Pianist Hans Boepple isn’t the kind of person to make a spectacle of himself, even on stage. No one could be further than Boepple from the popular and romantic image of the wild-haired, histrionic artiste.
Yet when he touches the keys, he weaves magic that intimately connects the listener with the music.
No matter how often you may have heard a piece — or played it yourself — Boepple’s characteristic clarity of interpretation and rich expressiveness lets you experience it anew.
That’s the way Beopple himself experiences the music.
“Music puts me in a time and place,” he said. He’s always asking himself about the music he plays, “Why does that chord make me feel the way it does? It’s an absolute mystery.” But that mystery is at the heart of musical experience.
He says he’s “almost through thinking about the mystery” of this emotional connection and these days he’s “just going to enjoy it.”
For Boepple, music is narrative, and that performer’s narrative informs the performance. “The black ink on paper doesn’t say much about what to do,” he said. “Like Shakespeare’s words don’t tell you how to speak them.”
Teaching students to make the notes on paper “speak” has been Boepple’s mission for his entire adult life.
“I never wanted to be a concert performer. I didn’t want to travel like that. I wanted a well-rounded life. I never look for concerts. I never had an agent. I love to teach,” he said simply.
He has taught at Santa Clara University for 40 years — serving as Music Dept. chair for 13 years — and continues to teach even though he is in a phased retirement. “Teaching is at the heart of everything I do,” he said.
He describes his teaching style as Socratic. Rather than explaining, he asks questions that lead students to find the answer themselves. “If you ask a child to ‘shape’ a [musical] line, they can’t,” he explained. “But if you ask them note by note, should it be louder or softer than the next, they can tell you right away.”
Despite his concentration on teaching, Boepple has a formidable reputation as a performer and a resume to show it. He has played with more than 40 orchestras internationally, starting with his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 10. As a child he performed on the Steve Allen TV show three times.
Coming from a musical family — his mother was a violinist with the Columbia Orchestra — music was a natural path for him. Although he was a prodigy, he doesn’t see that as the single most important factor to his life in music. “That’s what talent is,” he said. “You learn what anyone else can learn – just faster.”
Boepple himself had only two teachers, both of them acknowledged 20th century musical masters: Robert Turner and Sidney Foster. He holds a BA and Masters in Piano Performance from Indiana University.
He says that the turning point that made him a pianist was hearing the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu play at the renowned international Leeds piano competition in 1969. “It turned my life around,” Boepple said. He said to himself, “I understand what he’s doing and I can do that. I never heard playing like that, so tender. Someday I’d like to thank him.
“You don’t know what effect [as a performer] you’ll have on people,” he continued. After one of his performances on the Steve Allen show, he said, “Someone told me he was inspired [to an interest in music] by seeing me on the Steve Allen show.”
When asked about favorite composers, Boepple names Frederic Chopin (1810 – 1849) and Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897).
“I remember as a child practicing Chopin and thinking, ‘Can I go there, where is the place this [music] comes from?’” Of Brahms he says, “I don’t think anyone has gotten into the human psyche as Brahms has.”
What isn’t on Boepple’s favorites list is atonal 20th century music — music that isn’t based on a ‘tonal center,’ or ‘key.’ “I’m not a fan of dissonant music,” he said. Of Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951) the pioneer of atonality, Boepple says, “That’s what neurosis and psychosis sounds like. It’s deeply sad.”
In his concert at SCU this Friday, Boepple will be revisiting some pieces he hasn’t played in many years: J.S. Bach’s Chromatic fantasy, Beethoven piano sonata No. 7 in D Major — called by pianist Andras Schiff “one of the miracles of music, not just of Beethoven” — and Brahms’ Sonata in F minor, Opus 5.
“I love to get back to these pieces,” said Boepple. Every time he revisits them, “My ceiling becomes my floor” for experiencing the music in a new dimension. “Every note has to be perfect.” And that’s probably why music lovers return again and again to hear Boepple transform familiar music into a new experience.
Hans Boepple performs on Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the SCU recital hall, corner Lafayette and Franklin. Tickets are $10-$20 and can be bought online.