Interview: Pianist Mark Markham On Collaborating With Great Singers & Music’s Power

By Jennifer Pyron

Before his most recent recital performance titled “My Songs Without Words,” world-renowned pianist and vocal collaborator Mark Markham visited with OperaWire about his current season and what has resonated most with him while pursuing a performance career as a visionary pianist and improvisational master.

Most notably, his collaborations with leading singers such as the legendary dramatic soprano Jessye Norman, soprano Leah Crocetto, soprano Jennifer O’Loughlin, mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and baritone Arturo Chacon, put him on OW’s radar. And it is based on his high level of versatility as both collaborator and solo concert pianist that makes him a front-runner in today’s world of music.

A Common Thread 

Markham’s 2018-2019 season began with a performance at the Lexington Bach Festival, “Bach and the Art of Improvisation,” and afterwards brought him to Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall twice in collaboration with Crocetto in November and Bridges in December. Both performances showcased a soulful fusion of classical works, with a hint of improvisational jazz techniques from both vocalists and Markham.

Bridges’ and Markham’s performance of John Carter’s “Ride on King Jesus” was a highlight of Bridges’ Carnegie Hall debut based on the internal power that they exuded as both were keenly aware of the music and the feeling behind the music. 

“J’Nai and I talked about our program for months, but I always knew that I wanted her to try improvising on a hymn to start the evening. Simply singing into the piano with her back to the public was a daring move, but it brought the audience into her world immediately. She was new to improvising, but became freer and braver each time we did it. Her willingness to open herself up like this, created the same possibility for her public,” said Markham.

Crocetto’s Carnegie Hall performance also proved to be a triumph as she and Markham performed the NYC-premiere of a piece composed by Gregory Peebles titled “Eternal Recurrence,” which is based on a philosophical theory that Peebles weaves together in a ten-song cycle: examining perceptions of reality based on the existence of energy and time as a recurring theme. They also performed Jerome Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine,” which Crocetto has made most impactful to listeners abound, based on both her and Markham’s undeniable transcending performances. Crocetto’s voice is a natural fit in this piece and a true sensation to be experienced. 

“Leah is one the rarest creatures that God ever put on this planet. She has the ability to deeply internalize a piece of music, and when she opens that door to share it with her listeners, the result is almost overwhelming because she makes it feel as if she is improvising the song. People love to talk about her voice and its beauty, but her soul is even more beautiful and that is what shines on the stage,” said Markham.

OW also spoke with Markham about how his collaborative career with Jessye Norman proved most impactful to him and his continued growth as a profound improvisational pianist. Markham told OW about when Norman programmed Gershwin’s “Summertime” for a concert at the Temple of Dendur. 

“At our first rehearsal, I asked Jessye if she had decided on a key for this piece, to which she responded, no. I told her to just start singing and that I would ‘find’ her. We landed in f-sharp minor and that was the answer. It produced an exotic, sultry rhythm and color and we went with it and it became one of our favorite encores,” said Markham. Their performance of this piece at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes in 2011 was ground-breaking and really opened up the possibilities of performers and listeners alike to be open to exploring a traditional piece with intentional openness and soulful enthusiasm.

In February, Markham was music director for a program honoring Kurt Weill and George Gershwin titled “Mack the Knife Is the Man I Love,” at the Kansas City Opera and through this program, continued to bring more awareness to music enthusiasts about the importance of carrying forward traditional music into the modern world. Markham’s common thread of success could be defined as the ability to usher beloved works into a new age with a relentless pioneer spirit that has held true to what matters most to him in music – feeling from the heart, mind and body. 

“I took some very popular songs by these beloved composers, and depending on who was singing them, found a fresh and modern approach that would offer the performer and the public alike, a chance to hear their relevance in today’s culture. Having a man sing ‘The Man I Love’ doesn’t look too daring on paper, but when it happened that night on the stage, it was devastating and the audience loved it,” said Markham.

Singing in Sicily and Beyond

Beyond performing alongside veritable superstars, Markham is also dedicated to developing young talent. During the summer of 2017, Markham established a non-profit intensive vocal workshop called “Singing in Sicily.” Each summer, four singers from around the world are invited to participate. There are no auditions. Selections are based on private recommendations or Markham having the opportunity to hear a young singer in a live performance or master class.

“I was sadly noticing that singers were being run ragged, asked to do too many things at one time, and that singing was losing its priority in today’s technological world. I wanted singers to have a chance to focus only on music and singing – kind of an old-school approach. Each singer has a private coaching and a public class every day. It is quite the gift to watch the transformation of a singer becoming an artist,” said Markham.

This workshop came to Markham as a vision when he visited the area and found himself divinely inspired to create a place where singers can steal away for approximately ten days and immerse themselves in the cultivation of their craft. On a deeper level, Markham’s life purpose as a soloist and collaborator has somehow always lead him towards manifesting this remarkable program, because he believes in the power of acting as a positive and inspiring leader in music and in life.

“Music is the highest form of expression one can share with the world and you never know whose life you may touch,” said Markham, when OW asked him how best to describe the role of music. And as a result of his view towards the power of music it only makes sense that his role as a musician is to contribute to the enlightening aspects of music, especially as a high level performer. 

“We work so hard for so long to understand the music that we perform, that sometimes we lose track of the origins of that music, which was a form of improvisation for the composer. Of course they knew about structure and style, but they had to open themselves to the universe to allow all the possibilities of expression to guide them in their choices. We as performers must put ourselves in their shoes and walk with them, not behind them. The walk will change every time, and that is where we find the real beauty,” added Markham.

When asked directly about what he would suggest to a singer who is preparing a new piece for a large scale performance, Markham simply said, “I want to know what the singer did before they sang the music. The main factor when preparing music of any level is based on learning all you can and preparing your material without sound being the first focus. The sound is the result of your preparation, not the starting point.” 

Markham concluded with suggesting every singer must ask themselves honestly about “why they sing” and be able to answer this question from the heart first, before they can really move forward on an internal level – no matter where they are in their career.



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