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Interview With Marjan Kiepura

So often does the subject of our discussion return to the mazurka, that Marjan Kiepura hastens to remind me he also plays preludes, waltzes, polonaises, and other music of Chopin! His performing repertoire includes works of Bartok, whom his mother knew. And some of his programs have also featured music by Mozart, Schubert, and Scarlatti.

But there is a reason we keep coming back to mazurkas: He plays them so well!

I first heard of Marjan Kiepura 15 or 20 years ago, when I was given his all-Chopin CD on the Patria label, entitled "Images of a Homeland." So impressed was I by the sensitivity and individuality of the playing, I did something I almost never do: I wrote him a fan letter. Which he graciously answered. Since then, we were in occasional contact. But we only met in person for the first time last summer, at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival lecture of Professor Alan Walker about his wonderful new Chopin biography, which both of us had read. (Marjan considers that lecture the musical highpoint of his year!)

The son of two acclaimed singers, Polish-born tenor Jan Kiepura (1902-1966) and Hungarian-born soprano Marta Eggerth (1912-2013), Marjan Kiepura was born in 1950 in Paris. During the next several years, the family also lived in Germany and Austria, settling in Rye, New York, when he was four. At the age of six, he gravitated to the piano. His first several teachers were accompanists of his parents.

When he was nine, he auditioned for Rosina Lhevinne at her Glendale, California home. (He remembers she was practicing on an upright piano when they arrived.) He played "Für Elise" for Mme. Lhevinne, who accepted him to study at the Juilliard Preparatory Division with her assistant, Jeaneane Dowis. "I was a good, talented kid, but not a prodigy" he says.

When he was growing up "our house was always full of music, and parties." Some friends of his parents whom he met there were the soprano, Maria Jeritza, for whom Richard Strauss dedicated works; and later Licia Albanese, Jamila Novotna, and Vladimir Horowitz. Among the pianos at the house was a small upright. Horowitz sat down and played a short flurry of something, then commented 'Good piano!' I met Leonard Bernstein after several concerts. He knew my parents well. Artur Rubinstein was also a good friend of my father. Once we went to a Rubinstein recital after which my father asked if I could play for him sometime. My father told Rubinstein that I was a pianist. 'Of course!' said Rubinstein. In the meantime my father died, so it never happened."

Life, and Marjan's studies went along fairly smoothly till he was fifteen, when his father suddenly passed away. ("He had an aggravation on the phone, put down the receiver, and died.") That "blew everything out of the water." His mother said she would never sing again (fortunately she later changed her mind, continuing her performing career till the age of 99!), and Marjan's musical studies, and work at Juilliard stopped. He later had piano lessons with several other teachers, including the pianist and composer, Vladimir Padwa. And sometimes he played for Jeaneane Dowis, to whom he returned a number of times.

He finished school ---- and became a pilot! He was a reviewer for Private Pilot Magazine, and several other aviation journals. "I got to fly some really interesting small aircraft!" he says, adding "Not that my mother was very happy about that! But to show support, she became my first passenger after I got my pilot's license! After we landed, she got out of the small 2-seater Piper Cherokee and commented 'Well.....it's not a 747!'"

"Whenever I flew, I would hum the tone of the engine. Once, when flying, I noticed that the tone had changed. I checked the gauges, and realized there was a problem!"

He was also involved in some enterpreneurial activities connected to aviation.

"I never really left the piano" he says "but I consider that, at a certain point, I returned. I had an epiphany when I attended a Chopin master class at Southern Massachusetts University. All the students were adults. I played just two mazurkas, after which there was silence, and then spontaneous applause! I realized this would be my 'métier,' ie. what I should be doing," though, as was mentioned before, he played a lot of other works, too. "I felt it was less important to prove something to myself, and more important to give my best to my audience."

He read every book he could find in English about Chopin. And he remembered his father having told him "Always leave your audience with something to remember you by."

Speaking again of his parents, he says he heard them perform many times, including at a 1955 revival of "The Merry Widow" with the City Opera at City Center, as well as at concerts at Town Hall, Lewisohn Stadium, and other places. Sometimes, as a youngster, he participated in the concerts with his parents, such as at Hunter College. And he remembers his father singing mazurkas, though not by Chopin.

Marjan says it irks him that all-Chopin piano recitals often list each of the larger works individually and then, perhaps, "Three Mazurkas," as if they are less important. "Nothing Chopin wrote was an 'aside.' He worked just as hard on the mazurkas as on everything else, and they are 30% of his output!"

In his 30's or 40's he became the accompanist of his mother, Marta Eggerth. What was that like?

"It was amazing! And I say that not just as an adoring son. When practicing, she was sometimes not so motivated, but in performance I had to watch her like a hawk, as she would sometimes pause spontaneously, or take a breath in a new place. Although I had the music in front of me I memorized it, so I could watch her, and not miss anything. As we were working together, we were colleagues, and I usually called her 'Marta' instead of 'Mom.'"

"My mother liked to sing the Chopin songs, out of devotion to my father's memory. She also had me learn some songs of Liszt, Schumann and Kodaly, and all of her operetta repertoire, works of Kalman, Lehar, Robert Stolz, and Leo Fall." He adds that Kalman and Lehar were Hungarian, though they had their careers in Vienna. And it was Kalman who "discovered" Marta Eggerth, and brought her to Vienna.

Jeaneane Dowis was a very important teacher in Marjan's life, but another teacher entered later on. That was Menahem Pressler. Marjan met him when he played Chopin's Raindrop Prelude for Pressler at a master class in Vermont. Marjan realized that Pressler was a musician with a "mitteleuropa taste," wanting to know "Where is the phrase going? What did the composer have in mind here?" etc. These two teachers were very different, but Marjan says he learned a great deal from each of them.

Dowis was more literal and technical in her pedagogy. "If you had a problem with a passage, she'd take it apart, work on it with you for four hours, and then it would work! She'd say 'Your wrist has to be here, your elbow has to be here, and your thumb has to be pulled back.' She was more angular, geometric, mathematical, and anatomical."

By contrast, he says that after a lesson with Pressler, he was "elated. I just wanted to run back to the piano!"

Marjan described the "ritual" of a Pressler visit, when Pressler would come to New York for concerts with the Beaux Arts Trio. "He would stay in our extra apartment, and play concerts with the Trio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Friday and Saturday night. Afterwards we would have Chinese food. He loved hot and sour soup! He would go to bed late Saturday night, then get up at 5 AM Sunday morning to take a 7:10 AM flight back to Indiana, where he'd then teach all day! He had incredible energy!"

Marjan made specific comments about some of the Chopin mazurkas.

"In the first three measures of Op. 17, No. 4, Pressler told me to play just the middle note of each "left hand" chords with the right hand, to bring out that melody. And Dowis told me to count out the fourth measure, so as not to rush onward after that."

"Mazurkas don't ALWAYS have the accent on the first or second beat. If you look at the score, there can be accents on any, or all, or none of the beats. In Op. 6, No. 2, there are accents on each beat in measures 5 and 6, but just on beats 1 and 2 in measure 7. And in Op. 68, No. 3, very few accents are marked in the score, but accents can be used agogically.

Marjan enjoys teaching, but calls it "coaching." "Two plus two equals four, the square root of nine is three, and everything else is a matter of opinion! All I do is offer suggestions. I like to introduce students to new ideas, and offer something from my soul, from my gut. This makes me happy!"

In 1989 he made his London debut at the Polish Cultural Center. In the first half he played music of Chopin. At the end of the program he accompanied his mother, who was returning from a tour of Poland and Germany, in three songs each by Liszt and Chopin, plus encores. He got good reviews, and later played in Paris, Zurich, Germany, and Poland, plus additional concerts in England and the USA.

In 2000, urged to do so by his wife, Jane Knox-Kiepura, he started the Patria record label. Its second CD was of Marta Eggerth, but the first was the all-Chopin disc I mentioned at the beginning of this article. It got excellent reviews. An interesting one, from the American Record Guide, mentioned that there was "little strutting of technical stuff." It also commented that although it was all Chopin, it included no etudes, scherzi, sonatas, or ballades. And why did it feature the oft-played Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2? Then it continued "What, then, is this all about? It's about a rhythmic understanding of Chopin completely unavailable to the usual competition winner who has managed to please judges from every corner of the earth."

Marjan has enjoyed performing for David Dubal's class, and likes Dubal's comment that "mazurkas were Chopin's way of being home."

He thinks about the place of silence in music. He quoted Leon Fleisher as saying "Silence is not the absence of music," adding that Fleisher's teacher, Artur Schnabel, said "It's all in the pauses." He mentioned that Seiji Ozawa referred to "Ma," which he said was an Asian term for rest, or separation. And that when his mother would take a pause in a work she was singing "It could change the atmosphere in the room."

"Chopin gives us room to do that in his music, too."

Marjan has plans to make more workshop videos, in response to the YouTube videos people have seen.

We talked some more about the music of Chopin. He said that he's still learning things about the Raindrop Prelude, though he's played it most of his life. And he thinks it probably should not be played too slowly when performed as a stand-alone piece, as opposed to when it appears between the brilliant surrounding preludes.

He said "You remember, Don, in Alan Walker's book, he talks about Chopin as 'normal' kid in Poland, who climbed hills, and rode horses? He never returned to Poland after he left it at the age of twenty. But he never forgot it. You know how under a flower is dirt? A flower's origins are dirt. You can't forget that! In his music, Chopin remembered the flowers, but also the earth underneath it, the Polish earth."

To which one might add: Probably nowhere more so than in his mazurkas!

Donald Isler

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