From her humble beginnings in Wisconsin to her latest triumph with the Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition, Amanda Gessler continues to grow and progress as a concert pianist.
Gessler, 27, has long owned her passion for interpreting the works of Beethoven, and her talent to translate his works is undeniable. She possesses an instinctive ability to bring out the subtle nuances of many classical artists, but none more so than those from the German composer that has always been a driving force in her musical career.
“The music of Beethoven has always carried a deep significance to me,” Gessler said. “His music was the strongest influence on my musical career.”
Because of her connection with Aspen through the summer music festival, Gessler fell in love with the Aspen area and now lives and teaches here. On May 1, she won the prestigious Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition and is scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York on May 18.
Not bad for someone who grew up in Harshaw, Wisconsin, a town with a church, a bar, a cemetery and not much more. She was one of four children and the only child to show any interest in music.
When Gessler was 9, her mother found a piano instructor, Mary Nienaber, in nearby Minaocqua and signed Amanda up for lessons. Her parents had a modest income, but did buy her an electronic keyboard to practice on.
“I had a little old lady instructor and a little piano that wasn’t even a full keyboard to practice on,” Gessler said. “Playing the piano felt natural. I loved learning and getting my head into something new.”
The thrill of playing didn’t last long as Gessler eventually stopped practicing. In reality, she advanced so quickly that the early lessons became boring and simply repetitious. Her mother said it was time to stop her lessons because the family couldn’t afford to pay for something she wasn’t enjoying. The only stipulation was that Gessler had to be the one to tell Nienaber she was done.
Gessler still remembers going to that lesson. After telling her instructor she was bored and wanted to quit, Nienaber’s reply was to play the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
Gessler was stunned and never listened to music the same way again.
“It enchanted me and took me to another world,” she said. “I was so young and had such a limited exposure to music. I had never heard anything so beautiful. Needless to say, I didn’t quit.”
Gessler began learning the Moonlight Sonata and was hooked instantly. She found the challenges she was seeking and developed a strong relationship with Nienaber, who would give Gessler lessons, even when her family couldn’t afford them.
At age 11, her family moved to a suburb of Chicago. Gessler had been home-schooled all her life, and since Beethoven was German, she decided to study the German language at McHenry Community College.
“I was lucky I looked older than I was,” she said. “I don’t think anybody knew just how young I was.”
She started taking other classes at the community college and carried a 4.0 grade point average. Despite her success in the classroom, she never earned a high school diploma or a degree from the college.
Gessler desperately wanted to visit Germany and see the country where Beethoven lived, so she worked for her father and saved her money. She managed to buy a ticket to Germany and stayed there with a pen pal. On her 13th birthday, she went to Bonn, Germany, to visit the birthplace of Beethoven.
“I’ll remember that day forever,” Gessler said. “I had dreamt of that moment for so long that I literally thought I was dreaming. It was amazing.”
When she returned to Illinois, she kept practicing and progressing until tragedy struck. Her mother passed away from cancer when Gessler was 15 and the family had to move back to Wisconsin. Her father had to stay in Illinois to work, so Gessler became the head of the household. Despite feeling stuck and isolated, she used her music as escapism and continued to practice countless hours.
Her life changed for the better when she entered a piano competition through the Chicago Symphony. She played Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 and won a full scholarship to attend the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.
At Interlochen, she worked with an instructor named Steven Perry who convinced Gessler that her potential was literally untapped. After Interlochen, she attended the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music as a piano major.
As a junior, she spent a year studying in Vienna.
“Vienna was heaven to me,” she said. “Beethoven’s grave is there. Schubert and Mozart lived there. Those were the biggest influences in my life and their spirits still live there.”
In Vienna, she met Gerald Stofsky, who heard Gessler play and took the young American under his wing and taught her as his private student. Stofsky taught Gessler how to bridge the gap between the emotions she felt and how to translate them into her music without ego.
“Gerald taught me to let go and let the music out of me,” she said. “He literally was an angel. He took my playing to a whole new level. Now playing the piano was as much about passion as it was about the notes themselves.”
When she returned to America, she auditioned for several graduate schools and was awarded a full scholarship to Indiana University where she could work with Menahem Pressler, one of the most distinguished living piano players.
In 2005, Gessler began coming to Aspen for the summer music festival and school. It was there she studied with John Perry, Steven Perry’s father. She also worked with John O’Conor, another professor at the school who shared a strong love of Beethoven with Gessler.
“Everything Amanda plays, she plays beautifully,” O’Conor said. “She seems so laid back, but that hides a steely demeanor. She does well at whatever she attempts. Amanda is also a wonderful instructor. She can charm a student into working as hard as she wants them to.”
When O’Conor moved to Virginia to work at Shenandoah University, Gessler followed, but not for too long. She began working toward her doctorate, but wasn’t satisfied with the academic slant.
“I was looking for a more artistic outlet,” she said. “I had really fallen in love with Aspen after spending so many summers here, so I moved here and now practice to my heart’s content and teach privately.”
Gessler recently entered a piano competition, hoping to gain more performing opportunities and exposure. She entered the Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition and was chosen as the winner out of more than 300 international entrants.
In an email from competition founder Cosmo Buono, Gessler was told, “ ... your performance reflects the depth of interpretation, musicality, and technical expertise needed to distinguish oneself in the world of professional performance.”
For Gessler, it’s the biggest feather in her musical-career cap.
“I’m hoping this win and the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall will open the door to other performing and competition opportunities,” she said. “I was so excited to find out I won that I couldn’t sleep that night. I needed that confirmation that I could play and perform at the highest level and speak clearly through my music.”
To learn more about Gessler and find out when she’s performing in the Aspen area, go to her website at www.amandagessler.com. Several of her performances are available to see and hear at https://www.youtube.com/user/gesslera.