Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
My musical beginnings were not as idealistic as I would expect to hear from many others, but they did have an impact.
When I was 6, my family moved to a small house in Minnesota. The previous owners left a piano in the basement since they did not want to move it. This piano we inherited was over 100 years old and after tuning, we discovered it held tinker toys, playing cards, and candy wrappers. It was not loved before, but it became mine. I think because of that, I always see a piano as the holder of stories. I immediately personify it and believe the piano should be cared for so it can teach others. I love playing unfamiliar pianos (especially late 19th and early 20th century Steinways) to see what the piano will teach me.
I majored in piano performance as an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music. As a student, my primary motivators were other musicians—faculty and graduate students. I played a great deal of chamber music and I was profoundly inspired by the instrumental and vocal professors especially violinist, William Preucil and mezzo-sopranos Jan DeGaetani and Marcia Baldwin. My favorite experiences were playing chamber music, premiering contemporary works, performing with the Eastman Musica Nova Ensemble (I performed George Perle’s Concertino for Piano Winds, and Timpani with them among other pieces), and performing with the Eastman Wind Ensemble. I am thankful for the doctoral conducting students who taught me how to perform in an ensemble. Pianists are not often granted those opportunities.
I don’t think I still thought of music as a career, however, until after I graduated. I questioned if I should continue studies. I didn’t seem to follow the same path as other pianists and I believed you could learn from every musical experience (solo, chamber, ensemble, playing for dance classes, performing as a church musician) so I was not focusing on a particular career and I was not interested in participating in competitions. I just had the desire to learn. I desperately wanted to be surrounded by many other musicians who could teach me what they knew, whether it was the music of Mahler, Art Tatum or Led Zeppelin.
I was one week from graduation when I would say I received the inspirational talk. Rebecca Penneys, who was not my piano teacher at the time, called me in to her studio. She heard from one of her students that I had significant fears/doubts about pursuing music as a career. I had never had a conversation with her before that, but her words made the difference. I still find her insights from that conversation to be invaluable.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Rebecca Penneys, concert pianist and teacher (Eastman School of Music)
Santiago Rodriguez, concert pianist and teacher (University of Maryland)
Allan McMurray, conductor (University of Colorado, Boulder)
Mignon Dunn, mezzo-soprano (Northwestern University)
Ursula Oppens, concert pianist (Northwestern University)
Ray Cramer, conductor (Indiana University)
Kirk O’Riordan, composer (husband!)
Andreas Meyer, recording engineer (recent acquaintance)
Premiering over 100 solo and chamber works and performing contemporary music
Studying/Performing the music of Chopin and Schoenberg
Wearing multiple hats as a musician
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
A very early aspiration was to be a college professor. My father was a college professor for 3 years when I was 6-8 and I remember those years as being the happiest (even with the piano in the basement!). Since I chose to pursue a career as an academic after college and I married another musician, we traded locations as an academic couple.
Even though I actively performed as a chamber musician and I had performed a handful of concertos, I thought being an academic was the best fit—I love teaching. Finding the right balance between teaching and performing while living in the same location as my husband has been the greatest challenge. I am still working at it!
Looking back at the choices I made, I would definitely do much of it differently. At the same time, I learned something from every experience and met many people who I would not have met otherwise.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
The ‘Preludes Project’ CD. It was released five years to the date of my mother’s death and I think she would have enjoyed it.
The goal of ‘The Preludes Project’ was to introduce numerous audiences to newly composed preludes while reminding them of their older favorites. 15 composers wrote preludes for this project and I was delighted to share their music. I premiered 57 preludes in recitals with music by Chopin, Debussy, Bach, and Rachmaninoff. The ‘Preludes Project’ CD is one component of this larger project. It has been fabulous to do this for the last 3 years.
The first classical piece I ever performed was Chopin’s Prelude in c minor. I was 6 and I was absolutely in love with it. Since my hands were too small to perform the octaves, a kind piano teacher (the mother of my piano teacher, actually) arranged it for me to play without the octave doublings. Having the opportunity to record Chopin’s Op. 28 preludes along with the Twenty-Six Preludes for Solo Piano, written for me by my husband, Kirk O’Riordan, was extraordinary.
My first performance in New York City was in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. I performed John Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy in the Winner’s Recital for the Frinna Awerbuch International Competition. I was thrilled to be part of that concert.
My first concerto was performed with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra (Ohio) at 13. I gave several performances in Toledo, but the orchestra also came to my hometown of Findlay. I love performing concertos!
I am also proud of performing Rhapsody in Blue with conductor, Allan McMurray at the WASBE (World Association of Symphonic Bands and Wind Ensembles) conference in Hamamatsu, Japan. It was the first time I performed outside of the United States. There were 3000 people in the audience from all over the world. I was still a student, but the University of Colorado Wind Ensemble was the only group from the United States so there was an incredible energy within the ensemble. The connection with all of those souls from all over the world was amazing.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
Music that incorporates timbral variation and counterpoint. Music that is expressive and lyrical. Also, music that is dramatic. Audiences seem to enjoy my performances of Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and O’Riordan (my husband) best. My commitment to contemporary music is conveyed to audiences. This early love has not wavered.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Almost every season, I choose a single piece I really want to play. Then, I design a program around it (often with a unifying theme). Ironically, by the time I am ready to begin practicing, the original piece is not included! I am not sure why this happens, but I enjoy the spontaneity and the flexibility of the programming.
I think this occurs because I feel comfortable performing music from different eras. I can perform a new music program, a concert highlighting women composers, a recital of Romantic era composers, or many styles of music in a single evening and be perfectly happy. It allows me to find the right fit at the right time. I will perform pieces multiple times, but I never do exactly the same program multiple times. In fact, I rarely do the exact program twice. I like to mix and match depending on the audience. The Preludes Project concept was incredibly interesting to me because I liked combining the music by multiple composers in a single set (like an art song recital). The pieces took on different meanings depending on the context.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
My favorite concert venue will always be where the piano teaches me something. I love talking with the technicians where we can discuss the unique personality traits of a piano. I don’t speak technically; I speak emotionally. Most technicians enjoy that perspective and we share how a piano has a soul.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Yo Yo Ma, Martha Argerich, Murray Perahia, Leon Fleisher, Gilbert Kalish, Oscar Peterson, Dave Matthews, Nina Simone, Ursula Oppens, Gil Shaham, Joan Tower, Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould
What is your most memorable concert experience?
As an undergraduate student at the Eastman School of Music, I heard Mary Nessinger (a doctoral student of Jan DeGaetani at the time) perform Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children. The audience was mesmerized and wouldn’t stop clapping when the piece concluded. I think we called her back to the stage 10 times.
When I was a graduate student, my husband and I flew to Cleveland so we could hear Emanuel Ax give the premiere of John Adams’ Century Rolls with the Cleveland Orchestra.
After the concert, we went backstage and talked with Adams, Ax, and other musicians. In the parking garage, after the concert, we ran into the person who wrote the program notes. He had a copy of the score so we looked at that for 20 minutes. It was an unbelievable evening.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Surround yourself with inspiring people. Find a mentor or, better yet, find several! Never be afraid to keep learning. Perform music of all eras. Work with composers who are writing today. Challenge yourself. Study, practice, and especially listen to something unfamiliar every day. Every gig is important; every musical relationship is important—give your best. Read about other musicians, be inspired by them, but remember that no one will follow the same path. A candle does not lose its flame by lighting another candle. Support others and make music together.
What is your most treasured possession?
My Steinway upright. I was not able to afford my own piano until I was 30. I fell in love with it and even if I am able to purchase a grand, this will always be part of my home and my heart.
The Preludes Project is available on the Ravello Records label