A student pianist recalls the concerto he chased for years and the Oberlin moment that will last a lifetime.
The wonderfully frenetic pace of spring semester at Oberlin Conservatory was well under way when spread of the novel coronavirus forced college students nationwide to retreat to their hometowns.
On the afternoon of Friday, March 13, the Oberlin Orchestra convened in Finney Chapel for a routine rehearsal that each musician knew would be anything but routine. It would be a final, premature run-through of a program that was not scheduled to hit the stage for another three weeks—one that included a performance of Beethoven’s monumental Fifth Symphony, a cornerstone of Oberlin’s planned yearlong celebration of the composer, as well as a cornerstone of music itself.
That final rehearsal also featured Liszt’s daunting Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major with soloist Liam Kaplan ’20, one of four winners of the 2019-20 Senior Concerto Competition. The pianist and orchestra had not previously rehearsed the piece together, but it had become clear there would be no future opportunities to do so.
Though closed to the public, that March rehearsal was attended by a couple dozen students, faculty, staff, and others who had heard of its happening by word of mouth. Everyone in the room felt the weight of the moment and the astounding power of the performances. The final notes were followed by thunderous applause, tears, and embraces that in the days ahead would become all but forbidden. By that evening, those same students were dismantling their dorm rooms and preparing for their journeys home.
Here, Kaplan shares his reflections on the concerto he has cherished for half his life and the Oberlin afternoon he will never forget.
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When I was 11 years old, I studied double bass in addition to the piano, and my parents took me a few times per year to see our local New Jersey Symphony perform at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. We would always sit on the far right side of the auditorium near the front, right by the double basses. I often dreamed about joining the bass section of a professional orchestra.
During one particularly memorable concert, I saw Terrence Wilson, a wonderful pianist from my hometown of Montclair, perform the Liszt A major concerto. I was absolutely captivated by the colorful and passionate piano part, especially in the moments when the piano pairs with one other instrument—near the beginning, the French horn and oboe, and later the solo cello and flute. I fell in love with the piece, and decided immediately that I wanted to be on that stage someday playing it.
I bought the sheet music and began learning the piece, but at that point in my life it was far, far too difficult for me to wrap my hands around. I tried being patient, practicing very slowly and deliberately, one note at a time, but after nearly a year of effort it wasn't going anywhere, so I put it away. Fast forward to the summer after my freshman year in Oberlin, and I decided to try again. I spent much of that summer at the Meadowmount School of Music, and the entire fall semester of my sophomore year working on the concerto. After thinking about the piece for so many years, I was very proud of the progress I made in tackling all of the challenges in the various fireworks Liszt sprinkles throughout the work. That December, I entered the Wideman International Piano Competition in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I didn't advance to the final round. Nonetheless, it was a valuable experience for me to prepare the piece to such a high standard.
When the time came to decide which piece I should play in the Oberlin Senior Concerto Competition, I quickly realized that Liszt’s second concerto was the closest to my heart. At that point I had lived with the piece for half of my life, and I had so many memories wrapped up in the melodies and harmonies. When I learned that I had won the competition, I was overjoyed that I would be able to play a piece that means so much to me personally, with so many of my close friends from Oberlin in the orchestra and in the audience. It felt like a perfect capstone to the transformative four years I spent at the conservatory.
When we all learned that the semester would change to online classes, Raphael Jiménez reached out to me and offered to do a single run-through of the Liszt concerto. I wasn't originally scheduled to rehearse with the orchestra for another week or two, but I was very glad to grab the chance before most students had to pack up and return home. We treated the rehearsal on the last Friday of classes like a concert. He talked through the trickiest spots in the score where the tempo changes, and then we played through from start to finish. The performance was a little bit rough around the edges, which is to be expected without any rehearsal, but it was incredibly passionate. The string sections were augmented by several graduating seniors who were not originally in orchestra, but wanted one last chance to play with the Oberlin Orchestra. I was so moved by all of my classmates who came together to play with so much joy in the face of a difficult situation. It was an incredibly cathartic moment, and I burst into tears at the end. Then the orchestra performed an extremely energetic account of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to "end the year on C major," as Maestro Jiménez said. I was so glad that we could have the closure of this ad hoc concert before scattering worldwide to our very distant homes.
I am immensely grateful that Raphael Jiménez has scheduled all four of the Concerto Competition winners to perform in Oberlin in the fall semester. To go through the rehearsal process with many of my friends in the orchestra and perform in Finney Chapel packed with the warm and supportive Oberlin community promises to be a precious experience. I cannot wait for the day when musicians are once again able to safely come together and make music, and I hope it is sooner rather than later!
Liam Kaplan is scheduled to perform Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major with the Oberlin Orchestra on Saturday, September 26, in Finney Chapel. He graduates from Oberlin Conservatory this May.
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