By BETSY ANDREWS
For the Express
He's just 30 years old, and, for Shai Wosner, improvising on the piano "can be like yoga."
How's that again?
"It's not a dance (that's performed strictly for the audience)," explained Wosner. "There's something very liberating about improvisation. More for me than the audience." Audiences and critics around the world have responded with resounding approval to both the improvisations and classical performances of the Israeli-born virtuoso pianist who wowed Sun Valley audiences with a Dvorak Piano Quintet and a Beethoven Piano Trio during the Edgar Bronfman Chamber Series last month.
"We so enjoyed having him here," said Steven Honigberg, longtime director of the series, who first heard Wosner play last fall in San Francisco.
"He was playing with the concert master and the principal cellist in a program of Ravell and Brahms," Honigsberg said. "They were two older gentlemen, and here was a young pianist. They didn't have a lot of time to rehearse. Neither do we here, with three concerts in six days. I could tell how much he enjoyed the interaction."
Wosner does enjoy "being matched up with the right people" while on the road. "You learn over time who is on your wavelength," he said.
In addition to Sun Valley, Wosner, who The New York Times has called "a superb pianist" and London's Financial Times has dubbed "an artist to follow keenly," has recently performed with the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Staatskapelle, Barcelona Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the National Symphony Orchestra. The list goes on and on. In 2005, he won the 2005 Avery Fisher Career Grant, which Honigberg describes as "a very prestigious New York prize."
"He's terrific," said Honigberg. "Easy to work with, and his technique is beyond..." He trails off. Obviously, it is beyond words. "...He's got such a high level of technique. And musical personality follows."
How does a "musical personality" evolve? "I don't think it's something conscious," explained Wosner. "You can't decide, 'Now my style's going to be this way.' In a way, it's not up to us."
It begins with years of imitating the masters. "Imitation is always a part of art in general, not a bad thing. You have to let it sink in and make it your own. It would be wrong (not to go further). Even Mozart was imitating others when he was young." There is a shrug in his voice. "If it's good enough for him..."
Wosner began playing the piano in his native Israel at the age of "6 or so." He started simply because there was a piano in his parents' home. "I tried to fool around on it," he recalled. "I started taking lessons two years after that." He studied with Emmanuel Krasovsky in Tel Aviv for 12 years while attending school. He also studied composition and theory with distinguished Hungarian composer André Hajdu. At 21, he relocated to the United States to study at The Juilliard School in New York City with renowned and much-recorded pianist Emmanuel Ax.
Wosner looks up to great composers of old, such as Bach. But he also admires—and is known for his performances of—the work of contemporary men, including Gyorgy Ligeti, and Canadian Claude Vivier. Wosner describes Vivier's work as "very intriguing, different, special stuff," and hopes to put together a concert of his music. He agrees that, although audiences are becoming more aware and appreciative of such contemporary composers, the way to introduce new work is in small pieces and by slow immersion. "In most places, you can include (in a traditional program) other things that may be more challenging in a way. That might make the work more welcoming. Also very gradually exposing an audience to new music, and making sure it's really good, new music. It's not all good."
It is such a statement like that adds to Wosner's "normal guy" vibe. When asked how it felt to turn 30, he laughed and sounded like any other newly 30-something, not one who made a Carnegie Hall debut in 2000 (he was 24), and a recital debut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004.
"I guess it went pretty smoothly. I tried not to think about it too much." He and his wife, a physician, have been married for four years. They attended the same high school and met because she played the piano, too.
He talks with excitement about his current project, a collaboration with composer Michael Hersch. "I'm not exactly sure what will happen. We're trying to create a new piece based on the Carnivale of Schumann, a piece for piano and ensemble, a piano and 13 instruments. It's sort of uncharted territory." The project, which Wosner expects will create a "wider context for both pieces," will "hopefully" be ready next year.
Coming to Sun Valley was a first for the New Yorker. He spent about a week in the Wood River Valley. His report? "It was really stunning. It's very wild, not like the rest of the Rockies." He praised the fact that the Sun Valley Symphony is a free event, voicing what many Wood River Valley residents feel when he said, "I think that's one of the beautiful things about this place."
The Sun Valley Summer Symphony presents an indoor concert tomorrow night (Thursday), at the Presbyterian Church of the Bigwood. The Sun Valley Lodge Esplanade concerts resume Saturday and continue Sunday, concluding on Monday, Aug. 14.