Now Hear This: an Interview with Shields Bray, piano

You may know Shields Bray as principal keyboard of the Forth Worth Symphony Orchestra (he’s held the position since 1986) and as host of the FWSO pre-concert discussion series (since 1993). Get to know him this Sunday, July 30, as a critical piece of the chamber music ensemble for our final Basically Beethoven Festival concert “Americana!”


Bray, Buddy 2017 bwWhat piece on the program are you most excited about? What should audience members listen for? They’re all such beauties, but I’m especially attached to Jennifer Higdon’s Piano Trio. It appeals to musicians because it’s so well-written, and to audiences because it communicates so directly. That’s true of all her work. The Bernstein clarinet sonata is perfect in front of the trio: it’s one of his earliest pieces, and one of his most appealing. He knew the character of instruments, and how to bring that character forth. Copland was one of Bernstein’s mentors, so I like having that connection in the program. Appalachian Spring is, of course, one of the great achievements in American music. It started life as a ballet for Martha Graham, and it really has never been out of the mainstream since. 

As a pianist, what do you love about chamber music? How is it different from playing in a large symphony or solo? Learning to play the piano is such a solitary pursuit, and pianists don’t generally have large-ensemble experience when we’re young. It’s why I love playing with instrumentalists and singers. I love that shared experience. It’s also why, after 30 years, I still really love orchestral playing. I like being part of a bigger effort.

How old were you when you started playing piano? Why did you choose it? Did you learn other instruments? I was 8 when I started, which is about four years late, really. I think it chose me. I’ve never wanted to do anything else.

What type of music did you listen to as a kid, and what do you listen to now? I listened to top 40 until midway through high school, and then I suddenly didn’t listen to the radio anymore. Now I do, but to NPR. For music, I listen to singers, mostly. There’s something about the human voice – the immediacy of it, the warmth.

You are based in Fort Worth. What would surprise out-of-towners about Fort Worth? I love Fort Worth. I love that, as a city, it gets behind its arts and stays behind them. I love that Forth Worth has a feeling for its history, too. 

It’s not unusual to hear of humorous stereotypes for certain musicians and their instruments in an orchestra. What’s a typical pianist like? I wonder if there IS a typical pianist! We do practice an awful lot, and most pianists talk about pianos and what goes on under the hood. 

Who’s your favorite composer to listen to? To play? To listen to: Mozart. That’s perfection. I played him a lot when I was young, and I hope I’ll get back to him when I’m 70 or so. He’s a lot to live up to. For the past 15 years or so, I’ve jumped at every chance to play Messiaen. He’s a real original, and I’m fascinated by him.

What’s your favorite sound (musical or non-musical)? Least favorite? My favorite sound is the ocean. My least favorite sounds are sirens of all kinds.

Once you leave this world and reach the pearly gates, what celestial concert are you looking forward to? I want to hear Mozart play the piano!