Making music on the bluff: Pianist Wehr's concert series has stellar reputation
It doesn't take much of a sense of adventure to discover that great concerts, usually very inexpensive, are given at local universities.
During the past decade, Duquesne University has presented annual concert series directed by professor of piano David Allen Wehr that have proven truly memorable. His ambition was apparent from the start: a two-year cycle of Ludwig van Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas. Then, he moved onto chamber music by Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvorak, French composers, Frederic Chopin and others.
In addition to the appeal of uncommonly creative and wide-ranging programming, Wehr has attracted many of the city's finest musicians to perform with him — some from the ranks of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, others from Duquesne's faculty, some with affiliations at both institutions.
Andres Cardenes, who is head of strings at Carnegie Mellon University and former concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, played on the final concert of the current season, Budapest on the Bluff. Five years ago, Cardenes, symphony principal cellist Anne Martindale Williams and Wehr gave an unforgettable concert of the piano trios of Johannes Brahms.
“David is just a superb pianist. Just by virtue of that, he opens up a lot of doors to what we're playing together,” Cardenes says. “He's incredibly flexible and easy to work with. You can bring your ideas to the table, and he gravitates toward them. He's also a joy as a person, which makes the music-making all the more fun. I really enjoy playing with him.”
Next season, Wehr will launch a two-year survey of chamber music by Beethoven, offering the violin sonatas with current symphony concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, the cello sonatas with Williams, and the piano trios with Duquesne's head of strings and Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra concertmaster Charles Stegeman and symphony cellist Adam Liu.
Wehr, 55, was born in Princeton, N.J., to two graduates of the Westminster Choir College at Princeton University. They married two days after graduation. The next year, the future pianist's dad earned his masters, and his mother had him. Then, the family moved to Boise, Idaho, where his dad was the new choir director at the Methodist Cathedral of the Rockies and his mother taught piano.
He asked for piano lessons when he was 3, but was told he was too young and couldn't start until he was at least 4.
“I waited impatiently,” he recalls. “Then, on my 4th birthday, I proudly rang the doorbell, as my mother's other students did. I studied with her until I was 7, when I graduated to studying with my dad. One thing about being brought up by choir directors is that the piano was rarely an end in itself. It was a supportive instrument that helped other people achieve things, which makes playing chamber music in Pittsburgh so natural.”
Wehr also studied cello with the principal cellist of the Boise Philharmonic.
The family's next move was to Florida for his father to pursue his doctorate in choral conducting at the University of Miami. Wehr began studying with Peggy Erwin.
“All of her students played better than I did. I found that an intolerable situation,” he says with some intensity. “She required three hours practice a day, which to a 12 year old was unbelievable. She had a waiting list and accepted me because she said I was one of the most musical boys she heard, but she also said I had no technique. She was going to fix that. I was in technique boot camp — scales, arpeggios, Czerny, Hannon. In two years, she turned me into a pianist.
“Getting technique is like earning money,” Wehr says. “You have to have it to buy things you want. You want to play a hard piece? Then you have to spend the money of technique. You have to work at it, earn your technique. I tell my students to enjoy their college years, to be able to practice eight hours a day because you'll never be able to again if you're concertizing. Enormous practicing in your teens and early 20s is a good investment you can live off the rest of your career.”
Pianist Sylvia Eckes knew Wehr when he was in an undergraduate at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and she was a doctoral candidate.
“He was very much like he is now. He seemed like a normal person as far as any kind of social gatherings,” she says. “He had a good sense of humor and fit right in socially, but when he worked, he was very professional about it, even at 18. He was realistic about what it took in order to get where he needed to be and knew he had to earn his way. I thought he had honesty and integrity. He was never flashy and didn't have a big ego. He took it all very seriously and inwardly. He was very mature.”
After working as a freelance musician in San Francisco for three years, Wehr moved to New York City in 1983.
“Within the first month, I was on the stage of Carnegie Hall in the finals of the Naumberg Competition,” he says. “I came in second to Stephen Hough, but winning that prize really raised me up several rungs on the professional ladder.”
After winning gold at another competition, Wehr began to concertize more widely, including internationally. He also joined the Sartory Piano Trio with violinist Stegeman, who was already teaching at Duquesne University.
In 1993 and 94, Wehr played his first cycle of Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., where he was on the faculty.
“I thought Beethoven is just one of David's best things, although he plays a lot of repertoire extremely well,” says George Keck, a pianist and musicologist on the Ouachita faculty at the time. “He's very good at the drama and intense emotionalism, very good at pairing relationships between drive and energy and those sections that suspend time, when he makes the listener wait to see what is coming next.”
For the people who perform with him, respect for Wehr's musicality and integrity go hand in hand with appreciation of the person he is.
“I really enjoy playing chamber music with him. We chose an insanely difficult program for our Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society concert, but we really had fun,” Bendix-Balgley says.
Among the piece on the program was Claude Debussy's only Violin Sonata.
“He approaches scores and just tries to analyze them on the composers' terms. With Debussy, there's a tradition of taking time, and (consequently) tempo relationships fall into a pattern that is not necessarily what Debussy wrote. It was refreshing for me because he starts with the score. I do, too, but he discovered some things I missed.”
The symphony's concertmaster relates to Wehr's work ethic as much as his conceptual insights.
“He likes to rehearse, which I do, too. He wants to find something deep and probe more, which I really appreciate. A lot of professional musicians' lives are so fast and hectic, there's often, for better or worse, a feeling that the music can be played through a few times before the concert to iron out any problems. Sometimes that's necessary for a festival where there's not more time, but it's more rewarding to work through it,” Bendix-Balgley says.
Wehr holds the Jack W. Geltz Distinguish Piano Chair at Duquesne, an open-ended endowment unlike the grant that supported his first five years at the university.
“Dave is at the heart of the public face of our faculty, both in chamber music and as a soloist,” says Ed Kocher, dean of the Mary Pappert School of Music at Duquesne.
“Over the past decade, his concerts have been with the highest level of musicians in Pittsburgh. They've gone from Beethoven to Brahms to French to Dvorak to Chopin's birthday and, most recently, Budapest. He has brought music to Pittsburgh that has seldom ever been performed. It's been a beautiful run for him. We're now poised for another decade of high-level artistry with him. He's a wonderful collaborator, a gentleman's gentleman and a musician's musician.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.