My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Personal pianism at its best - pianist Petronel Malan

In two week's time, Virginia's New River Valley will open its doors to a pianist that I've been wanting to meet in person for quite some time.  I met Petronel Malan on twitter during my first forays into this unique form of social media a few years ago.  Known as @PianistTweet, she is one of the most down-to-earth, accessible, charming performers there, tweeting about things both musical and unmusical, always with good humor, sincerity, and warmth for her colleagues both young and old.  It didn't take  many conversations with her before I decided to track down her website and to download one of her recordings, Transfigured Mozart.  Sitting down to listen to it, I was instantly drawn into the clarity of her sound and into the world that she creates through her interpretation of lesser-known repertoire that pays homage to works that are more familiar.  After listening to that entire album, multiple times in a row I should add, I was hooked!

Here is a video of Ms. Malan performing the first movement of Joseph Haydn's Sonata in C major, HOB XVI/50.

In anticipation of her upcoming solo recital at Radford University on Tuesday, April 10th, I asked Ms. Malan if I could ask her some questions to share here on my blog.  Not surprisingly she agreed.  So here is our interview.  My hope is that it will give you a good glimpse into who this lovely pianist is - I think she is more than just an amazing pianist, she is also a lovely, accessible, and caring person.

ES: How old were you when you moved from South Africa to the United States?  If you could bring something from your homeland to this country, whether it be a type of food, a cultural tradition, a specific place, etc., what would it be and why?

PM: I was 17 when I moved to the US and since then, I've always flown South African Rooibos tea with me! It is caffeine free and high in iron & anti-oxidants. To this day, I travel with it and drink it frequently. It is so wonderful we even give it to babies! South Africans, in general, also have a very wonderful sense of humour; so I sometimes miss this. Americans are funny, but in a very different way. 

ES: I love your "Transfigured" recordings - there is so much music included that is not played on a regular basis but that are still familiar, accessible, and engaging and of course they are all played exquisitely.   Can you talk a bit about your recordings and how you came about with the idea to include the repertoire that you included? 

PM: I have always loved transcriptions - since I was a child. I loved the idea that my favourite orchestral piece, can also be played by me. For the first CD, "Transfigured Bach" the producer sent me the repertoire, chose the title and I had no input in the project; For the following 3 recordings, I did all the research, chose the repertoire myself and even wrote program notes for one of the discs. I'm constantly collecting and researching repertoire; I'm a research-nerd at heart! 

ES: You spend a portion of your time judging various competitions - can you share a few thoughts about competitions and how you'd recommend young musicians approach them?

PM:  I wish there was a way for pianists to create opportunities without competitions. It can be done, of course, but it is so much harder and take so much extra effort; a big competition can give you that easy, instant push; Having said that, I don't always think it is healthy to play these competitions: I see so many students just be devastated by results and it saddens me. If you can approach it correctly, knowing that you are only being judged on that specific performance, and not on everything else in your life, and certainly not on your value as a human being! - you should do as many as you can fit into a balanced life. 

I would also like to add - for the girls especially: please test your concert outfit (and shoes!) It is tricky suddenly playing all dressed up; make sure you're prepared. I've seen so many outfit-malfunctions, and this can be avoided.

ES: You work a lot with pianists in master class situations - is there something you find yourself saying over and over again?  What do you feel is most important with working with these young musicians?

PM: I would think voicing is something we don't think about enough - me included! There is never enough top notes! There can possibly be a dozen extra notes "against" that poor top note that has to sing and we don't always realize how much extra work that takes. 

I also find that many students listen to the "wrong" recordings: If you're playing Chopin and you only heard Cortot, as amazing as he is, you are not necessarily on the right track. You need to hear at least a half-dozen recordings of each piece and knowing which pianists to listen to for which repertoire, is crucial.

I also have a lot of sympathy with students having to adjust to a piano on the spot, so that is also one of the hardest things in our lives. In my next life, I'm playing an instrument I can travel with! 

ES: You are very active facebook and twitter.  Do you think access to social media has changed the life of the performing artist in any way?   How has it impacted your life?

PM: Well, I don't know that it has impacted my career as such, but I've certainly met some of the most fantastic people who I now consider fantastic friends. The era of musicians who had "people" to answer their phones & take care of all their arrangements & they just practiced & performed, is certainly over; so a hands-on approach to everything in life is certainly better. We have to wear many hats. 

ES: Before you walk onto stage to perform, what goes on in your mind?    Have you had any amusing pre-performance thoughts that you'd like to share?

PM:  Leonard Bernstein said "there are no heroes back stage" and someone else said: "Stage fright, like the poor, will always be with us." ---- So many things go through my mind back stage; I also know Glenn Gould said "audiences are evil." I try not to think THAT! 

ES: You perform all over the world, in cities and in smaller towns as well.  How different is it to play for audiences in the different areas or is it the same experience for you regardless of where you are?

PM:  I don't think it is different to play for larger or smaller towns; at least, I  don't approach it any differently. We can't "phone in" a concert, so you always have to "be on." I often think, with a small audience, that they all really want to be there, so you have to play extra well & give it your all!  In my experience, audiences in e.g. Germany is completely quiet (and thus slightly more intimidating!) and audiences in South America seem to have a bit more fun out there.  

ES: Do you want to say any words about Czerny? ;-) *

PM:  hhhhhhhhhaaaahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!

* This is a running joke between Ms. Malan and others.  She is not shy at stating that she is not a fan of the composer, Carl Czerny.  Check her twitter profile for proof!

Many thanks to Ms. Malan for sharing her time and thoughts in addition to granting me permission to use her photo and video.  I hope to see some of you at the performance.  


  1. She seems lovely. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You're very welcome, Jamey. I'm happy to have introduced you to her. Hopefully she'll be in your neck of the woods one of these days so you can hear her in person!

      All the best,

  2. Dale Matt (@Lisztnut)April 2, 2012 at 9:58 AM

    Petronel is a joy, professionally and personally. It's great that you're both going to meet. Enjoy...

    And as usual, thanks for your blog, Erica. Its the one blog I won't miss.

    1. So glad you caught this interview, Dale. I remember thinking, "Hey, I want to meet Petronel in person (and hear her!)" the last time I saw she was in your area. So I am very excited for next week.

      And thank you so much for being such a fan of my blog. That means a lot to me!

      All the best,