Pianist Andrew Tyson of Durham dazzles on the contest circuit

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJanuary 26, 2013 

  • Meet the musician Who: Andrew Tyson Hometown: Durham Age: 26 Family: Parents Martin and Marian Tyson of Durham Education: Graduate of Durham Academy; bachelor’s degree from Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; master’s degree from Juilliard School in New York City. Currently in Juilliard’s post-graduate artist diploma program. Honors: Awards in 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition; 2012 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition; 2011 Young Concert Artists Auditions; 2010 National Chopin Competition; 2008 Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Competition.

— Both musicians were locked in, concentrating on the same Beethoven concerto for violin and piano, but in different ways. Violinist Nicholas Kitchen played standing up, gazing at the sheet music on a laptop computer. Seated behind him, Andrew Tyson accompanied Kitchen’s violin quite ably on piano – and it was all the more impressive because he was playing the piece basically from memory, without sheet music.

Tyson rocked backward and forward a bit as he played, eyes half-closed and lips moving slightly as his hands flew across the keyboard. He was not singing or humming, and his motions weren’t overly demonstrative. But every movement and gesture seemed to be part of drawing out the sounds from within, as if he were talking back to the music in its own language.

Different methodologies aside, both men played dazzlingly, racing through the piece’s intricate changes with virtuosic elegance. Afterward, the small crowd gathered for this pre-concert discussion at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church applauded vigorously. Kitchen nodded approvingly toward Tyson.

“I see there you are using the ultimate computer,” Kitchen said, pointing toward his own head with his violin bow. “That’s courageous!”

The audience chuckled as Tyson blushed and gave a modest shrug. But he gets that sort of response a lot.

With his slight build and spiky hair, Andrew Tyson could pass for a lot younger than his 26 years. When the Durham native sits at a piano, however, his playing shows a sophistication and worldliness well beyond his years. It’s starting to attract attention in high places.

Tyson has been earning prizes in piano competitions for years, including the 2010 National Chopin Competition. He was a winner in both the 2011 Young Concert Artists Auditions and the 2012 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition at the Juilliard School in New York City, where he is enrolled in post-graduate studies. And this past September, Tyson reached the winners’ circle at the Leeds International Piano Competition in England, placing fifth.

“He’s a phenomenal talent and a world-class player, no question,” said Thomas Otten, a UNC music professor who taught him before Tyson went off to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and Juilliard. “His playing keeps opening up, going to higher levels. He’s really got it all, a perfect combination of intellect, technical brilliance and solidity, heart and incredible imagination. And he’s very humble, unlike some people, which is another reason he’ll do well. I think he really does have the potential to have a real concert career, one of the very few on the planet.”

A few days after the St. Stephen’s concert, Tyson sat at the piano in the den of the Durham house where he grew up and where his parents still live. It was his final day in town before returning to his current home in New York City, where his New York debut at Merkin Concert Hall awaited. So he showed off a couple of Chopin pieces he was working on for that debut, both very fast, dramatic and demanding. Tyson handled them with ease, stopping mid-note in the second one.

“Usually I don’t play things through too much when I’m practicing,” he said. “I’m working on isolated spots or a particular phrase. As I play more and more, I become more and more self-critical. This sounds arrogant and it’s not, but I care less and less what other people think. I’m searching for something deeper and more personal, trying to refine my artistic process even more. As it becomes more personal, I tend to rely only on the opinions of a few close friends and musicians.”

‘Every teacher’s dream’

Growing up, Tyson never had much interest in sports – “Me and sports were like ships in the night,” he said – but he showed musical inclinations from a very young age. His parents remember him reaching for the keys of the family piano almost as soon as he could stand up. Once he was big enough to sit on the piano bench, he’d prop a book in front of himself to mimic the way he’d seen it done.

“Where other children his age just banged on it, he’d sit there as if to actually play it,” said his mother, Marian Tyson. “He was already approaching it as an instrument rather than a toy.”

Tyson started studying piano at age 7, blowing through the early lesson books with surprising speed. Lessons and progress followed, plus dalliances with jazz and electric guitar, but he was always drawn to classical piano. What finally set him on the path was playing at Guilford College’s Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro at age 15, after which he became “hopelessly addicted.”

At 16, Tyson began studying with Otten before going off to college. By his own admission, Tyson was a lot more interested in improvising and self-expression than in the drills he was assigned – and not shy about registering objections. That led to some clashes.

“Andrew was challenging, sometimes resistant to do things I said,” Otten said. “I’d tell him, ‘You have to do it this way right now. When you’re older and more formed, you can do it your way. But now, you need to do it my way.’ It was musical issues, interpretations. He was not always a walk in the park. But having a student like Andrew is every teacher’s dream, somebody with unlimited potential.”

On the contest circuit

Tyson has done well on the contest circuit where many young classical musicians make their reputations. Winning the Young Concert Artists Auditions in the fall of 2011 earned him a booking contract with the agency and a slate of high-profile engagements, including an upcoming debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on April 30.

“He’s an original,” said Young Concert Artists director Susan Wadsworth. “All of the judges said that he made the music his own and was completely convincing and appealing. He’s a consummate pianist and he can do exactly what he wants artistically because he has the fingers, sense of tone and balance between voices in the music. He’s an extraordinary musician.”

Paradoxically, however, that very originality isn’t always welcome in the classical world, especially when it clashes with centuries of tradition. Otten speculated that’s the reason Tyson hasn’t won even more contests than he has.

“Andrew plays in a highly individual and personal manner that, if you believe there’s only one standard way to do a given piece, you might find offensive,” Otten said. “So he generally comes in about fifth, like at Leeds. (During the 2010 Chopin International Competition in Warsaw,) t he Poles were really in an uproar over him because they have what they call ‘The True Edition’ of Chopin and he was not playing it the way they thought he should in their competition.

“They actually sent notes to his hotel asking him to please withdraw, which was very trying for him. But he still almost made it to the finals. There were enough members of the jury who recognized what he could do.”

So far, at least, Tyson’s undeniable ability has been enough to overcome most such prejudices – but not always. Jerome Lowenthal, former head of the piano faculty at Juilliard, remembered Tyson’s Juilliard audition.

“I told Andrew’s teacher afterward how much I loved his playing and he said, ‘I’ll tell Andrew that because he often gets negative criticism,’” Lowenthal said. “There are some people who are surprised his playing doesn’t sound like the ‘standard product,’ although there is of course no such thing.”

Total dedication

Small wonder that Tyson has taken to putting the opinions of others in the background. He tries to take it all in stride, spending up to six hours a day practicing. He’s busy enough in New York and elsewhere that he might not get to play his hometown again until next year. It’s a demanding regimen.

“Just loving music is the most important thing, and being dedicated to giving it as much as you can,” Tyson said. “But it’s still not enough. You have to have a certain set of skills and also be lucky, because it’s very competitive. A teacher put it well: You shouldn’t be a pianist unless you desire every morning to go sit at the piano and play. It should be the first thing you want to do, before everything else. Don’t do it unless you really have something you must say with the music, something valid that’s not been said before.

“A lot of the best moments actually happen away from the piano,” he added. “Just thinking about the music and visualizing it in my mind. A lot of musicians see the score, but for me it’s all aural. Ideally, in performance one brings something extra that you’ve not practiced, creating a freedom and spontaneity that lives in the moment.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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