but perhaps they influence you later.”

As part of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Hayes Piano Series, she’ll play a program at the Kennedy Center that draws on this early training. Among the selections are Ravel’s Sonatine for Piano; Fauré’s Nocturnes for Piano, Nos. 4 and 6; and Debussy’s Nocturne for Piano in D-flat.

While she enjoys playing alone, she delights in playing with others, calling it “a very public dialogue between two people.” She also enjoys the chamber music lifestyle. “It can be more fun, because you don’t go back to the hotel alone. To be on the road as a solo pianist is incredibly lonely,” she confesses. “And it’s good to feed off other musicians for inspiration. If I didn’t have that, wouldn’t feel quite as stimulated.”

Dead composer she’d marry: “I would marry Fauré. Although he was quite a ladies’ man, so might not be a wise choice.”

The key she’d live life i n: “I’m an optimistic person, although in strange way I’m attracted to rather sad music, but I wouldn’t want to live my life in a minor key. Let’s say F-sharp major, which could also be G-flat major. I’ll leave that open to interpretation.”

Kathryn Stott. $40. Dec. 3 at 2 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.

The competitor

Growing up in New Orleans, Spooner could have easily been swept away by the city’s jazz legacy. Instead, he idolized Van Cliburn, the young American from his home state who won the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. “He had a Russian teacher and I romanticized that,” Spooner says. “Russia was Mecca for me.” At 20, Spooner moved to Russia to train for three years in 1992, during what he calls “the worst times, but a wonderful experience.”

Spooner, 41, received attention for his many triumphs on the international piano competition circuit. “I got really lucky,” Spooner says. “A lot of people try to be ultra clean in competition. I treated them as just another concert. I tried to be as compelling as possible, and juries always responded to that. And I stuck with a repertoire I loved.”

He’ll play a virtuosic Liszt program at the National Gallery of Art, including three song transcriptions — two by Schubert and one by Liszt protege Eduard Lassen, “St. Francis of Paula Walking on the Waves,” and the Liszt staple Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13.

As the classical world commemorates Liszt’s 200th birthday this year, Spooner thinks it gives critics the opportunity to reevaluate his legacy.

“He is the most influential 19th century musician,” Spooner says. “Usually we get the Hollywood version, the womanizer and rock star figure. But his music is most important because it tests an interpreter’s imagination. It can be performed greater than it is.”

Dead composer he wants to stay dead/marry: “I’m sick of Ginastera. I have a real blind spot for his music right now. My favorite composer is Bach, so I’d pick him, but I have many composer loves in my life. Right now, I’d have multiple affairs with Debussy.”

The key he’d live life in: “That would be associated with my favorite work: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in G major and G minor. But there are many great works in B-flat major, like Schubert’s last sonata or Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. You put me on the spot.”

Steven Spooner. Free. Nov. 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-842-6941. nga.gov/programs/music.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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