Artist Interview: Shai Wosner

By Jessica Wolford on March 15, 2017

Pianist Shai Wosner returns to the PCMS stage on Tuesday, March 21 in a recital with his long-time collaborator, violinist Jennifer Koh. This recital has its origins in the Bridge to Beethoven project curated by the duo. In our interview, Mr. Wosner offered further insight into the project; his collaboration with Ms. Koh; his first summer at Marlboro; his musical influences; and other upcoming projects.

Jessica Wolford: On March 21, you and Jennifer Koh will present the Philadelphia premiere of Vijay Iyer’s Bridgetower Fantasy as part of your Bridge to Beethoven project. Could you discuss this new piece and the project?

Shai Wosner: Vijay Iyer's piece takes its inspiration from the story of George Bridgetower, the Afro-European violinist who premiered Beethoven's Sonata Op. 47, and was meant to be the work's dedicatee before he had a falling out with the composer who went on to dedicate it to Rodolphe Kreutzer instead. Bridgetower played a very important role in the circumstances that led to the creation of one of the greatest masterpieces in all of music, a ground-breaking, almost iconic sonata that was likely inspired by Bridgetower's fiery personality and musicianship. And yet, he seems to have been written out of history, perhaps in part because of his mixed, African heritage. Bridgetower Fantasy, in part, pays homage to that, for example in its use of West-African rhythms, and Vijay's music—like our Bridge to Beethoven project—celebrates the diverse influences that are part of what we now call classical music and the fruitful and hopefully illuminating dialogue that is created by juxtaposing Beethoven's great masterpieces with the works of young composers of diverse backgrounds.

JW: You and Ms. Koh have been performing together for some time, including many PCMS appearances together since 2010. Could you tell us more about your collaboration?

SW: We are both very different and yet have quite a bit in common! I think one of the things that excites both of us is finding ways to relate the music of the great masters of the past with the music of today in a two-way exchange. The passion to be in touch with the new but also to explore the way it traces its roots in the 'old' in mysterious ways serves both of us as a source for creative energy.

I suppose tracing roots and identity has a lot to do with our own individual backgrounds, as a Korean-American and as an Israeli who spend our lives working on a lot of music written by Europeans!

JENNIFER KOH, violin & SHAI WOSNER piano @ DiMenna Center for Classical Music

 JW: This past summer you participated in the Marlboro Music Festival for the first time. What did you take away from that experience?

SW: Marlboro was immensely enjoyable. Since I had never been there as a student, I only heard many stories, but those were always with people declaring that you have to be there to understand. And it is indeed so, the place does have its own unique atmosphere that inhabits and supports the music-making. It is thrilling to be able to delve into the thicket of a meaty piece of chamber music or to spend a long period with a complicated piece of contemporary music without time constraints. Also, one always aims to approach even the most familiar work as if encountered for the first time, and at Marlboro you get to do that with outrageously talented people who may literally be playing it for the very first time. And that's a wonderful feeling. I am very much looking forward to this summer!

 JW: What and/or who has had the most influence in your musical career?

SW: I have been incredibly fortunate to study [with] great teachers to whom I am forever grateful. Most recently, it was Emanuel Ax, and while he needs no introduction, I still can't emphasize enough what a privilege it is to be the student of one of the supreme musicians of our time (and also one of the nicest people you've ever met). Before that I was lucky to not change teachers much while I was growing up in Israel. My very first teacher was actually a jazz musician, Opher Brayer, who decided to send me to study with two teachers. So, in fact, pretty much the whole time after that, I studied piano with Emanuel Krasovksy in Tel-Aviv and was immensely lucky to also study all kinds of other things—composition, theory, lots of improvisation—with Andre Hajdu, a disciple of Messiaen and Kodály and one of the brightest and most original musical minds I have ever met. He was not just a composer but also a kind of musical philosopher, for lack of a better term. I also feel I learned a great deal from Daniel Barenboim, through multiple summers in the East-Western Divan project.

JW: Aside from the Bridge to Beethoven project with Ms. Koh, are there any other exciting projects or recordings lined up for you?

SW: I am now starting a project that is loosely titled Schubert: The Great Sonatas, going through the composer's last six sonatas. The reason is twofold. On one hand, for a number of years I have felt this irrepressible urge to immerse myself in his music and to devote whole programs to it, as his pieces seem to almost feed off each other in some timeless way (not unlike Mahler's music later on). The other reason is that with these sonatas he seems to have felt that his music reached new heights and new depths and—unbelievably—they were the only ones he sought to publish. He conceived them as two grand trilogies, like two magisterial magnum opuses.

A new recording that consists of nothing but impromptus by various composers from Chopin to Gershwin is to be released in May and Schubert is obviously there, too. I feel that Schubert's mix of serenity and hope with profound, existential anxieties makes his music particularly potent and meaningful in our time.

Shai Wosner appears in recital with Jennifer Koh on Tuesday, March 21 at 8pm at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. For tickets and information, visit the concert page

For more information on Mr. Wosner, please visit his website.