Adam Marks, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a household that had a small spinet piano I could explore as a toddler. I remember around the age of four seeing a symphony concert on television featuring Rhapsody in Blue, and from that point on I begged my parents for proper piano lessons. I studied throughout childhood, but never really considered it a viable professional pathway. I went to college planning to be a pre-med biochemistry major, but music kept gaining more and more importance for me. While still in college, I secured first an internship, and then a job at the Boston Pops Orchestra, which gave me some insight into the lives of professional performers, and something clicked. I took a leap, studied hard, and somehow was able to make it happen.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Everything is challenging! I spent 6 years as part of a full-time chamber ensemble. It was a difficult decision to move and join the group, and an even harder decision to leave when I did. Since moving back to New York City about 8 years ago, I’ve been pursuing a wide variety of performance styles and venues, and I always want to challenge myself to do things that are scary, not just what feels comfortable or safe. Whatever it is that I’m doing (contemporary music, theatre, experimental works, standard repertoire), I hope people who see/hear it think that it’s my specialty!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Well, I’m obviously very pleased with my recent release, Arcana, on innova Recording. It’s my first widely-released solo album, and it was a joy to record the complete solo piano works of my dear friend Alex Shapiro. There’s a lot of variety on the disc, which I really enjoy.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

That’s a tough question! I think one of my strengths is complicated mixed-metre works, creating a rhythmic foundation strong enough to put listeners at ease. But that ranges from Messiaen to Reich to Shapiro! My goal is to have a flexible enough technique that I can create unique sound worlds specific to any given composer or work.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Lately I’ve been hiking and camping, which is new to me, but incredibly inspiring. I’ve always, however, been a big consumer of theatre, dance, and contemporary art. I love seeing how completely different disciplines can explore the same issues and themes through different media.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

It varies. About five years ago, in tandem with some of my closest colleagues, I made a very strong commitment to champion more works by women, both contemporary and historical. That’s been an important part of my programming because I made a promise to myself that anything that I programmed or curated would never again be all-male unless it was a specific composer portrait. This year, as a response to the long overdue protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve made a similar commitment to championing works by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) composers. I’ve been studying new works and incorporating them into my programming even during quarantine and it’s been exciting to feel that purpose and drive.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I mean…. Carnegie Hall? I idolized it as a child, and I still can’t believe I’ve had the opportunity to perform there a few times. But honestly, I’m a huge fan of salon concerts. I love the intimacy of being in a small space with 20-50 audience members, sharing something immediate and tangible. I miss that connection in this very isolating time, but house concerts are almost always a joy, providing immediate connection and feedback in a way that glorious concert halls often can’t.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

We need to talk to audiences! Include them! I think performers should play the music they are passionate about, and give the audience a chance to experience that passion. If we programme just to what we think audiences want, we underestimate them. If we programme only what we want and ignore them, we disrespect them. I think every programme should have something that comforts an audience and something that stretches them. But every selected piece should be loved by the performer.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It depends on the day. But I’ve had the pleasure of that “last minute replacement” story we often hear from musicians, twice. The first, in 2003, was when I was called in to replace a pianist with a few weeks’ notice for a workshop week at Carnegie Hall with Michael Tilson Thomas on the music of Aaron Copland. I had just a few weeks to learn a few pieces and it was early in my career, so it was a tremendous break. Many years later, in 2016, I was a last-minute replacement (2 days’ notice!) with Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony for a week of concerts celebrating the music of Steve Reich. I am from California and grew up going to San Francisco Symphony, and to be on that stage for four sold-out concerts playing music I loved was a dream.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Nothing is better than having the freedom to programme music you care about, share it with audiences (large or small) who care about you and it, and the ability to travel around the world doing just that.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think coming up as a pianist, I felt truly burdened by the classical canon, and the expectation of perfection whenever I played. The older I get, the more I realize that perfection is a myth, and we can exercise our power to advocate for composers and music we believe in even if it isn’t considered standard. I can address inequity through my programming, champion composers I believe in, and use my concerts to amplify the voices of others. Accepting that power is a big responsibility, but thrilling, and I hope to imbue that into the next generation of musicians.

What is your present state of mind?

Extreme anxiety. I mark time by my travels and projects, and value spending time with my friends across the globe building connections, creating new work, and sharing it. Now, I’m separated from my collaborators and my family, stuck waiting at home until people are more responsible in their actions and this pandemic subsides. Living in NYC is a gift, and I love it, but the horror of COVID deaths we saw this Spring will be with me for some time. It is my hope that my country finds its path again with empathy and equity for the many voices that have been ignored, silenced, or censored. It’s hard to prioritize anything else until we really address that properly.

Adam Marks’ album ‘Arcana’, piano music by Alex Shapiro, is released on the innova Recordings label.

Praised as an “excellent pianist” with “titanic force” (New York Times), Adam Marks is an active soloist, collaborator, curator, and educator based in NYC. He has appeared as soloist with the Mission Chamber Orchestra, Manchester Symphony Orchestra, the National Repertory Orchestra, and at notable venues including Salle Cortot, Carnegie Hall, Miller Theatre, Logan Center for the Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Millennium Park, Ravinia, and Davies Symphony Hall. He was a laureate of the Orleans Competition for contemporary music in Orleans, France, and his premiere of Holly Harrison’s “Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup” with Eighth Blackbird won the Australian Art Music Awards Performance of the Year in 2018. Other recent international performances include recitals in Brazil, Singapore, France, and Croatia.

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(Photo: Michael Owen Baker)

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