Q&A with Judith Lynn Stillman

The following is an Q&A with Judith Lynn Stillman, who will be performing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra at their upcoming October 5th concert.

JLS-PurpleDressWhat has been your connection to the music scene in Boston?

I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with some of the area’s finest musicians including the Borromeo, Muir and Lydian String Quartets, and with Richard Stoltzman, clarinet, and Michael Reynolds, cello, for a recent CD release- Viennese Gems.  (The proceeds from this recording, in which we are playing Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat Major, Opus 38 [after the Septet, Op. 20] and the Zemlinsky Trio in D Minor, Opus 3, benefit the Classics for Kids Foundation to support sustainable string programs in schools, nationwide.)  Active in Boston’s vibrant cultural scene, highlights have included a world premiere at the Cutler-Majestic Theatre, 9/11 Memorial Concert at NEC, concerts with Boston Musica Viva, US Air Force Winds and USAF Band of Liberty (formerly based at Hanscom AFB), serving as Musical Director for Liana Stillman (my daughter) and other MFA candidates at American Repertory Theatre, collaborations with BSO members on recordings on the North Star label, featuring my arrangements played by Fenwick Smith, flute, Charles Schlueter, trumpet, members of the Muir Quartet.  Upcoming performances, with the Boston-based Vento Chiaro woodwind quintet in Poulenc’s Sextet and the Beethoven Quintet for Piano and Winds include “Sextet in the City” at the Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts on November 20, a concert at University Lutheran Church in Cambridge on November 24, and a live broadcast on ‘Drive Time Live” on November 18. I’ve been on the faculty of New England Conservatory Prep in piano and chamber music, adjudicator for competitions at NEC and Boston Conservatory, featured on WBZ’s Jordan Rich Show, WBZ’s “Women’s Watch” with Laurie Kirby, and as frequent guest on WGBH’s “Drive Time Live” with Cathy Fuller and “Classics in the Morning,” and as a featured artist for Public Radio Music Month and Classical New England.  Over the years, hosts Ron Della Chiesa, Robert J. Lurtsema, Laura Carlo, Alan McLellan and Cathy Fuller have kindly given my recordings generous airplay on WGBH and WCRB.   As the Artist-in-Residence at Rhode Island College, I have the joy of working with some terrific Boston musicians who are on our faculty, including Ian Greitzer, Joe Foley and Steve Laven.

 What do you find most challenging about performing the Emperor Concerto?

One of the challenges in the “Emperor” is that it is enormously humbling, awe-inspiring, to be in the face of a work of such genius and magnitude while, simultaneously, needing to exude tremendous conviction and a commanding spirit in order to project and convey Beethoven’s emotional landscape. 

How do you see the pianist’s relationship between herself and the orchestra 

I view the pianist, conductor and orchestra as a team, and the concerto represents a massive huddle.  (Granted, the soloist dominates habitually, and at times seemingly refuses to let anyone get in a word edgewise!)  But, essentially, in the ebb and flow of nuanced conversation, we listen carefully to one another and co-create our vision and interpretation. There is an inextricable link among us in how the piece unfolds, as it is so brilliantly crafted– Beethoven charges us to explore, imitate, corroborate, share, comment, oppose, agree, reiterate, romp, weep, punctuate, interweave, complement, build, invite, enhance, emerge seamlessly, finish each other’s thoughts, and reach celestial heights.  We share a lifetime of emotional expression in forty intense minutes.  

Who is your favorite composer?  Why?

Musicians get asked that question frequently, and our customary answer is “the composer of the piece I am currently studying/performing.”  How wonderful– that statement could actually be accurate right now!  Beethoven can certainly be viewed as The Magnificent Master.  And the “Emperor” is an extraordinary journey- heroic, spiritual, resplendent, exuberant.  But, there are favorites for various categories.  If we are talking about my favorite to play, it might be Mozart for his overall genius, panorama of expressivity- every work is a treasure, and also, pianistically-speaking, seems to lie comfortably within my very tiny hands.

Sahara_on_the_porch_swing-1What is your non-musical hobby?

Outside of music, I try to take in a broad spectrum of everything else arts-related.  Some non-arts interests are:  bike paths, hiking trails, scuba diving, the gym (um…. that alternates between exhilaration and exhaustion), and taking my 4-pound, 13 year-old teacup poodle, who is a trained and certified Therapy Dog, to visit retirement homes and hospitals. 

How did you first get involved in music?

Apparently, according to family folklore, I sat in on my older brother’s piano lessons when I was 3 years old, and played his repertoire by ear at the end of each lesson.  My mother was a lyric soprano, who subsequently gave me my first lessons, followed by my early start at Juilliard’s pre-college.

Who is your musical hero?

Leon Fleisher has taken on guru-like proportions for me.  After all, he is descended from Beethoven!  Here’s the remarkable lineage: Beethoven taught Czerny, who taught Leschetizky, who taught Schnabel, who taught Fleisher, who taught…. me!

What is your favorite piece to perform and why?

Collaboration is my passion.  Nearly every piece of music, when working with colleagues who also feel the thrill of the combustible and palpable exchange of energy, becomes a cherished experience.  On the top of the chamber music repertoire list, for intensity and profundity, would be the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time.  For piano concerti, Beethoven Fourth— sublime.

Do you listen to non-classical musical genres?  If so, what are some of your favorites?

Sometimes silence is my favorite music!  That said, the keyboardist for the progressive rock band, Dream Theater, Jordan Rudess, who has been my friend since childhood, introduced me to their music — which is the opposite of silence!  When the mood strikes me, I listen to Fado singing, and particularly the poignant sounds of Mariza.  Also, my daughter (who just completed grad school at A.R.T./Harvard U.), shares her recommendations with me- vocalist Regina Spektor, and up-and-coming musical theatre composers including Sam Salmond, Ayesu Lartey, and Zach Redler and, because I always find my daughter’s advice to be enlightening, they have become my favorites too.

What kind of food do you like to eat/cook?

I like to snack on forest food–berries, nuts, mushrooms (I must have been a squirrel in a former life).  Also: salmon, artichokes, fresh mozzarella, and Greek yogurt.  In sporadic spurts of domesticity, I do cook– and rumor has it that my lasagna, made from an old world recipe, makes Italian men weep for mama, so they say!  🙂

What is your favorite movie?  What do you like about the movie? 

A specific filmmaker/director’s work will fascinate me, and then I’ll watch everything of his/hers that I can find.  For example, David Lynch, Federico Fellini, Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog.  I tend to go for disturbing, surrealist films by eccentrics on the cusp of madness…. the usual tortured artist stuff.

Are you looking forward to performing with Pro Arte for the first time?

Gisele Ben-Dor is a dynamo, an outstanding musician, and an inspiring collaborator, and I’m very excited to be working with her.  Also, I have some friends and colleagues in the orchestra, which makes this a particularly special music-making experience.  I strongly support the orchestra’s mission and philosophies:  self-governing, cooperative, and, in the words of founder Larry Hill, designed to “combat the cynicism and alienation common to the life of a free-lance musician.”  Kudos to Pro Arte!