Posted : 2013-09-01 16:15
Updated : 2013-09-01 16:15

Beethoven for everyone

U.S. pianist Jonathan Biss, a teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, lectures from the bench of a Steinway concert grand during the filming of the school's first free online course "Exploring Beethoven's Sonatas" that will be launched this week. The five-week course includes live music and analysis.
/ Courtesy of Curtis Institute of Music

Development of quality apps, online courses helps spread classical music

By Do Je-hae

For most people, taking classes at an elite conservatory like the Curtis Institute of Music has so far been unthinkable. Thanks to the Internet, there is now a way.

One of the most selective schools in the U.S., Curtis admits only around 3 percent of applicants. For its upcoming online lectures on Beethoven's piano sonatas, there is no limit to the size of class or any prerequisite for students other than a desire to learn more about the repertoire.

The institute has entered into partnership with Coursera, a California-based online content provider specializing in education, for a series of free video lectures on Beethoven's 32 sonatas that will be launched this week. Coursera has partnered with some prestigious universities such as Princeton and Stanford, but Curtis is the first classical music conservatory to join the "MOOC" (Massive Open Online Course) initiative of Coursera.

The lecturer is Jonathan Biss, a renowned concert pianist and award-winning recording artist who joined Curtis in 2011 as the Neubauer Family Foundation Chair in Piano Studies.

A latest news report showed that around 29,000 people have enrolled for the "Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas" which will debut on Sept. 3. That's way more than the total number of students who have attended the school in its 89-year history. Curtis has a student body of around 170 and fewer than 4,250 have studied there since its 1924 establishment.

An app made by digital-software publisher Touch Press enables listeners to scroll through the score of Liszt's towering B minor piano sonata while watching a performance of the piece. It also provides a commentary by the star of the app, British piano virtuoso Stephen Hough.
/ Courtesy of Touch Press

"Curtis's exclusivity is a necessary ingredient in making it what it is: its tiny size is critical to its atmosphere, and ensures that its talented students get the attention that is so crucial to their development," Biss wrote in a column for The Telegraph. "But the advent of MOOCs means that the musical values discussed within the Institute's walls can be shared with unprecedented numbers of people."

With a few clicks, one can sign up for the course at https://www.coursera. org/course/beethovensonatas. Subscribers will get an e-mail message from Biss about how he plans to run the course.

"While I've spent a good deal of time teaching and writing about Beethoven, the center of my experience with his music is as a performer. So while music theory may occasionally find its way into the lectures, the focus will be on the various aspects of the music that have come into my work as a player," Biss said. He also provides a suggested reading list, along with a list of recordings that have been significant in forming his perception of these works. Subscribers who complete the course will get a "Certificate of Achievement."

The video lectures provide live music and insights into the repertoire, its history and the composer.

Curtis couldn't have chosen a more fitting lecturer for this project. Some may remember the 32-year-old as one of the three young pianists, along with the Chinese sensation Lang Lang, who appeared in the 2005 BBC documentary of maestro Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven master class.

A former student at Curtis, he returned there in 2011 to join its piano faculty that had once included legendary pianists Rudolf Serkin and Jorge Bolet.

Biss is recording all 32 Beethoven sonatas for the British label Onyx Classics, which just recorded the third of nine discs. He published his first Kindle Single "Beethoven's Shadow" last year.

Curtis will introduce a second online class in October, "From the Repertoire: Western Music History Through Performance."

Classical music apps are also bringing the genre to a wider audience. British app designer Touch Press has been at the forefront of a fast-developing market in classical apps for Apple's mobile devices.

Last December, Touch Press released an intelligent app called "The Orchestra" that introduces users to some core symphonic pieces. The app features London's Philharmonic Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen performing eight works, with a rolling score and commentary. Its app on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, published in May, has been downloaded 620,000 times.

Touch Press had success with its prize-winning projects like the "Shakespeare's Sonnets." The company's latest product involving classical music is an exquisitely designed app on Liszt's towering B minor sonata starring the British piano virtuoso Stephen Hough.

The piece is considered by many as the composer's greatest work. It was written in 1853, the same year Steinway & Sons was founded in New York.

Besides being a great pianist, Hough is an eloquent speaker and writer and does a great job in explaining the background of one of the most beloved works in the repertoire.

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