John Noel Roberts, 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?

The experience of winning the opportunity to perform a piano concerto with the San Antonio Symphony at the age of thirteen was immensely rewarding as a young musician. I will never forget the excitement of walking on stage at the Memorial Auditorium to receive my award from cellist Leonard Rose and then seating myself at the piano to perform the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Piano in G major. That performance focused the intensity of my music studies into a musical career.

I have had the privilege to study with such exceptional piano teachers as Eugene List and Barry Snyder at the Eastman School of Music, and Claude Frank and Ward Davenny at the Yale School of Music. These remarkable performers and pedagogues not only taught me how to create music at the piano, but they influenced my attitude and approach to understanding music in general.

The opportunity to attend exceptional music institutions in America allowed me to grow exponentially in my awareness of a wide range of music performed on a very high level. I still can hear David Burge sharing his interpretations of the music of George Crumb at the Eastman School of Music or John Kirkpatrick sharing his passion for the music of Charles Ives at the Yale School of Music. Barry Snyder once made a very early recording of some movements by Alec Wilder and undoubtedly planted a seed of interest in Wilder’s music from the very start of my formal education.

Like the wanderings of Alec Wilder, my musical career has taken me to many varied and interesting locations. I have served on music faculties in South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Minnesota in America; and have spent years teaching at the Western Australian Conservatorium of Music as well as taking a sabbatical leave in Italy.

My travels have found me performing in such foreign locations as Scotland, Wales, England, Italy, Canada, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand, India, Japan, and Hong Kong. When performing abroad as an American pianist, it is always of interest to select various piano music of American composers that will be accessible to foreign audiences. The music of Alec Wilder is very American in sound, and I have found that it can be placed comfortably on an all-American music program abroad. As well, I have performed Wilder’s music over the years on several “Friends of Alec Wilder” concerts in New York City. My first encounter with Alec Wilder took place one summer at the Tidewater Music Festival in Maryland.

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

The greatest challenge in my career has been to sustain artistic fulfilment while seeking to maintain proper balances for a full and meaningful life. The important demands of family, teaching, health, and administration must be balanced to allow for focused “time spaces” that are needed to nurture the necessary energy, creativity, and inspiration for the inner passion of performance.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I strive to balance the expressed musical intentions of the composer with the necessary artistic imagination and creativity of the performer to bring the composition to life. Too much manipulation by the performer can warp the musical intentions of the composer and too little artistic imagination can cause a stagnant interpretation. I am pleased with the balances achieved in the following recordings:

Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 – Frederic Chopin (ACA CM 20089)

Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5 – Johannes Brahms (ACA CM 20099)

Sonata for Piano – Harry Bulow (Kakkazan SMCD 1051)

Sonata-Fantasy – Alec Wilder (TROY 1294)

Quest – Sister Mary Elaine Gentemann, C.D.P. (ACA Digital Recording)

Concerto No. 22 in Eb major, KV 482 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (ABC Broadcast with the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra)

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

It is important to explore a wide spectrum of types of compositions and musical styles to embrace the full range of timbre and mood possibilities that can be conjured from the modern grand piano.

Following is a selection of favourite repertoire:

Sonata in B minor, H XVI:32 – Franz Joseph Haydn

Sonata in C major, K. 330 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Concerto No. 4 in G major – Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata in C major, Op 53 – Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata in A minor, Op. 143 – Franz Schubert

Pictures at an Exhibition – Modeste Mussorgsky

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – Sergei Rachmaninov

Concerto No. 3 – Serge Prokofiev

Petrouchka – Igor Stravinsky

Sonata for Piano – Samuel Barber

First Sonata for Piano – Charles Ives

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

The most direct inspiration for me is to literally steep myself in the lives, times, and philosophies of the composers of the various repertoire being performed. The more I can find insight into the meaning of the musical sounds being expressed by the composers, the more intensely I find myself being inspired to emote and communicate musical intentions on stage.

As an artist, it is extremely important to allow oneself to be emotionally open and sensitive to beauty in all forms. One should cultivate the ability to enjoy beauty indiscriminately whether in nature, visual arts, literature, drama, food, architecture, or simply in beautifully inspiring people.

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

Classical artists should continually seek an inner sense of interest and passion for the music they desire to share in performance. Sincere and meaningful musical expression will effectively communicate and have an artistic impact. I seek to find repertoire for which I have an intense interest and commitment as an artist.

As well, the artist must carefully consider the entire concert experience for the audience. A satisfying musical program needs to project a wide spectrum of musical interests and emotions.

The performer literally crafts a larger work of art in placing musical compositions together in a particular format that is musically and emotionally satisfying.

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

Perhaps due to early musical experiences during a formative stage of life, I have very warm and inspired memories of Kilbourn Recital Hall at the Eastman School of Music. The Eastman School of Music was built in the 1920s during a particularly productive time for architecture in America.

Listening and performing in Kilbourn Hall, I was inspired by the aesthetics of the facility both visually and acoustically.

Culturally, I was truly taken by the beauty and historical significance of the Teatro Olympico in Vicenze, Italy. It is the first indoor theatre in masonry in the world. Andrea Palladio constructed the special theatre in the 16th century to be in the style of a Roman amphitheatre. The phenomenal effect created gives the illusion of an outdoor theatre hidden like a treasure in the palace which houses it. How many important operatic and dramatic musical performances preceded me in that important musical facility? What an amazing privilege and honour for me to be allowed to perform in such an impressive and inspiring concert venue.

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

Instruments from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries seem to have timeless capabilities in the world of musical imagination and creativity. However, it is certainly advantageous to incorporate multimedia possibilities into a traditional concert for enlarged artistic effects. The possibilities are multiple: poetry related to the music being read, the performer acting in the role of the composer, and certainly we live in a world that has only begun to explore technology as a medium for artistic expression. The implications for such interactive performances are limitless and certainly entice audience interest.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Concerts can be remembered for multiple reasons: the aesthetic experience, the cultural experience, etc. I recall a particular recital performance given at the Calcutta School of Music in India. During my stay in India, I remember becoming keenly aware of the basic physical needs of such a large percentage of the population. In was in such a state of mind that I went to the recital hall to perform my concert. I was contemplating that perhaps my life could have been better spent dedicating myself to helping others through a medical or spiritual career. The recital went well, but what immensely affected me was the sincere response of the audience. I had never played a recital before where the audience simply did not want the music to stop. One encore after another was requested until I began to question whether I should risk playing another piece without proper preparation. What moved me was the medicinal/spiritual impact of the music on the audience. I received an affirmation of my ability to reach humanity in a meaningful way through music and of the worth of my chosen career as a musician.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Musical success is a truly memorable performance that communicates and impacts the mind, emotions, and spirit of the engaged listener. There is no higher indication of a successful performance than when an audience member from a past concert approaches after substantial time has passed, say twenty years, and excitedly states that the impressionable interpretation of a particular piece performed is deeply remembered. To create a vivid and lasting musical memory in another sensitive soul is an immensely satisfying feeling as a performer.

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

I would encourage the young musician to continually seek to transcend the physical limitations of our instruments. The musical art is a remarkable combination of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual realms. After conquering the right notes, rhythms, fingerings, dynamics, etc., it is important to continually strive higher and ask the questions; “What am I trying to communicate in sound? or What is the meaning or worth of my message in music?”

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness can seem so elusive; I strive rather to sustain a sense of inner spiritual joy that allows one to weather the vicissitudes of life.