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A Q&A with pianist Matthew Hagle


To open its 2019–2020 season at Nichols Concert Hall, the Music Institute of Chicago is presenting a concert September 29 featuring CSO Concertmaster Robert Chen and Music Institute faculty pianist Matthew Hagle. The program includes Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 12, No. 3, in celebration of the composer’s 250th birthday, along with Fauré’s Sonata No. 1 in A Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 13, and Schubert’s Rondo in B minor for Violin and Piano, D 895.


Hagle shares some thoughts on Beethoven, collaboration, teaching, and other works on the program.



Can you tell us more about your Beethoven Sonata WFMT Broadcast project? What was the inspiration? How long did it take?


My project of playing all of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas on the radio took me about four and a half years, from June 2013 to December 2017. I did not know all the pieces beforehand, so I had to learn many of them as I went along. I was partially motivated to do this by the death, in 2009, of my beloved teacher Maria Curcio Diamand, who made Beethoven and the Central European repertory one of the cornerstones of her teaching. Maria’s teacher, the great Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel, was the first pianist to record all the Beethoven Sonatas and could trace his own teaching ancestry back to Beethoven himself. So Beethoven was always there in my background, and with Maria being gone, I felt like this was a chance to do something appropriate with what I had learned from her. I had been playing pretty regularly on WFMT’s “Live from WFMT” program, so I asked producers Andi Lamoreaux and Kerry Frumkin if I could convert this regularity into a Beethoven cycle series. They were very enthusiastic and supportive, as they always have been. The music was another great motivation: the Beethoven Sonatas are incredibly varied in their musical characters, and, as a group, they create a fascinating and compelling narrative of exploration and personal growth. It’s hard to do them all justice, and I hope to get another shot at doing them again someday. 


You have been performing for many years with another violinist, Rachel Barton Pine, an alumna of the Music Institute like you, as well as a Life trustee. Is there something especially satisfying or challenging about working with violinists? How is the experience of performing with another musician different from performing as a soloist?


I enjoy working with other musicians very much—violinists, of course, but also other instruments. Often you learn as much from playing with other musicians as you would from any teacher. If you know how to listen and understand what you are hearing, you can even learn more because you are getting your instruction in a purely musical form. In cases where you have played together for many years, as Rachel and I have, you almost get an extra sense, telling you what the other person is going to do before they do it. But it’s also exciting to try different things with new people. When you are playing as a solo pianist, you are in charge of every aspect of the music, which is a different type of responsibility. You are responsible for the whole conception, which is exciting, but it can also be easy to get a little sloppy in certain areas of sound or rhythm without other people around to provide input. 


You’ve recently celebrated 20 years with the Music Institute as a teacher. and you began your piano studies at the Music Institute yourself. The Music Institute has a long tradition of teaching excellence, particularly in piano. What does the Music Institute mean to you? What do you find most rewarding about teaching? How do you feel you are carrying this legacy of great piano teaching forward?

I first started coming to the Music Institute for piano lessons when I was nine years old. I’ve been glad to have the chance to teach here for many years among many wonderful colleagues in many musical areas. Many of them were also students here and came back to teach as I did, but others have simply been there for decades, bringing music to people. I think this kind of commitment is very precious, and I try to live up to it and inspire it in my own teaching. There are and have been great teachers here on a lot of different levels—people who can set you up as a beginner, but also people who can refine your musicianship and technique to a professional level. Sometimes they are even the same person! Playing and practicing the piano is essentially a rather lonely activity, so I feel like teaching allows me to be musical in a more human and socially useful way. It’s fascinating to me that people who don’t necessarily want to be professional musicians still want music to be part of their lives, and I feel a great responsibility to take everything I’ve learned and make it relevant and useful to them. I think of the whole musical tradition that I know as an enormous river; the students are on the banks of it, looking in. I want them to come in and swim, but they can do it only if I show them how. Piano is my instrument and my main competence, but there are other entry points that I can give them, like composition or music theory, and for some people those are better. 


Part of the concert program celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Is Beethoven a composer you particularly enjoy? What would you like to share about the other works on the program from your perspective?


I enjoy Beethoven for many reasons, and the sonata we are playing features some of them. Beethoven was one of history’s great pianists as well as a great composer, and when he would improvise at the keyboard, other musicians were in awe of the constant flow of unusual ideas that would spill out from his brain and fingers. I think you can hear this in the first movement, which starts with a certain politeness and decorum, but Beethoven’s energy overflows into these splashy figures every once in a while. The second movement has a special quality that I would call introspective, which is also very typical of Beethoven. It’s amazing to me that the same person could express the energy and humor of the outer movements as well as the thoughtfulness of the second movement. 


The Fauré sonata is one of my favorites and a favorite of many musicians. The first movement is very passionate and also delicate at the same time, which is a wonderful combination, but hard to pull off for me, especially as there are so many notes! In Marcel Proust’s famous novel In Search of Lost Time, he invents an imaginary violin sonata by a composer named Vinteuil and uses it to symbolize the relationship of two of the main characters; some people have thought Proust was thinking of this piece when he did that. The second movement is a kind of melancholy barcarolle, the third a sparkling scherzo, and the fourth has a kind of swaying motion in the melody that seems very typical of Fauré to me. The Schubert rondo that finishes the concert is a great mixture of different characters; it starts with a very serious introduction, followed by music that almost sounds like something Schubert would have heard in the cafes he liked. But as Schubert creates the rondo form, he starts to mix together tiny bits of the introduction in various places. It’s like you had two different events going on in adjoining rooms, and you were able to hear bits of one leaking into the other. It’s an exciting way to end a concert!


Reserve tickets to the concert featuring Robert Chen and Matt Hagle on Sunday, September 29 at 3 pm at Nichols Concert Hall >>