Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gilli Loftus talks about playing piano, fortepiano and harpsichord

On January 22nd 2013 I interviewed 23-year-old Israeli pianist, fortepianist and harpsichordist Gili
Loftus. Born in Canada, Gili is presently living in Montreal, where she is studying for a doctorate.

PH: Gili, what are your earliest musical experiences?

Gili Loftus: My mother would take us to the concerts of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s children’s series quite regularly. Knowing we were a little hesitant about them in the beginning, she bribed us with sweets. But in time we began enjoying the concerts very much.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

GL: Yes. My mother plays the clarinet and my father, the guitar. They, my grandmother, aunts and uncles are all amateur musicians and have been playing all their lives. But both my siblings and I play professionally. My siblings are percussionists – my brother plays in the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion and my sister will be joining the Israeli army soon as an “outstanding musician”.

PH: What was your early musical training?

GL: I started taking piano lessons at age five or six. My elder brother was studying at the “Musikon” (the local conservatory in Mevaseret, where we lived) and my mother was interested to see if I also wanted to learn. I was a piano pupil of Michael Mereminsky for nine years, also taking part in other musical activities at the conservatory – choir, etc. I then went on to study with Etan Globerson at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

PH: Did you attend a music-oriented school?

GL: Yes. From grade seven to nine, I attended the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance High School, then moving the Israel Arts and Sciences Academy in Jerusalem.

PH: Did you do army service?

GL: Yes, as did my brother. We were “outstanding musician” soldiers in the same unit. While a soldier, I began my undergraduate studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, then completing my B.Mus. in modern piano, studying under Eitan Globerson.

PH: When did your interest in earlier keyboard instruments begin?

GL: While still a student at the Academy, I attended two of the Early Music Workshops that were run by the Jerusalem Music Centre. There were some phenomenal tutors there and that is where I had my first encounter with the harpsichord (and tutors David Shemer, Yizhar Karshon and Matthew Halls) and fortepiano (with Zvi Meniker), playing the instruments, hearing others play them, participating in workshops and lessons on them and meeting builders. The fortepiano was an eye opener – I had never seen one before. In fact, that whole informative (might I say, life-changing) experience definitely steered me in the direction of early keyboard instruments and got me thinking that I would want to pursue- and delve into the field of historical keyboard instruments for my masters degree. I should add that I took some harpsichord lessons with David Shemer in my final year of the Academy; he was very influential for me.

PH: So you went to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, to do just that.

GL: Yes. I have been here since 2010. For my masters degree I took a double major in modern piano and fortepiano. Having played modern piano for so many years, I did not want to give it up; so am here playing all three keyboard instruments, now learning more about the earlier ones. I should add that I had no intention of giving up the piano, interested as I am in historical keyboard instruments. In fact, I continue to study piano, focusing– and performing on it as regularly as on the earlier instruments. I appreciate all these keyboard instruments. Here I have been studying harpsichord with Hank Knox, fortepiano with Tom Beghin, who is very active here in Montreal, and piano with Sara Laimon. I completed my masters last year and am now beginning a doctorate, having now added harpsichord as a major focus. The official language at McGill is English.

PH: Are you involved in research?

GL: The Doctorate of Musical Arts (DMA) is a performance-based degree. However, McGill University is a research university, encouraging its students to engage in research; so the two disciplines go hand in hand – the research informs the performance and vice-versa – and the degree is built around this idea. This is well suited to me. I imagine it will take me three to three and a half years to complete.

PH: What are your other musical activities?

GL: I teach piano privately and play in some ensembles.

PH: What kind of ensemble playing interests you?

GL: I am interested in playing in a musical collective of very versatile musicians who play on Baroque- as well as modern instruments and in a variety of styles, not focusing on only one style or period. This suits what I do and I love this approach. McGill is very active in early music as well as contemporary music. There is a lot of music happening here almost all the time. It takes time to become part of the scene, especially if one is not a French speaker. After two and a half years here, I feel I have slowly started to find my way in and am also becoming more conversant with the French language, which helps.

PH: Have you been performing?

GL: Yes. I have given a few recitals here in Montreal. Just recently I played a Haydn concerto on fortepiano with one of Montreal’s active period orchestra – L’OSVHSL (L’Orchestre symphonique de la Vallée-Du-Saint-Laurent). I have also performed as part of the continuo in Opera McGill’s Baroque opera production of Händel’s “Rinaldo”. Over the next few months, I will be giving a few fortepiano recitals in preparation for a competition in Bruges (Belgium) in which I will be participating in the summer, demanding performance of a lot of repertoire. Then, in the fall, I will be giving one of my doctoral recitals at McGill; this which will involve all three instruments and will focus on the prelude form and the art of and preluding. On the modern piano I will be playing Chopin preludes, on the harpsichord a variety of early French unmeasured preludes and more and, on the fortepiano, perhaps some fantasias of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The recital will take a look at the styles of free, unmeasured forms and the kind of sound world composers have used in order to create this theme of fantasy”.

PH: Did you choose the latter subject or was it a formal requirement?

GL: I chose it.  My personal interest in the subject led to the programming.  

PH: What is your favorite repertoire?

GL: I really can’t say. The luxury of playing on three keyboard instruments fills a need in me to be expressive: every style caters to a different sensibility, offering me a wide range of experiences. So whatever I am playing at any given moment is what I am.

PH: What about contemporary music?

GL: I have done some, not as much as I would like, and have enjoyed it very much. A project I am part of now involves music of the very active contemporary Canadian composer Michael Oesterle. (Sadly, this program does not look like it will come to fruition for the time being.)

PH: Do you enjoy performing?

GL: Very much. Learning how to feel the most comfortable in what can be nerve-wracking and a potentially frightening setting is a work in process, but I definitely do enjoy performing.

PH: How do you find audiences in Montreal?

GL: They are very good audiences, most appreciative, filling halls for early music and concerts of contemporary music as well.

PH: How much time do you spend practicing?

GL: That varies according to what is on my program – what concerts or projects I have coming up. I do like to play on each of the instruments every day.

PH: Do you sing?

GL: Well, singing has not been a part of my studies here. This is not a requirement for Master’s and doctoral programs at McGill. The only place where I really sing nowadays is in the Reform synagogue where I grew up in Mevaseret, close to Jerusalem. For many years I taught trope to younger children there.

PH: Where do you imagine the playing three keyboard instruments will lead you?

GL: This is a big question and I do think about it all the time. I guess at this point I really see myself as being a part in all these keyboard worlds. From beginning my studies only on modern piano, I see a lot of value in widening one’s perspective. All three instruments inform each other, even in physicality and in the way they are played, in terms of style. I might even go as far as saying that, to some extent, the more people taking this approach the better. It is happening now and I would like to be a part of this trend. In the future, I would like to be part of a program that educates in an all-round approach to music education as well as playing and performing, programming and all things relating to the various styles.

PH: Do you see yourself doing this in Israel?

GL: Yes. At this point, however, I feel I still have much to learn and many people to meet before I can come home to share something I feel comfortable enough to present. Of course, these things in Israel, as in any place, are a matter of funding when it comes to concerts, venues, to attracting the public. One needs instruments, instrument builders, parts and libraries. At the moment, with Israeli orchestras struggling, it is quite a tough scene. I do some performing when I am home in Israel: in May, my two siblings and I performed a concert at the Jerusalem Music Centre. It was broadcast on Israeli radio. We had great fun doing it. It included most of the Art of Fugue and pieces commissioned by us by three young Israeli composers – Dan Deutsch, Ayal Adler and Ittai Rosenbaum. The set-up was interesting – xylophone, vibraphone and piano for the Bach; and a variety of other percussion instruments for the other pieces.

PH: How did Bach’s Art of Fugue sound in this scoring?

GL: We actually made no changes; it was only a matter of which voices to allot to what instruments. At first I imagined it would sound weird and I think it is fair to say that some contrapuncti sounded better than others; those that worked well worked really well!  And the sound that came across was very, very interesting, especially with the vibraphone having such a different sound quality to the marimba, as opposed to the piano.

PH: When it is not music, what are your other interests?

GL: I love to read anything and everything and to cook; I find cooking gratifying and calming. I also love to swing dance.

PH: What is swing dancing?

GL: It’s a style of dancing from the 1920s to the 1950s that originated in the USA. The term covers a number of dances, the best known dance being the Lindy Hop. I started doing it in Montreal. There is quite a big swing-dancing community here in Canada. (I did take ballet for nine years, eventually giving it up in order to have more time for music; but I did want to return to dancing.)

PH: Many thanks for this glimpse into your professional life and your broad approach to keyboard playing.