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James Lent: The Man at the Piano

By Published: March 2, 2011
AAJ: Oscar Levant, who was also a close friend of Gershwin's, was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. Did he influence you?

JL: You know, I've been told constantly that I emulate Levant, yet the truth is, I still haven't gotten around to listening to his recordings. Certainly he was the greatest interpreter of Gershwin. And, strangely, there's a part of me that wants to keep him a mystery, as I really don't want to know. But I realize by reputation how important he is to the Gershwin catalogue, so I'm always flattered when I hear this.

I don't spend a lot of time these days listening to other pianists. And perhaps if I do, it's for jazz, as I still feel that of all the genres, this is the category I could step up my game. Now some people will say, either you've got it or you don't, but I don't think that's true. I believe almost anything can be taught.

AAJ: But you can't teach talent.

JL: Well, I was beat in piano competitions by some pretty untalented people. But they had great teachers. And there were times when I beat more talented people. So it takes a combination of a lot of things to produce the product.

Talent, in my opinion, is only about 15 percent of the equation. Determination, hard work, motivation and brute force work. If you hit your head on the wall long enough, you can eventually do the hardest thing one can do on the piano—if you're given the right guidance and the right information.

AAJ: Both Copland and Gershwin were Jewish at a time when it could be highly problematic to be Jewish. It was a very different time. Do you feel any connection to these men that goes beyond music?

JL: Again, I never really thought of myself as Jewish. And I don't think their being Jewish affected their music necessarily. Culturally, perhaps, but that was more the culture of the times in general, rather than for being Jews.

AAJ: What about Leonard Bernstein?

JL: [laughing] Oh, yes, he was certainly a person I would associate with being Jewish!

AAJ: No, no, I mean did he influence you?

JL: When I was 16, I got to see him in Boston. And that excited me. At that age, I really didn't know why he was so important. And it was at a time when I really wasn't sure if I liked classical music or not. But watching him conduct and seeing the excitement he brought out of the orchestra was a pivotal moment for me in deciding I liked classical music. He was definitely an inspiration for me to major in classical.

AAJ: Was it always your intention to get your doctorate?

JL: [laughing] No, it was totally an accident! After I finished my bachelor's in Houston, I didn't know what to do next. Everyone was telling me to go to Julliard. And I knew I needed to get out of Houston because I knew I had already done everything I could there. It wasn't bad. I was making a lot of money and I was well-known as an accompanist. But I knew if I wanted to grow, I would have to do the East Coast thing.

The summer before my senior year at the University of Houston, I studied at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. And that's where I was in a class of 10 piano students who were from every major school on the East Coast—Julliard, Curtis, Peabody, etc. It was a great sampling and I got to hear about what goes on at these schools.

It was the most amazing kind of college fair for someone who specialized in piano. I developed the most excitement for Yale. And it just worked out that Yale gave me the best offer and they became my first choice.

AAJ: Let's talk about your CD Blue. This is a beautiful collection. Did you over-record, then narrow down your selections, or did you streamline your list beforehand?

JL: No, I was pretty much set on a list of music. Due to the time crunch, I was literally given six hours to record—two days, three hours each. I knew that "Rhapsody in Blue" was the most important, and had to get done first. I was really exhausted after that, as it's the longest track and the most demanding track. Then we went to the next difficult pieces—Strauss and Tchaikovsky.

AAJ: Let's discuss the tracks. You open with the Strauss classic "By the Beautiful Danube," transcribed by Andrei Schulz-Elver. You mention that this piece suffered from overexposure in the early part of the 20th century, resulting in a dormancy. Can you elaborate?

JL: Nothing this flashy had ever been written. And it became so popular that every pianist was trying to learn it. And people just got tired of it. And it sort of faded into obscurity after that. And nobody wanted to touch it. It became too common.

AAJ: Why did you choose it?

JL: I remember I was preparing for this major competition in New York—which eventually got me management—and I figured out that I needed that piece in my lineup in order to stand up against my competition. And I got super-motivated to learn it. And it's become a staple in my repertoire ever since.

AAJ: The opening notes on the piece are stunning, a true showcase for your dexterity and precision.

JL: It's about as flashy an introduction you can get. I recall being completely mesmerized by the virtuosity of that introduction. And it's those pieces of music—things that sound like an insurmountable challenge—that make you determined to learn them. I had that kind of attraction to that piece.

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