Piano Masterclass by Danile de Borah (29 Jan 2016)

The first Visiting Artist to conduct a piano masterclass this semester at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (at the National University of Singapore) is Daniel de Borah, a foremost musician born in 1891 in Australia. His playing is exemplary and he has a very special kind of musicianship.

Despite his relatively young age, he impressed me with his comments and interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata in F Major, Op 10 No 2 (First Movement: Allegro).He covered a lot of ground in precisely 40 minutes! His critique of the Year 3 student’s performance was very positive and encouraging. He commented that the performance was very thoughtfully prepared, with wonderful articulation and beautiful staccatos but thought the student could exercise a little more freedom so as not to take away the joy in the music, encouraging him to grasp the humour and find the surprises and be free of the constraints of barlines or repetition of sequence.

Danile de Borah did not just talk but also demonstrated on a second Steinway grand how to use a touch less pedal and how to make the crescendo at the rising passages implicit and care a little more for dynamics. Things must be allowed to happen naturally; it is not enough to know theoretically the musical intentions. There should be a building of tension and existence, stubborness perhaps, not just playing metronomically. When an idea stretches for two whole pages (eg in the Development section), there needs to be more conviction. Therefore, the performer must have a bigger picture and not micro-manage the dynamics. Again, Borah demonstrated how to do a diminuendo from sforzando to pianissimo, just like how he demonstrated not to lose tension over the left-hand semiquavers or let the notes be distorted by the pedal. He emphasised that the pedal should be used only for valuable change of colour, for example in expressive and singing lines. In other words, the pianist should be more of a conductor to the music. Borah also showed how ornaments need to fit in the note at a certain time yet the phrase needs to be melodic, and how all these must be projected to the back of the hall. In general, the pianist needs a bit of freedom of time to express himself, to imbue a bit of texture, allowing the music to live its life a little more rather than living the ingredients on the page.

The second piece is Alexander Scriabin’s Five Preludes Op 16 played by another Year 3 student. I have never played any Scriabin and in general I do not enjoy his music, so the 60 minutes taken up here was a tad too long and thus tedious for me. Borah himself remarked at the start that he was a bit worried how the student would be able to bring out the layered textures and a sense of sophistication in such a poetic work. Much of Borah’s comments were similar to the Beethoven sonata, centering on texture, pedalling, the need to be relaxed and free. What I enjoyed was Borah’s beautiful conception and how he compared these Preludes to Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu Op 66, with demonstrations on the piano. Perhaps this segment is so lengthy because the student, a non-Asian, was more vocal and forthcoming in interacting with Borah and they spent a lot of time teaching and leqrning about technical details. The student exclaimed a “Wow!” at Borah’s playing, and so did I.

It is indeed unfortunate that the third student had only 20 minutes for her Ravel’s Sonatine (1905) III. Anime. The two points Borah made were again about pedalling and texture. He felt the effect could have been magical if only she had more courage to play the semiquavers with less density (the piece consists of mostly semiquavers from start to finish) as she was already very articulated and accomplished in her playing.

I look forward to the next few piano masterclasses in the weeks ahead.

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