Aspen’s pianist for all seasons, Anton Nel, to perform in 25th year on Aspen Music Festival and School faculty

July 5 concert to celebrate Nel’s 25th summer in Aspen leans into chamber music collaborations

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Pianist Anton Nel returns to the Aspen Music Festival and School Wednesday, July 5.
Courtesy photo

Concert pianist Anton Nel loves to breathe the thin mountain air on daily dawn walks, dine in fine restaurants, and cook with friends when he comes to Aspen every summer.

But his biggest motivation is to teach promising, young talent and play chamber music with musicians who share his passion for the art form.

“There’s nothing better than playing with musicians who inspire you, and that happens all summer for me at the Aspen Music Festival,” he says. “They have made me better than I thought I was.”

A much-anticipated concert on Wednesday, July 5, at Harris Hall celebrates his 25th season on the faculty at the festival. Because he is so in demand as a chamber music colleague, it’s no surprise the program goes well beyond a recital by the pianist alone.

“He’s such a beloved presence, and he has uplifted the festival in so many ways,” says the festival’s Vice President for Artistic Administration Patrick Chamberlain, who spearheaded the concert. “He’s a fabulous teacher, collaborator ,and virtuoso pianist. We wanted to celebrate all of that with Anton, and to the extent that one concert can summarize him, this one does.”

The centerpiece, the Debussy “Préludes Book 2,” has become something of a calling card for him. But by design, two of the three pieces match him up with friends with whom he has performed here often. There’s  a piano quartet by Mozart, in which he will be joined by Desmond Hoebig, James Dunham, and violinist Cynthia Winkler. Topping it off will be Bartók’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion,” with pianist Joyce Yang and percussionists Cynthia Yeh and Edward Stephan —virtuosos all.

Born in South Africa in 1963, Nel grew up on a farm near Johannesberg. When his mother realized he could repeat tunes he heard on the family’s piano at the age of 10, she got him a piano teacher. He made his concerto debut two years later, playing a Beethoven concerto with the Johannesburg Symphony. He came to the United States in 1983 to study at the University of Cincinnati and became a U.S. citizen in 2003.

Nel’s concert on Wednesday at Harris Hall celebrates his 25th season on the faculty at the festival.
Courtesy photo

He was already an Aspen regular by then. In 1997, encouraged by Ann Schein, then the go-to pianist on the faculty, he took charge of her students for half the season while she was on sabbatical.

“They gave me all these wonderful people to play with,” he says. “I remember a Brahms C minor piano quartet with (violinist) Sarah Chang, (violist) Masao Kawasaki, and (cellist) Lynn Harrell.”

He also met Sylvia Rosenberg, a much-revered violinist who became a lifelong friend and collaborator at this festival and elsewhere.

For years, he only came for the first five weeks of what was then a nine-week festival. Aspen is more central in his year now.

“They always wanted me for the full season, but I had commitments to chamber music programs in Seattle, Vancouver, and Ravinia,” he says.

The turning point came in 2010, when the Aspen festival shortened its calendar to eight weeks, reducing his half-season contract by a week.

“Four weeks wasn’t enough time for my students,” he recalls. “We finally agreed that I would come for the whole summer, and I could have a week to go somewhere else if I wanted to, to break up the summer just a bit.” This summer it will be Chamber Music Northwest (in Portland, Oregon).

Over his quarter century on the faculty, he has performed other concertos by Mozart and Beethoven with the Chamber Orchestra, but he has also relished opportunities to play rarer fare. He points to the Frank Martin “Petite Symphonie Concertante,” de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain,” McDowell’s second piano concerto, and the Dohnányi “Variations on a Nursery Tune.”

There’s a story behind each piece on Wednesday’s chamber music program.

The Bartók sonata, the most inspired choice, was Nel’s suggestion.

“It’s such a virtuoso piece,” Chamberlain says, “so rarely done. You need great percussionists and great pianists. I don’t know that you can assemble a more all-star cast for this work.”

Pianists don’t get to play chamber music with percussionists very often, but Nel is excited to work with Yeh, the principal percussionist of the Chicago Symphony, and Stephan, the principal timpanist of the San Francisco Symphony.

“It’s such a spectacular piece to hear and to watch, and it’s something you can’t always put together,” he says. “Here we have the best.”

The only other time Nel played the Bartók sonata here, a teenage Yang (whom he was mentoring at the time) turned pages for him.

“She worked it out with the festival to schedule her appearance this year with the Chamber Symphony to line up with our concert,” he says with a grin.

He chose the Mozart piano quartet “because it’s near and dear to me,” he says. “It’s so rich in thematic material, beauty, and drama. It was written around the same time as “Marriage of Figaro,” and the writing for piano is amazing.”

Anton Nel.
Courtesy photo

The piece is also something of a reunion. The first time Nel played it was with Hoebig at a concert presented by the Cincinnati Symphony, where Hoebig was the principal cellist. Violist Dunham, a stalwart Aspen performer, has become a close friend, and violinist Winkler (who’s married to Timothy Pitts, the Chamber Orchestra’s principal bass) played in the Schubert “Trout” Quintet last summer with Nel.

The Debussy piece was on his first Aspen recital, but it took a decade to come about after he first appeared here in 1987, a 25-year-old fresh off a victory in the Naumburg International Piano Competition. Although the big prize was a concerto engagement with the Chicago Symphony, the rewards also included a performance of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major” with the Aspen Chamber Orchestra.

A freak accident earlier this year almost derailed all those plans.

Although most musicians are almost paranoid about protecting their hands, Nel is known to put them in jeopardy. He loves to pet animals, for example, even goats and alpacas at the Saturday morning farmers market in Aspen. His Facebook page pictures him feeding parrots with frighteningly large beaks and posing against sunrises from the top of Aspen Mountain on the Ute Trail, a steep clamber that can involve hand-grabs on rough rocks for balance.

On Feb. 19, while playing pickleball near his home in Austin, Texas, he lost his balance and reached for a chain-link fence.  The damage included a broken pinky finger and torn ligaments. A long list of appearances were canceled, and this upcoming concert was imperiled. The pictures posted on Facebook looked gruesome. Fortunately, a hand surgeon was able to piece everything together.

“My pinky has come back stronger and more powerful than it was,” he posted on April 18. “It’s still a half-inch shorter than it used to be, but it has … adapted to playing chords and octaves at different angles than before.”

The strengthened digit, which he nicknamed Pokey the Monster Pinky, was concert-ready just two months after the accident.

“Pokey’s owner is very proud of his remarkable progress,” he posted later, “but he has already been cautioned not to over-voice and play louder than his predecessor.”

Pokey, and its owner, will be on display in four of the eight Saturday afternoon faculty chamber music concerts, which only underlines his presence here with that corner of music. His first assignment included Hellmesberger’s “Romance” for four violins and piano, and, with Cameron Stowe, Schumann’s “Six Canonic Studies” in Debussy’s transcription for two pianos. Coming up are pieces by William Grant Still, Smetana, Saint-Saëns, and Dvořák, plus an appearance on harpsichord with more close friends —flutist Nadine Asin, oboist Elaine Douvas, and cellist Darrett Adkins.

“His playing is supportive, but completely distinctive,” Chamberlain says. “He’s in no way a mere accompanist. He elevates everyone around him.”

And he’s always ready to jump in where needed. Last year, when the festival scrambled to replace the usual Fourth of July band concert at the very last minute because of COVID, an email to faculty asked for solo or chamber music acts to fill in.

“Within 15 minutes, Anton offered seven great ideas,” Chamberlain says.

“Gosh, I suggested several things,” Anton says, “a  list of possible four-hand works, things with singers, and so on.”

His schedule was so full last summer he could not remember what he played. It was a set of Gershwin preludes. Needless to say, his performance was juicy.

If you go…

What: Recital: Anton Nel Celebrates 25 Years in Aspen
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Wednesday, July 5, 7:30 p.m.
More information and tickets:

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