Stewart Goodyear: 5 pieces that changed my life

From Maurice Ravel to James Brown, here's the music that shaped the classical pianist.

From Maurice Ravel to James Brown, here's the music that shaped the classical pianist

Canadian pianist and composer Stewart Goodyear has recorded all 32 sonatas and 5 piano concertos by Ludwig van Beethoven. (Anita Zvonar )

Like classical musicians everywhere, pianist Stewart Goodyear's plans have been turned upside-down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I've had a lot of concert cancellations," he told CBC Music recently. "It's been a challenging year, emotionally. It puts a lot of things into perspective. It comes down to remembering what made us want to become musicians in the first place: love and sharing that love with everyone who wanted to listen."

For the pianist known for his "Beethoven sonatathons" (playing all 32 piano sonatas in a single day), life has taken on a different rhythm. "Listening and movie binge-watching," he said. "But mostly it's been a lot of composing and practising."

Goodyear hasn't been idle during the pandemic. On March 13 (Day 1 of the lockdown), he released the complete piano concertos by Beethoven with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Andrew Constantine, and followed that up a few months later with a jazz single, "Congotay," with a cohesive quintet.

In September, before the second wave washed away hopes for the resumption of live concerts, Goodyear opened the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra's season playing Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2 and then did a virtual chamber concert with members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, playing his own piano quartet and Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 1.

On Nov. 15, Goodyear will play Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, Ont., a recital that will be live streamed. It's a chance to hear the Isabel's new Hamburg Steinway.

We asked him for five pieces that changed his life.

1. Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 21, Op. 53, 'Waldstein'

"Beethoven changed everything for me, and it all began with the 'Waldstein' Sonata. I first heard it on a greatest hits compilation and it felt so joyous and cathartic and at the same time, defiant.

"It doesn't start out with a usual melodic theme; it starts out almost like a motor. There's this repeated C major chord that builds suspense from the very beginning and kind of dictates what mood it's going to be. It is in major, but there is this drive throughout, even into the second movement, which starts on a low F — you're not necessarily sure what key you're in [but] that drive is always there, a drive that is always moving toward sunshine.

"It was the first sonata that made me want to devour more Beethoven, from the symphonies to the sonatas. The first sonata that I tried playing was the 'Moonlight.' I was around five or six. Of course, there were some things that were a little difficult, but it didn't deter my quest to conquer that sonata and bring my own personality and emotional response to it.

"The 'Waldstein' entered my fingers when I was a teenager — I was 15 when I learned it. It reminded me how virtuous patience is [laughs] and to just go through it carefully, so there are no muscles straining. Everything was about how rewarding the result was going to be and just to respect how innovative it is without rushing the learning process.

"A lot of it is just so lyrical and beautiful, especially because there are so many passages that deal with that sunshine and, you know, you just want to bask in that glow. I also love how orchestral that sonata is compared to so many others. Like, one could play the 'Waldstein' in a salon setting, but the roof would blow off [laughs]."

2. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5, 4th movement (Adagietto)

"I heard this when I would visit my grandparents — Willem Mengelberg conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I think this recording was made in the '20s. I would listen to it over and over again and even now, when I hear it, it never ceases to make me tear up, it is just so passionate.

"A lot of the interpretations of that movement stretch it to a point where it sounds more like a hymn than a testament to love. And there's something so youthful about that love, you know? That first love is everything. It encompasses your whole being, your whole world. Once you feel that love, nothing else matters, and I think Mengelberg brings that aspect home.

"At the very opening, when you hear the strings play that gorgeous melody, it's like you're not hearing strings, you're hearing a voice. You're almost hearing words. And there is a freedom — as if every string player is bringing their own experience of first love to those phrases.

"My grandparents had this huge gramophone player that could play 78 RPMs and I remember the sound just filled the entire room and I was glued to the record, spinning around and so fast. And because the 78s could only hold four minutes per side, there was this agonising gasp once they got to the end of side A. It was getting more and more passionate, the strings were getting more animated, the register was getting higher and higher. And then you had to go to side B to get that relief.

"Those were the intense feelings I had as a six-year-old."

3. James Brown and the Flames on the T.A.M.I. Show, 1964

"This show looked like it was in a high-school auditorium — mainly teenagers in the audience and all of the top rock and pop stars of the period: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones. James Brown performed right before the Rolling Stones, and it's one of the most wild, riveting performances I've ever seen in any music. James Brown just gives it his all, a do-or-die kind of performance. Like, I have this one shot and I am going to bite into that apple.

"I'm a James Brown fan. I adore his funk period. But I didn't know much about his rhythm and blues period until I saw that performance. And I thought, well, that's where it began.

"The second song was a ballad, 'Prisoner of Love.' Near the end, there's a vamp that just repeats and repeats and gets softer and softer. And then he does that famous James Brown scream and hurls himself on the floor. He also did 'Please, Please, Please,' and I don't think I've seen that much raw begging since I saw Marlon Brando yelling 'Stella!' in A Streetcar Named Desire [laughs]. There's that same primal, guttural aspect.

"And then he ends with 'Night Train,' where he just pulls out all the stops and there's a call and response that happens between James Brown and the audience.

"When I'm performing, especially if it's a Beethoven concerto or 'sonatathon,' the secret to getting all that energy is what James Brown does in those 20 minutes. It's like a dose of vitamin JB."

4. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23

"This was on a Funk and Wagnalls record series that my grandparents introduced me to. It was the first piano concerto that I heard. And, you know, just going back to the call and response (before I knew anything about James Brown) that Tchaikovsky creates with the piano and orchestra — that piece made me want to be a concert soloist.

"I learned it when I was 16; the first time I performed it with orchestra was when I was 21. I love this concerto so much. That introduction, before the first theme in the piano part, there's this brilliant D-flat major that begins the work and everyone from the horns at the beginning to the strings — you're playing along with them, you're accompanying them. Then, after that, you basically have to up your game from the gorgeous sound that comes out of the strings, you have to complement that.

"It challenges the soloist to become a team player — to assert the soloist's role, but at the same time, there's a lot of give and take and a lot of what the pianist does, the orchestra has already established. So it's really a matter of collaboration."

5. Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit

"Like a lot of people, my introduction to Ravel was Bolero. I had heard so many recordings, from Ormandy's to Bernstein's to von Karajan's — so many recordings of Bolero. I don't know why I loved that piece so much. I guess it was the orchestration. The theme repeats and repeats, but there's that slow build to the ending and it's thrilling. And the secret is how Ravel handles the orchestra. That snare drum is a motor that just builds and builds.

"Later, when I was competing at the Canadian Music Competitions, I heard my peers play Ravel's piano music and I thought, whoa, the writing is so innovative and 'out there' and the harmonies are even more adventurous than anything I had ever heard in the orchestral works. So, I thought, I need to buy some piano scores of Ravel.

"When I first heard Gaspard de la nuit, it scared me. It was shimmering at the very beginning and it was scary and full of light flickers at the end and very picturesque and graphic in the musical description. It's Hitchcockian, but even faster-paced than a slow Hitchcockian burn. Everyone is on pins and needles to find out what Ravel is going to do. There are jump scares and I think it's equivalent to storytelling time when everyone huddles around and everything is pitch black and everyone is nervous, holding hands and just riveted by the way one tells the story.

"Timing is everything and Ravel was a master of timing. I took an acting course when I was in New York and a comedy course in Toronto one summer, and both practices stated that timing was everything: When to tell a story or tell a joke, when to deliver the punch line — it makes such a huge difference. There's a six-second rule that Jack Lemmon always talked about when it came to silences before a punchline. And Martin Scorsese applied that same practice in movies like Goodfellas. So, I thought, how am I going to apply that to Gaspard de la nuit and really deliver it so that the audience is literally gasping?"