Como Academy: Why the Chinese call it ‘piano heaven’

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York 31.08.2017

 

Lake Como, known as the “magic lake” of Italy, has inspired writers and composers for centuries with natural surroundings so conducive to creative expression. Stendhal wrote The Charterhouse of Parma there, Verdi composed La Traviata, Liszt composed his Dante Sonata and Bellini composed Norma there. Liszt’s daughter Cosima was born in Bellagio, near the lake.

Somehow the magic seems to inspire today’s International Piano Academy students as well. “There is an energy here – it’s a place of great creativity,” president and artistic director William Grant Naboré says with a sweep of his arm toward the shore of the deep blue lake. “What I have in mind is a sort of pianistic utopia.”

Naboré welcomed me into the Academy palazzo in the village of Dongo recently for a rare look at the facilities and informal chats with the players. As we entered the property, one of the students was working on Liszt’s Reminiscences of Norma. We stopped to eavesdrop outside the practice room. He restarted twice, and at last navigated his way forward and continued to the next hurdle. At the keyboard was Emil Gryesten, said to be one of the best pianists in Denmark, a recent graduate of the Academy who was preparing for a recital at Musikhuset Aarhus, the largest concert hall in Scandinavia.

The Academy has become, since its inception in 2002, one of the world’s most sought-after centers for the training of exceptional young piano talent, attracting students from throughout the world. Only six or seven applicants from about 500 hopefuls are admitted annually to two terms of cost-free study.

Honorary president is Naboré’s friend Martha Argerich; his vice president is long-time associate and Cliburn gold medalist Stanislav Ioudenitch, his heir apparent. 

The diminutive, smiling Naboré – creator of the Academy – is still at age 75 amassing honors. He was named in August as the latest laureate of the Vendome Award, a $25,690 prize from the Orpheus Foundation for “a significant personal contribution” to the discovery of young musicians and the furtherance of their musical careers.


William Grant Naboré 

For his work inside and outside of the Academy, Naboré has acquired the nickname of “The Yoda of the Piano”, so highly regarded is his teaching. Chinese students have dubbed his Como institution “Piano heaven”.

Naboré’s nose for recognizing talent is by now legendary. Many – such as Gryesten, François Dumont, Yulianna Avdeeva, Dmitry Masleev, Alessandro Deljevan, and others  -- study with him, then return after graduation for refreshers. Naboré provides ongoing counsel as their careers take off. As Ms. Avdeeva told me, “I have been so happy to come back to Como on many occasions to work with Maestro Naboré and to see the other wonderful musicians.” The Russian-born star took first prize at the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 2008.

She spent a year and a half studying at the Academy and recalls her time there as a rare opportunity “to be inspired by so many different personalities” including master class teachers such as Dmitry Bashkirov, Boris Berman, Fou Ts’ong and Naboré himself. “They all supported me in finding my own way of feeling music – it was so important to work with them.”

She says Como made her realize that “there are different ways of making music -- no right or wrong way. It is essential to study and to understand the score,” she says, “but at the same time to find your own personal language.”

In this clip, Ms. Avdeeva gives a delicate and emotional rendering of Chopin’s Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52:

Como alumni have gone on to win competition medals in Moscow, Warsaw, Brussels, Calgary, London, Budapest, Cleveland, New York, Seoul, Geneva and Kalamazoo (Gilmore Artist Prize), among others. Some of the better known graduates are François-Frédérique Guy, Pyotr Anderszewski, Nicholas Angelich, Severin von Eckardstein, Martina Filjak, Kirill Gerstein, Ran Jia, Denis Kozhukhin, Claire-Marie Le Guay, Marcos Madrigal, Roberto Plano, Sergei Redkin and Evgeny Sudbin.

Although in demand internationally, Naboré is generous with his time when his Como students need him most. The recent Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow caught him on the hop after a long flight back from Beijing where he had been teaching. Groggy with jet lag, he took a call from finalist Dmitry Masleev in Moscow and coached him for six hours by telephone though the Mozart piano concert in D minor, K 466. Masleev went on to win first prize with the concerto and is rapidly building an international career. He remains in touch with Naboré, now his prime mentor.

Here Masleev’s masterly touch is evident:

The influence of the Como Academy is propagated in other ways too. About 25 graduates are now serving as professors and teachers in various conservatories around the world, handing down the Como ideals. The Academy created its first partnership last year, linking up in the U.S. with Oberlin Conservatory, near Cleveland, Ohio, to award an “artist diploma” to selected students after two years of academic and music studies.

Como students I spoke with during my visit told me the lakeside experience marks them in multiple ways: with its high-level master classes, Naboré’s availability, access to a library of writings on music history and performance, and the village of Dongo itself, hidden in Lombardy deep in the snow-capped Prealp mountains 70 kilometers up a sinuous route from Milan.

Alessandro Deljevan by Michael Johnson

Perhaps the key to the Academy’s success is Naboré’s nurturing of a family atmosphere, avoiding the straightjacket of regulations that often restrain free-wheeling music students. His objective is to provide breathing space for reflection and development of repertoire at this crucial period in a young pianist’s growth. Former student Alessandro Deljevan recalls that studying with Naboré at the Academy was “ like winning 100 million dollars in the lottery. But even with that you cannot buy the richness of soul he teaches you.” 

Sweetening the experience is Naboré’s conviction that training for his aspirants must be free of charge. “If you have exceptional gifts as musician, you should not have to pay to develop them,” he tells me. “This is the philosophy I live by. I never paid for lessons either!” The Academy’s package of tuition, room and board has been estimated at a value of about $100,000 a year. Support for the Academy comes from a variety of private sponsors and contributors.

Master class teachers since the beginning, including Naboré’s predecessor institution the International Piano Foundation, have constituted an A-list of piano masters, including Leon Fleischer, Dmitri Bashkirov, Claude Frank, Graham Johnson, Murray Perahia, Menahem Pressler and Fou Ts’ong. The late Karl-Ulrich Schnabel, Roslyn Tureck, Charles Rosen and Alicia de Larrocha were also regulars. Today, piano teachers still compete to join the faculty, an important entry in any pedagogue’s CV.

On my visit to Como, Naboré allowed me and another visitor, a French lady banker, to witness an intense two-hour master class led by Harvard University Ensemble Performance teacher Katherine Chi, an established Canadian pianist now based in Cambridge, near Boston. At the piano in the Academy’s elegant Schnabel Hall was Arseny Tarasevich Nikolaev, a serious-minded young Russian, and grandson of the great pianist Tatiana Nikolaeva. He gamely followed Chi’s examples for bringing more heart to Mozart’s sonata in B-flat major (K.333).

The first 20 minutes were devoted to a single opening phrase. “A little bit warmer,” Chi chided. “Let’s try to find a more singing tone,” she advised, actually singing the phrase to show the way. “You have to open the door here,” she went on, as they parsed the sonata measure by measure. “Now a little darker.”

Nikolaev, who had begun the session by playing the complete sonata perfectly, it seemed to me, took it as a true professional. I asked him afterward how Chi’s teachings would affect his playing. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “Usually I don’t get such attention to detail. But I now see different approaches to the piece. Things have become more crystallized.”

Here, he plays Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2:

Separately, I asked Chi what she accomplished. “I tried to give him the keys to open the doors. Some things will stick,” she said with a smile.

Later in the day, when Gryesten finished his Norma run-through, I cornered him to find out how Como has affected his musicianship. He recalled his earlier master class – the best he has ever experienced, he said -- with Fou, the pipe-smoking master of Chopin who has never abandoned his Chinese roots. “He was like a Taoist monk,” Emil recalled. “He combines oriental spirituality with Chopin, Haydn, Debussy and others. In a sense, the piano is his Taoist spiritual path.” Even while teaching at Dongo, Fou started every morning with an hour of outdoor tai-chi exercise.

Naboré, an American expatriate, seems an unlikely figure to have become such an international guru for young pianists. His black ancestry dates back to the days of slavery in the U.S. South, but he emerged as a child prodigy as he was growing up in Roanoke, Virginia. He studied under Anne McClenny at the private women’s school Hollins College, obtaining access that was normally refused to boys, especially black boys. It was a bold decision. Violent racism was prevalent in Roanoke at that time. But Naboré was a determined child, and he persevered. Today he says he has no feelings of bitterness toward those formative years.

At age 17 he won a scholarship sponsored by the Italian government and began studies with Carlo Zecchi, a former student of Busoni and Arthur Schnabel, and with Renata Borgatti. As he progressed in his career he was coached privately by Rudolf Serkin, George Szell and Alicia de Larrocha.

An ardent ensemble player besides pursuing his solo performance and recording career, Naboré promoted the chamber works of Brahms, Schumann, Dvorak, Beethoven and Schubert while based for 20 years in Geneva. He has performed with major ensembles, including the Amadeus, Talich, Gabrieli and Brindisi Quartets.

Naboré’s new CD of Brahms piano works, to be published by yearend under the Academy label, includes the Brahms Klavierstücke Op. 118, No. 1 and 2, as played herein an audio clip: 

A brief detour outside his classical realm occurred when he encountered American singer-pianist Nina Simone following her failed experiment to settle in Liberia. At the Montreux Festival, she approached Naboré and asked for help. “She wanted some lessons to brush up her technique, and we played Bach together. Nina said I was the pianist she always wanted to be.”

It was in 1993 that he was hand-picked by a German computer-maker Theo Lieven, founder of the Vobis brand, to organize and launch the International Piano Foundation in Cadenabbia, on Lake Como’s western shore. Lieven, himself an accomplished amateur pianist, financed the startup that led eventually to Naboré’s spinoff Academy.

The remarkable record of Academy’s accomplishments in the past 15 years attracts pianists of exceptional talent throughout Europe, the North America and Asia. As the piano world becomes increasingly crowded, lasting success will ultimately come from the deep understanding of the music as taught at the Academy, not from arid technical prowess, wild hairstyles or flamboyance on the piano bench.

The Academy website can be found here:

www.comopianoacademy.org

 

Another version of the article appears in the current International Piano magazine, London.

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