As artistic director of the Chamber Soloists of Detroit, founder of the St. Clair Trio and a frequent guest with orchestras, pianist Pauline Martin is a familiar face playing with ensembles.
So it will be a treat to hear Martin when she flies solo in a recital presented by the Steinway Society of Michigan on Dec. 7. Her varied and ambitious program includes works by Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Bach.
In fact, Martin was trained as a solo pianist; her degrees are in piano performance, and her pedigree is thoroughbred pure. She studied with Menahem Pressler at Indiana University, where she earned her bachelor's and master's, then went on to work with Andre Watts, Gary Graffman and Theodore Lettvin at the University of Michigan, where she picked up her doctorate.
That top-drawer training prepared the Canadian-born pianist for tackling such taxing works as Beethoven's "Sonata No. 30," which she'll play in her recital.
"It's one of my favorite Beethoven sonatas; it continues to teach me things," she says. "He really pushed the sonata form here, and there's no adagio movement, as one would expect. One of the variations (in the third movement) is almost Impressionistic. No one expected that during this period."
The sonata has moments of aching tenderness, countered by stormy, passionate interludes, which is classic Beethoven, Martin notes.
"Beethoven said music should strike fire from the heart of man, and he does it here," she says.
Martin also takes on Chopin's "Andante Spianato" and "Grand Polonaise Brillante," which is sometimes performed in an orchestral arrangement. Chopin wasn't known as a terrific orchestrator, and Martin says the piece sounds fine without its symphonic garb.
"The orchestra part is so minimal; I've played it a couple of times with orchestra, but it certainly stands well on its own," she says of the work that begins so dreamily, only to be followed by a heroic polonaise.
Martin opens her program with Bach's "Partita No. 2 in C Minor." Of that Baroque composer, she says: "I don't think there's a composer who's more timeless. I tell my students that he probably would have been a jazz musician today because he was one of the masters of improvisation."
Included too are a pair of Rachmaninov preludes. Rachmaninov had gargantuan hands, and the demands he made on pianists make it physically challenging to hit some notes.
"I don't have tiny hands, but they're not big either," Martin admits. But she says Andre Watts taught her some technical secrets that helped her master some composers' knuckle-breaking chords.
Martin closes her recital with Debussy's "L'Isle Joyeuse," which has a different set of demands: nimble, fleet fingers. With its use of the whole-tone scale and different modes, it's also a work that pushes musical boundaries — which is part of its allure, Martin says.
"One never knows where Debussy is going because there isn't that sense of tonality that holds you in place."
Born in a small farming community in Manitoba near Lake Winnipeg, Martin learned first from her mother, "probably the only piano teacher within a 100-mile radius." She also had two violin-playing brothers, so she learned chamber music repertoire early on.
When she was 12, the family moved to Brandon — Manitoba's second-largest city. While still a teenager, she studied at Brandon College (now Brandon University).
Back then, she had no idea she'd one day play before a billion people. But that's just what happened in 2009, when Martin's performance of Mozart's "Piano Concerto No.10 for Two Pianos" with the Detroit Symphony Civic Orchestra and pianist Zhihua Tang was recorded by Chinese National Television and aired to an audience exceeding 1 billion.
Most musicians would quake with fear, but Martin calmly put things in perspective.
"You can be nervous for two people or a billion, but you really have to set your mind to what you value as a musician, and that's to get the music across," she says. "If you're trained and prepared, you're ready for almost anything."
Pauline Martin, piano
3 p.m. Sunday
The Steinway Piano Gallery of Detroit
2700 W. Maple,