Shelly Berg, 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 can distinctly remember at age four “knowing” that I was a musician. It has always been how I define myself, and I never considered another career. To me, being a musician was and is inextricably bound to my existence.

Along with my innate feelings about being a musician, I have been fortunate to have many influential mentors, beginning with my father, Julius “Jay” Berg. My father played French horn in the US Marine Band during World War II, and went on to be a wonderful, avocational jazz trumpeter. He played with Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Arnett Cobb, Carmen McRae, and other jazz legends. My father was intensely involved in my musical training as both a classical and jazz pianist. He taught me a great deal about music, and I consider him my seminal mentor.

I began serious studies at age six in a gifted children program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where my teacher for 10 years was Maxine Priest. Maxine gave me the foundational musical technique and knowledge that have carried throughout my life. When I was in high school in Houston, Texas, I studied with Lucien Lemieux, who had studied with Aflred Cortot and Silvio Scionti. From Lucien, I received the kind of musical guidance that is handed down through generations of great teachers. Lucien was philosophical about music, and I still hear his words and voice in my head. I went on to study with the greatest musical mentor of my life, Albert Hirsh. Albert was the most astounding musician I ever met. He had total recall of every piece he ever learned, including solo literature, etudes, chamber music, etc. He could play from memory, everything! He had an uncanny ability to teach both music and technique, breaking every problem down to a simple root that could be applied to endless other problems. I played for Rudolph Serkin while I was studying with Hirsh, and Serkin told me “There is no greater teacher than Albert Hirsh. Everyone should study from Albert Hirsh.” I also took a semester of lessons while in college with Abbey Simon. Abbey was demanding and direct, and I found the experience immensely pleasurable, particularly our work on the Beethoven op. 111 Sonata. In my school and college years, I also learned invaluable music lessons from great choral directors, including my high school choral teachers Milton Pullen and Robert Burleson, and one of the great choral directors in history, Eph Ehly. Eph changed my life with his intense love of the nuance in music. It is important to recognize the great and dedicated musical artists who teach in schools.

I have also had professional mentors, who pushed cajoled, corrected and supported me. In high school it was the great jazz saxophonist Arnett Cobb, who wouldn’t let me play like a kid. While in college I played 6 nights a week in a band led by trumpeter, Larry Martinez. Larry taught me what it means to be a professional, and what my obligation is to my audience. I played for twenty years with one of the great jazz trombonists in history, Bill Watrous. Bill believed in me, and set an example for what it means to be world class. When I was a professor at the University of Southern California my dean was Larry Livingston, another of the most brilliant and musical beings I have ever known. Larry pushed me to compose and arrange, and forced me out out of comfort zones. One of my best friends in the last 25 years has been drummer/producer Gregg Field. Friends can be mentors too, and Gregg remains a brother/mentor, always thinking about my best interests as a person and musician.

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

Like many artists today, my greatest challenge is finding time for everything I want and need to do. As the dean of a major music school (The Frost School of Music), I am in meetings all day each day, and I attend concerts and events for fundraising evenings and weekends. I stay fairly active composing, and also arranging/orchestrating for television specials, live performances, and recording projects. I have learned to be very efficient with piano practicing, because I simply don’t have enough hours available to practice, which is something I love to do.

A secondary challenge has been career maintenance. As a professor and then dean for 40 years, and as a father and husband, I have prioritized family and academia over proactively promoting my performance career. Fortunately, the phone has been ringing all of that time, and I have had as many performances as my life can accommodate. There are things I haven’t done in my career, but I wouldn’t trade them for the things I have done in my life.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am immensely proud of my recent recording, ‘Gershwin Reimagined: An American in London”’ (Decca Gold), recorded in London under the baton of José Serebrier with the sublime Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As a jazz and classical pianist, I have always felt a deep affinity for Gershwin’s music. I first learned Rhapsody in Blue at age eleven, and so this recording is the realization of a child’s imaginary accomplishment. Performing the music with the RPO at Cadogan Hall was also a thrill, enhanced by a throng of well-wishers, waiting at the stage door afterwards.

As a jazz pianist, I am very proud of my Concord Records release, ‘Blackbird’ which reached #1 in US jazz radio. I had the privilege of recording an original composition for jazz piano trio and orchestra, ‘Incandescent, Iridescent, Effervescent’, which was released on CD and DVD by Sony. My work as a pianist and orchestrator with luminaries of classical, pop, and jazz has also been rewarding, and I am very proud of collaborations both on stage and on recordings with Renee Fleming, Chicago, Gloria Estefan, Joshua Bell, Stevie Wonder, The Count Basie Orchestra, etc.

The most recent classical recording I contributed to is a 2020 release by Tubist, Aaron Tindall, Yellowbird (Bridge Records). Mr. Tindall is one of the most prodigious tubists performing today, and for this recording he reimagined Claude Boling’s ‘Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano Trio’. His performance is an epitome of technical virtuosity and beauty, and it afforded me an opportunity to traverse classical and jazz piano styles.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I am very sentimental, and I believe in the healing, transformative power of music through beautiful melodies and the journey of harmony and form. Following that aesthetic, I have great affinity for Chopin. The ballades are exemplars for the range of expression that captivates me. I am also drawn to the sonatas of Beethoven, and continually return to my favourites.

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

This sounds clichéd, but life is an inspiration. I think it is important to stay open and aware to everything that inspires, and not become numb to repeated exposure. I drive past a park every day, and it is beautiful. I appreciate that beauty each day, as if it was the first time experiencing it. That is exactly the kind of perception required of a musical artist, when the hundredth performance of a piece must feel as fresh and inspired as the first. So, in appreciating nature, relationships, visual art, listening to music, I am filling up the well for my own performances.

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

Repertoire choices are primarily made by concerts I am asked to perform. I don’t spend all of my time on the road, touring particular concert programs or concerti during a season. The thing that gets my adrenaline going is the phone call or email asking me to play a certain repertoire.

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

There is little to match the excitement of performing in a great venue for an enthusiastic audience. It is counterintuitive for a classical or jazz musician to say this, but one of my favourite venues has been the Hollywood Bowl, where there is a sense of something momentous at every performance.

I am always amazed that this venue for 15,000 patrons can feel intimate when music makes the connection.

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

As an educator, this subject is near and dear to my heart. Classical music often feels like an elite experience, requiring an initiation through knowledge and protocols in order to be “in the group”. As such it can be off-putting. I believe in breaking down the wall between the performers and the audience. I want to the audience to know why I am compelled to play certain works. I let them know what worries me, and what thrills me. I ask for their input and their participation in the experience. I tell my students that every artist is responsible for curating and maintaining an audience. A saying I have is, “It is never the audience’s fault”. We can’t blame them for not being there, or not wanting to come back. We need to entice them to come and give them a connection that inspires their return. So, the answer is, it is up to us to grow the audience.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

This is a difficult question. As a solo artist, I remember a concert in 2007 with the Pacific Symphony at the Verizon Amphitheatre in Southern California. The conductor and music director, Carl Sinclair devised a program that, following the overture featured me on every work. It was a gruelling concert, and my task was to connect with an audience of 16,000 people in an outdoor venue on a beautiful California evening. One can never force magic to happen, but on that night it did, in terms of an audience converging their souls around a shared musical experience. It felt as though I could hear a pin drop all night, and I felt a connection to the furthest person away, picnicking on the hillside far from the stage. That kind of intimacy between artists and audience is palpable. The end of that concert was cathartic for us all, and there was a feeling of togetherness and good will that music engenders unlike anything else.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

My musical definition of success is when a connection is made that is unforgettable to the audience. If someone walks up to me with tears in the eyes, remembering a concert from twenty years ago, that concert was a success. This is why I call music the “mortar of humanity,” binding people together in ways that nothing else can.

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

For students, I have another definition of success. “Success is overcoming the things that would cause you to fail.” Life will have obstacles, some small, and some large enough to cause you to reconsider your goals. Some things can’t succeed because the obstacles are insurmountable. If success is the goal, then obstacles that seem insurmountable have to be conquered.

My favourite word for a musician is “trust”. We all practice very hard to have the requisite knowledge and skills. Trust is the ineffable ingredient. When we trust that what we communicate will resonate with the listener, that we don’t have to impress the audience, show off, or never miss a note, we will find our way to music’s essence. We will transform lives and very naturally create unforgettable experiences. It is like falling asleep. We can’t make it happen, but we can trust that it will happen.

What is your present state of mind?

My present state of mind is hope in the face of a worldwide pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has debilitated the music and performing arts industry more than any other. As we rise from these ashes, performers, composers, and venue operators have gained new skills for survival. In the next year or so, the venues will be open, and over the next couple of years life will return to normal. I believe that audiences will crave and value music’s live connection to a greater extent than before. The scarcity of live music now will enhance its value later. As “later” arrives, we have new skills and technology ability that we will leverage to increase revenue and audience size from what we had before. I also believe that the experience of this crisis will spur inspiration and creativity among performers and music creators, and we will see a Golden age of musical output. Stay tuned!

Shelly Berg is a Steinway piano artist and multi-Grammy nominated arranger and producer. His latest album Gershwin Reimagined: An American in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by José Serebrier and produced by Gregg Field (Decca Gold).

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