Barenboim Project to ‘strip’ Beethoven

by Ken Kawashima

The 32 piano sonatas that Beethoven composed between 1799 and 1824, including some of his most recognized works like the “Moonlight” and “Appassionata” sonatas, are often considered among the German composer’s finest and most personal musical achievements.

But according to Miyoko Nakaya Lotto, a veteran piano teacher at New York University and the Manhattan School of Music, there’s a problem with a lot of the Beethoven music we hear today.

“Beethoven music has always been presented to us in this powerful and challenging sort of way,” says Lotto, 60. “So what we often get is a reflection of the pianists’ egos, not the intentions of the composer.”

The 32 sonatas, comprising some 11 hours of music in all, have been recorded in their entirety by some of the genre’s finest players, including Artur Schnabel and Claudio Arrau. But it wasn’t until Lotto heard the Beethoven master classes of Argentina-born Israeli conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim, musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin, that she was convinced of a more definitive performance.

In fact, Lotto was so inspired by the 61-year-old maestro that she enlisted her friend Margaret Smilow, a well-known documentary producer, to help spearhead the production of a grandiose PBS documentary based on Barenboim’s master classes of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

“The Barenboim Project,” which will be directed next year by Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Allan Miller (“From Mao to Mozart,” “The Bolero”) and Andy Sommers, is a 50-hour documentary series divided into two parts; one highlighting the maestro’s master classes of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas to be held at the University of Chicago in April 2005, and the other, his recitals of these sonatas at the Berlin Staatsoper this June. In addition, Lotto learned only last week, PBS now also plans to make an interactive DVD of “The Barenboim Project.”

Although Barenboim has twice recorded the entire cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (the first time when he was 27), the public’s interest in Lotto’s newest edition is still growing: Apart from securing a deal with PBS in the United States, she’s also received offers from the BBC, Arte France and NHK to air portions of the program.

Not everyone, though, is so enthusiastic. “Some people ask me: ‘Why Barenboim’s Beethoven? He doesn’t have any personality,’ and I tell them that’s precisely the point,” says Lotto, who was recently in Tokyo to promote the documentary project.

“Barenboim’s Beethoven is totally stripped and unadorned. He’s doing it to do justice to the music, not his name.”

More importantly, “The Barenboim Project” sets out to accomplish on TV what Lotto has been striving to do for years onstage and in her classes: to eradicate the elitist image of classical music and replace it with the joy of simply communicating music to a more universal crowd.

She believes that Barenbiom, who is fluent in eight languages, is not just the perfect communicator for this part, but with his wealth of recordings for EMI and Teldec — spanning symphonies, operas, ballets and his crossovers into tango and jazz — the perfect teacher as well.

Lotto’s own musical education was steeped in the rigid classical tradition. Born in Hokkaido in 1944, she began her training at age 3, and enrolled in the Preparatory Division of the Toho School of Music at age 5. At age 17 , she placed third in the prestigious Mainichi-NHK Music Competition and toured Japan. A year later, she went abroad to study at the Julliard School, where she met her husband Albert Lotto, an American pianist of Russian, Polish and Jewish descent. Then, after graduating in 1971, Lotto remained at her alma mater as an assistant teacher to Sascha Gorodnitzki until his death in 1986.

Lotto’s desire to teach was nurtured from an early age. She was 7 when a friend of her mother asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I had a hysterical and outrageously bad-tempered teacher at the time,” she recalls. “So I told them I was going to be a kind piano teacher.”

Though kindness alone would hardly engender immortal music in post-9/11 New York, where Lotto still lives, as she’s learned from the example of Daniel Barenboim, neither does complacency.

In 2001, the conductor stirred a media debate in Jerusalem by conducting a piece by Richard Wagner — a known anti-Semite and Hitler’s favorite composer — for his encore at the annual Israel Festival in 2001. The following year, despite warnings from Israeli troops, he traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank to play for a group of Palestinian high-school students to promote greater Israeli-Palestinian understanding.

“He’s just one light towards hope and to try and understand the other side,” says Lotto, who adds with a smile: “It’s like the world is finally catching up to the artistry of this man.”