YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Pianist-Teacher Conducts Himself With Intensity : Music: USC's Mark Sullivan, who will close the Seal Beach festival, works on inspiring his students.


Composer Felix Mendelssohn pointed out that music expresses ideas and emotions too definite to put into words.

Mendelssohn may not have had to teach for a living.

"You need to be able to impart images to students in a way that inspires them," says pianist Mark Sullivan, whose recital on Thursday will bring this year's Seal Beach Chamber Music Festival to a close. "If you're trying to get a student to express dynamics more clearly, you have to get the student to feel the music, and making corrections doesn't do it. You have to use words that sum up the music to really make a lasting impression."

But Sullivan, a part-time faculty member and doctoral candidate at USC, will let his fingers do the talking in Seal Beach, where his program will include Mozart's Rondo in A Minor, Beethoven's Sonata in A, Opus 101, Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales and Scriabin's Sonata No. 4 in F Sharp. He will repeat that agenda to fulfill his final degree requirement in September.

Conducting students through musical passages--not beating metrically, but helping them to anticipate expressive impulses--is another method Sullivan uses to get his ideas across. His communication skills earned him the USC music department's Excellence in Teaching award.

The 38-year-old was born in Tennessee, received his master's from the University of Indiana and now lives in Garden Grove. He studies with USC's Stewart Gordon, coaches other performance majors and will take over Gordon's studio during Gordon's sabbatical next year.

He contrasted the styles of two of his former teachers, the Beaux Arts Trio's Menahem Pressler, a mentor for four years, and Stephen Bishop Kovacevich, with whom he studied for three months.

"Pressler is just a remarkable communicator, musically and verbally. He knows a half-dozen languages fluently, and English is probably his third or fourth, yet he speaks more articulately than any other person I've ever heard in terms of finding just the right word to get an idea across."

Bishop Kovacevich was just getting his feet wet as a teacher when Sullivan went to him. "The qualities I admired so much in his recordings were either intuitive, or he wasn't aware of them, or (he didn't know) how to get them across. He could play with such repose and stillness . . . (yet he) seemed most interested in very brilliant technique--just practice until your arm hurts, drink a glass of wine, then practice it some more, advice I think that too many pianists have followed."

Recordings may have served Bishop Kovacevich well, but Sullivan maintains they have hurt most musicians' performances. (Sullivan's own concerts have aired on NPR and KUSC, and he has won several university competitions.)

"Musicians increasingly see performance as a document for posterity instead of a spontaneous expression for a given setting at a given time," Sullivan said. "Recordings can be invaluable for learning and study, but there's a cost. We think everything has to sound perfect, and the tendency is to stop taking risks, to stop trying for special colors.

"At a reception after the last competition I entered, a juror came up to me saying, 'Your playing was in many respects the most exciting, but you take too many risks for a competition. Your playing has remarkable intensity, but sometimes it threatens to spin out of control.' When I heard that, and thought of the winner, who was very even-tempered . . .

"Intensity is the most important thing. If you have to take risks to create intensity, then risk-taking would seem to be one of the highest ideals in music."

* Pianist Mark Sullivan will play works by Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel and Scriabin Thursday in the McGaugh Auditorium, 1698 Bolsa Ave., Seal Beach. Curtain: 8 p.m. Free. (310) 596-4749.

Los Angeles Times Articles