A Prodigy Returns

Photo: JTMcMillin

Tchaikovsky & Friends
8 p.m. Nov. 15
Michigan Theater
603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor

Anton Nel, the internationally acclaimed piano virtuoso and former head of the piano department at the University of Michigan, returns to Ann Arbor this weekend to perform the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Ann Arbor Symphony. A popular faculty member while at U-M in the mid-2000s, Nel's homecoming is at 8 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Michigan Theater, where he'll reconnect with a rich network of friends and fans in Ann Arbor, especially within the LGBT community.
Winner of the 1987 Naumberg International Piano Competition at Carnegie Hall, Nel has performed with many of the world's finest orchestras in the United States, Europe, Asia and South Africa. Born in 1961 in South Africa, he was a prodigy, performing the Beethoven C Major Concerto at the age of 12 after only two years of study. At 19, he came to the U.S. to study at the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music where he earned his Masters and Doctoral degrees in music. From there, his career catapulted as he appeared at major concert and recital halls around the globe.
Nel belongs to one of the most famous lines of pianists. Nel's teacher was South African virtuoso Adolph Hallis, who was taught by the most famous of the Romantic piano teachers, Theodor Leschetizky. He in turn was taught by Carl Czerny, a teacher whose studies most piano students still play today. Czerny was taught by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven, who for his part was taught by Mozart's composer friend, and rival, Joseph Haydn. Before that, the piano didn't even exist.
Nel now chairs the piano department at the University of Texas. BTL spoke with him from his Austin home on returning to Ann Arbor, growing up in South Africa and his passion for teaching.

You're known not only as one of the great pianists of our time, but also for your huge repertoire and prodigious memory and expertise on Beethoven. How does your connection with Beethoven impact your playing of Tchaikovsky?
That's a great question. Over the years I've always had a strong love for the German-Austrian classical romantic type of music and somehow, in all of that, I became the frontrunner for being known for the music that I play. All the German music is, of course, so highly organized. The Tchaikovsky has a very good structure and you relate to it on that level. I think it's beautifully constructed. The only shame about it is that the great melody that you hear in the beginning that everybody knows never comes back again; it's there and then it goes away. It's bright while it lasts.

You were born and raised in South Africa. What was it like growing up in such a political storm with the wrenching end to apartheid?
I had the most wonderful upbringing. I was born in Johannesburg, but we lived on a farm for a large part of my childhood. It was very simple. Television hadn't come to South Africa until 1976, so all of our stimulation as children came from things that we made up ourselves. My family would gather around the radio to listen to something. There was always music in my house. My mother played. I remember music before I could speak. And it was natural for me to start piano lessons.

They must've been astounded that they had a prodigy in the family.
My mother was amazing. She was not the typical kind of stage mother that one sometimes encounters these days. She just celebrated the fact that somebody was doing something that I think she had once upon a time dreamed of doing herself.

Do you get back to South Africa much?
I very much do. I do a lot of playing there. South Africa has been extremely loyal to me all these years. So whenever I go back, it's wonderful and I am welcomed. I was there earlier this year for a three-week tour.

Have you toured Russia?
I've been there a couple of times.

Would you go back now given the political environment there?
I'm a little nervous about that. I would rather not look for trouble. I'd rather wait. I'm a peaceful kind of guy. I spend a lot of time trying to create calm and I don't think that would be such a good idea.

What do you enjoy about teaching and the academic environment?
For me, I come from such a rich pedigree of people that I've studied with. I was always interested in teaching, to pass on this tradition. But now I am completely immersed and dedicated to it. First off, it is really good for your playing because you have to practice what you preach, but in another sense it is a huge responsibility. When I was in school, my teacher was the absolute most important person in my life, especially being a foreign student. As a teacher now, you do so much more for them than teach – you mentor and you are their guide. You're everything to them, really. My students are like my family.

Orchestras and all classical musicians are struggling to attract young people. What do you think is the future of classical music in America?
I think we have a lot of work to do. I needn't tell you that our audience is aging fast. It's interesting because it is part of a cycle. When you visit a place like Asia, it's completely different. Audiences are sort of young and excited, and they carry on at a classical concert like it is a rock concert.
I don't think there'll be a shortage of people that want to go into classical music; there are hundreds and thousands of people that want to pursue it, but you know, we need people to play for. The only way to do this is to educate the young people and get them excited about coming to concerts – to get away from the Internet and whatever, to get themselves out there, and to enjoy the real thing.


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