Classical pianist Shai Wosner engages in "posthumous musical dialogue” through his latest album and performances, with more to come.
Like a film repertory curator who pairs Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the classical pianist Shai Wosner knows exactly what he is doing when he peppers his performances with back-to-back capriccios by Ligeti and Haydn, as he plans to do in his performance with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society on May 1.
Just as it is possible to appreciate and notice new aspects of the silent 1927 German Expressionist classic science fiction archetype and the 1982 futuristic film noir by seeing the influence of one on the other, Wosner has long made it a point to play composers from different eras during the same concert as a way to showcase their similarities, as well as the way things change and stay the same within the realm of classical music.
For the 38-year-old native of Moshav Batzra, 25 minutes north of Tel Aviv, juxtaposing composers and eras provides another dimension to his performances and his interaction with audiences.
“What I like about it the most is the posthumous musical dialogue,” he explains. At first glance, he adds, the composers he selects to play in concert “may not have anything to do with each other on the surface, but the performance brings out their similarities. You get something from the way they follow each other, in the ways they illuminate one another in unexpected ways.”
This approach has proven very successful for the highly regarded Wosner, who came to the United States in 1997 at the age of 21 to study at Juilliard with Emanuel Ax. He created two separate repertoires devoted to exploring shared musical heritage. “Bridge to Beethoven” unites the composer’s violin sonatas with pieces by modern artists like Anthony Cheung, Vijay Iyer and Andrew Norman; and “The Schubert Effect” pairs the composer’s solo and chamber works with pieces by current composers like György Kurtág and Missy Mazzoli, whom he also pairs with the 19th-century Austrian on his latest CD, Schubert/ Mazzoli, which was released in November.
It is no accident that Schubert’s canon is given such pride of place in Wosner’s works. What draws him to Schubert, he says, is not just that he has such a distinctive voice, which “all great composers do.” What distinguishes Schubert is that his music “makes you feel like time is standing still. There is something very touching in the way he does it — it makes you feel like he is really saying something profound about human existence. In the restlessness of how we exist, there is something welcome about timelessness.”
Wosner is no stranger to playing with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society — he has made numerous trips over the years from his New York City home to perform with them, although this is his first appearance as a solo artist.
He stresses that while he enjoys playing with orchestras, he finds the more intimate environs of chamber music better suited to conversation among musicians through their instruments. “With an orchestra, you sort of try to replicate chamber music as much as you can — the back and forth, the dialogue” — but the sheer number of musicians and the larger-scale environment mean that more of an effort is required to achieve that feel.
“With a chamber ensemble,” he continues, “it is the best possible circumstance — that dialogue is going on very naturally.”
Wosner himself is something of a natural: As a child, he taught himself to play piano by picking out the melodies playing on his parents’ stereo on his family’s otherwise disused piano — neither of his parents played instruments as adults. Today, as the father of a 7-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son — he finds himself in a much different position.
“My daughter plays and goes to music school,” he says with a hint of paternal pride. “It has really taught me a lot about how children think. Having music in the life of a child in some way or another really makes the relationship between the parent and the child richer and helps the parent understand the child a lot more; I don’t know if it is because I am a musician, but I can really say that it has contributed a lot to understanding each other wordlessly.”
The beauty of conversations held through music is a theme that Wosner returns to frequently, including when asked how his own musical education has evolved as he continues to pursue his composer pairings. “In this line of work, you have to spend a lot of time alone with the music. For me, it is so much more rewarding to spend time with all of these great minds — it’s almost like you are alone with them in a room.
“Music is a constantly evolving thing,” he continues. “It always tells you something new the closer you get, the deeper you get.”