This Lively American has “got rhythm”
INTERVIEW by MICHAEL JOHNSON – David Lively, American pianist based in Paris, has just published a new CD, “I Got Rhythm”, a personal survey of American piano music, from Gottschalk and concluding with William Bolcom vi Gershwin, Copland, Carter and others.
American expat pianist David Lively found happiness in Paris as a teen-aged piano prodigy and got so busy performing and studying — with an Alfred Cortot associate — that he ended up making his life in France, a “different planet” culturally, he says, compared to that of his native land. Yet Lively has kept his roots. His new CD, “I Got Rhythm” (La Musica) is a personal survey of American piano music, 28 selections, beginning with Gottschalk and concluding with William Bolcom. Along the way, he samples Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives and others. It is a refreshing, exciting panorama from the New World. (…)
I asked Lively (yes, his real name) if he is a crossover artist, but he demurred. He told me in an interview (see below) he says he enjoys “ tackling anything written, whatever style it may be.” He has the technique to wrestle the most virtuosic Elliott Carter compositions to the ground, and even conspired with his late friend Carter to bring “Caténaires” to fruition. They worked it out on the phone. I have spent several hours listening to Lively’s almost clinical articulation, easy virtuosity and his sensitivity to the American idiom. I have rarely heard Scott Joplin bounce like this, or felt the Gershwin Songbook trigger the familiar melodies of my past. His Copland, Barber, Ives and Carter all dazzle. Lively recently performed at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, rolling out his Zumpe square piano of 1771, identical to Beethoven’s instrument, to play the Beethoven F-minor Kurfürsten Sonata to the delight of the Parisian audience.
On your new CD of American music you have chosen quite a span of composers, from Scott Joplin to Elliott Carter and William Bolcom. What is the link?
My choice was determined by my desire to champion works under the influence of jazz and American folk music. I don’t think I could have started earlier that Louis Moreau Gottschalk and I was determined to include work of my dear friend Elliott Carter. I don’t think the time span could hardly have been reached beyond what it already does!
But what’s the progression, the “fil rouge”, as the French say, that you are threading through them? Is it all about harmonic progression?
Chronology allows me to point out the incredible prescience of “Souvenir de Porto-Rico”, of perfect “patrol” form before the day. The almost rude intrusion of Charles Ives’s tribute to baseball, “Some Southpaw Pitching” underlines his staggering precocity and sense of reckless audacity that rubbed off on the young Elliott Carter who frequented him as a high-schooler. I love the juxtaposition of Barber’s square dance and William Albright’s hallucinatory “Hoedown”, two very different interpretations of the same dance-scene.
How about harmonics?
This is something important to me that I wanted to say with my album: Carter is an integral part of this history as jazz also informed his style. I wanted the listener to be progressively led from tonal to atonal and back again, far-reaching with Carter’s archetypal “Intermittences” and his dizzying “Caténaires”. William Bolcom’s witty ideas end the CD with the taste of some very sweet, very satisfying dessert.
Are you a actually becoming a “crossover” musician, mixing pop and serious music? Your background has been almost entirely in mainstream classics – Brahms, Rachmaninov, Bach, Fauré, Liszt. Now you are playing Scott Joplin, which you perform with exceptional brio …
I consider every piece on this album a gem. I guess that makes them “classic” for me. I enjoy tackling anything written whatever style it may be in, be it capable of sustaining my interest!
You chose Scott Joplin as the opener for your CD. Did he show the way to other composers?
Indeed, Joplin ended up as the opener. This album is almost chronological, except for the extremities. I finally decided “Maple Leaf Rag”, an historic watershed with irresistible charm and almost manic energy, deserved to initiate the voyage I propose. I want to say that I am delighted that an African-American opens the curtain, all the more so as both Joplin and I commenced our careers in Missouri!
The American music you have chosen has a clear element of “fun” (Joplin, Ives, Gershwin, Copland – even Barber and Carter) unlike the classical music you have recorded and often perform. How much of a feeling of liberation do you get from playing this American music?
There is indeed a sense of freedom inherent in American music that one must be in touch with while performing it, an immediacy. It might be akin to holding a conversation with the composer. For me it has to do with stress, flexibility, color, breathing, drama. Taking time, relaxing, or on the other hand, letting loose the manic side of your personality. Either you guide or you surprise the listener. And above all, sing, be the voice! That holds for all music in various degrees, but there is indeed a lot of good humor in many of these works. That was particularly something Copland spoke to me repeatedly about.
You seem to have avoided the New York American composers such as Cage, Feldman, Partch and others. They were groping for a new American idiom. Do you disagree with their anti-European direction?
There are many who deserve our interest but those you mention do not fall within the prism I use as historic perspective.
You and Elliott Carter were friends. How did you interact during the composition process? Didn’t he write “Caténaires” in some kind of symbiosis with you?
I remember well his phone call describing with almost childish glee what was going on in that very atypical work he was busy writing. Elliott was fiercely independent. Since the First String Quartet, I doubt anyone had great influence on his work. For the pianist, virtuosity is essential to conquer the difficulties and allow the freedom to focus on the intense expressivity. It was fascinating to speak about music with him. Despite the metric precision in his scores, he desired expressive flexibility in his interpreters. Once when I was staying in his flat in New York, I had time to explore his personal library. The book most worn and annotated of all was on the sole topic of rubato!
What is your relationship with the American composer William Bolcom? Did you add the foot-tapping and other percussion effects in his “Garden of Eden” just for fun?
I’m delighted it sounds improvised! No, every sound effect (some of which require vanquishing a healthy dose of my own prudery) is indicated in the score. I find the image of a snake doing tap dance utterly hilarious. I am very sad to say that I have never met William Bolcom and I sincerely hope this CD be an effective calling card.
Where are you in your own career progression? You have performed recently at the prestigious Parisian Salle Gaveau recital.
As one woman friend of a certain age poutingly put it, “I just don’t seem to have the fortune I deserve”. Concerning the Gaveau appearance that took place last week, it was in part a presentation of the new CD but also part of a Beethoven series of his better-known sonatas. I was delighted to use that opportunity to pull out my beloved Zumpe square piano of 1771 to show the audience not only how the music of the twelve-year-old Beethoven truly sounded (the F-minor Kurfürsten Sonata, where the Pathétique is already apparent) but also to point out why the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata” should truly be performed without the dampers (because dampers were erstwhile maneuvered with difficulty and lifted for long periods creating dissonances eschewed today). I then proceeded thusly on my carefully prepared Steinway grand, meaning in one long, uninterrupted pedal.
How would you like to be remembered – as a performer of the European heavies? As a discoverer of American gems? As a bridge artist who can play anything?
Don’t I have to die first? I never learned to play bridge properly. I shall have to one day…
Read the full Michael Johnson’s interview at www.Factsandarts.com