Elizabeth Clarke (BMus ’13) was accepted into the University of Victoria graduate piano performance program last year. She was invited to compete in their annual concerto competition. She performed the third movement of the challenging Brahm’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15, and won the opportunity to play with the university orchestra next year!
“My teacher – Professor Arthur Rowe – suggested I learn a concerto this year and he suggested that this one might be a good challenge,” says Elizabeth. “He was right, as studying it has taught me a great deal both technically and musically.”
Elizabeth fell in love with the piece the first time she heard it. “It is incredibly powerful and rich, both in the piano and orchestral writing, but is also very gentle and intimate in sections,” she explains, “especially in the beautiful second movement. I feel a special connection to this piece because Brahms started writing it when he was exactly my age.” According to Elizabeth, the piece differs from many other piano concertos in that it isn’t overtly virtuosic and flashy. The virtuosity lies instead in the thick textures and big sound required to match the forces of the orchestra, and in being able to manage all of the heavy writing while still showing the beautiful nuances.
The University of Victoria’s music program holds a concerto competition at the end of every year. The faculty chooses three winners whose prize is an opportunity to play with the university orchestra sometime during the following year. The finals are judged by a representative from each instrument area and the orchestra conductor.
“Before I played in the finals I tried to focus on these two things,” says Elizabeth. “How much I loved the music and how grateful I was for everything I learned as a result of studying it… rather than worrying about whether I would be chosen as a winner or not.”
As one of the three winners, Elizabeth will perform her concerto at one of the university orchestra’s concerts next year. “It will be different than anything I have done before, which is a little scary but mostly exciting,” Elizabeth grins. “I think that as a pianist – and really in any career – it’s important to keep challenging yourself to take on new experiences. That’s what makes you grow. I am anticipating that there will be some ups and downs as I continue to prepare, but am grateful for the opportunity to push myself and see what I can learn.”
“The piece challenging in terms of stamina,” Elizabeth continues, “as a typical performance of the piece takes between 45 and 50 minutes. Learning this piece gave me a chance to work out a lot of technical problems, and especially forced me to work on using my body more efficiently to manage the big octave passages without hurting myself. These are skills that I can carry over into new repertoire that I learn as well.”
Elizabeth only started learning the piece last summer. “Preparing a concerto is a little different from practicing solo works,” she explains, “because you also have to know what is happening in the orchestra and make sure it doesn’t throw you off. In addition to all the regular work of learning the notes, memorizing them, and thinking about all the musical details, it’s important to practice catching all the entries and to consider how the solo part fits with the orchestra.”
Elizabeth did a lot of work away from the piano, studying the harmonies, picturing the notes in her head, and looking at the orchestration to know what instruments to listen to for cues. “It also happened that the Victoria Symphony had programmed this piece into their 2014 season,” Elizabeth says. “So I was able to hear Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker play it live at the end of February. I was very excited to hear the piece live and it gave me motivation to practice harder!”
Master of Music student Elizabeth studied piano with Milton Schlosser at UAlberta’s Augustana Campus. Not only was she was only one of three 2013 undergraduates within the University of Alberta to receive the highest award possible for undergraduate achievement, the Governor General’s Silver Medal, she was only one of two Augustana graduates to receive a 2013 scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).