Vol. 113 (2022)

The Stephanie Chase Conversations:
Pianist Brian Connelly

By Stephanie Chase

Guest Columnist

New York, NY, USA


Brian Connelly's performances span an unusually broad range of historical and modern repertoires. Born in Detroit, he studied at the University of Michigan, where his teachers included famed Bartok protégé Gyorgy Sandor and the American virtuoso Theodore Lettvin


Known for his affinity for the music of French modernist Olivier Messiaen, Connelly has also premiered works by a host of composers including William Albright, Karim Al-Zand, Derek Bermel, William Bolcom, Paul Cooper, David Diamond, Ross Lee Finney, Gabriella Frank, and Pierre Jalbert. As a collaborative artist, he has partnered in recital with renowned soloists that include Leonidas Kavakos, Lynn Harrell, Jeremy Denk, and William Sharp.


He is also respected as a scholar and performer of historical instruments, appearing in the U.S. and Europe on 18th- and 19th-century pianos by Walther, Rosenberger, Graf, Pleyel, Bösendorfer, and Streicher, and is the director of Music in Context, an ensemble devoted to the performance of a wide range of chamber music on historical instruments appropriate for each era.


Connelly teaches solo piano performance and chamber music at the renowned Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. His former piano students include active soloists, chamber-ensemble founders and players, avant-garde music performers, university educators, conductors, and composers, and many hold piano positions with major orchestras.


It has been my pleasure and honor to perform concerts on a regular basis for Music in Context’s series since 2011. These are always a highlight of my season for many reasons; the inspiration provided by my delightful musician colleagues, the music we perform, and the sound of the instruments – particularly the pianos that are featured – plus the fantastic meals we enjoy together in Houston, which offers an amazing breadth of international cuisines.


STEPHANIE CHASE: What is meant by “Music in Context” and what were the circumstances of its founding?

Stephanie Chase & Brian Connelly - Beethoven's Violin Sonata in C minor


BRIAN CONNELLY: Context played our first concert in 1995. The group was founded by two violinists – Sergiu Luca and Kenneth Goldsmith – and me. I was the youngest and most naive, so I had to do all the work.


The name refers to our aspiration to present a wide range of music on historically appropriate instruments, in stylistically enlightened performances, and in programs that place compositions in aesthetic context by focusing on a particular composer, style or genre, and by balancing masterworks with less-known music.



STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s a wonderful mission for a concert series and, if not unique, is certainly rare.


I want to add that Sergiu Luca was one of the first virtuoso violinists to explore playing early music on violins with bows appropriate to the period; in fact, the first time I heard Bach played in a Baroque style was at a recital that he gave in 1974, in New York’s Alice Tully Hall. He also personally invited me the first time I performed with Context, but tragically passed away before my concert.


I also vividly recall the time you and I were rehearsing the A Major violin sonata by Brahms, which features a mysterious motif throughout the work, when there was a knock at the door and Ken Goldsmith was there. He told us of a trip he had made to Thun, Switzerland, which is where Brahms was vacationing when he wrote this piece. While there, Ken heard a sound that was the pitch and rhythm of the mysterious motif, asked what it was, and was told that it was the sound of a horn announcing the arrival of the mail boat!


The story behind this is that Brahms had a falling out with his great friend and colleague, the violinist Joseph Joachim, over Joachim’s divorce. Six years later, he composed this work as a kind of conciliatory gesture towards Joachim and had just resumed corresponding with him. He still hadn’t heard back from Joachim and didn’t know how he would react, so Brahms listened for the arrival of the mail boat every day to learn if his efforts were successful! In terms of “music in context,” this revelation really rocked my world and now I play the work with much greater understanding. I’m eternally grateful to both Sergiu and Ken.


But back to Context: what kinds of repertoire do you perform?

Brian Connelly


BRIAN CONNELLY: We’ve presented repertoire from the Renaissance to new works composed for us. Our first concert in 1995 was of Mozart’s two-viola String Quintets, along with quintets by Michael Haydn and Boccherini, on original instruments. Our most recent concert, with you, was of early Piano Quartets by the teen-aged Fanny Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn, with our Graf piano.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I must admit that the early piano quartets by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn were new to me, and the one by Felix – his third – is especially great.


BRIAN CONNELLY: Most of our concerts are of late 18th-century music through the mid-20th-century. We’ve presented nearly all the piano chamber music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Robert and Clara Schumann, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Debussy, Bartok, and on through the major moderns, as well as song cycles, wind music, works for percussion, guitar, hardanger fiddle [a Norwegian folk violin that features sympathetic strings], and new pieces written for us. All of this is alongside a host of works by lesser known or marginalized composers. We’ve played over 500 compositions, with very little repetition in 26 years.



STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s a lot of music! When did you begin to play historic pianos?


BRIAN CONNELLY: As a student, I was of course trained to play the modern piano – and trained to dismiss the fortepiano as a sadly unfortunate primitive version of the glorious instrument the piano would one day be. I knew that early pianos were different and was curious, but the instruments I saw in the 80’s in the US were pretty dreadful. Later, I played a good Walther copy made by Paul McNulty. [A fortepiano by the Viennese maker Anton Walther was used by Mozart and enjoys a close historic association with his music.]


Soon I was playing authentic instruments in Europe and got to know the fine restorer, Edwin Beunk. It was then that I began to marvel at the extraordinary beauty and variety of historic pianos, their vivid expressive nuances and registers, and their chameleon-like ability to blend and create textures with other instruments.


After decades of playing historic music on the modern piano, it was a revelation to rediscover the repertoire on old pianos. It was a perfect mid-life crisis, like wildly falling in love all over again with the same person, who turns out to be even more enticing than you thought.  



STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s a nice analogy.


What pianos do you have available for your concerts and how rare are they?

Piano by Michael Rosenberger (1810)


BRIAN CONNELLY: Currently, we have three Viennese pianos: a 6-octave 1810 Michael Rosenberger with 6 pedals; a 6-1/2 octave 1826 Conrad Graf; and, a 7-octave 1852 Ignaz Bösendorfer. All are beautiful; the Graf is the most pristine. It was found in exemplary condition, with very little wear and no warping; it still has its original hammers and dampers and needed only minimal restoration.



STEPHANIE CHASE: We’ve talked about the fact that my husband (Stewart Pollens) and I first saw your lovely Graf piano in Florence, shortly after it was discovered in a family home in Italy maybe 20 years or so ago. It is almost mind-blowing for me to be playing with it, and you, in Houston.


BRIAN CONNELLY: We also have a gorgeous 1890 9-foot Blüthner piano for French and early 20th-century music; and since our home is at the Shepherd School at Rice University, we are handsomely equipped with 9-foot Hamburg Steinways.



STEPHANIE CHASE: The Hamburg Steinways are especially marvelous modern pianos, and I’ll never forget the sound of the Blüthner, which has exquisite coloration in its sound and articulation and is perfect for Ravel’s music.

Piano by Julius Blüthner (ca. 1890)

You just mentioned warping found in many historic pianos. Unlike violins, pianos have lots of moving parts made of wood, along with high tension produced by the stringing. It is very unusual to find an original instrument in basically playable condition without a total rebuilding, which can take years and a lot of money. Is this why there are quite a few makers creating pianos that are essentially reproductions of the originals?


BRIAN CONNELLY: Building a new piano is very different procedure than restoring an old one. It’s simpler for a good builder to start from scratch, with a good design and new materials. Restoring an old piano is a complicated process, different for each instrument. It often involves the complete dismantling of every piece of piece of wood, removing the veneer, straightening anything warped, replacing anything missing or wormy, reassembling the piano using the correct homemade glues, and manufacturing anything else that’s worn or missing – strings, hammers, dampers – with materials ideally close to the original. And, of course, there are no old blueprints; a restorer has to rely on much study and experience to calculate string gauges, et cetera. The thought gives me a headache.


newly-made copy is often sturdy, dependable, less prone to the fussy tics of an old piano, and more affordable. There are some excellent makers now, building a wide range of instruments. Many of them sound very good, if rather generic. To me, however, nothing has the lively and distinctive sound of a fine piano by a great historic maker.



STEPHANIE CHASE: It is especially significant that your collection consists of the originals made in Europe by the most notable makers. One might find examples in museums, but it is rare to find them in concert use. What are the principal differences between these instruments?


BRIAN CONNELLY: The Viennese pianos, like those by Rosenberger and Graf, have no iron frame or only minimal iron bracing. All of them are straight-strung and have leather-covered hammers.

Piano by Conrad Graf (ca. 1826)

STEPHANIE CHASE: By “straight-strung” you mean that the strings do not cross each other inside the case?


BRIAN CONNELLY: Yes, and the Rosenberger and Graf have several pedals: shifting (una corda), bassoon, moderator (mute), damper, and Janissary (drum, bell, and cymbal-effect). I try to be careful not to hit the Janissary pedal in performance; but sometimes the temptation is too great.



STEPHANIE CHASE: On occasion – like our most recent concert together – you really scare me by hitting the drum while we’re rehearsing! You mentioned Janissary effects; these are due to the popularity of Turkish music in the late 18th into the 19th centuries, especially that of the military bands. Mozart’s “Turkish” violin concerto, his fifth, is an example. To find these inside a piano is pretty hilarious, and those extra pedals must be a bit confusing at first.


Is it difficult to switch between modern and historic pianos?


BRIAN CONNELLY: It is very humbling to feel cocky about your speed and facility on a modern piano, and then sit down at an old Viennese piano and watch the instrument kick your ass. The keys are so light and fast – there is almost no sense of resistance – the key-dip so shallow, the piano so terrifyingly sensitive … I usually feel like a hopeless klutz when I’m getting started. Eventually my touch adjusts, and my ears too. Wonderfully, the old pianos have taught me enormous lessons about refinement, economy, fluency of technique, color – things that improve my modern-piano playing too. I think I can play Rachmaninoff and Messiaen faster and louder for having played the fortepiano.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Well, you always sound fabulous no matter which piano you are playing. And as a violinist performing chamber music with these old pianos, I find that all problems of balance tend to disappear because the composer had the sound of these pianos in mind. It becomes quite a natural experience, unlike the time at the Marlboro Festival when I was playing a Haydn trio with Rudolf Serkin, with the lid of the big Steinway fully up, and felt like I had to force my sound out.


BRIAN CONNELLY: Now it amuses me when I hear pianists groan about the infinitesimally slight differences of touch between two modern pianos. Or when people say that “piano technique is so much better now than in the old days.” I think: Try that étude on a Graf, and then we’ll talk about it.



STEPHANIE CHASE: In terms of improvement of violin technique over the years; I look at the études that Pierre Gaviniés composed in 1800 for the new music conservatory in Paris – which was the first of its kind – and realize that violinists must have already had excellent technique because they are quite difficult.


Who maintains your pianos? Is there a local specialist who is expert in historic keyboards?


BRIAN CONNELLY: Most modern-piano technicians are flummoxed by the variety of construction and special needs of fortepianos. Even opening one can be complicated! We have been blessed for many years in Houston with a brilliant and tireless master technician who tended our instruments from the beginning. Last summer he opted for a well-deserved retirement, so over a few months we conducted a mind-meld between him and an exceptionally gifted young technician who is carrying on the work, wonderfully.



STEPHANIE CHASE: These people are so important to us! My longtime luthier recently retired, and it was quite distressing to find a replacement.


Are Context’s audience members attracted to the historic element or are they just enjoying good music that is well played?


BRIAN CONNELLY: Our audience has been right there with us since the beginning. They’ve never needed to be convinced that the instruments are beautiful and the music fresh and communicative. Their most frequent comment is: “Why don’t they make pianos like that anymore?”!


The only people who resist are – you guessed it – classical musicians. It takes them awhile to set aside their expectations of how an instrument should sound and be open to a different palette of colors and effects. Their most common comment is: “What did you do to the piano at intermission? It sounded so much better on the second half!” The answer is: “I did nothing. Your ears opened up.”



STEPHANIE CHASE: The sound of the historic pianos is so unlike that of the typical concert grand and I recall that it took me a while to adjust to it, but now I prefer it for a lot of repertoires.


Have you made commercial recordings?


BRIAN CONNELLY: We made three recordings a few years ago, with music by Robert Schumann and his early idol, Prince Louis Ferdinand. Louis was a Prussian prince who died in battle against Napoleon. He was a friend of Beethoven and an astonishing composer whose works prefigure the idioms of Schumann and Chopin, before they were born! But I hate recording and, since I’m the boss, we don’t do it. I produce acoustic concerts that happen only once, with spectacular musicians whom I love, in an intimate hall of splendid acoustics, before an audience of devoted music-lovers. Who needs more? I’m happy with that.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Well, first of all, we love you back! And you raise a great point, in that live concerts are ephemeral events and the players and the audience receiving the music need to be focused in the moment together. There are no retakes and, unless the concert is recorded and the audio released, there’s no replay either. You mentioned the hall that Context uses, which is beautiful and a delight for the performers. Unfortunately, we musicians often play in venues that leave a lot to be desired, starting with their acoustics.


For a number of years now, you have taught piano and chamber music at Rice University. Do you find that your students are curious about early instruments and performance practice?


BRIAN CONNELLY: The Shepherd School is the greatest music school on earth. Our brilliant students play modern instruments but are wide-open to such issues. They hear me and my colleagues and are otherwise more exposed to earlier styles than the previous generation. Sooner or later they all want to play something on or with an old piano.



STEPHANIE CHASE: That must be very gratifying. In my experience, some college music students can be surprisingly closed off to learning anything deemed unusual or beyond the minimal requirement for their studies, which is really unfortunate.


What are some of the upcoming programs for Context? I know that you had a special Beethoven program that has been delayed at least twice due to Covid outbreaks.

Context Musicians: Joan DerHovespian, Michael Kannen, Brian Connelly, Stephanie Chase

BRIAN CONNELLY: Our next program features Parisian music from the early 20th-century, including the Reynaldo Hahn Quintet, with our Blüthner. And in May, we’ll end the season with me playing Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations, which is a joyride on the Graf piano.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I wish I could hear those in person!


My husband – who has spent a lot of time with historic pianos – is fond of saying that the piano had a lovely childhood, a pimply adolescence, and a brilliant maturity, although I think that your Graf proves him wrong about the adolescence. Are there any pianos that you would add to the collection used by Context, and why?


BRIAN CONNELLY: The danger of loving old pianos is that you start to want one from every 10 years and by every good maker; there was such stunning variety before the gradual domination of the Steinway-type design in the late 19th century.

Though I think we have a great collection for what we play, I’ve played pianos that I would die for: an 1840 Pleyel in the Netherlands, a Streicher from the 1860s in Vienna … and of course a little Schantz from Haydn’s time that I saw only once in Italy, but even a few notes broke my heart.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I think that we are always searching for what gives us the best expression of our music, and it can be a difficult process in view of the availability and cost of great instruments. But your collection rivals that of any in the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum, in its historic keyboards that are associated with music by the great composers. Plus, yours are playable while still maintaining their original integrity! The Met has a few important keyboards, like the Cristofori fortepiano, but also lots of novelties and odd curiosities, and I just don’t buy the “everything is equally valid” approach in this regard.


Last, but not least, one of the great pleasures of playing in Houston with you is that we go out for some extraordinary meals, and I cannot imagine anyone else persuading me to try fried grasshoppers and flying ants, among the unusual items I have eaten there.


BRIAN CONNELLY: Stephanie, you know even better than I that it’s terrible to play a concert and then go back to your hotel room and eat alone. Musicians have always needed each other’s company and laughter and affection, along with excellent food and drink. For us, the concert begins with the first rehearsal, continues over days and meals and stories, and isn’t over until we’ve shared an amazing dessert. What’s better than that?


STEPHANIE CHASE: You are right! I look forward to our next musical adventures together and meanwhile, thank you for sharing your insights with us.




Brian Connelly

Stephanie Chase


Stephanie Chase

Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as "one of the violin greats of our era" (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with 200 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their "elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination" (Boston Globe), "stunning power" (Louisville Courier-Journal), "matchless technique" (BBC Music Magazine), and "virtuosity galore" (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Recent concert appearances include music festivals in Newport, RI, Mt. Desert, ME, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Bargemusic, Music in Context (Houston), and as soloist with the New York Scandia Symphony.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.