RODERIC DUNNETT talks to
American piano virtuoso
Piano virtuoso Haskell Small is the last person to sound his own trumpet.
Not many current American keyboard players of his generation have been credited
by the UK-based Musical Times with a 'dazzlingly prodigious technique',
by the German national press with 'spellbinding', 'poetry' and 'playing
with which one can hardly find any fault', or by the Washington Post with
words like 'flair', 'bravura', 'technical prowess' and 'Lisztian sparkle'.
As both composer and pianist he has been hailed alike at the Carnegie Hall,
the Alice Tully Hall, Columbia University, the Kennedy Center and the National
Gallery of Art (in his native Washington). Now Small has been similarly
acclaimed on a series of tours of Europe and the Far East.
Fanfare called him 'refreshing', which is doubly true. Small,
now into his fifties but sparkling with wit, keen intelligence and good
humour, is delightfully unassuming about his achievements, both as pianist
and composer. Quizzed about success, he begins with 'I won a little prize
in a little Pittsburgh competition' (-- for someone with the surname 'Small'
he uses the word 'little' quite often).
Haskell Small's keyboard repertoire is both imaginative and wide-ranging
: he spans not just Bach, the Mozart and Beethoven concertos, Chopin, and
two composers he has (I suggest) a special affinity with -- Alkan and Liszt
-- but also the mid 20th century : Rachmaninov and Shostakovich Preludes
(he plays both Shostakovich Piano Concertos, as well as Prokofiev's First),
Bartók, Albeniz, Ives, the Samuel Barber Sonata, and Gershwin (Small
has made his own characterful piano arrangements of both An American
in Paris and the F major Concerto, and recorded a memorable disc entitled
Gershwin in Black and White ; Gershwin remains a firm favourite since
his boyhood days) -- as well as modern contemporaries like Dominick Argento
and Benjamin Lees, and also his own music.
His latest London appearance, a sprightly Purcell Room recital in late
April 2002 (repeated in early May in Paris, at both the Ecole Nationale
de la Musique, Sucy en Brie and the Conservatoire Municipale de la Ville
de Paris (Gabriel Fauré Conservatoire), Quartier Latin, St Germaine
des Prés, Paris), took in Mompou (the 'Catalan Satie'), Poulenc,
Takemitsu, plus a gloriously played, pedal-free, birdsongy Scarlatti encore
(whose brevity and economy somehow echo the spirit of Small's own compositions),
and -- best of the lot -- his own gripping half-hour Symphony for Solo
Haskell Small grew up in Washington DC, and comes from a native Washington
family, which, he points out, is quite unusual : 'Washington is an itinerant
city, so a family of four generations of Washingtonians is pretty rare!'
Did he always know he wanted to be a Classical musician? 'Well I guess
you could say I had a slightly weird background for a classical musician.
I first came to music through jazz and rock. Before that I'd started playing
the piano early, aged around seven or eight; but my teachers soon gave up
on me -- and I on them! For a time I was basically self-taught; I branched
out into the things that I wanted to do.'
Copyright © 26 May 2002
Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK
THE HASKELL SMALL WEBSITE
JEFFREY JAMES ARTS CONSULTING
THE MOUNT VERNON ORCHESTRA
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