Lute Plays Piano ‘Up Close with the Masters’
A Q&A With Natalie Burton ’13
Music and Chinese Studies major Natalie Burton graduated magna cum laude from PLU in 2013, but she might have taken her most high-profile class just this year: an “Up Close With the Masters” session with Vladimir Feltsman, one of the best-known concert pianists in the world.
“Up Close with the Masters” classes are intimate work sessions put on by Portland Piano International each season in concert with its recitals. Offered to the public, for free, the classes provide young musicians an opportunity to see and hear a master teach.
Burton did just that on Jan. 13.
Feltsman, who was in Portland for two sold-out Portland Piano International recitals, listened to Burton play Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV876.
And then the master teaching kicked in. (Feltsman is known for his frankness.)
We caught up with Burton, recipient of the PLU Music and Bertha Gilbertson Endowed Piano Scholarships, during gap year in her hometown of Camas, Wash.
What did you do right after graduation?
I spent most of my summer doing Chinese translation work and researching graduate piano programs in China online. In the end, I had tennis elbow from all the computer time and an overwhelming Word document with information on about 35 masters programs in China! I’ve used that information to apply for programs for this coming fall.
I have really enjoyed my gap year so far. There is more time for me to organize and plan, and also learn new things that I didn’t have time to before. I’ve been piano coaching, accompanying, studying Chinese and getting involved with my church community.
How did you hear about the Up Close with the Masters classes, and what inspired you to apply?
My mom is also a musician, and her colleague gave her a flyer about the class. I decided to apply because I wanted guidance with the pieces I was going to use for my master’s program audition. After they told me I could play for him, I ran to my sister’s room and was jumping up and down with excitement!
What did you know about Vladimir Feltsman before you met him?
I knew he was a Bach expert, so I looked forward to hearing his suggestions on my Bach piece. I also knew he had a very blunt teaching style. People warned me that he could be hard on students.
I wasn’t nervous during the class, but I was nervous in the weeks leading up to it while preparing, mostly because I knew people would be there who hadn’t heard me play since high school. I was also bracing myself for a “painful” learning experience since I knew Mr. Feltsman could be brutal at times. Just before playing, they let me warm up on a fantastic Fazioli piano in a beautiful room with chandelier lights and large windows—it was really wonderful. Then I walked out and played my piece. Mr. Feltsman’s first comments were uncushioned criticisms, and I was a little shaken even though I knew to expect it. After the class, I took notes on all he had told me and watched the other students. It seemed as if Feltsman was pretty blunt in his comments to all of his students—how did you react to that?
Yes, he was very blunt! His initial words were particularly critical, but I didn’t feel a need to show any reaction.And after he began working with me, I saw kindness in his eyes. I was so focused on memorizing all he said and applying it to my playing that I don’t think I showed much reaction during the whole class.
It was helpful to watch how Mr. Feltsman taught the other students, though, because he treated all of us in the same manner. It reminded me not to take his criticisms too personally.
Do you play any other instruments—or sing?
I played cello for six years when I was younger but haven’t played for a long time. Sometimes I will sing a melodic line when coaching piano students to try to get a point across about phrasing, but I don’t have very good control of my voice, so it doesn’t always work… I feel much more comfortable to play piano!
Can you please name some of the festivals you’ve participated in and concerts you’ve performed?
I’ve performed in festivals, honors recitals and a Washington state conference through the Oregon and Washington Music Teacher Association. PLU provided a lot of performing opportunities with piano and ensemble concerts every semester. I also performed for the PLU Board of Regents and gave a senior recital.
What made you decide to major in both Music and Chinese Studies?
When I first came to PLU, I thought I should already be much better at piano than I was if it was going to be my career, so I decided it was more practical for me to major in different things.
I absolutely loved my Chinese class freshman year, and translation work interested me. I also wanted to study the Bible more, so I chose a second major in religion. My junior year, I went on the PLU exchange program to Chengdu and loved my time there, but really missed piano.
When I came back to PLU, I still wasn’t able to play piano much because I was too busy with other classes. It was also at this time when … I decided to switch my religion major to a music major—it seemed like the perfect excuse to practice piano more!
How do you hope to use both majors in China as you pursue your master’s?
I’m applying to music schools in China so I can be immersed in the Chinese language and still continue my studies in piano. I am interested in Chinese interpretation work, and of course I want to continue teaching and playing piano—that is a lifelong gift. I am also interested in continuing research on my senior project, called “The Evolution of Piano Pedagogy and Culture in China.”
What are your other plans and hopes for the future?
Besides using piano and Chinese proficiently in a career, I don’t have many plans. I always hope to love God and people better with whatever I’m doing, though.
How did a PLU education prepare you for the real world? Was anyone here particularly influential in your life or career plans?
There are so many wonderful people who influenced me at PLU. I had a fantastic time senior year studying piano with Professor Oksana Ezhokina. She challenged and encouraged me. She also gave me lots of playing opportunities, such as monthly studio classes, and introduced me to her Icicle Creek Winter Piano Festival.
Professor Greg Youtz, my senior Capstone advisor, was also very influential. His knowledge about music and China led to extremely insightful conversations that helped shape my Capstone and Fulbright application. I also loved the music classes he taught.
These two professors made my senior year so wonderful to study music and helped me realize that I wanted to keep studying piano intensively after my time at PLU. I would have loved to learn from them much longer!
Other professors that stand out to me are Professor David Robbins, Timothy Strong and Paul Manfredi – they each contributed so much to making my music and Chinese education at PLU so rewarding.