Friday , May 24 2024
Pianist Michael Stephen Brown

Concert Preview and Interview: Pianist Michael Stephen Brown on ‘Mozart as Harlequin’ (May 1, NYC)

Pianists and frequent collaborators Michael Stephen Brown and Adam Golka will put a little extra meaning into the word “play” at the next New York concert in the Aspect Chamber Music Series on May 1. On the theme of “Mozart as Harlequin,” they will play music by Mozart for piano four hands and for two pianos – music that expresses the composer’s famous (and infamous) witty side.

Brown explained that the program “will include the D major Sonata for piano four hands, whose moods range from poignancy to slapstick humor; some of Mozart’s hilarious and bawdy canons; and excerpts from the notoriously crude letters he wrote to a girlfriend. As man and artist, Mozart was devoted to joie de vivre, and the concert will paint a portrait of him at his most high-spirited.”

B. B. King had Lucille; Brown has Octavia and Daria. “So it’s nice to put them to good use!” he said.

Mozart as Harlequin

I asked him about Mozart’s music:

Can you talk a little about how Mozart’s wit is expressed musically in some of these pieces he wrote for piano four hands and for two pianos?

Each piece we’re presenting is such a gem. Playing two-piano repertoire is thrilling. It requires a strong belief in coordination and anticipation of what your partner is going to do, especially since one isn’t able to see the other’s hands. On the other hand, in the D Major Sonata for One Piano, Four Hands by Mozart, we literally are touching, we can feel each other’s impulses, we can breathe together.

Mozart as Harlequin

The music has such dialogue and wit in the Sonata for Two Pianos, literally passing the same figurations back and forth, echoing each other, finishing each other’s sentences. The music is written conversationally, humorously, and as always with Mozart, operatically – and our process of rehearsing has allowed us to highlight the wit and genius of the music, to bring these things out in a compelling and honest way.

I must say it’s so fun to play with Adam. Two friends playing is not work, it’s play – and to present all of this music for two pianos in one concert is a rare thrill for a solo pianist, whose life is often lonely backstage waiting to play alone. It’s much better to be with a close friend.

A Long Collaboration

How long have you and Adam known each other and worked together?

Adam Golka and I share a bond that extends far beyond the stage. We have been very close friends for over 15 years now, and we’ve shared both great and sad times of life together. We have lived across the street from one another in NYC – I could see Adam taking his dry cleaning out from my window. We have traveled all over the world together, studying at Prussia Cove, wandering around in Curaçao.

Pianist Adam Golka
Adam Golka

We have produced each other’s recordings and constantly play and learn from one another. This month, right before the Aspect concert, we’re playing the complete works of Mozart for Two Pianos, including the Concerto, with the Phoenix Symphony.

Are there particular challenges to performing with another pianist, as opposed to in (say) a piano trio, an art song, or with a different instrument – such as when you perform with your duo partner, cellist Nicholas Canellakis, whom we just heard at an Aspect concert a couple of weeks ago)?

I feel our experience as friends and musical collaborators isn’t separate. It’s all one and the same – all of our love for one another (and our struggles), just like any relationship, goes into the music-making.

It’s thrilling to make music with Adam as he brings such vibrancy and informed perspectives to everything he does. We understand each other as humans, and I’d like to think that we both can bring out the best in one another, and know how to handle each other’s evolving moods. We’re excited to explore such intimate repertoire together, and feel that our closeness only aids the process of presenting something honest and truthful.

An Even Longer One

And this may be a silly question, but how far back do you go with Mozart, as a composer as well as a pianist?

As a composer, Mozart was my first love. I wanted to imitate him and felt competitive with him when I was six years old. I tried to outdo him and write little short piano pieces inspired by his compositions at that age. He hasn’t left me alone in the last 30 years and is a constant companion.

It’s fun to keep revisiting pieces you have played a lot over the years. The Mozart Two Piano Sonata is one of those pieces where I’ve played both parts with different pianists. It’s fascinating to see how it evolves over time and how each collaborator brings something else to the table.

I must say, I’m very lucky to be playing all of this repertoire with Adam because he presents such dynamism, courage, and conviction in what he does, and it’s nice to lean into that energy and present my own as well. I feel that we’re a fun match, and I’m excited to see what happens on May 1.

The 2023–2024 season of the Aspect Chamber Music Series wraps up this spring with two concerts. First, a program of French chansons in London on April 18 with soprano Vera Maria Kremers and pianist Jakub Sládek on the theme “L’Invitation au Voyage.” Finally, “Mozart as Harlequin” with Michael Stephen Brown and Adam Golka, with an illustrated talk by noted biographer Jan Swafford, in New York City on May 1. Tickets and information are on the Aspect Chamber Music website.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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Adam Golka and Michael Stephen Brown at the Aspect Chamber Music concert 'Mozart as Harlequin'

Concert Review: Music by Mozart for Two Pianists, with Michael Stephen Brown and Adam Golka

Concerts like this tribute to classical music's fun side are just what's needed to perpetuate love and support for the tradition.