It's not easy having a dual career as a player and a teacher. On the one hand, you have the repertoire to learn, the practicing to do, and the performances to give. On the other, there are the students to teach, the meetings to attend, and the performances to hear. But Anton Nel, the South African-born piano virtuoso, has been doing it since shortly after he came to the United States. Fresh out of the University of Cincinnati, he was appointed to the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. Then he did a professorship at the Eastman School in Rochester. Then he ran the piano department at the U-M in Ann Arbor. And currently he's heading keyboard studies back in Austin.
But even before he embarked on a teaching career that anyone would be proud of, Nel was winning awards as a pianist, first in South Africa and then at the 1984 Leeds Competition and the 1987 Naumburg Competition. And since graduating, Nel has played recitals around the world and appeared as a soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra and the symphonies of Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, London — and Ann Arbor, where his March 10 performance of Rachmaninoff's Paganini Rhapsody left the audience melted in their seats. Even though he's left Ann Arbor for Austin to teach, Nel still comes back every now and then to play.
This year, in addition to everything else, Nel's been polishing a sweet program of Haydn, Debussy, Granados, and Schumann in recitals around the country. Before taking the Schumann portion of the program to San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor in June, he'll bring it to Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, May 19.
What is it about his playing that makes Nel special? While one could and should mention his immaculate technique, impeccable taste, poised performances, and balanced interpretations, one always returns to his beautiful tone. Although the piano looks like an instrument of polished ebony and ivory, on the inside it's all wooden hammers and metal strings, and getting a beautiful tone out of it is way harder than trying to get fast on it. And Nel's recital, though exceedingly difficult — any program with Granados's Allegro de Concierto on it is a knuckle buster — is basically built for beauty. The Haydn Sonata's ravishing Adagio, the Debussy Estampes' radiant "Jardins sous la Pluie," and the Schumann Carnaval's passionate "Chopin" movement are textbook examples of beauty in music. And Anton Nel is the player to take their beauty out of the textbook and put it up on the concert stage where it belongs.
[Review published May 2007]