Alan Feinberg
Interview by Guy Livingston, Feb.1st 1999


Alan Feinberg is a terrific pianist, a graduate of Juilliard, who barely intended to have a solo career, and whose major breaks came in his thirties and forties, far later than most classical musicians would want or expect. But while many contemporary pianists have remained stuck in their specialty, Feinberg maintains a phenomenal breadth of repertoire, equally at home with Brahms and Babbitt. It is this devotion to music combined with an intensity of purpose that have gradually made him one of the most important American pianists of his generation. After a highly acclaimed appearance in 1991 with the Cleveland Orchestra in Sulamit Ran’s Concert Piece, Feinberg performed with them again in Brahms and, most recently, Ives.

The Ives is the new and astonishing piano concerto based on fragments of the Emerson Overture. These fragments, which Ives left behind in a chaotic state, have been painstakingly pieced together by maverick Ives scholar David G. Porter. In his program note to the piece, Porter says “more than 60 years have gone by since Ives began sending out sketches of the piece to interested persons...why did it take so long to realize that the basic idea of the concerto was complete? The reason comes in part from the simple disorder in which the manuscript pages were found over a long portion of the life of the composer... For my part, when I saw the copies of the manuscript, I was astonished by the state of completion of the five first and two last minutes of the piece. [Along with the Emerson transcriptions] there was enough to show not just ‘what might have been,’ but what ‘still had a chance to be.’

From these disparate, and often conflicting sources, Porter managed to assemble a concerto, which appears to be fairly close to what Ives intended. The piano part, resembling in many details and most themes the Emerson movement of the Concord Sonata--which came first, and which is a transcription of the other?--is most authentic. The orchestral part seems to have been sketchy, and is thus less successful in performance. A huge discrepancy exists between the static tutti scoring of this work and the heart-stopping complexity of authentic Ives orchestral music. (See any of the symphonies for this sort of bizarre and almost complexist instrumental writing). Yet, in the hands of Feinberg and the stellar Cleveland Orchestra under Christophe von Dohnányi, the piece stunned audiences this October in Cleveland and this February in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid.

The night after the tour finished in Paris with a triumphantly successful concert at the Cité de la Musique, we interviewed pianist Alan Feinberg about his career and about the experience of premiering the Ives.

Ives is notorious for his ironic and obscure instructions. Were the comments that he left clear enough to follow?

Yes, the comments were about the music: “this measure is where the spiritual immensity begins,” or “this is a call...” There’s one point in the concerto where I put my right hand way up in the air and come down, slamming it down. He says when he plays it that’s what he does, because when there was an important point to be made in his sermon, Emerson would do that. This is all in there. It started out being one thing. It started out being piano and Emerson. The orchestra is the audience, but in the end it became Ives channeling an amazing degree.

When you read Ives’ essay on Emerson, he’s clearly wrought-up by the feelings it inspires.

It was the music that he felt the most attachment to of all the music he wrote, and he just never got tired of it. A CD is going to be released of every cut that he ever recorded. There was an old recording that had a few things on it, but there are all sorts of others--some of them are improvisations--but three-quarters of it is Emerson-related.

Of course a lot of those are at Yale. It’s wild hearing him go nuts in the recording studio, singing along and shouting insults and exhortations! Do you think Ives was a lunatic, or inspired?

Well, maybe both...

I have an odd history with Ives myself. In Cleveland I wrote a little article [about this]. It surprised me when they shoved it in the program book: A number of years ago I was asked to do the premiere of a sonata by a Hungarian composer in London: a fifteen-minute work. I agreed to do it because it was a chance to go to London. To make a long story short, it turned out to be the Concord Sonata, upside-down and backwards, line-by-line, but with the lines out of order.

Laszlo Sari was the composer. He didn’t announce what it was, so I got this piece and started working on it, and it was awfully strange. And I didn’t play the Concord at that time, but I knew the piece, and I don’t even know why, but I suddenly figured out what it was, and I called the publisher and they didn’t know anything about its relationship to Ives. I asked, “What do the program notes about the piece say?” -- and he said “Oh, no, no, it’s not possible, we don’t know Ives here,” and I said, “you don’t understand, this is Ives.” So I ended up calling the presenter in London, I was very upset: I thought I would lose the gig. I don’t think the presenter in London really believed me; he said, “come and do it anyway,” and I said I’d do it as long as I could say what it is.

So I went to London, and before I played, I explained what it was, and then I played it. It was really quite a piece of work. Everything’s upside down. Everything is inverted. It’s hard to do. If there is an arguable coherence in the Concord Sonata, there is absolutely none in this. But it was a riot. Pictures of Sary, myself, and the first line of the piece were on the front page of the London Times, and it was a big scandal, so this is why I started to develop a career in England. I got reviews that said things like “Well, he plays pretty well, but we’d like to hear him play something right-side up!”

And then a month later, I was in Budapest to meet Sary, and I didn’t know what that would be like. Actually the scandal had made his life pretty bad...

He was dependent upon the Union. This was bad publicity. It was the early part of the 80s; probably about 85. But he was terribly sweet. We didn’t have that much language in common... we both spoke a little bit of German. He was very nice. The publisher was funny. He translated for us. He was a very proper guy, and asked, “Do you have any questions about this score?” And I said, “Either I have no questions, or I have a zillion questions, because it doesn’t work; it doesn’t work backwards like this.” There are more notes above middle C than below middle C. So not all the notes are on the piano. And some rhythms don’t retrograde. So he says “well what do you mean,” and I pointed to one section, and Sary looked at it and said, [dejectedly] “ doesn’t work.”

But he was very nice to me, very sweet after the concert, and I realized that he’d gotten a hard time for it .He just seemed like a good soul, who was very caught up with Ives that year. He and a Zoltan Yeni had this music studio, where they were all doing wacky things. Zoltan Yeni did the Mahler Ninth symphony, and just redistributed the parts, without transposing them. I didn’t hear it, but there were also cases of people ripping off stuff like that, and claiming that it was original writing.

All of this did not make me want to play the Concord Sonata.

But a couple of years ago for the Ives hundredth birthday, there was a Festival at Bard, and they asked me to do some stuff, as a new version of the Celestial Railroad was about to be published. There have been people who have played it here and there: Either they made up their own editions or not, but they didn’t have access to the right material. So there now is a scholarly edition. They asked me to play that, and the Concord and the Quarter-Tone Pieces. So while I was [preparing] that, I was in touch with David Porter, and a friend of his, a younger guy named Thomas Brodhead, who edited the Celestial Railroad. I was talking to both of them about the Concord. It’s interesting because it shares a lot of musical material [with Celestial Railroad]. I must have seen six or seven different versions of the opening pages of the Hawthorne. You can’t make sense of it based on the text. And it’s also interesting when you see all the revisions: it’s not necessarily the case that the piece gets better.

Parts of the Anti-Abolitionist Riots have Emerson sources also, but the guy who did it didn’t know about it and for years, this drove Porter crazy, which is why I originally heard from him. I had recorded one of Ives’ studies, and I got this note out of the blue, this crazy, super-intense note, saying it was great I had done this, but my edition was no good. I had just gone out and bought it. I thought this guy’s nuts. Three days later I got this package in the mail. He was right! So I called him up and had this bizarre conversation with him.

Do you think Ives had any sense that things can have a definitive version?

I don’t think he did with the Emerson music. He writes that he enjoys the pleasure of never having to finish it. The change in the music really became like the Emersonian quest... There are three different endings. There are all sorts of disparities...

David Porter’s philosophy was to take the maximalist approach: put in the most. He is now quite embraced by the Ives Society, but when I met him, David and Tom were outside the powers that be, and I tried to actually get them [invited]. All these Ives scholars came to Bard, and I talked to the Festival; “I think you really should invite Brodhead, because he made this edition [of the Celestial Railroad], and I think you ought to have this guy Porter: he’s nuts, but he’s the real thing.”

Now they know it... and they’re very happy to have him, but then he was just this weird guy... He’s kind of not ready-for-prime-time! He must be about six-foot-seven, he has a [big] beard like this, and he’s about 50. He’s a real character. He can’t really get a job, but he opens his eyes in the morning, and the first thing he thinks about is Ives.

After the Bard events, I was talking to him, and he suddenly said “I figured it out!” Everybody thought the Emerson Concerto was lost, but he said, “no no no, I found it...I figured out how it works... It’s all there, it’s just not in consecutive pages.” The indication was that the Ives society put out some scholarly editions. They were hot off the press, but they were wrong. The people who did them just didn’t have the right material.

So when he said that he [had the Emerson] I knew we really ought to try to do this. He has no money, and the Ives Society doesn’t have much money, so if Cleveland hadn’t picked this up, eventually ten years from now, this would have been done. No one would have figured out the rights. Apparently the music is owned by the Academy of Arts and Letters. But for the rights: Presser has some, and Schirmer has some, it was a mess to figure it out.

How did you deal with the overlaps?

The executive director of the orchestra really had to get in there. The orchestra got behind it totally. It just wouldn’t have happened, and eventually ten years from now, the Ives society would have put on a concert at Yale with the student orchestra, and the piece would have disappeared.

So who was the driving force behind it? Were you already onboard at this point?

I was very interested to do it, of course, and to see it. I also frankly thought that David needed it. He was the Rodney Dangerfield of Ives scholarship, he just couldn’t get a break, and he really deserved it, and now he’s gotten [recognition.] He did a paper for the Ives Society which apparently knocked people out.

Does he ever think of himself as a composer?

He is a kind of composer, though I haven’t seen any of his work. He’s a very bright guy, and he’s a heavy duty scholar. He has a book he’s preparing, or an article, and when I saw it, it was 120 pages about how he did [the Emerson], with 50 pages of musical examples. And it’s the real thing.

But the score is not a performing edition. Actually that remains to be done. It’s not like somebody said, “This piece would work better with a few more violins here” Porter made no decisions like that. It’s only what Ives said.

At first the Ives Society was having little to do with him. I knew that Cleveland had done a fair amount of Ives, and that Christophe liked Ives. It’s one of the orchestras that I have a good relationship with, and I adore them, and I’ve done a bunch of stuff with them. So I knew executive director Tom Morris would be interested in a project like this. I called Tom up and I told him about it, and I said, “what do you think?” I was confident they would look at it on its artistic merits. There’s been a lot of skepticism about those Universe Symphonies. [Another unfinished and completely mythical Ives work, which surfaces every few years in a new and “definitive” version -Ed.] Most of those are not Ives, really not Ives, and are in hysterically different versions. The person to talk to about that is David, who made a little edition of only the material that exists, and then I think had actually the first performance of that, and then went nuts when all these other people who are good at self-promotion did it and got it completely wrong. So the next move after that was that they brought David out to Cleveland, and as I said to Tom afterwards, I would have given anything to see that first meeting between Christophe von Dohnányi and David Porter.

David lives in the desert somewhere. He doesn’t have a car, he doesn’t drive, he looks like Paul Bunyan, and he’s funny; he calls me after the meeting and says, “Alan, yeah, they put me in a nice hotel, and Alan, you know, in this hotel room, there’s a little refrigerator, it has drinks, you know, you can buy drinks, but you know, the next time I come back to Ohio, I’m bringing my own liquor with me, because the liquor is unbelievably expensive here!” You see what I mean! And apparently the artistic administrator had a pre-meeting with him, to try to prep him for Christophe, and apparently it was some time before he understood what David was talking about, but then they had the meeting, and he made himself clear, and they were impressed, and they decided to go the next level and see about the rights, and so it all started with a phone call. And what’s great is that the piece has so far gotten a lot of publicity.

Of course!

Well, not of course. It should, but what’s been really interesting is that it’s very rare that a piece of music really ever gets publicity. Its the Three Tenors, it’s Yo Ma, it’s a personality, it’s the orchestra--but there was a television special, and there was a National Public Radio segment, and a fair amount of press, and what was interesting about it was that it was about a piece of music. One of the Cleveland orchestra people came back on the opening night, and said, “we’re just overwhelmed, we expected to get some publicity, but we didn’t expect this much,” and I said, “me too” and of course it deserves this, but it’s just so unusual for a piece of music to get this. It wasn’t me and it wasn’t Cleveland. You realize how unhealthy the world is in that it doesn’t happen more often. And there are a dozen events in a year that deserve national attention, premieres, or whatever.

Well this one got the attention it deserves. We’re fascinated by Ives and we play his music, so this is unquestionably a hot news item. But what do you think was exciting about it for the mainstream media or for the man on the street?

Well I’m not sure exactly. I’d love to say it should be a no-brainer. But if Cleveland had not been interested in doing it, I’m not sure we would have had a premiere. A lot of the credit goes to Christophe. As much as he does a lot of the meat and potatoes repertoire, he also does do a lot of contemporary music and for him Ives is the great American composer, and it’s really important: this is a major work that had not been done. There’s a certain integrity and a certain vision that the best orchestra in the country should behave like that: lead, not follow.

That used to be the case for example with the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky, but that was a long time ago.

A long time ago. My first gig with the Cleveland Orchestra was doing the concerto by Sulamit Ran, and it came about because the artistic administrator there had heard me play Ran and he called me and said, “gee I’d love to get you a gig here.” I’d made some name for myself doing contemporary music, but I had no manager, and no connections to play with the Cleveland orchestra. This was about 1990. And he said, “can you recommend a couple of contemporary pieces, (I can’t get you in to play Beethoven obviously)” and I recommended the Ran, and he liked it, and he showed it to Christophe, and the next thing I knew I had a gig with the Cleveland Orchestra. So that was a huge break. It was like Cinderella, because it wasn’t a circle that I [performed in]... And the next thing I knew was that they decided “we’re going to take it on tour!” and so we did a ten-concert tour, this was my first time playing like this: For a major orchestra to go on tour with a new piece like that, and with a pianist that’s not a name that anybody would know, is [very unusual]. Usually it’s nothing but blockbusters that go on tour.

We have one of the world’s greatest orchestras. But the problem with us is that other countries have this chauvinistic side, where they plug their own, they help their own, and...

...and they have the money for it.

The worst thing to be in America is an American pianist. The cachet is if you’re Russian, if you’re Russian off the boat ...Maybe you were around long enough to see that Boston is in some ways the most provincial of cities. As an alien to Boston, you can’t get a good review. It’s a bizarre situation. In New York, you get no respect if you’re from New York. I don’t know how many concerts I played before I got a review in the New York Times.

Tell us a little bit about how you started out.

Well I obviously had a very odd-ball career. I didn’t expect to be a soloist when I was in school. I got my masters at Juilliard. The decision to try to become a pianist was very late though I had a lot of friends who were on the fast-track. As competitive as Juilliard was, I was sort of saved from the competition, because I wasn’t competitive at the time; I wasn’t developed yet. So I just did my thing; not at the same professional level that a lot of my friends were. I was out for a year or two, and I had expected to get a teaching job somewhere, but then a doctoral program started at the Manhattan School, and I’d had enough of conservatory. So I studied with Bob Helps, and I did it because I knew he wasn’t ancient and I understood he was a composer. I thought that would be interesting, and it was a great choice. He was only there for one year, and I then I ended up leaving, and I didn’t finish the program, because of him, but there was a new music ensemble which needed a pianist. and the first year they only took three pianists, and they asked me. I did a concert with them, and they asked me to continue on with them. And I had of course never done anything like this.

This was the seventies, when the new music crowd was nasty and complicated and ugly. I did a fair amount and Bob had encouraged me too, and by going to hear him play, old pieces and new, I got the book. For myself, I actually discovered that I had all this schooling and I had never learned how to think. And so slowly, I did learn how to think, with all these very complicated pieces. Trying to figure out ‘why do I like this one and not this one’ was a great experience, and it was the first time in my life that I was practicing because I was actually going to play something. In terms of a lot of my friends, it was: “Oh Alan, he’s nice but he’s doing that weird stuff.” I was starting on the ground level, but even the people who could did Chopin Etudes blew rings around me at the time. We wouldn’t have been at the same level. But after a while if you do a lot of that, you have to learn a whole bunch of new techniques... And the nice thing about the freelance world, and I think this is true in most cities, is that it’s an open market. If you’re good, and you’re not a misanthrope, you’ll get hired, because usually the people who do the hiring are musicians. And they know if you do a good job, and if you can get along.

There’s also something about knowing the right people at the right time.

This is true, but in most cities, the heavy-duty freelancers really are good players. And they’re hired by people who tend to know, which of course is not at all the way the soloist world works. That’s a completely monopolistic world. So I did that for a number of years, and in those years as a freelancer, where I did everything from cabaret evenings to silent movies, to the latest premieres, to Brahms piano quartets, or accompanying theater, I found that with each different thing, you learn something. For example, no matter how much you think you know about rhythm: until you play with a good percussionist, you don’t realize that you know nothing! And it was great, I loved it. After a couple of years I suddenly discovered that all these things I thought I never could do, I could now do, and... I got these funny breaks: I was always hired to do ensemble stuff, and then within the same kind of venues, I’d be asked to do a solo piece here and there.

I got some odd breaks. Ernst Fleishman heard me play, and suddenly I was going out to Los Angeles to play, and do some stuff with Boulez. I was, and still am in many ways, very off the beaten path. After London and the backwards Ives, I got asked to play at the Edinburgh Festival, right-side up this time, and I lucked out. I got seven reviews for one concert, which was just dumb luck, but they were all good, and actually, I played well that day. The head of the BBC was there, and I was introduced around and invited back.

What has it been like finding management?

At some point I hired someone to work as a personal rep, then I had a year with someone who had worked with one of the big agencies, and then set up on his own. Then I founded an agency, right after the Cleveland thing. It was good; I was very happy with that. It was three people but later two of them left. I hadn’t realized it was an unstable situation. And then the agency disintegrated, at a very bad time for me, when I had actually started to get things going. And again, on a fluke which didn’t have anything to do with that (but just before I signed with them) I got a job to make a disc for Decca, which was really a totally crazy fluke. They were starting up the Argo label, and one of the people who was working in the PR department at Polygram called me up. She’d taken a few piano lesson with me.

What a way to make a contact!

She called me up, and wanted advice, and took me to lunch to pick my brains, and we had a whole conversation about different composers, and she said, “well what are you up to?” I had just played the week before in New York, and I had a couple of really good reviews, and I had just come back from Los Angeles, where I had done something with Boulez, and she said “do you have any tapes.” I gave her some tapes--wildly representative stuff. She wasn’t even an A&R person, but two or three months later she calls me up and says, “you know, Alan, the head of Argo’s here, he’d like to have lunch with you.” And I’d given him everything from Amy Beach to Milton Babbitt, so then he let me do the first disc I did with him, which was called the American Romantics, and was a very unusual disc, because it was a concept disc. It was three composers, which the marketing department already had a fit over: They weren’t related in any way, except their music is all related by gesture--in some ways by form--and by a certain kind of romantic use of the instrument. But I basically said, “look, I think all this stuff will go together, and it will be really interesting,” there was no musicological [reason], but he let me do it, which again amazed me, and I was very happy. I really thought it did work, and then surprise, surprise, it got a Grammy nomination. Again it seemed if you stay in the business long enough, if you have the stamina... then you get good breaks. You get bad breaks too: I could tell you the horror stories, which were totally unfair...

Did you have moments of musical or career self-doubt?

When this management fell apart on me. Or when I did records with Decca, I got a lot of press, [but] they never even took a picture of me. Argo is basically dead now, it wasn’t just me, it was a lot of people, a lot of things they did. They would make [the albums], and then not sell them. The record companies have frankly got what they deserve. They could have done a lot better in general to promote and make a more healthy state of affairs for music and for new music. So I’ve always had this weird thing, where I’ve had no bread and butter gigs.

To wrap up our conversation, let me ask you the infamous desert island disc question: if you were sent to a desert island, and could only take ten discs, what would you take?

long pause...Feinberg is stymied.


I would take a variety of styles... I don’t know that I have the ten greatest... I tend not to think so much of masterworks. I would take Bach--the idea of having to choose one is a little hard. But I love the Cantatas. I would surely take Beethoven quartets; I might take Billie Holiday. I’m not sure. It’s a hard question to answer. But you know, what I feel incredibly lucky about is that I’m the guy that played the John Cage prepared piano concerto, the Brahms B-flat, and the Gershwin concerto, all within an eight-day period. I’ve gotten to do all this different stuff--as crazy as this career is, that’s one of the things I really love.

Interview copyright 1999 by Guy Livingston. Paris Transatlantic Magazine, Winter 1999. Other links here at Paris Transatlantic Magazine: Interviews with David Grubbs,Eugene Chadbourne and Fred Frith; funny and trenchant quotations from Morton Feldman himself; reviews of Feldman's concerts in Paris in 1996; CDs from Mode Records, and of course lots more on our table of contents page.