An Interview With Washington, DC Piano Sensation Thomas Pandolfi About Classical and Popular Music and the Artist’s Life

If Thomas Pandolfi hasn’t done all that a pianist can do to present an exceptionally broad range of music to an engaged public, he certainly seems determined to. The D.C. native, one of the area’s leading up-and-coming classical pianists on the national and world stage, is happy to test boundaries to find out what works to ensure the future of live art music. That includes thematic Russian, Polish and French classical piano recitals, fusion classical and pop music performances, fantasias blending Marvin Hamlisch’s movie music with themes from Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line, and even something called the James Bond Concerto – all wrapped into a schedule performing the biggest concertos by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Liszt.

Thomas Pandolfi. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.
Thomas Pandolfi. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

Fresh off a triumphant performance of Rachmaninoff’s monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 with the McLean Orchestra, Pandolfi is preparing for a typically diverse set of upcoming local events, including his trademarked program, One Singular Night: Music of George Gershwin and Marvin Hamlisch at the Todd Performing Arts Center at Chesapeake College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on Friday, November 7, 2014.

Last week I caught up with Thomas between concert trips to Frankfort, Ohio and Augusta, Georgia to discuss his piano background, his distinctive approach to performance, and his views on the future of serious live music. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

David: Tell me something about your personal background.

Thomas: I was born in D.C. and grew up in Montgomery County. I went to public school for elementary school, went to middle school at Mater Dei School on Seven Locks Road, and then for high school I went to Georgetown Prep. From there I went to Juilliard and stayed there for six years for undergraduate and a master’s degree. Then I started to slowly but surely start performing. I took a lot of students on at that early stage to earn extra income, and I did a lot of accompanying. Then I got picked up by management and then things started to go in a much more positive direction.

You’ve played in a lot of countries, especially Eastern Europe, right?

Yes, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Hungary, and I’ve been through Austria, Germany, Italy, and the U.K. Also with the exception of very few states I’ve been to almost every state and Canada. I’ve been to China too.

And around the United States, what’s it like? You bring your music to a lot of new places.

Yes, I was just in Frankfort, Ohio as part of the Community Concert Series. A lot of this series goes into very small towns. It’s a wonderful series – it used to be run by Columbia Artists for many years and then they went to another management company which almost bankrupted it, and then they had a rebirth. Frankfort is in between Columbus and Dayton and I did my Marvin Hamlisch/George Gershwin program there.

Am I correct that about 10 to 20 years ago there was this phase where classical music was marketed as prodigies – Wow, he’s 14 years and wow, he can do this – and then you don’t hear about those people ever again. What is that about?

You know, I can say this because I could play pretty well at a young, young age. So it’s not like I’m saying something with a chip on my shoulder by any means because I was playing very advanced, very demanding music at that same age. If I were myself even, I would not want to go buy a ticket and listen to myself perform at that age, or anyone else. I think it’s fascinating on a certain level, to see a very young child who is precocious and able to just physically make all the notes come out. But I think most people are looking at a concert to not just be dazzled but to go there and be moved at a particular level. And kids who are just teenagers just haven’t lived enough life – it doesn’t matter how gifted you are.

I mean, if you think about how these pieces came about, the whole Rachmaninoff Second Concerto has a fascinating history and it’s dedicated to that Dr. Dahl [a hypnotherapist] because he helped him come out of this horrible depression that he was in after the failure of his first symphony. Now, a child who’s a teenager or below that would never have even remotely comprehended what an experience of a failure like that is. By the same token, one of Mozart’s very few pieces that he wrote in a minor key was after the death of his mother. He went through this period where there was a little bit of melancholy or dramatic tinge to his music. I don’t think someone has to have lost his mother but at least gone through grief or a deep level of sorrow to kind of understand where a composer was coming from.

Coming back to Rachmaninoff, he wrote in a letter that all the emotions that are expressed in his music reflect the ups and downs in his life whether it be a loss or the failure of a love affair, I mean children can’t reflect those emotions. If as an audience attendee, if you’re looking for a deeper profound experience, I would like to go listen to somehow who’s lived with this music.

At the summer Heifetz International Music Festival in the Shenandoah Valley, they work with conservatory students on a couple of different things – both marketing themselves as artists and they also work on their performance presentation as musicians. You see these late high school and college kids come alive at this festival, so I think that’s changed over time, right?

I think a lot of it has to do with that. It used to be this kind of idea where you’d be invited to a post-concert reception or party, and it was this idea of you want be the brooding artist who goes over in the corner and says, “Oh I could have turned that phrase so much better.” But part of getting to know your audience, while part of it is from the stage, it’s also how you interact with them afterwards. Because classical music has gone through some bad years – orchestras going bankrupt and all this sort of thing, trying to get a younger audience to come – if you want to nurture that, you want people to realize that classical music is very accessible, for kids to realize it’s actually very cool, a lot of popular music wouldn’t even have been possible if music history didn’t go in a certain direction. It’s important for them to be able to ask questions, to get to know you as person and see you not only as somebody up on a stage but as a human being. It helps to make the music accessible and to make you as a performer accessible.

What do audiences say to you in the immediate moment after a performance? Is it, “How the heck did you play that?”

There’s some of that. I’m always more touched if somebody says that they were very emotionally affected by the performance, like some way you turned a phrase or the tone quality or some way it made them feel inside rather than, “Oh wow, your octaves were really quick.”

Do you run into people who know what an orchestra is, but they don’t know what a concerto is, and they’re amazed at the spectacle or the sound of it?

Sure. And then sometimes people ask you very practical questions, sometimes silly things. I’m always amazed when people say you don’t need to practice after you’ve reached a certain level of proficiency. If anything you have to work much harder to maintain, and as your own goals go higher and higher, because you can live a lifetime with this music and you can’t find everything in it. Especially the piano – the piano repertoire is so vast you can’t even begin to cover it. So over time one thing I’ve liked to do is to develop recital programs that have certain themes to them. [Examples include “Russian Romance,” “Polish Masters,” ”Schumann/Brahms,” “American Piano Patriotism,” and “Piano Musique/Musica: French and Spanish Pianism.”] Of course there’s a huge amount of music to keep up, but by the same token it makes it much easier for the presenter to market something that has an actual title in it.

You don’t consider that a gimmick?

Oh I’m sure some people think’s it’s a gimmick! But no, because I think we’re all more interested in getting people into the hall, and if that’s one tool that it takes, so be it.

Like for instance, in a couple of weeks I’m going to Lafayette, Indiana. The Lafayette Symphony has one of their pops concerts, and this conductor, who I’ve collaborated with before, became very interested in this piece that I play call the James Bond Concerto. It’s nothing deep at all, this piece, but the audience likes it. This piece was originally written in 2007 – you know, for “007” – then it was revised in 2009 after the Casino Royale film came out. The last film that it includes is Quantum of Solace, the second one of the Daniel Craig installments. Prior to that it has all of the themes from Dr. No, Goldfinger, all the early-day ones all the way up through the current ones. The British composer, Simon Proctor is his name – he and I used to have the same management in London – he had been asked to write the piece, and somehow I got involved in the mix to do the first performance. It’s a very Liszt-ian showpiece for the piano which links all of these very famous themes of the movies together. Like I say it’s not a piece that will give you an [intellectual] experience like Bach’s Goldberg Variations! But it’s a very effective work.

Then somebody like Marvin Hamlisch and his movie music, or George Gershwin’s show music – is that something you’ve always been engaged with, or did you come to it later?

The way I really got into Gershwin was – every semester at Juilliard they have a concerto competition, and anyone who decides to enter this, everybody plays the same piece. So the Gershwin Concerto in F came up and my teacher at the time said, “You should enter this.” Well, I didn’t have the music to it, and I didn’t know it very well – I knew Rhapsody in Blue in my head, but not the Concerto in F. The teacher that I had through my so-called formative years had been a student at Curtis [the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia] under [legendary classical pianist] Rudolf Serkin and of course Gershwin is far from the Rudolf Serkin repertoire! So I had always listened to a lot of this but I never had really gotten a steady diet of it as a performer, didn’t hardly play any popular-style music. So I was hesitant but my [Juilliard] teacher said, “I don’t know, you should enter it anyway.” So I got the music to the Concerto in F and I learned it and I really loved it – and I ended up winning the competition. The prize was to play at Lincoln Center with the orchestra. In the audience in the night of the performance – I had no idea he was there, I don’t think the school did either – was Morton Gould.

Wow, Morton Gould was a big popularizer of jazzy music in classical forms.

Yes, and he had a huge connection to the Gershwin family – he even made the early recording [of the Concerto in F] with Oscar Levant. Anyway, he called the school the next day and he said, “I’d like to meet the young man who played the Gershwin piece last night.” At the time Morton Gould was the president of ASCAP, their offices were more or less across the street from Juilliard. I went up to his office, and he said, “Have you played much Gershwin?” I said, “No, hardly any at all.” He said, “Oh you know, you have a real affinity for it, you should play more of it.” So I started to get into it as a result of his encouragement.

So it was at that point that you got involved in it.

Of course I didn’t start to do improvisations or transcriptions on this stuff until much later. The Hamlisch stuff is very new – not to my ear, but my transcriptions … well, it’s not really fully a transcription because I haven’t written any of this down, I keep it filed up here.

But do you play it like a piece of repertoire, a concerto? You just play it, you’re not improvising as you go along?

No, well, I mean I’m sure certain things will change here to there. I sometimes deliberately change things, sometimes it happens accidentally. Maybe eventually I will actually write it down.

In a program when you mix up stuff like that and you’re also playing the [formal] Gershwin Preludes, are people not familiar with that? Are they amazed to see both on a program? Or do they conflate the two? What’s their reaction to that?

With this particular [Gershwin/Hamlisch] program, the first half has the Rhapsody in Blue first, in the solo version, and then the three Preludes which I change the order of, only because Rhapsody in Blue obviously ends in a very energetic manner, so I actually do the second prelude, the “Blue Lullaby” one, first, then I do the first and third prelude. Then I do one of Gershwin’s own transcriptions of one of his lesser-known songs, called “Nobody But You,” and then I do my own transcriptions of three of the very well-known songs – “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “The Man I Love,” and “I Got Rhythm.”

After intermission I use that idea of going from song to song to go into the Marvin Hamlisch songs. Depending on how large the venue is, I’ll talk a little bit to the audience just to explain how Marvin Hamlisch’s style, while different from Gershwin’s – while it has its own personality, as any great composer’s output does – still derives, ultimately, from that earlier song style.

Then in that second half you also have a fantasia on A Chorus Line. How did you develop that?

Actually I recently decided it was more effective to treat the whole thing, not just the Chorus Line part, as a complete Marvin Hamlisch fantasy, and not isolate it. So what happens now is the A Chorus Line stuff is much earlier in the piece where it used to be later. The way it unfolds now is “The Way We Were” begins the whole thing, puts it all in motion. I decided on that because as I started to look at these pieces more closely I wanted to have a unifying theme either motifically or intervalically. Well, a lot of Hamlisch’s melodies contain suspensions. Think of “memories” from “The Way We Were.” Then if you think of one of the sections of the first song from A Chorus Line, one of the soloists sings this a very lyrical melody – “I really need this job” – that’s based on that same sort of melodic figure, so that ties it up. Actually, that particular song, “I Hope I Get It,” I bring it back later on because of this whole suspension idea.

Not all of the songs from A Chorus Line lend themselves to pianistic treatment. So I take out of context “I Hope I Get It,” “What I Did for Love,” and “One” and I focus mainly on those three. Finally, one of later songs which is from the film called The Mirror Has Two Faces, where Barbra Streisand and Bryan Adams sang it as a duet called “I Finally Found Someone,” I have the whole fantasy culminate with that because it really uses the suspensions almost more than any other.

Your other programs, whether they’re based on popular music, or thematically with regard to some of your serious repertoire, what are one or two of your favorite programs thematically and how did they come about?

I think the Into the Night with Gershwin also works very well because it allows the audience to hear two of his biggest piano-and-orchestra pieces in a more transparent way. The Concerto in F is rarely played as a solo piece without orchestra. In this program I play it in the solo transcription as Grace Castañeda – who was a friend of the Gershwins, apparently she was an extremely gifted improviser, she used to play almost on a weekly basis on a radio station in the 40s and 50s, Ira Gershwin heard her play her transcription of the Concerto in F and he was blown away by it, she wrote it down and published it – and so I play it in that version. It’s immensely difficult for the pianist, because as you can imagine one person has to play what 80-plus people are doing on stage. And I start the program with that and end it with Rhapsody in Blue, so that the two outer ends of the program have the more transparent versions of the piano-and-orchestra pieces.

Of course any pianist is going to love Chopin, so I love to perform my all-Chopin program, along with my Liszt program. I can’t say there isn’t any of those programs that I don’t enjoy really playing.

Do you consider yourself something of a specialist in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century stuff, or do all pianists do this, especially among the French music, a lot of Ravel, a lot of Franck, a lot of Poulenc?

Probably most pianists do this, I just happen to particularly like this repertoire. I love early music but I haven’t performed a whole lot of it. I studied a lot of it when I was younger, but I don’t perform a lot of it now unless it’s a transcribed form. I play very little pure Bach publicly. I usually do the Bach-Busoni or Bach-Liszt transcriptions.

Thomas Pandolfi. Photos by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.
Thomas Pandolfi. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

Let me ask you about just playing the piano. I’ve seen people play the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and they got through it, but it was not visually relaxing to watch them do it. How do you play such difficult music without appearing to labor or struggle, how do you so totally integrate it from a technique standpoint?

Well, I work a lot!

That may be the answer.

Let me turn it around the other way. I am a huge fan of the older pianists, meaning the pianists who are no longer here on this earth. Rubinstein being one of them, even Rachmaninoff himself, even though there are no video clips of him, but based on written accounts you can read of other great pianists describing how he visually looked. Even Horowitz for that matter. They always looked extremely natural. I think Rubinstein was probably the best example. His whole stage demeanor was extremely confident but also warm, open to the audience, seemingly in love with what he was doing, a great communicator – the piano seemed like it was an extension of his arms rather than battling it.

Is there anything you can’t play?

Oh yeah, there might be some bizarre things. Like I’m not a fan of the “prepared piano” stuff, I’m not fond of anything that’s hugely dissident, to be perfectly honest. We had to study that in school, I understand theoretically what’s going on. But it takes a huge amount of work to prepare those things, it takes a huge effort to memorize, and with the way the audience responds to things, it’s not worth it.

Classical music itself, serious art music, where is it right now? Is it on the upswing, or is it still just a struggle amidst the giant wave of popular culture out there?

I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s still not in a great state, I mean there are still orchestras that are suffering financially, there are still struggling from a marketing point of view, getting people into the hall. By the same token I think that for all the ups and downs of social media, I do think that’s somewhat helped. People like to watch stuff on YouTube, and while that’s a double-edged sword because you don’t want to substitute that in place of going to the live concert, at least they’re listening. At least students can get on there and say, “You know, I can watch someone play who was born in, like, 1890 and I can actually watch that person play as if he were right here in my living room.”

A lot of the orchestras that I deal with throughout the country in these community concert series have educational outreach programs to the schools, and I’m a really big supporter of those. Sometimes we use technology to our advantage. The conductor and I might bring an iPad in and let the kids hear some silly electronic sounds the way they’re used to hearing it, or if there’s a video game that uses a classical music theme we’ll play that. Then we’ll say, now here’s what it sounds like on a real instrument. When I’ve gone into some elementary schools, even kindergarten or first grade, we’ll pick five kids to come up and ask them each to pick a letter from the musical alphabet and say, “Now if you stand up in this order – you know they look at their little card, ‘I’m G’ and ‘I’m middle C’ – this is what this melody sounds like if you stand in this order. Now if we switch you guys around, now here’s what this melody sounds like.” Then they’ll say, “Can you make up a song?” Then I’ll improvise and create something just based on the way they’re standing, and they think that’s so cool and they remember the word “improvisation,” which is a big word for little kids, because were involved in it.

What was it like when you first performed the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto? Did you just go out of your mind with how exciting that was?

Absolutely. It’s thrilling to have all that sound around you, it’s wonderful, there’s no doubt about it.

Has there ever been a moment where the orchestra wasn’t with you, the conductor wasn’t up to your standards, making for some tricky moments?

I think what it is, sometimes you meet somebody collaboratively where there’s a real chemistry – well, whether you meet anybody, a friend, or if you’re on a date with someone, you sort of know right away, okay, this is going to go somewhere or it isn’t – but you still have to make the evening work. It’s not like you can walk out! And then there are other times where it’s like, you’re right there with the same sort of thinking. And that’s of course the greatest.

Dramatic Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto Opens the McLean Orchestra Concert Season by David Rohde.

Thomas Padolfi’s website.

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David Rohde
David Rohde is a pianist, conductor, arranger, vocal coach, and arts writer. David has worked extensively in musical theater in the mid-Atlantic region and has served as music director for 30 shows and played in pit orchestras for numerous others. Favorite shows he’s conducted span a live-music adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus to rock musicals like Evita and Next to Normal. They especially include the Stephen Sondheim musicals Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George and the Jason Robert Brown musicals Parade and The Last Five Years. David’s national commentaries on styles from classical music to pop and country music have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and elsewhere, and his other past performances range from a piano recital series at the National Lutheran Home to fronting a band one night in Rockville for the late Joan Rivers. David is a two-time recipient and eight-time nominee for the WATCH Award for Outstanding Music Direction, and he loves watching the actors and musicians he’s worked with “make it” when they pursue regional and national performing arts careers.


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