Flying Solo

In addition to our wonderful work with Fifth House Ensemble, a lot of us work elsewhere and have other jobs too.  Many of our ensemble members teach lessons either through a school or a private studio, hold solo recitals or perform elsewhere, and some of us (me!) have a part-time job as a barista.  This following post is insight from Adam, our Pianist & Director of Artistic Programming, on performing solo recitals vs. chamber music.


When I was in school, I focused almost exclusively on solo repertoire, as most pianists do. In my professional life, however, I've landed an awesome job as a chamber musician. This has been a lot of change in a lot of ways, and I hadn't anticipated this when I was going through my training. One of my favorite aspects of chamber music is the energy exchange on stage. I love the feeling of playing with my closest colleagues. They protect me and push me to take risks simultaneously.

A number of times each year, however, I still give solo recitals. It's an important challenge I give myself, and always a good learning experience. Last week I had the pleasure of playing a solo recital in a space I know well from 5HE, Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center. This beautiful site, under an impressive Tiffany dome, houses wonderful concerts almost every day of the week.

I must say, however, it feels different being all alone on stage. There is a heightened sense of responsibility when working as a soloist, and I knew that I was charged with creating a meaningful experience for my audience all by my lonesome. Luckily, I also had complete control over my program, so that helps.

After the Gershwin Preludes (some of my favorite pieces since I was 12), and Jacob TV's The Body Of Your Dreams (check our facebook page for an informal video of me playing this), I did a piece that I've been fixated on for a decade. Almost exactly 10 years ago, I was introduced to Frederic Rzewski's music by one of my teachers, Anthony de Mare. In class, he demonstrated the opening of De Profundis (which was written for him), a 30-minute oratorio for speaking pianist that requires the pianist also to hum, sing, use his/her body for percussion, and in general, take some of the biggest risks I've seen in a solo recital. I left that class knowing without a doubt that I would learn that piece. But first... I had to get better.

I spent the next  years improving technique, learning more about performance strategies, and working on smaller works for speaking pianist to develop my voice, understanding of text, and comfort with a new style of performance. It wasn't until 2008 that I gave my first performance of De Profundis, but I had been studying it for 7 years at that point! The text comes from Oscar Wilde's angry letter from prison to his ex-lover. He was jailed for "gross indecency," which meant being publicly gay, and spent 2 years behind bars. He never recovered from this experience and died a few short years later, alone and poor in France.

De Profundis is an exceptionally challenging work as a performer. Not only does Rzewski always write complicated piano music, but I have to be an actor, a singer, and often, a lunatic. Even after years with the work, it still takes a huge amount of energy to perform, and I'm always nervous that it won't land with the audience.

Anyway, this is a bit of a ramble, but I think my thesis is that every time I prepare a solo recital, I realize how much I've learned from my chamber experiences. I can hear the orchestration of the piano writing, and my color palette increases exponentially. Similarly, when I return to chamber music, I think of the specificity of energy control and planning required to produce successful solo programs. I think I'm the type of person who needs both, and I feel extremely lucky to have these opportunities in my work! Special thanks to the Cultural Center for featuring me, and to the great 5HE fans who showed up to listen.

Since I was also asked to report on Make Music Chicago Day 2011, I can also say that the day after we got back from Vermont, I had the distinct pleasure of trucking around town with my favorite toy piano to play John Cage's Suite. I especially enjoyed sharing the stage of the Apple Store in Lincoln Park with Drew who played Kevin Puts' Arches, one of my favorite violin solo works!

  Fifth House Ensemble