Malcolm Bilson with piano student Jacob Lidåkra, working on W.A.Mozart's "10 Variations on Glucks Unser dummer Pöbel meint"

Malcolm Bilson encourages music students to think bigger


In the sixties, American pianist, fortepiano master Malcolm Bilson got in contact with Philip Belt, an expert in building historical style keyboard instruments. Eventually, Bilson bought an instrument from Belt and, over decades, he has made a successful career as an expert of fortepiano playing. 

– Already when I was young, I didn’t understand why anybody would like to play only Steinways. When playing the so called Mozart piano introduced to me by Belt, I suddenly realized that I was actually playing what Mozart wrote! A lot of what Mozart composed is not realizable on modern piano without sounding awkward. All modern pianos are based on a Steinway model from 1870. That model has been suitable for piano music written at that time but not necessarily the music written before.

Being used to playing the more modern "Steinway-type" piano, Bilson recalls that getting used to playing a historical instrument wasn’t that easy for him at first – for some others, it came more naturally.

– I remember in the seventies, for instance cellist Yo-Yo Ma captured the essence of a historical instrument he was playing very quickly. When getting acquainted with historical instruments like the fortepiano, the first thing you need is ears. You also need something inside you that wants a different kind of a musical experience than what you get from a more modern instrument.

During his visit in Finland, Bilson gave a concert in Helsinki and also taught seven Sibelius Academy piano students on a two-day master class. With them, he went through music by Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. He compliments the Sibelius Academy teachers being open to everything.

– I think that most students don’t think big enough: think about the deeper meaning in music and how it is realized in notation, about interpretation and those kind of things. But I also think that a master class is not a place to teach somebody to sing or play better – rather it is an opportunity to mainly give people new ideas. I call it mostly co-working.