About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.
Catherine Kautsky, the George and Marjorie Olsen Chandler Professor of Music and chair of the Keyboard Department in the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, has lived a musical life.
Kautsky, who taught at Lawrence from 1987 to 2002 and then rejoined the faculty in 2008, is among the accomplished musicians that make up today’s Conservatory faculty. A brilliant pianist, she has performed in major halls around the world—Alice Tully Hall, Carnegie Recital Hall, the Phillips Collection, Jordan Hall, and the Chicago Cultural Center, among others. She has soloed with numerous orchestras, including the St. Louis Symphony and Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, and she has appeared frequently on public radio.
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She spent two sabbaticals in Paris and has performed abroad in France, England, Italy, Spain, Poland, China, Hong Kong, Korea, Thailand, Brazil, Australia, Russia, and South Africa. Known as both a solo and collaborative performer, Kautsky has performed chamber music at the Aspen, Tanglewood, and Grand Teton festivals, and presented masterclasses on five continents, including January 2018 appearances in Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi.
In 2022, she delivered a 24-part recording in The Great Courses series, Great Piano Works Explained. In it, she plays works from a huge variety of composers—Bach, Haydn, and Mozart to Ruth Crawford Seeger, George Walker, and George Crumb—while discussing how the music came to be.
She holds a Bachelor of Music from the New England Conservatory, a Master’s of Music from the Juilliard School, and a Doctor of Musical Arts from State University of New York at Stony Brook.
We caught up with Kautsky to talk about interests in and out of the classroom.
In the classroom
Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?
Maybe I’d like them all to know that despite the fact that I’m certainly older, and am supposedly wiser, I’m constantly grappling just like they are—with doubts, with failures, with efforts to change. That I’ve lost plenty of competitions and had plenty of applications turned down and given plenty of performances I wasn’t happy with—and that none of that overturns the incredible joy of spending your days and life doing something you totally love.
Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?
You know, I’ve been doing the same thing here for many years, so you’d think I might be tired of it, but teaching my private piano students still feels to me like just about the most exciting thing I could possibly be doing. The combination of dealing every day with music that I’ve loved my whole life and getting to know students at a time in their lives when they’re grappling so intensively with who they are feels like such a privilege.
Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional, or spiritual) that took you by surprise?
I’d say that my trip to Vietnam a few years ago to give masterclasses was both wonderful and surprising. I grew up in the Vietnam war era, and I’d been very active as an anti-war activist. I was staggered to find when I visited that country 50 years later that Americans were both forgiven and welcomed. The family of one of my wonderful students made sure that I had an unforgettable time there.
Out of the classroom
This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?
Ooh, that’s a hard one since music is something that gets inside you so young—my guess is that most likely I’d still be a college professor, maybe teaching English or history? My family is chock-full of people in academia, so that feels very natural. And I love reading and libraries and college-age students.
Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?
I think the library is my favorite spot. I love the library staff; they’re incredibly helpful. And the first thing I always do on entering is peruse the selection of new books that’s right by the circulation desk. I can never believe my luck that someone is putting all those latest books that I’d just read about right there in front of me. Another favorite, if I’m allowed two, is the Chapel. Playing music in there is such a gift—such beautiful sound in that grand space.
One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?
Crazy to try to choose just one of each, so know that there’s really no first place among many I could just as well have listed, but here are a few top choices:
Film: I loved The King’s Speech because it grabbed so perfectly the paralysis of stage fright and the struggle of overcoming one’s inner demons. How great is it that it all happened to a king?
Book: I recently read a novel called Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, which is about the fate of Western-style musicians during China’s Cultural Revolution. It chronicles the enormous emotional power of music and all the intersections of the State with people’s most private lives. I found it incredibly moving and sad—losses of personhood that could result in suicide.
Recording: I guess one of the very first recordings (and these were LPs) I loved was Artur Schnabel’s recording of the Schubert Bb sonata. That piece is now a sort of iconic masterpiece that every pianist knows, but when I was an 11-year-old kid discovering it, it was a revelation. I had no idea why I loved it, which I guess is part of the beauty and power of being a kid. Just sheer emotional impact.