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Pianist Taylor finds meaning in music and math

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

To Christopher Taylor, there is no struggle in music between the intellectual – manifested in the mathematical precision of a composition – and the emotional, the simple beauty of the sound. Instead, the two intertwine: There is beauty in the technical; in the emotional are found logic and structure.

“The two co-exist in music in a remarkable, sort of magical way,” said Taylor. “When you’re first learning a piece of music, you have to put on your more intellectual, mathematical hat, to get it into your head. But as you play, it puts a vision in your head, you get an emotional response. That’s what ultimately makes music satisfying for me.”

Taylor is qualified to speak about both math and music. A Boulder native – the son of a University of Colorado physics professor and a recently retired English teacher – the 33-year-old Taylor has been a performing pianist since his childhood, inspired by the Beethoven sonata recordings that lie around his parents’ house. He won the first piano competition he entered, Michigan’s Young Keyboardist Artists, at the age of 13. More impressive was his bronze medal at the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the first American to place so high in 12 years. A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, Taylor has limited his concertizing to some 25 or 30 performances a year, to make room for his position as a professor of piano at the University of Wisconsin. Despite the self-imposed limits – he says he doesn’t think performing 100 concerts a year would be fun – Taylor has performed recitals at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and appeared with the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Taylor also has a degree, summa cum laude, in mathematics from Harvard, and dabbles in mathematical logic “kind of as a hobby.” His other interests include analytic philosophy, computing and languages; he speaks what he calls “decent” German, Italian and French, and studied some Arabic and Japanese in college. For leisure activities, Taylor turns to computer programming and biking. He is also married and has two daughters, a 3-year-old and a 1-month-old. All that meant something had to give, so a few years ago Taylor gave up composing piano music.

Taylor performs at the Aspen Music Festival in a Harris Hall recital set for Tuesday, July 29. The program includes Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 7 (which Taylor says “shows Beethoven’s humorous side, something we tend to forget about”), the second six of Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Etudes (“They really do transcend. They’re virtuoso showstoppers for the performer, but they’re also immensely deep uses of the keyboard.”), and Bernstein’s “Touches,” a rare example of the composer’s solo music. Completing the program is “Turning,” written for Taylor by Derek Bermel and a staple of Taylor’s repertoire since its premiere in Paris in 1996.

The recital promises to be impressive, especially the Liszt piece, known as a landmark of modern piano repertoire and an absurdly challenging work. Still, for jaw-dropping impact, the concert may not match Taylor’s Aspen Music Festival debut.

Last summer, Taylor performed Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus” – all two-plus hours – with one intermission and no score in front of him. Taylor learned several movements of Messiaen’s piece as a teenager. But when he had the opportunity to perform it in early 2001, at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, Taylor spent the better part of a year committing the work to memory.

Memorizing the 176-page score was a monumental intellectual undertaking, “an effort of concentration,” Taylor called it. And Taylor said memorization is only the least of it. Performing “Vingt Regards,” which has become an important part of his repertoire, requires an understanding of the whole of contemporary music.

“It takes a certain comfort with 20th-century musical vocabulary,” said Taylor. “It’s important to have a clear grasp of music theory, in order to understand Messiaen’s music. Messiaen’s chords and scales get mixed up in ways they wouldn’t with Mozart. Knowing all of it, intuitively, is very important.”

But the intellectual effort is only undertaken to further the emotional experience of the deeply religious work. “You need a sympathy for, and a feel for, the powerful message the music conveys,” said Taylor. “And you have to love the music.”

Music and math both mean a lot to Taylor. And he finds much affinity between the two pursuits: “I think they’re similar disciplines – abstract fields that transport you away from reality a bit.”

But it is significant that, in the end, he has chosen to be a pianist who dabbles in math and not a mathematician who messes around with music. It is a reversal from his Harvard days, when he focused on math, “and piano was sort of my other life,” he said.

“People underestimate the esthetic component of mathematics, the beauty that can be witnessed in a beautiful mathematical construction or proof. They think of their boring high school trigonometry class,” said Taylor.

“But music has something more profound, more primal and visceral.”

More music

Also this week at the Aspen Music Festival, James Conlon, recently named music director-designate of the Ravinia Festival, conducts violinist Midori and the Aspen Chamber Symphony on Friday, July 25. The program features Smetana’s Overture and Three Dances from “The Bartered Bride,” Schulhoff’s Symphony No. 5 and Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A minor.

On Saturday and Sunday, July 26-27, the Aspen Opera Theater Center, under the direction of Edward Berkeley, will present a special event, An Evening of Sondheim, at the Wheeler Opera House. The cabaret-style presentation will focus on music theater composer Stephen Sondheim, and will include songs from “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and more.

The Emerson String Quartet will give an all-Haydn recital on Saturday, July 26. The Aspen Festival Orchestra’s Sunday concert on July 27 will feature conductor Edo de Waart and pianist Joseph Kalichstein, performing a program of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major and Wagner/De Vlieger’s A “Ring” Symphony: An Orchestral Adventure. On Sunday evening, the International Sejong Soloists will give a recital of works by Grieg, Krzystof Penderecki, Haydn and Dvorak.

The American Academy of Conducting Orchestra will perform a free Family Concert on Tuesday, July 29, at 6 p.m., with such pieces as Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and Kleinsinger’s “Tubby the Tuba” on the program. The Aspen Concert Orchestra’s performance on Wednesday, July 30, includes works by Sydney Hodkinson, Haydn and Tchaikovsky.

Violinist Sarah Chang will be featured in a concert on Thursday, July 31, performing compositions by Handel/Halverson, Franck and Dvorak.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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