Arguably Anna Heller has done more in recent times to promote and encourage new piano music than any other living pianist. Unquestionably highly regarded internationally for her extraordinary contribution to performance and for the promotion of contemporary composers, her sensitive musicality and nuanced playing have been universally admired and praised.
As a pianist of the modern generation, she is present on social media. Over 30,000 visitors regularly watch and hear her weekly recordings. Anna Heller has lived in Munich, the centre of her artistic work, for more than 20 years. With her concerts, she reaches a worldwide audience
As the founder of Moving Classics TV, an Internet platform for new piano music, Anna has recorded the works of over 450 contemporary composers with whom she is in personal contact. In the Munich Salon she founded, she combined music and literature in theatrical form and processed the work and artistic influences of remarkable women such as Sappho, Lou Salomé and Anais Nin. In “Concerti Illumini” and “Sunset Hours” Anna merges music and light into a beautiful, artistically significant and sensual unity.
MM: Tell us about your musical upbringing in Russia with your musical family
AH: My Mum and my sister are pianists, so music was everywhere. My Mum would take me to the opera production rehearsals so I could listen to the music of Verdi’s Rigoletto or Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. My sister would be playing Chopin’s Études for hours.
I was born in the Siberian town of Tomsk where we had cold winters with minus 40C – I can still see myself listening to the recordings of Sofronitsky with my cat on the lazy afternoons after school…
I was fortunate to benefit from the Soviet music education and I was only five years old when I started playing the piano… It was a tough system where kids spent 4 hours after school in music lessons – we would learn music theory, music literature, sing in a choir, dance, and recite poems.
Really fascinating world but on the other side of it was no time for socializing with school friends, less time for sports, demanding and strict teachers, participation in stressful competitions and feeling tired after 8 hours of learning and playing the piano…
MM: How did your musical career develop until the age of 18?
AH: I was lucky to have a very experienced and inspiring piano teacher during my music school years. She truly loved music and was very good at organizing events. Thanks to her efforts, I would have many occasions to perform solo or with singers. She would make me participate in the local and regional competitions and most importantly, she showed me her fascination with making music. But the life circumstances were challenging.
The 90s in Russia were turbulent times but also times of opportunities. There has been a big shift in society and my musical upbringing coincided with the crisis in the music business when concert halls were empty and there was no more state support for music activities. My priorities became different – learning foreign languages and new cultures, business, and economics.
MM: Tell us about some of the most memorable, pivotal, and inspirational aspects of your student years (from 18)
AH: Charles Bukowski said once, “It is easy to have a talent when you are twenty” and now I see my student years through the eyes of 2022 and cannot believe that I got so much support and encouragement from three countries and from different educational systems: Russian, American, and German. I had a scholarship to do one year of an exchange program at Oklahoma State University in the US and a one-year DAAD programme in Frankfurt am Main in Germany.
My student years were cosmopolitan. I travelled a lot and learnt five foreign languages. I was interested in understanding economics and sociology, English literature, and theatre. I met so many truly motivational people. But I lost interest in piano for many years and came back only eight years later.
MM: Tell us about your move to Germany. How did this come about?
AH: I moved to Germany right after my graduation, I guess it was the logical continuation of my personal development, I fell in love with Munich – an inspirational city with a mixture of nature and culture, exactly the right size, friendly people, and supportive infrastructure.
MM: Your career is innovative, quasi evangelistic and inspirational. How did your love of contemporary piano music start?
AH: The love of contemporary piano music came together with my decision to restart my piano playing. It was a painful process of relearning the basics and carefully testing my fragile wish to devote myself entirely to piano performance. At this time, I met a Polish pianist/composer Pietr Lachert on Facebook who became my mentor. Pietr was a founder of the movement “Consonant music” in Belgium in the 80s. He was publishing the works by tonal composers and supporting emerging musicians.
We would write and talk for hours; his stories were fascinating, and he would send me the scores to play. I must admit that I was always interested in “new” (for me) music – back in my childhood, I would play through hundreds of scores that my Mum had in her music library. I was eager to discover. Different styles, different epochs, nationalities – my curiosity would allow me to play one day Edison Denisov and Frescobaldi the next day.
During my student years, I had a job with Fraunhofer Management who were doing innovations in emerging economies. I learned to admire the pioneering spirit of innovative projects and anybody who is brave enough to create new things. I wanted to understand our zeitgeist through music.
MM: Tell us about how you came to create the Moving Classics TV site, concept, and vision
AH: The reason for my love of contemporary piano music is that it has a tremendous diversity of styles, different combinations of genres and elements from neoclassical/crossover to highly complex atonal. Everything is possible. It is much more versatile. Thanks to the Internet, we have a huge amount of new music. Some find it intimidating. How to navigate in this world of new piano music, where to start? My idea was to have a curated Internet site that would help listeners to discover new music.
Every Friday I would feature a new composer with the recording of a short piece and share it on social media. There is a written interview with a composer where our listeners can learn more about his or her approach to music, sources of inspiration, creative process, and future goals, and they can listen to more recordings. Sometimes the thoughts of the composer could be a missing link for a better appreciation of unknown music.
So many interesting composers deserve more attention. Moving Classics’ idea is to talk about them on social media and bring attention to wonderful musical gems. I am building up an international community for modern piano music. As with any independent self-financing Internet project, the success of Moving Classics TV depends on the active participation and voluntary support of the Internet community via PayPal or Patreon.
MM: You feature well over 100 composers on your website. How many works do you have in your repertoire and how many have you recorded?
AH: I featured over 328 composers on Moving Classics TV and recorded over 500 short piano compositions for this project in the last few years. I do audio and/or video recording of new compositions for composers on demand too. I have recitals devoted exclusively to new piano music like “Evening for a Dreamer”, but I also add some compositions to my thematic recitals with music from different time periods.
For example, I am currently working on a new program “Watercolors” where I would combine new works with the music by Berio, Ravel and Debussy. It is my goal to introduce contemporary piano music to a broad audience, so whenever there is a chance, I will play new music. There is nothing like being the first to play a brand new composition with a personal dedication too – I will play the “Gulliver Adventures” suite by Munich composer Peter Wittrich soon.
MM: Is there any music that you simply would not choose to play? And, most importantly, if a composer wishes you to perform her/his music, what qualities in the music presented do you feel are essential for you to play it?
AH: Yes, playing the music that fits my personality gives an authentic feeling. The older I get, the more I tend to choose music that I emotionally respond to. On the other hand, openness to the unknown is an important quality for artists that I try to cultivate in myself. I like the chameleon comparison for my pianistic personality. But yes, as I have been doing it for many years, I have developed my own style. Back to your question, choosing to play a composition has to do with the purpose. Is it for the Moving Classics composer of the week presentation? In this case, it should be a short and ideally brand-new composition (not recorded yet) For my concerts it depends on the occasion/audience/event managers.
I appreciate music that either moves me emotionally or brings more harmony or tells a story. Music that I would like to play again and again. Surely, the degree of difficulty (technical and in appreciating) is also important. We live in fast-changing times where new on its own is a strong asset.
MM: Do you still perform standard 18th and 19th century music?
AH: It goes without saying, 18th and 19th-century music is a part of my daily routine practice. When I play unknown and little-performed music all the time, it has a wonderful effect on my musical growth. However, the audience begins to wonder – I do not sell out the halls or even do not find the concert organizers for a concert.
The audience asks if I can play Mozart and Beethoven. Some even begin to doubt whether I can play the piano at all. They want to know if I can play fast and loud and most importantly, without a music score? So, what can I do – time to get the book “50 most popular piano compositions of all times” and start the process of rediscovering the famous hits? It can be very addictive too as people react emotionally to the music they know.
I remember the ironic situation – I was trying to suggest a recital with 14 unknown composers to tell a story – and got a comment: “Your concept is totally unsellable and looks pretty scattered” and the comment I got when I offered to play 24 Preludes by Chopin – WOW, you have a great taste and sense of drama!!!” But yes, I have a dream to perform Grieg and Rachmaninoff 2 concertos with the orchestra in 2023! In 2021 I did a series of recitals “Time Journey at Piano” where I would dedicate every concert to different time periods. It was a real adventure!
MM: Tell us about the Munich Salon. What has it achieved and what has influenced its creation?
AH: In my Munich Salons, I wanted to create a show that I would enjoy watching myself. I love literature and I read whenever I have a spare minute. I wanted to have these elements: the combination of word and piano music, the cosy intimate atmosphere with drinks for my audience, comfortable chairs, and the get-together afterwards. And on the stage, I would create a thematic evening dedicated to historical or literary figures with texts from books, letters or diaries in simple staging and piano music to match them.
For the topic selection, the focus was to show the tension between artistic creations and daily life constraints. Sometimes salons would give answers of famous writers to the eternal themes such as love, power, war and peace, freedom etc. In 10 years I would do 2 productions per year with topics like George Sand and Alfred de Musset, Sappho, Madame de Pompadour, Lou Salome and Nietzsche, Martha Gellhorn and Hemingway, Faust and many more.
I am so happy that we are invited to present Kathi Kobus and Joachim Ringelnatz Salon on the 30th of July in Wurzen, where Ringelnatz was born.
Word and Music
Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn
MM: Tell us about Concerti Illumine
AH: Well, it was in 2014. The idea was to combine piano music with light design and video/photo projections. Music stimulates our imagination but what if we show the fantasy world to the audience? I love experimenting and we did a program “Journey through the night”. The highlight of the program was a “falling and rising man” laser projection to go with Bartok music. You can see the videos here >
MM: Do you think that the days of traditional CD recordings and concerts are in decline? Is social media the way forward for new piano music?
AH: The CD recordings era is gone. Digital recordings are an industry standard. Streaming has so many advantages like keeping costs minimal for both listener and producer. Now I can listen to music 24 hours a day and I can compare interpretations, I created playlists that I can easily retrieve and as a musician, I can always release a new single. The market is developing further, and it will be even more exciting with metaverse.
Social media is a great tool too, without a doubt. But as with any tool, it needs to be skillfully used. Content creation is an art and the interaction with followers requires much empathy. Surely, it gives a chance for new piano music to find its audience.
Speaking about concerts, I remember talking to Jason Parrot and sharing my worries that the audience of the piano recitals is 70+ and that the concerts are in decline. His answer surprised me. He did not agree to say, “What are you talking about? The concerts are booming, but I do not have enough good musicians to sell out big halls. It is exactly what is happening right now.”
After the pandemics, we find that there was a new shift in the behaviour of the audiences. Even winners of prestigious competitions, piano professors or pianists with names are having difficulties selling tickets in Germany. Tradition 90 minutes long academic recitals with three composers and the archaically strict rituals no longer appeal to modern audiences. People want to EXPERIENCE things, get inspired and learn new things on their own terms. No need to cry over spilt milk – isn’t it the task of artists to find new art forms to produce even more emotions? So, it is time to act and bring more innovations into something very traditional like classical music .
MM: Do you compose music yourself? Do you make transcriptions?
AH: No, I see myself as an interpreter of music. But it is different from creating transcriptions. The idea was born out of the wish to share beautiful and well-known vocal music as a solo piano version of the arrangements that anyone can listen to and enjoy as background music. I have recorded two albums “Moving Piano” Vol. 1 and 2 with my favourite songs like Oh Danny Boy, or operatic music like Nessun Dorma from “Turandot” by Puccini.
MM: What plans, projects, hopes and dreams do you have for the future?
AH: The next season is going to be very exciting. I have a new recital “Watercolors” – piano music with visual inspiration by composers of “Impressionism and New Simplicity” like Debussy, Mompou, Takemitsu, Tan Dun, Peletics, Vask and more. Juxtapositions of colour tones in music, joy in the play of shadow and light, the collision of unpredictable dissonances and wonderful timbres!
Another idea is the “Sunset Hour”. The sunset moment is a special time when reality and fantasy come together. It is an informal piano event with a “sundowner” to sit back and let your mind wander. With the calm and atmospheric music and the video projections of sunset.
I have more new ideas too that I will share on my pages on social media soon! I cannot live without new projects