If collaborative pianist Neal Kurz could offer one piece of advice to classical musicians interested in his specialty, it would be… not to specialize. Being an effective accompanist, he says, calls for being ready to play just about anything.
“The thing I would emphasize for anybody who’s interested in this kind of work is you have to learn the broadest repertory that you can,” Kurz said. “Expose yourself to every kind of music, every style, because when it comes time to play, you have to have that wide understanding of musical literature. Otherwise, you’ll be the follower instead of the guide or, in many ways, the leader.”
Kurz has been a collaborative pianist at Rice University for more than three decades and for about 15 years, he has been an accompanist for the Young Texas Artists Music Competition.
“A lot of pianists end up mostly working by themselves, and that has its own rewards,” he said. “What I find rewarding is not just how well I play by myself, but the fact that the music my collaborators are playing, it’s incomplete without me and whoever else is playing with them. To me, it’s a more rewarding experience to be working with other people.”
Finding the Right Fit
Kurz, who played both piano and cello while growing up in northern Delaware, completed his undergraduate studies at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. He began his career with Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in 1989, after completing his graduate studies at University of Michigan.
Over the years, he has collaborated with many successful musicians, including late cellist Lynn Harrell and renowned violinist Cho-Liang Lin, who both have performed with the world’s leading orchestras.
Accompanying music students, Kurz has found, requires more than musical ability. It calls for a sense of empathy, too.
“You want to make everyone feel comfortable, and, of course, there are many different personalities, everyone needs a little something different,” he said. “Some people welcome any advice that you might have for them on how to improve the ensemble, and just be more comfortable in that chamber music situation. Other people need a little more time to come up with it on their own.”
Accompanying YTA competitors is a bit different. Sometimes people want to talk about their musical decisions before they perform, and Kurz discourages that. He’s found that simply playing the piece with the musician in advance gives him more insights than discussing it would. “That first reaction to how someone plays, if you’re going to help them, it’s important for it to be fresh without preconceptions.”
YTA Close to His Heart
Kurz got his start with YTA in 1993, after one of the students he worked with at Rice asked Kurz to accompany him in the competition. Kurz helped a few more musicians off and on until Emelyne Bingham became YTA’s artist director in the 2000s and asked him to start accompanying competing artists on an annual basis.
Kurz has Bingham to thank for becoming a YTA regular — and he can thank her and YTA Stage Manager Sadie Langenkamp for introducing him to fellow accompanist, Yung-Chiu Wang.
“That was in 2010,” Kurz recalled. “She was a friend of Lyn’s and the accompanist for a number of contestants. She knew who I was, and I knew a lot of friends of hers, so we were already in the same circle. We kind of hit it off.”
Not only did they hit it off, but Kurz and Wang dated for the next two years.
“After that, we were married on a date designed for the husband not to forget: 12-12-12.”
Kurz says he enjoys seeing YTA’s impact on competing musicians.
“It’s very inspiring for me to see people surpass themselves at YTA,” he said. “It’s a very supportive competition, and everyone achieves their best there.”
In addition to his work with Rice University and YTA, Kurz performs with the Houston Symphony when more than one pianist is needed. He also has accompanied artists in other competitions and has worked at violin workshops organized by Brian Lewis, professor of violin at The University of Texas at Austin.
For fun, Kurz is a classic film buff — and has even accompanied silent movies for video releases — an avid collector of vinyl records, and enjoys tennis and basketball.
His final thoughts for emerging artists? In addition to learning a wide repertory, he recommends finding opportunities to work with collaborative players like him. “Don’t just spend time in the practice room. It really helps to have as wide an experience working with colleagues as possible. You never know where your inspiration will come from.”