A Q&A with pianist Steven Beck


Acclaimed New York pianist Steven Beck is making his WNMF debut on the second night of the festival in a solo piano recital. This is also Steven’s first time in Winnipeg, and so far, he says it’s been “amazing!”

Where did your love for new music begin?

My parents had a record collection with some contemporary music here and there, but it was really when I got to Juilliard that I got interested. I particularly remember the Juilliard Quartet playing the Carter quartets and being just fascinated by that and going deep into Carter’s music as a result. We did a performance of the Carter Double Concerto at school and I practiced that a ton for weeks, was absolutely entranced by it. Of course being in New York and meeting and working with actual living composers was a part of it too.

You’re performing a wonderful mix of music Wednesday night. What can you tell us about the program you’ve put together?

With the exception of [George] Walker, these are all composers I’ve played for, worked with to some extent. They’re all extremely strong pieces, and there’s a lot of variety- each composer has a unique, really engrossing individual language.

I’m opening with a pair of short pieces by Katherine Balch- the first is a sort of chorale and it felt like a very sweet, inviting way to open the program. (The first four chords are similar to the opening of the Mendelssohn a minor quartet, and I try to channel the sweetness of a string quartet playing these rich harmonies when I start.)

The second is a true virtuoso etude! Brutally fast. It’s less than two minutes but I think I’ve practiced it longer than anything else on the program! Haha!

Then I’m playing a piece for piano and electronics by a great Austrian composer, Olga Neuwirth. (She’s just received the Grawemayer Award, a prestigious composition prize previously awarded to Ligeti and Boulez, among others.) I first played this piece several years ago at a portrait concert of her works in Vienna- the electronics part is mostly a soft drone on Eb, and the piano plays a lot of figuration and clusters surrounding that pitch.

Then comes a gorgeous, evocative piece by Sarah Kirkland Snider called The Currents– I know Sarah was here recently as Distinguished Guest Composer- and two pieces by the great American composer Charles Wuorinen, one of which, Doubletake, was written for me. And I’m closing with George Walker’s third sonata; one of my pandemic projects was recording Walker’s five sonatas for Bridge Records, and the album has just been released. Fantastic, rich piece.

Can you tell us a bit about the physical set up of the piano for this performance (I understand there will be speakers inside the piano?)

In the Neuwirth the electronics part is mostly just a sort of subtle bed of sound that the piano can play against, interact with. So I think the idea with the speakers inside the instrument is that rather than being perceived as something separate, the electronics are just a kind of halo around the existing piano sound.

The other bit of physical interest is I prepare the piano very slightly in the Neuwirth, that is, I put Blu Tack and tape on some of the strings to get a particular colour she wants.