Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have great teachers from an early age and my parents were really supportive and ushered me along. They worked with me at the beginning and provided every opportunity. There was a lot of traveling, and sacrifice, on their part. As a child, I think the most important thing is to have supportive role models and in retrospect, my folks provided that for me even though they aren’t musicians. Over the course of growing up and through high school, I had the best training, a stable home with an excellent instrument to practice on, and lots of opportunities that motivated me. It’s interesting, even after going to great music schools, I still wasn’t totally convinced that I should pursue a career in music until about 7 years ago. Looking back on this time, I realize now that music has ultimately chosen me, it finally feels right and that is somewhat of a relief to me because it was something I kind of agonized over for a long time.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My teacher at Oberlin, Julian Martin, provided a gateway for me to take on the huge challenges of playing piano and approaching interpretation, finding my voice. He taught me how to (really) listen, work in the absolute moment, and to start to translate my imagination into reality. There is so much stylistic consideration and different genres all require their own unique sets of technical and interpretive approaches, Julian gave me some tools to start with. When I think back on my time at Oberlin, I was kind of cocky and thought I knew so much going into conservatory! It was humbling to go back to the drawing board and start again. There were so many moments in lessons with Julian that made me realize the craft is all about gathering your forces technically, intellectually, emotionally and becoming a vehicle to channel art. It is a journey that encompasses a lifetime, and a great teacher can provide the groundwork for this.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Figuring out how to make it work on a practical level! After leaving graduate school with no skills on the business side of things, I ended up going in a different career direction for a while. I lived in Los Angeles and worked in software development for Sony Pictures, I did some composing for film, and I played keyboards in a folk band! Seven years ago I moved to a remote beautiful town in Colorado that is kind of a haven for artists and was courted by a local arts organization to start a concert series. When I first began curating and directing the series my goal was to play chamber music and collaborate as much as possible, now my focus is more on playing solo repertoire. Over the years I’ve slowly built a world-class series and demand continues to grow as relationships have been forged with other regional arts organizations to collaborate and create more opportunities for performers. I am still somewhat mystified as to how it all came about so organically but it really is a testament to the community that I live in and their incredible support. And of course it has been a lot of hard work and dedication. I often think that this kind of synchronicity, or luck if you will, is about being prepared to see and take on risks and opportunities as they arise.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I finished my first recording a few months ago and it was a magical experience. I recorded at a historic church in Berlin where the Berlin Phil performed and recorded after WW2 under Furtwangler, I guess he discovered this place and totally fell in love with it. There is still a room where he used to hang out and take naps and smoke a lot of cigarettes! The acoustics are remarkable and the team I worked with was phenomenal. It was a wonderful first experience and I’m really looking forward to doing more. The album is called “The Viennese Style: Late Sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven” and is available now.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I’m a sucker for a beautiful melody, so Schubert and Chopin are the obvious choices. On paper, Schubert can be somewhat pedantic and awkward, but the result if approached with care is absolutely magnificent and unparalleled in my opinion. And I love classicism, especially Haydn who lurks somewhat in the shadows of Mozart and is a bit under-represented. I find his music difficult to play really, really well. It easily devolves into something kind of mediocre. Practicing Haydn for me involves a lot of creative brainstorming and ‘code cracking’ so to speak. I love his sense of humour and think he is the master of the musical non sequitur!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It’s somewhat of a flight of fancy for me, I tend to go deeply into a composer or genre and work with it for a while. Schubert is my current obsession.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The local arts organization and concert hall where I curate my series is a favourite place. I feel very connected to the audience and the result is generally as good as it gets in terms of performance outcome.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My first concerto appearance when I was fifteen was unforgettable. I had very little prior experience collaborating with other musicians at that point, and I felt an incredible connection to the orchestra I was performing with. It was like riding the top of a giant wave that went on and on. It was so surprising, powerful, awe-inspiring and humbling.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Being able to balance study, practice and performance with carving out a career that feels natural.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
A relentless discipline of technical training ultimately frees an artist to work from instinct and emotion! To be a musician is to be a student, of life.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I’m not going to make any specific plans, my life has had a lot of surprising twists and turns and I’m enjoying it immensely. That being said, of course I would love to continue curating, collaborating and performing as a pianist.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Susan Ellinger’s new album ‘The Viennese Style: Late Sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven’ is available now. Further information