A Complete Artist:
At & Beyond the Piano
Q&A Interview with Koji Attwood
2/19/2021 • Reading Time: 7min
About Koji Attwood
Pianist Koji Attwood, a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and Juilliard School, currently resides in Utah serving both at the Gifted Music School in Salt Lake City, and as a visiting professor at the University of Utah. He’s had an eclectic performing career spanning several decades, with numerous solo appearances, chamber music collaborations, and partnerships with dance companies, including ABT, the Mark Morris Dance Group, White Oak Dance project, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. A native Kansan, Koji’s interests include chess, cooking, European and Japanese swords, classic men’s clothing, and vintage wristwatches.
I really enjoy & admire your performances. You’ve had much success at the instrument, including in your early years! Tell us about the nature of your formative training & experiences, leading up to your studies at the Curtis Institute.
You’re so extremely kind to state that, although I should hasten to add that I was not really a true prodigy. However, I was fortunate enough to have two wonderful Suzuki instructors at a young age, and then through a lucky circumstance, was able to study with a fantastic professor at the University of Kansas, Richard Angeletti. It was under his tutelage that I actually first started to read music, as previously I had learned all my pieces by ear (which sounds a bit unusual to me now, considering one of those pieces was the Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu). Richard was also in charge of the piano masterclass program, and through this, I was able to play (Mozart K. 330) for my musical hero, Leon Fleisher as a kid (he even signed my LP!), along with Menachem Pressler, and Claude Frank. It was Mr. Frank who encouraged me to audition at Curtis, despite my misgivings that I wouldn’t have a chance at all to get accepted.
In 2010, you worked closely with the American Ballet Theatre, performing eight sold-out all-Chopin performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. How did you experience Chopin integrating with dance? What makes Chopin particularly “dance-like”?
Well these performances (and the following year’s season) were for ABT’s premiere of “Lady of the Camellias”, a wonderful ballet (based on the Dumas novel), created all the way back in 1978 by John Neumeier of the Stuttgart Ballet. Chopin and dance seem to be an ideal marriage, and inspired Balanchine and Robbins, just to name two luminaries in the field of choreography. For this particular ballet, the music included the 2nd concerto (complete), 1st ballade, Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, some waltzes, preludes, and portions of the 3rd sonata—all woven into the fabric of the ballet wonderfully. Chopin’s graceful melodic lines and exquisite counterpoint seem to lend themselves for visualizing movement to complement the sounds. As Busoni once quoted, “Music is the art of sounds in the movement of time”, so dance is a natural partner.
Let’s discuss your collaboration(s) with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Please elaborate on the nature of your work together, and tell us how it influenced your solo performances, in other words, your solitary experiences on stage.
The collaborations happened through sheer dumb luck! I had a friend, a cellist, who was a musician in the White Oak Dance Project who contacted me about filling in for a pianist needed to perform for a leg of their European tour (this was in the summer of 1999). Me, being the complete ignoramus, had to ask, “Is this a famous group, or anything?” There was a pause at the other end of the line, and my friend simply responded, “Uh, you do know that this is Baryshnikov’s group, right?”
And so I went from having virtually no experience working with dancers to accompanying not only THE dancer, but THE icon (mostly to Mark Morris’s wonderful choreography). Thankfully the concerts went well, and we hit it off musically and personally. Several years later, in the midst of raising funds to bring his Arts Center to fruition (https://bacnyc.org/) he approached me about collaborating on a program featuring pieces specifically choreographed for him, with just piano accompaniment, along with solo piano pieces played during his costume changes. I traded off playing different legs of the tour with the excellent pianist Pedja Muzijevic, which proceeded for the next 2-3 years. It was an extraordinary opportunity, and I cherished not only the chemistry we shared on stage together, but the dinners and talks afterwards. Some of the pieces that we performed, for example the Berg Sonata Op.1 I can’t hear now withOUT seeing the movement that go along with it, such a visceral experience remains burned in my brain.
I can imagine working with such an incredible icon influences not only your performances but your choice of repertoire. What do you feel you’ve absorbed of Russian culture, or more widely & accurately, Soviet culture? You’ve performed a lot of contemporary music. I assume you’re not only interested in discovering present composers but past ones, too. Do you have any Soviet/Russian “discoveries”? How does their work “fit” with the composers we all know, for example, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Scriabin?
Well, interestingly enough, I encountered Scriabin’s music in particular at a time when frankly I was a bit bored with the standard repertoire (although in my limited view at that time, Scriabin wasn’t standard rep, haha). And through that gateway drug, I discovered a myriad of other absolutely fantastic Soviet/Russian composers such as Liapunov, Liadov, Blumenfeld, Catoire, and Bortkiewicz, which I absolutely still adore, and am still on the prowl looking for other unknown composers in this vein. Misha was a bit amused at my absolute obsession in this time with Russian music, but he regaled with lots of fascinating stories regarding these legendary Russian artists such as Horowitz, Gilels, Rostropovich, etc. I often regret being too young and not having had the opportunity to hear some of these performers in person—I’m certain even the best recordings don’t begin to do them justice.
And, speaking of contemporary music, you’ve given numerous & highly acclaimed world premieres. What led to your interest in this repertoire?
I think we as artists and human beings have an intrinsic desire to connect with culture and music of our time. At least this yearning has often spurred on my own interest in contemporary art. And on a practical level, we can’t just call or email Beethoven to ask him what he thought about a particular marking or passage, but we can connect and get in the mind of a living composer to possibly ascertain how these artists felt about their creative acts. And several of these pieces that I’ve been fortunate enough to premiere were written for me, Hector’s preludes came about from our mutual love of Scriabin!
Koji Attwood plays Hector Martinez Morales, 3 preludes
You, too, write “new” music, with over twenty arrangements to your credit. Please highlight a couple of these, perhaps your “favorites” to perform? & the process through which you arranged them?
As I mentioned above, I strongly feel that creative acts such as composition and arranging can certainly help inform performers on these so-called re-creative acts (I don’t even like to use the term “interpret”) And to quote Busoni yet again, who stated so eloquently that “it is the duty of the performer to liberate the work from the deadness of the printed page and bring it to life again.” I often find myself using the analogy of a “score” as to reading a recipe, and yes it is our professional obligation to understand and read every dot and dash, every dynamic and expressive marking, but then to go beyond that and re-animate the piece through our own intellect, emotion, and sensibilities. Using the recipe analogy, Jacques Pepin beautifully states in his video on making a simple dish, Pears in Caramel Sauce, how simply just “following directions” can lead to disaster without knowing what the directions are, why they are the way they are, and having the experience to alter them to make the dish successful—I feel exactly the same way about reading a score: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfWgZeDHgtY
In addition, I often love to give presentations of great composers playing their own music (such as Grieg, Bartok, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, etc) to see sometimes how they didn’t follow their own directions (and more importantly how and why sometimes they didn’t)—it proves to be quite the eye and ear opener to the more musically puritanical crowd.
As far as some of my own “transgressions”, I’m probably most proud of the Schubert Death and the Maiden quartet (even Liszt didn’t publish any of the Beethoven quartets he was asked to transcribe to his satisfaction, and now I understand why---they’re HARD TO DO), the Tchaikovsky 4th symphony (which I only performed in concert on three occasions, and took years off of my lifespan in doing so), and the Recuerdos de la Alhambra of Tarrega, because it’s just such a simple beautiful piece on my second favourite instrument, which I desperately wish I could play! I’m still hoping to finish a crazy attempt at transcribing the Rachmaninoff 1st suite for two pianos---for solo piano...
Who is your favorite legendary pianist & why?
You ask an impossible question of course, but I’ll do my best to answer! Among the myriad of incredible golden age and beyond pianists that I absolutely adore (I will attempt to name but a few): Ignaz Friedman, Josef Hofmann (of course), Rachmaninoff, Cortot, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Mark Hambourg, Samuil Feinberg, Sofronitsky, Horowitz, Lipatti…..to sadly neglected female pianists like Rosa Tamarkina, Marcelle Meyer, Magda Tagliaferro, Monique de la Bruchollerie, Annie Fischer, Clara Haskil, Rosita Renard…to a modern day legend like Cyprien Katsaris, two pianists have always been at the forefront of my musical life that I admired not only for their supreme musicianship, but for their passion, work ethic, and life story—Gyorgy Cziffra, and William Kapell. Kapell of course, died at the tragically young age of 31 from a plane crash, and I eventually wrote my doctoral dissertation on his life and work, in the process getting to know his late wife (an extraordinary woman) and gaining an even greater appreciation for his pianism. Cziffra, who is often misunderstood or simply dismissed as some sort of circus freak, had an absolutely incredible life story, overcoming incredible tragedy and odds at various points in his life, always triumphant in phoenix-like fashion with humility, grace and generosity of spirit. For those not already familiar, I would urge them to listen to his French Baroque album, his Scarlatti, Schumann, Ravel, and lyrical Chopin performances—not just the scintillating Liszt and mind-boggling transcriptions to get the full picture of his Art and spirituality. Thankfully, most of his live performances which were difficult to come by, are now readily available on Youtube, which is also the same in the case of Kapell—where even the short video he did at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (hosted by Alistair Cooke) is viewable.
About Maryam Raya
Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.
Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.