Elizabeth Joy Roe – A pianist of worldly class

I think many musicians are attracted to their own instrument.  Listening to violinists always feels familiar, and I can get inside their fingers and their head as I hear them play.  But listening to Elizabeth Joy Roe broke down all my instrumental barriers and made me just hear – and it was magnificent.  Her performance at the Esperanza Foundation benefit where we met was mesmerizing, and I am thrilled to have her as a seed for the project.

How did you get started playing music?

I was lucky to grow up in a family of music-lovers. There was always music playing in the house – on the radio, cassettes, and TV. Some of my earliest musical memories involve me and my younger sister Jackie singing lively duets of songs from animated cartoon shows, like “Garfield” and “Jem.” We eventually moved on to the complete Beatles oeuvre! In the car, we listened to the oldies station a lot (let’s just say that in grade school I preferred the Mamas and the Papas or Simon and Garfunkel to what was popular at the moment, like the New Kids on the Block!). I suppose some musical blood or propensity runs in my family: my mother played the violin during her childhood, and in high school she conducted her high school choir. I also have two aunts who teach music. Both of my sisters are very musical as well, becoming quite accomplished at the violin and cello, respectively. When I was five years old, I followed in my older sister’s footsteps and started taking violin lessons. Less than a year later, at age six, I switched to the piano and instantly fell in love; for some reason I took an instant preference to the keyboard over the fingerboard! Around the same time, my sisters and I became obsessed with a TV documentary about the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano and Violin Competitions. Though piano lessons started off as an innocent hobby, it soon became a fixation, and by the time I was ten, I knew I wanted to become a concert pianist.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

I didn’t purchase this on my own (I think my older sister bought it), but the first album that I recall affecting me indelibly was Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first classical album that I acquired was a disc of Mozart piano concerti played by pianist Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Having been trained in the classical genre, I primarily play music from the standard solo piano and piano concerto canon, which is extraordinarily vast and stylistically diverse. Additionally, I enjoy playing music of our time and I’ve premiered several contemporary compositions. I also collaborate with other musicians, playing chamber music of both the standard and avant-garde varieties. With my piano duo partner, I have co-created and performed a great deal of original arrangements for four hands at one or two pianos. Contrary to the stereotypical image of classical music as always serious and archaic, I would describe the music I play as panoptic of the human experience, and regardless of when the music was composed, I would emphatically assert that it remains utterly relevant, resonant and timeless.

Is there a particular repertoire you are most attracted to?

I consider myself quite broad-minded in my musical affinities, i.e. I’m not a specialist who concentrates on a single period or composer. My tastes run the gamut: I’ve been drawn to everything from the pre-baroque era to the present day. Also, my tastes have changed over time, and even from day to day! That said, I consistently love the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Messiaen, Ligeti, and the composers from the Romantic era (Chopin, Brahms, Scriabin, etc., etc.). If I had to choose just one composer out of all eras, I would say J.S. Bach – he is the ultimate composer.

As a pianist you play primarily solo – did recording a piano duet album influence the way you play by yourself?

Although solo performances comprise a major part of my career, I actually collaborate on a regular basis with other musicians, especially with Greg Anderson, my piano duo partner. To be sure, playing with him and others has definitely compelled me to listen more acutely, and the art of listening is arguably the most crucial element to playing well.  Teaching is another activity that has transformed the way I play and practice; in articulating my interpretative and technical approaches to my students, and sharing with them my passion for exploration and personal expression, I’ve learned so much about my own artistic process and about the challenges we collectively face every time we look at a score, sit down to practice, or walk onstage. Teaching has helped bring greater awareness, clarity, creativity, and integrity to my own playing.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

I think about this all the time, as I love looking at music within a larger context. I suppose the connections I draw between my music and non-musical entities depend on the nature of each piece, and also on my particular impressions in the moment.  I’ve found connections between music and artwork, nature, language, literature, poetry, mythology, architecture, archaeological monuments, historical events, the five senses, physics, chemistry, biology, food and cooking, the weather, the cosmos, human ideas and emotions…the list is virtually limitless! I think the reason for this is that music is one of those marvelously all-encompassing things that captures life in all its mundaneness and profundity; it can conjure up very specific images as well as the abstract and ineffable. For this phenomenon alone I find music endlessly fascinating!

Is there another instrument or genre you wish you performed as well as classical music?

I have a lot of admiration for highly skilled jazz musicians, and I wish I could improvise as brilliantly as they do. Even more so, I’ve always wanted to be in a band – it’s been a lifelong, if somewhat covert, fantasy of mine! I’d love to be able to play the guitar, and I imagine it would be an exhilarating rush to rock out on a vast arena stage with lights and amps and a big crowd singing and cheering along…. As it is, I occasionally write songs in my spare time, and of course, there’s always karaoke!

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

There are so many people who have inspired me throughout my life: my family, teachers, friends, colleagues, and mentors. Musically, I would say that the pianist Glenn Gould has had a powerful impact on me. I discovered his legendary 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations when I was 12 (an impressionable age indeed), and his incisive, vital, individualistic playing electrified me. As soon as I heard this album, I went about gathering as much information as I could about him: biographies, his own writings, video footage, and, of course, his immortal recordings.  During my first trip to London in 1996 I remember finding an amazing collection of photographs of him, and I bought the book immediately (it is now prominently displayed on a bookshelf in my teaching studio). Those iconic images of him – sitting low at the keyboard, hand in the air conducting whilst playing, mouth open in song, head thrown back in ecstasy – mesmerized me and shaped my own approach to the instrument. I was also intrigued by his idiosyncratic interpretations, impassioned opinions, eccentric persona, and almost monastic devotion to his art. I’ve admired so many artists over the years, but the singular genius of Glenn Gould stands out as particularly influential. In the non-classical genre, I have been most inspired by the Beatles: I could go on and on about the impact they’ve had on me since my childhood, but simply put, I’m still in awe of the infinite creativity, range, and vision of their timeless songs.

If you could perform with any musicians (dead or alive), who would it be?

In no particular order: Jacqueline du Pré, Gustavo Dudamel, Christian Ferras, Renée Fleming, Leonard Bernstein, Ian Bostridge, Michael Tilson Thomas, the Kronos Quartet, Carlos Kleiber, the Berlin Philharmonic, Alfred Cortot, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Thom Yorke….These are just several artists and ensembles on my long list of “dream collaborators”!

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

I’m drawn to songs that give me the “shivers” – that indescribable frisson, you know? I’m attracted to songs that hit me viscerally: the ones that make want to sing and dance, laugh and cry, reminisce and wonder. Basically, I want to be moved. Sometimes I’ll love a song for its lyrics (whether they’re poignant, whimsical, poetic, or straightforward) but usually I’m more attuned to a song’s chordal and textural elements, its sonic landscape.  Often it’s the contour of a melody, a specific vocal timbre, or a harmonic modulation, not the words themselves, that can evoke a certain emotion or atmosphere.  As for artists, I greatly admire people who create and perform with honesty, passion, freedom, and generosity of spirit. I also respect artists who take risks, not merely to be provocative, but because they have the courage to tread uncharted territory and seek truth. Yes, craft and skill count, but to me these qualities do not matter as much as heart and soul. Authenticity is key.

Who is one person I should be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

The pianist Martha Argerich is phenomenal. Like Glenn Gould, she is one of my most significant musical role models. Her playing is, in a word, alive: it is dynamic and fiery, instinctive and nuanced. I’ve been lucky enough to see her live in concert a few times in New York and the atmosphere in the hall is always charged with excitement; her uncanny technical prowess, rhapsodic musicianship, and striking charisma completely enrapture her audiences. She is also a consummate collaborative musician as well. If you don’t have the chance to see her perform live, watch some clips of her performing Scarlatti or Rachmaninoff on YouTube for a glimpse of her astonishing mastery.

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Take a listen to Elizabeth Joy Roe at her debut recital at Lincoln Center!

Elizabeth Joy Roe – “Consolations” by Ryan Anthony Francis

Elizabeth Joy Roe – “Isoldens Liebestod” by Franz Liszt (transcribed from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde).

Her debut album will be coming out in August – check back at her website for details.