Renowned pianist Nick Ross to open Gager Concert series at Sweet Briar

Nick Ross
Pianist and former Sweet Briar faculty member Nick Ross

Internationally known pianist and former faculty member Nick Ross will open Sweet Briar College’s 2018-2019 Janet Lowrey Gager Community Concert Series at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, in Memorial Chapel.

“It is my distinct pleasure to open this year’s Gager Concert Series by reintroducing an old friend, dear colleague and former faculty member of Sweet Briar College,” said Anna Billias, a pianist and assistant professor of music at Sweet Briar. “I feel a special nostalgia reuniting with my friend, as he was the first person to welcome me as a faculty member in the music department of Sweet Briar 12 years ago. Nick Ross is a brilliant pianist and a renowned scholar and will be bringing us a unique repertoire. He will be performing the rarely heard music from various composers written only for the left hand.”

Ross’s program is centered around Leopold Godowsky’s music for the left hand, written between 1928 and 1930. The program will also feature new music for the left hand by American composer Kent Holliday and British composer Brian Pearson, written specifically for Ross’s sabbatical recitals. Ross will also perform “Oíche Ceoil” by Irish composer Philip Martin (1971).

Godowsky (1870-1938) was an American pianist and composer of Polish birth. Largely self-taught both as a pianist and composer, he became one of the most celebrated virtuosos of his age and a great innovator of pianistic techniques. One of Godowsky’s enduring legacies was his contribution to the left-handed piano literature. Godowsky’s first compositions for the left hand were a series of paraphrases on Chopin’s studies, written before World War I. Godowsky’s interest in the left-hand genre was revived due to a commission by pianist Paul Wittgenstein in 1928, followed by a flood of works over the next two years. Foremost among these works is the “Suite for the Left Hand Alone.” Other works from this period include six “waltz-poems” and a set of character pieces, originally published as “Concert Album.”

Leopold Godowsky
Leopold Godowsky. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

“Godowsky’s goal in writing for this medium was to expand the technical capabilities for all pianists — not just those who could not play with the right hand — through creative use of the pedals and unusual fingerings,” Ross explains. “Furthermore, he deliberately avoided acrobatic virtuosity. The challenges relate to contrapuntal complexity and dividing the hand to simultaneously fulfill different functions. Most importantly, though, he wished to create beautiful music. He came to believe that these works were his finest compositions, despite the self-imposed limitations of writing for a single hand.”

Ross’s sabbatical project is to perform and record these “unjustly neglected” works.

Martin continues to enjoy a long and distinguished career as performer, composer and teacher at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. His solo piano music is remarkable, but largely unknown outside Ireland and England. “Oíche Ceoil” for solo piano, a student work he wrote while studying piano with Louis Kentner, is not mentioned in any survey of left-hand piano literature, although it should be, says Ross.

Holliday, an American composer, writes “remarkably” for the piano, says Ross, “pairing virtuosity and lyricism.” His music has been championed by pianists such as Tzimon Barto and Martin Jones. Ross will premiere his recently composed “Two Studies for the Left Hand,” an important contribution to left-hand literature that, like Godowsky’s works, “transcends the limitations of playing with a single hand.”  

Pearson is an English pianist, conductor and music teacher. His humorous piece “That Single Fly” celebrates irksome Yorkshire houseflies while also quoting Debussy’s “D’un cahier d’esquisses.

Ross performs as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the United States and Europe. He has performed recitals and concertos at such venues as St. Martin’s-in-the-Field, St. John’s Smith Square, London, the Field Room in Dublin and the Engelse Kerk in Amsterdam. His current tour will take him to Indiana University on Nov. 9, Lamar University in Texas on Nov. 16, Otterbein University, Ohio, on Dec. 1, Highlands Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 9, and Cedarville University, Ohio, on March 21.

Ross is a professor of music and associate chair of the music department at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, where he teaches piano, music theory and specialized piano courses.  Previously, he was a professor at Sweet Briar. Ross is active as a recording artist for the Centaur Records label. He has released four solo piano recordings, as well as two collaborative discs of Arthur Honegger’s music. Ross’s scholarly research has focused in recent years on proportional structures and the golden ratio in the music of Mozart, Debussy, Bartók and others. He has presented lecture recitals on the topic at conferences in Lancaster, Krakow and at various universities and colleges in the U.S.

His primary piano professors were John Perry, John Bingham, Benno Pierweijer, Matthijs Verschoor and Brian Pearson. In addition, he worked with Christine Croshaw and David Newbold on collaborative piano and played in master classes and courses for Graham Johnson, Christopher Czaja Sager and Theodore Paraskivesko, among others. He obtained piano performance degrees from ArtEz in the Netherlands, Trinity College of Music in London, and a Doctor of Musical Arts in piano performance from Rice University.

The Janet Lowrey Gager Community Concert Series is made possible by the support of Forrest Gager, in memory of his wife, Janet, who served as Sweet Briar’s director of public relations. The series features classical music from around the world performed by Sweet Briar College faculty and students, as well as guest artists.

Additional Gager concerts this academic year take place at 3 p.m. on Nov. 11, Feb. 10 and March 31. For more information, visit sbc.edu/featured-events or email Billias at abillias@sbc.edu.