Q&A: Professor Takes Unique Path from Mathematician to Musician
Posted May 30, 2023
Nicholas Ross, professor and chair of the Department of Music, recently had one of his digital recordings released on Spotify. This album is a collaborative piece of Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s music. Ross shares the story of his unique career path, the process of recording this work, and some background on Honegger: Mélodies et chansons, his recently released work on Spotify.
Where are you from?
I was born in West Yorkshire, England. My family is Irish, and most of them live in Ireland at present. I have a British passport — which is why my accent confuses people! I’ve lived in the states for 26 years.
When did you discover your passion for music?
I found my passion very early. Apparently, we were visiting people in France who had an upright piano, and I couldn’t keep my hands off it when I was very young, I believe I was five. My parents did not have much money then, but saved up and bought me a piano when I was seven. I became very involved in piano performance, and also learned cello when I was a teenager in England. I’m particularly indebted to my piano teacher of that period, Brian Pearson, who has become a friend and was actually the best man at my wedding. When I was 14, I moved to the Netherlands with my family – my father was a professor, and his next job was in Enschede – and I was fortunate enough to study with a tremendous pianist named Benno Pierweijer.
I started performing quite a lot but initially got a master’s degree in applied mathematics before deciding to switch to music studies and a career as a pianist. I have been just a musician and no longer a mathematician since 1992. I studied in London with the remarkable pianist John Bingham, and then came to the states and studied at Rice University with John Perry. From 2000 until 2014 I performed an average of 30 or more concerts a year, most of which were solo recitals but also a lot of chamber music. Sharing music with audiences has been very rewarding and uplifting.
What is your favorite part about teaching music?
I enjoy helping students engage with music and unlock their potential. At the moment, I mostly teach pianists in the program – the rest of my tasks are administrative – and it is a great pleasure watching students find a new way of thinking that suddenly accelerates their progress. Those are my favorite moments as a teacher.
I heard you focus on playing with your left hand. Do you mind explaining the reasoning behind this?
I have arranged a single work for the left hand and hope to do more in the future. I primarily perform music for the left hand. There is a lot of very complex and virtuosic music for this genre because quite a lot of pianists especially during the 20th century lost the use of the right hand. World War I led to a lot of single-handed pianists unfortunately, but fortunately for all of us one particularly notable and wealthy pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, commissioned a lot of works including piano concerto by major composers such as Ravel and Prokofiev.
I particularly focus on one of the most demanding piano composers, Leopold Godowsky, who wrote more solo music for the left hand than any other composer and expanded techniques and possibilities. His music is very elaborate. It’s important when listening to this music to recognize that what sounds somewhat challenging to us is in fact far more difficult with one hand. My last recording, “Leopold Godowsky, Apostle of the Left Hand” was released after my last sabbatical and represented several years of work mastering this challenging music. I’m currently working on learning the Prokofiev concerto, which I will play with the Westerville Symphony in October. I’m also working on a new solo recital program which I will perform at Otterbein and elsewhere this coming year.
I only perform with my left hand now because of spinal trouble that led to a nerve injury in my right arm, which in turn has led to the fourth and fifth fingers of my right hand not working properly anymore. My career until a few years ago – 2014 to be precise – focused on performing and recording with two hands.
One of your recordings from 2010, Honegger: Mélodies et chansons, has recently been released on streaming services. Can you explain the process behind getting your work onto services like Spotify and Amazon Music?
I’ve made six recordings with the classical label Centaur Records. I developed a relationship with them starting in 2006. Usually, they release recordings immediately to Spotify and others, but for various reasons they didn’t release this recording from 2010. Last year, they decided they would rectify this. Their distribution is managed through Naxos, so I’m not really sure of the precise process, but we sent the master of the recording to Centaur in 2010 and they release it to Naxos in turn.
The one problem with streaming services is that you miss the program notes, which have always taken a lot of time and effort on my part. So, for anybody interested, purchasing the double CD still has a point as you will get some beautiful translations of the songs and notes. The goal of this recording was to record the complete songs by this important 20th century Swiss composer who was born in France and was a member of the group Les Six. Poulenc is the most famous of this group, but Honegger’s music is widely admired and the songs are underperformed. While other collections of his songs do exist, this is the most complete and includes some film scores and popular songs that you will not hear elsewhere. I recently re-listened having not done so for several years and was struck again by the variety.
This was recorded with my friends and colleagues, Sinan Vural and Claudia Patacca. We performed them in the Netherlands and in Virginia in a series of concerts, and we recorded them in the chapel at Sweet Briar College. My friend Sinan had the flu and had to return to record his part of the album, so there is a change in humidity between winter and summer in Virginia. I wonder whether attentive listeners can hear it.
The album consists of 62 pieces in total. Can you describe the work that goes into recording some of these pieces?
Initially, I studied the scores and learned the piano parts meticulously, singing the vocal parts and trying to analyze everything I could. I also listened to any recordings I could find and researched archives for any performances that Honegger directed. I listened to a lot of his chamber and symphonic music – and later recorded some of that with my group, the Prospero Trio. (I feel is important to get a sense of the style of the composer to listen more broadly if possible.)
Then I met with the singers, approximately six months after learning the songs on my own, in Amsterdam. We rehearsed for four days together. We then worked on balance, interpretation, etc. It was nice having both artists present so that we could critique each other’s work. Sinan and Claudia also worked with a French diction coach. I think you’ll hear that that French is impeccable: there were some really delicate nuances that they captured on this recording. (They are both excellent at a lot of languages, including Dutch, English, French, German, and Sinan was born in Turkey so he speaks Turkish.)
After that, they came to Virginia six months later – we all worked on details independently that we had uncovered during those four days – and then performed the complete songs in a concert, and then recorded for four days. That is when Sinan had just had flu so he was our artistic producer, offering notes as Claudia and I recorded. Sinan then returned in May, for another four days of recording. As a coda, after the recording came out we performed a series of recitals in the Netherlands of most of the songs. I should also add that in those days I played in a piano quartet, called the James Piano Quartet, with my wife Jana Ross on violin, cellist Wes Baldwin, and violist Joe Nigro. The Prospero Trio was a sort of sub-grouping from our quartet. They recorded a series of songs for the string quartet and voice as part of this recording as well. I became the editor for the entire recording with Sinan Vural, and I particularly like those pieces (Easter in New York in translation, a poem by Cendrars).
Where is your favorite place you’ve performed and why?
I’ve enjoyed a number of venues, but my favorite was probably playing a Mozart concerto by candlelight at St. Martins-in-the-Field in London, in Trafalgar Square, playing with Trinity College of Music Orchestra. We had rented one of Steinway’s best nine-foot instruments for the concert so the piano was magnificent. I also played in Wigmore Hall for an awards ceremony and the piano and acoustics were amazing, although there was a bit of pressure because the Duke of Kent and various famous musicians were in the audience. I really enjoyed playing at my old college, Sweet Briar College, as well. There we had a beautiful old chapel, and an audience of friends and colleagues were always in attendance at concerts. But of course, I have to say that the best of all is to play in Riley Auditorium here at Otterbein! A few years ago, Solich Piano and Yamaha provided a beautiful concert instrument (CFX): that concert was the highlight of the last few years for me.