Joanne Polk, a professional pianist, is a unique type of feminist. By focusing on the past in order to pave the way for women of the future, Polk dedicates her work to little-known female composers of classical music. Adroit talked to Polk about history, feminism, a music festival in the Catskills of New York, and more.
Margaret Uhalde: In your lectures you provide demonstrations of the music on period instruments. Can you tell me how different playing a 19th century broadwood is than a modern piano?
Joanne Polk, Pianist: Oh, it’s very different. The action (which is how hard the notes go down) is much lighter, and the number of keys is different. So for those of us who have been playing the piano since we were four years old, you get a certain kind of equilibrium when sitting down at 88 keys. When suddenly you’re sitting down at fewer keys your whole equilibrium is thrown off, and I find myself jumping to notes that aren’t there! Today, I played the Erard, but before when I was playing the Broadwood I literally ran out of notes. I was playing the wood. So, it’s a huge adjustment. Also, most of them are tuned down half a step. I have perfect pitch, so I’ll have a different “A” in my head, and I just have to ignore it.
I can’t even imagine dealing with that.
It’s really tricky, though for educational purposes it’s really fascinating. There are people who play these instruments, and that’s how they devote their life, but not me. I love using it to teach. When we have Manhattan In The Mountains (Editor’s note: a music festival dedicated to music history) up here we use the Piano Performance Museum a lot to say, “this is the instrument that Beethoven wrote for, and this is the instrument Schumann wrote for, and this is where the piano has evolved to today.” It allows you to see the evolution of it, but I like to play the modern pianos. I’m a modern kind of girl.
It’s quite clear that you’re an accomplished pianist, but have you become what you wanted to be when you were little?
It’s taken a different turn because I’ve devoted a lot of my performing career and all of my recording career – I’ve got 13 CDs out on the market – to music written by women. That I would not have said when I was five years old, “I want to do music written by women!” That is something that sort of came to me when I was in my thirties, and I met a woman composer who revealed to me how hard it was to write and be taken seriously, and that touched me. I did feel that I struggled as a woman when I was coming up. When I went to Juilliard there were a lot of gender comparisons, and so I did struggle a little, especially being a small woman. There was something about the struggle of a woman composer that touched my heart, and that sent me on a path that I remain on today. So the path is different, but making a living in music and spending my life in music was clear to me when I was four.
You’ve been an advocate for women composers for years. Do you think what you experienced and those gender biases still exist in music today?
I think it’s much better. Musical America is the major publication in the music world, and they had an article called “Profiles in Courage” featuring the thirty top musicians in the world, and they chose me because of my work promoting women composers. It said in the article that the work I’ve done has made a difference. I think there are more women studying in conservatories, and women couldn’t go to conservatories for a long time. So now we’re seeing that, and the big change is, we’re seeing women conductors. I do think there’s change. Is there still bias? Of course. Is it ever going to be unbiased? I don’t know. A couple of women have won Pulitzer prizes in music – that’s never been done before. I think there’s a difference, because people have worked for one. Many men and women have devoted their time and effort to supporting and promoting music by women, especially in the last 50 years.
How does classical music stay relevant when the music world is constantly changing?
The thing that’s so difficult now is that everything is so fast; with texting, and video games, everything is fast. Music is a lifelong pursuit, and to tell someone it’s going to be ten years before you can really play that piece well, forget it. People don’t want that. Also, the number of hours of practicing that you have to spend alone in a room is not attractive anymore. Because of technology now you can be in touch with people quickly, and there’s so much enforced solitude as a musician, just because of the amount of practicing you have to do. So you’ve got to get out there, and take it to the schools, and put out a Christmas album if you have to, but do something that is going to make it matter. We will become irrelevant very quickly if we and people younger than I don’t start making it relevant. My last CD that came out in September debuted at number 1 on classical billboard, and it was music written by a woman. Now that’s super exciting, but if you compare what’s number 1 on classical billboard to Taylor Swift’s number 1, it’s like one hundredth of that. I sold a couple of hundred CDs in a week. She sold a couple of million in a week! We’re not that relevant, but we have to keep trying to be. I think music written by women could touch certain people in our society.
Definitely. Social issues are always evolving, and now feminism is more prominent. Do you think it would benefit classical musicians and women in general if your cause became a bigger part of feminism?
I do, very much. That’s where my next step is, to go to some of the women’s studies divisions in colleges and universities, and say I bet you’ve never heard of Clara Schumann. There is another Schumann, there is another Mendelssohn, and others. I think people go into the concerts with kind of low expectations, and then they come out knowing this music is just as good. That’s not to say there isn’t bad music written by women, but there’s also bad music written by men. Not everything that everybody does is great, and so we have to be permitted that spectrum the way men are. So I think it takes an advocate to get it out there, and that’s absolutely how I devoted my life since my mid-thirties. It’s something that touched me and it’s worked.
Here’s a more personal question: what’s your favorite song?
You mean piece?
Any song, just to listen to, what you sing along in the car to. Is it a classical piece?
No, it is not.
Is it pop, country…
It’s the Beatles! I’m a 1960’s rock and roll fan. I’m a runner, and that’s what I listen to while I run. That’s my stuff, I’m a Beatles fanatic.
I rarely listen to classical music in my free time. I’m just too busy criticizing it, I’d rather listen to something I know nothing about!
You’re a musician married to a musicologist, is that a match made in heaven?
It can be. We’re doing lectures/recitals now, and they’re new for us. Jeff is a lecturer, not a performer. Our son is a performer, and he and I perform together; he’s a cellist. Jeff is more of an academician, but now we’ve recently started doing the lecture/recitals. It’s fun to merge the two. When my son is home it’s always, “what room are you practicing in?” He can move the cello, I can’t exactly move the piano. Jeff and I don’t have to argue over practice space in our marriage, and it’s fascinating because Jeff can also give me historical background on music. So basically, this marriage works.
You’ve talked about performing with your son, and how being a musician often involves being alone with your music. Do you ever find a connection with composers or other musicians that you don’t really find elsewhere?
Yes, very much so. There is absolutely a connection through music. Many years ago I played a couple of concerts with a woman named Diane Pascal, who’s a violinist. This was easily fifteen years ago and I will never forget how much I loved playing with her or how I felt our souls meshed. She moved to Vienna and we’ve hardly been in touch, but I invited her to teach at Manhattan In the Mountains this summer, and she’s coming. So she and I are going to play together for the first time in years. There are connections that you make when you’re playing music with somebody, with whom you share a soul that are lifelong. Then there are also connections to certain composers; there’s one composer who’s alive whose music I feel very connected to, and she and I have worked together a lot. So yes, you make those kinds of connections that I think are irreplaceable. It’s a very intimate exchange. First of all you have rehearsals where you let your guard down and can say anything, but what happens on a stage is a very intimate thing. It’s very different from rehearsals, and when you’ve been through that with somebody, you can develop lifelong friendships.
What made you and your husband come to the Catskills?
That’s a circuitous story: it was actually Tatiana [Goncharova], Grigory [Kalinvosky], and I (my two performing colleagues, a pianist and violinist) talking about how we wanted to run a festival in our own way. I believe somebody introduced us to someone else, and then someone else, and we ended up having a meeting and looking around. It took us a couple of years but we started our first festival in 2012 here with 24 people, and we’ve got 43 coming this summer. So I think we were kind of putting the word out that we wanted to start our own festival, and it worked.
We all know you’re a fantastic pianist, but do you have any hidden talents?
I have some hidden passions. I don’t know if I have hidden talents. I’m passionate about psychology. I study it all the time, since I was about thirteen or fourteen. I’m a passionate reader. I read many books a week, novels, and I love to write. I wouldn’t call any of those talents. I think when you have one talent you’re blessed to have one. I’m also a bad runner, but I’ve been running for thirty years. I wouldn’t call that a talent except that I keep going.
Joanne Polk is a member of the piano faculty of Manhattan School of Music, and is an exclusive Steinway artist. She was named one of Musical America’s Top 30 Professionals of the Year (2014). Her recordings include: by the still waters, which received the 1998 INDIE award for best solo recording, Songs of Amy Beach, which was nominated for a 2007 Grammy Award, Completely Clara: Lieder by Clara Wieck Schumann, which was selected as a “Best of the Year” recording by The Seattle Times and was featured on New York Public Radio’s Performance Today, The Flatterer, which was a “Pick of the Week” on New York’s classical radio station (WQXR) and debuted at Number 1 on the Classical Billboard Chart, and many others. Joanne Polk received her Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees from The Juilliard School, and her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Manhattan School of Music. She has given master classes at many summer festivals and universities across the country, and was one of four directors that launched Manhattan in the Mountains.