Brahms Op.118 #2, the Intermezzo in A Major, makes an appearance in the last song of Jake Heggie’s new cycle, FORCE OF NATURE, written in tribute to pianist Nancy Albrink. This particular piece was important to Nancy, a piece she played often and returned to again and again. So tonight, in Louisville, when I touched those notes written by Johannes, quoted by Jake, I tried to conjure the woman who was mother to my friend and performing partner Emily. In the Louisville audience, full of Nancy’s friends, I could hear people crying. Later, they would tell me how important the Brahms was in Nancy’s life.

Radu Lupu plays Brahms, Op. 118 #2

Thing is, though, this particular Brahms resonates through the fingers and hearts of so many pianists. So many of us call it our special piece. Why? Well, to be honest, it’s not hard to play. You can basically read it at sight. But the payoff in depth and beauty for even this most basic investment of pianistic effort is so big! Sure, you can spend your life tweaking the piece’s nuances, but that’s worth it. Brahms found something immense and true in this little piece. We can connect with that beauty without the technique of a virtuoso, or the practice time available to an acolyte. Serious amateurs and true believers alike can claim these four minutes of repose at the keyboard for their own.

118/2 has accompanied me through major moments of my own pianistic journey. I recorded it for my Fulbright scholarship audition almost 35 years ago. My teacher at the time told me I shouldn’t: “it’s the kind of thing that women play, because it’s beautiful and easy. To be competitive, you must choose something more difficult.” I had Liszt and Rachmaninoff, but the pressure to prove myself had done its work, and I couldn’t get a good take of either piece. Brahms it was, lyrical and slow and sure, and I got that scholarship on the strength of that “beautiful and easy” work.

Years later, after working in opera and not playing much legit piano repertoire, I had the chance to re-enter big time recital practice when my friend Jamie asked me to join her in some concerts. I was terrified – worried about what people would think of me, sure, but also well aware of how sketchy my solo practice had been over time. Jamie asked if I’d give her a break in the program by playing a solo, and I went right back to the Intermezzo. It brought me back to myself, to a good era of my own playing, and to a sense of myself as an independent artist.

Now here I am after performing FORCE OF NATURE with Emily in Louisville. A whole audience of people who knew Nancy are talking to me about how she played the Brahms. And I’m thinking about this woman I never met, mother to my friend and musical partner, the force of nature behind this program, the musican honored by Jake Heggie through his quoting of the Intermezzo. I’m thinking about the young lion himself, Brahms: expressive, virtuosic, competitive, jealous, loyal, loving, petty, hurtful, remorseful. Alone. Beloved.

At the end of his life, Brahms left his fellow pianists a set of small pieces, not difficult, full of soul, generously open to every individual’s impulses. We each have grown to love them, particularly that second one in A major. We call it our signature piece. It makes us feel deeply musical when we’re young and haven’t tamed that big box of levers just yet. We play it at night in the practice room before we get kicked out of the music building when we’ve been weeping and swearing over scales and arpeggios, the lactic acid burning in our forearms. We play it alone in the studio mid-career when we’ve got the yips, or when our resolve is failing, or when a bad review plays over and over again in our heads. We play it when our eyes begin to dim and our memory begins to fray. Young or old, robust or frail, it’s always there to say, I know you, you are a musican, come over here and sing, sink into the small fingers of both hands. I’ve got you.

Tonight, in Louisville, Johannes and Jake and Nancy and Emily remind me that none of us has to be the best. All we have to do is show up with our training. We breathe, we listen, we put our hands down on those cool white fulcrums.

We sing.

Emily and me singing Jake’s song “Now I See You”


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