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Interview with Chris Atzinger

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A Winner of 2006 International Web Concert Hall Competition

(Honorary Mention)

MOL: Tell us about your musical background?

My interest in piano started around age six. My parents had an old upright that had its share of issues, but it didn't stop me from exploring and experimenting with sounds, registers, pedal, etc. They started me in lessons shortly thereafter because of my constant begging. I don't think they had any idea I would make piano my career.

My academic degrees are from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan, with the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University. In addition to piano, I studied harpsichord and fortepiano in Michigan and played trumpet throughout my high school and undergrad days. I also compose when I had the time.

MOL: What was your thesis title for the DMA? And what was it about?

The title of my DMA document is "Martin Lutherís 'Ein feste Burg' as used in works by American and Canadian composers written between 1970 and 2004."

While Martin Lutherís Ein feste Burg has been quoted in works by composers of the past such as Bach, Mendelssohn and Debussy, its modern day usage has gone largely unexamined. Contemporary composers continue to quote Ein feste Burg in various media and for a vast array of reasons. The scope of the document and corresponding database is confined solely to compositions written between 1970 and 2004 by American and Canadian composers. This research has yielded over sixty-five such examples, twelve of which are discussed in detail.

The objective is to examine both how and why this venerable tune is still being used today. This will be achieved through theoretical analysis of each composition, and investigation into sociological and musicological influences as researched through interviews. Each composition is analyzed and classified into one of six primary groups: sacred vocal, secular vocal, sacred instrumental, programmatic instrumental, compositional tribute/memorial, and jazz elements. In addition, attention is given to the motivation behind each composition, including spiritual, political and personal goals.

MOL: Who are your teachers?

Julian Martin, Robert McDonald, Anton Nel, David Renner, and Carolyn Lipp are among the teachers I've studied with. For first qualities and impressions, I remember David being extremely warm and kind, and incredibly generous, both as a person and teacher. In lessons, he always phrased things in a positive manner, and was incredibly patient. The first time I met him, it felt like he had known me for years. In addition to what I learned in lessons, I also gained valuable insight about professional conduct from observing him and how he handled his studio. Additionally, I always remember a sense of purity in his playing that carried over to his teaching. It was never about the individual - either the performer or the teacher. Instead, it was always about elevating the art form, doing justice to the composer, the piece, etc. There was no room for ego or mannerisms in his studio. He is perhaps the most humble and sincere person I have ever met. That patient quality could also be said about Julian and Carolyn. Carolyn, being my first real teacher, had the patience of Job, both during and outside of lessons.

I studied with her when I was in middle school and high school and she was almost like a third parent in how she reinforced ideas of discipline and integrity during those formative years. A strong musician in her own right, she remains a dear friend to this day. Of all the teachers I studied with, I learned the most pedagogically from Julian. I truly believe his intellect is second to none and he is the consummate musician.

Like David, he is one of the most caring and generous teachers one will ever have the privilege of working with. I have had so many break-through lessons while studying with Julian, I've simply lost count. When I look back to the list of people that have been most  influential in my life, Julian is near the top, right after my family. We've also had several memorable chats over dinner and drinks. He is such a wonderful person...the type of person that makes life worth living.

My first memories of Bob came with a trial lesson I took at Peabody. That lesson totally blew me away. His level of intensity and passion for teaching was so incredibly inspiring. I love his strategic approach to technique and his no-nonsense, down to earth personality. While I only had one year to work with him, I can say it revolutionized my playing and took me to new heights.

I also have fond memories of Anton. In addition to cultivating a larger sound in my playing, he also added a stylistic flair and increased my confidence as a performer. He is a delightful person whose energy for performing is contagious!

MOL: How did your friend, parents, etc. influence you as a musician?

My parents were influential by instilling a strong sense of moral values...concepts that are valuable in both the musical arena and elsewhere. I also have several close friends who share many of my non-musical interests... sports (especially college football) and travel are at the top of that list.

MOL: How do you prepare yourself on the day of performance?

I generally spend a little time at the keyboard (earlier in the day) and try to get a nap if possible.

MOL: How do you select repertoire for your recital?

If I'm not deeply committed to a given piece, it never has a chance of making the short list for possible performance. That said, these days, I find myself gravitating more and more to the music of Brahms.

MOL: In your opinion, what is your strength in your playing?

I would say that I believe my playing is honest and sincere. I believe it is a musical reflection of personal traits.

MOL: What do you hope to accomplish as a musician?

My hopes are two-fold. While I always want to strive for that next level of artistry, I'm also committed to my students at St. Olaf. Certainly the joys and thrills of the concert hall are wonderful, but so to is the feeling of accomplishment one gets when seeing younger pianists grow as musicians.

MOL: In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a good performer?

In my opinion, some characteristics of a good performer would include: determination, attention to detail, passion, conviction and creativity.

MOL: Can you tell us more about you receiving special recognition for his performance of Samuel Barber at the IBLA Grand Prize Competition in Ragusa-Ibla, Italy?

The IBLA Grand Prize Competition is held annually in Ragusa-Ibla, Italy. I competed in 2002 and received the Premio Citta di Ispica Prize with special mention for the performances of the Barber Sonata and Piano Concerto. Since there are no specific repertoire requirements, competitors are free to offer programs of a single composer, or nationality, etc. The competition gives awards as it sees fit for deserving outstanding performances.

As part of the award, I received performance invitations to perform at Carnegie Hall -Weill and in Little Rock, Arkansas. Additionally, I was invited to give a lecture-recital on the Barber Sonata at the Berklee School in Boston.

MOL: Tell us more about St. Olaf. When did you become faculty and what do you emphasize to your student mostly?

I joined the St. Olaf music faculty in 2005, after teaching at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. St. Olaf is a liberal arts college located in southern Minnesota widely recognized for its excellent choral and instrumental ensembles. One unique aspect of the school is that one-third of the 3000+ student population is involved in music to some extent. So, as you can imagine, there is a flurry of energy and activity that fills our music building each day. It is a positive and healthy learning environment that nurtures students from various backgrounds. I'm also pleased to say that the piano program is growing, due in part, I believe, to the strength and diversity of our keyboard faculty. I'm fortunate to have wonderful colleagues.

One of my main points of emphasis with my students deals with being faithful to the score. I believe critical thought about what the composer is saying is crucial to musical development. Thus, attention to detail is a high priority.

MOL: How many hours do you practice in average these days?

Personal practice time varies. Obviously preparation becomes more intense as I approach recitals and competitions, but there is also a teaching schedule, studio classes, and meetings to juggle.

MOL: What are some of your upcoming musical project (e.g. for recording / paper to be published)?

Some upcoming projects include studying and performing the complete keyboard works of Brahms and Barber and recording works for piano and voice with my wife, soprano, Brenda Nicole Atzinger. I also have some compositions I'm hoping to have published, and at some point, I'd like to write a song cycle.

MOL: How did you learn about the International Web Concert Hall Competition?

I learned about the International Web Concert Hall Competition from the internet.

MOL: Do you think the idea of competing in a digital environment an alternative solution to some performers who may have problem with their visa or financial status for traveling to abroad?

I suppose that to an extent, it is an alternative for those with visa or financial issues.

MOL: On be half of MusicalOnline, we would like to thank you for your time and we wish all the success.

Interviewed by MusicalOnline on October, 2006

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