JANUARY

Following those unexpected concerts in mid-August: when ‘SOS-Ortiz’ once again stepped-in at short notice, to great acclaim, especially from the press in France (see Press Reviews) – nice, considering whom I had substituted — I was to serve on ‘jury-duty’, at a Piano Competition that is. Unfortunately, this taxing a job, leads me into deeply-felt frustration; I wonder if I will ever accept any future invitations! I’ll try to explain all that bothered me!

To sit through hour-after-hour of listening in deep concentration, to so many ‘hopefuls’ – is too-exhausting a passive task for an active performer like myself— and for what purpose? If the muscles in my back were the only thing to suffer from this mauling, I could still reconsider my decision, but when it’s the essence of my integrity as a musician that cries in desperation, “alors, là”!

Firstly, when the great revelation of the Competition – a new Richter, in my opinion— didn’t make it to the finals, I was quite tempted to go home. Then I detected that a player with a most obviously disgusting attitude to Music, composers and colleagues alike was tipped to win: that drove me insane. Then, the idea that a Jury formed entirely of professional musicians, is quite content in submitting votes on a piece of paper without ever uttering a word to express any views or convictions they may have about the musicality of the candidates to the title, is beyond belief! At this point I felt gagged, as if I needed to feed oxygen to my brain. I decided before the Finals, that had that one player gone on to win, I was not prepared to stand-by complacently, or be seen to have anything to do with that result, God forbid as I once did, at the Cliburn!
I honestly believe that the public usually gets it right and there’s a real possibility that they would get better results. More often than not, winners come and … mainly go! Players should become winners only if by unanimous vote, and that may require long deliberation; one might again find the Lupus, or the Perahias! 
‘ Professional-jurors’ as I refer to some colleagues, never want to be involved in any sort of confrontation. Their motto: “stay out of trouble”. Whatever the result, their salary is guaranteed; and on to the next competition. Two other jurors also worried about the voting system — at least I’m not mad ... My friends, when I stop caring, I will let you know!

A surprised student of mine asked: “you mean to say that outside, the poor candidates sweat away waiting for the dreaded result, while the Jury waits inside, for that same result, just like puppets? Give me a break!”

One more event this month, almost more frustrating: I had to play a recital in a venue situated right on the flight path to Heathrow! And I just couldn’t “fly above the situation” – forgive the horrible pun! Anybody would have thought that I’d be able to control the situation, well NO! I realized more than ever that I do need to hear what I’m trying to do, thank you very much!

Let’s just say that I am glad to see the back of this month!

 

 

FEBRUARY

If I look back all those years, I don't think I could find a busier two months, repertoire wise, than last February and March ...

So much so, that I tire just to think of writing about each set of the concerts I played. There were great moments and people, but also plenty of fun-and-games. Looking back, best were actually the concerts I wasn't supposed to do ... read on.

There was a date I eagerly expected: Brahms # 1, with Vello Pähn, in Kuopio; Dohnányi's Nursery Rhyme Variations (wonderful to re-learn that piece after such a long while) plus Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, with an ailing Eri Klas, in Tampere: two Estonians conductors during two weeks in beautiful Finland with lots of lovely fresh snow. Then my 1st Chopin Cycle (# 1 being a Concerto I refrained from learning before: I always hated the way people treated this piece) in Stuttgart. No comments. 

Coming back home a bit low, as I walked through the door, the phone was ringing, guess what? SOS-Ortiz was being summoned to within 2 hs away from where I had just arrived from!!! Emanuel Ax was unable to make it...

Crazy I know, but I couldn't help it but accept: I 'needed' to prove to myself that Chopin can be done my way, the Concertos being really the Symphonies he never wrote, but with rather weakish orchestral accompaniment (if one thinks of Brahms or Beethoven), it will obviously take real care in shaping and creating the support due to those gorgeous solo piano works of art!.

The Dutch conductor Jac van Steen and his Winterthur Orchestra provided the scene: he was not someone I had come across or even heard of, to my great loss, I must say. Immediate, natural and most musical rapport: it made me think of John Lubbock.

In 4 days, 3 performances of the # 2, plus a recital -- I was due to perform in the International Piano Series at the South Bank, a few days later, without a warm-up. The opportunity of doing it once before was the definite catch.

Though, by going away unexpectedly, I had to cancel trying the only available pianos at the Queen Elizabeth Hall ... little did I know what was in store for me!

 

 

MARCH

The thought of giving a Master Class at the Purcell Room, although daunting when at first considered, had not troubled me until I faced a nearly full-house, staring at me from down below!! Why, what were they doing there? Well, I can only be myself!

I remember two embarrassing things from that evening: after only a couple of half-words in, a voice was immediately heard: "louder, please"... and later on, while commenting on Chopin's Études, the word "articulation" wouldn't come to me, in any given form!! Ask me to speak to a crowd and I become instantly tongue-tied, so to get stuck at that word was hilarious...

Never mind, usually in the comfort of my own studio, I get such pleasure from teaching and also learn from it! In my opinion it's a shame when artists of the standard of an Ashkenazy for instance, don't. It's true that he listens to many young pianists but imagine how much he could 'give' and inspire by sharing his pianistic skills and fabulous musicianship in a one-to-one with the young hopefuls? Priceless, Vova, I wish you would!

I like to concentrate on the balance between hands, variety of sound, be it ''perlé', 'Brahms-deep' or the silkiest of touches; when technical difficulties occur, more often than not it's simply a question of position of the hand --"if you don't get a passage right 8-9 times in 10, it's the wrong fingering". Depending whether one is playing in recital or with an orchestra, a different projection is in order. I like to demonstrate the never-ending possibilities in the use of the pedal ("modesty apart ...", as we say in Portuguese); developing a keen eye for the markings in a score and total independence of hands where phrasing is concerned; an ear for the inner-melodies or making a crescendo with one hand while the other is doing the opposite. Chopin uses this effect quite often. For me, each voice is a different instrument, I like to play Chamber Music with myself: ideal partners are so difficult to find! The 4 participants Irina, Pyotr, José and Marco, all talented young pianists, provided great musical entertainment. Thanks for the patience, guys! Keep working hard and listening to what you do. And don't forget to settle your framework with the help of my friend-the-metronome, only then you'll be able to free yourselves in Music ".

Earlier in the day, on that same Purcell Room stage, I was reduced to despair when presented with the only two appalling instruments available for use at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. One London critic wrote: "she seemed ill-at-ease before the start of each piece"... if only he knew how close I was to going home! But how could I ignore the very numerous faithfuls? Although most unhappy, I played on, of course. To think that I'm speaking of London's scene, not that of some god-forsaken little place in the midwest of the USA, one would never believe! Does anybody else have any views on this, surely it can't just be me?! HE-L-LO, colleagues: "aux armes, citoyens-pianistes”!

Analyzing this, it could have to do with the fact that the older I get, the more I treasure the sound I make; and in order to do justice at projecting that, which is the core of my pianism, I expect to be provided with instruments (at least one) in respectably working order. The piano chosen for the students in the Master Class was completely dead at the top register -- hence my comment of "and to think I'm supposed to use this, on Sunday afternoon"-- It was the worst case of the 'least bad' of the two. The repetition in the one I had to go for, was so sluggish that the thought of launching myself into Scarbo was enough to want to send someone ... to the gallows >’ Le gibet’ (excuse the pun) and ‘Ondine’ felt more as if played on sunshine-bathed Copacabana beach rather than on the silkiness of the Ocean waters...

"If only"... I could have brought my own gorgeous Grand from home, like two years ago...Unlike the usual feeling I have of going on a trip when playing recitals, it became duty rather than pleasure and I did not much enjoy myself, that Sunday afternoon! I am so sorry.

An evening of music for a Children's Charity -- to try out another half of a new programme for later in the month -- at a beautiful house in London (including a most generous reception – thanks, Mr. & Mrs. Boas) preceded an appearance in Örebro, where I directed the Swedish Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard, in Beethoven's Concerto # 3 -- which I play since aged 14 ... To hear it phrased and paced my way, was most satisfying!

The wind section who usually have the most beautiful lines, therefore requiring balancing above the strings, for close rapport in dialogues with the piano, gave me my first sitting ovation, and would not stop applauding or get up at my request... I felt 'over the moon', by their spontaneous gesture. Thanks, Katarina (the concert-mistress) for the wonderful collaboration. Who knows where or when, but a Beethoven Cycle together would be quite a treat !

A recital in Warsaw, under the effects of thousands of milligrams of vitaminated UPSA aspirin -- I had just started the worst flu of my life -- on a surprisingly small Steinway, no comments -- was followed by the masterful score of Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety", with the Berlin Radio Orchestra under Larry Foster. They had the cheek of bringing a pianist to stand-by -- preparing for my demise?-- but even though I felt absolutely dreadful, I was not going to give up all the work I had put into preparing it. That's the one plus, we instrumentalists, have over singers: with no voice (Larry never imagined me capable of being that quiet!), an incredibly sore throat, and at times a fever, we are still able to perform. Of course it was broadcast and even if I don't think I played that badly, I could not for obvious reasons recommend that as my best rendition of the piece. The Masque (orchestrated for piano and percussion alone) went rather well. Pity there was only the one performance: so much work and not even a second chance for the Orchestra of sealing it as "done". As long as I can make it to the piano, on any stage, I will honour my contract. Professionalism? Humph, I'd say so, unlike some colleagues who may cancel simply because they don't feel like playing or leaving their… pets.

And I continued to feel ghastly, 'crawling' about with fever and a nasty cough, and made it through the last engagement of this incredibly busy month of March: with the BBC Concert Orchestra -- at the RFH in London, which is about to close for needed renovations. The Concerto was Shostakovich's # 2 -- the entrance of its gorgeous slow movement is the signature to my website -- I always think it "the most demanding 18 minutes in the repertoire"!

But adrenalin or sheer guts, carried me through an amazingly good performance of the Concerto most associated with me, since I first moved to Great Britain: many fans still write about that treasured '74 recording with the lovely Bournemouth Orchestra and Paavo Berglund, for EMI, my first orchestral disc. And remember I recorded it again, with the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy, for DECCA. It's nice to look for new approaches each time you re-visit and 'old friend' like that, but here, ENERGY and the loveliest of slow movements are what come to mind and those two will never fail to impress or touch audiences!

Phew, I must have a rest now and completely get over this flu: my next gig is recording a new solo album of 'jewels' by 5 of my favourite Brazilian composers: Fructuoso Vianna, Camargo Guarnieri, Lorenzo Fernandez, Alberto Nepomuceno and ... Heitor Villa-Lobos. Watch out for its release in September >> I promise to let you know the details! 

PS: for my next recital programme, how about some divine Schubert having got Radu's 'stamp of approvaI', or perhaps an all-Beethoven Sonatas? Byee. 

 

 

APRIL

This month saw me occupied with a long-drawn project. For a long while I had been trying to record Brazilian music “other than” that by Villa-Lobos, Music that I believed people should get to know. Originally there were only two composers I thought would make a wonderful combination, Lorenzo Fernandez and Fructuoso Vianna (I once played the latter's gorgeous Preludio # 4 as an encore, following a performance of Prokofiev’s # 3 with Ashkenazy in Prague, and both he and his wife, also a pianist in her youth, were amazed at the composer's pianism). Ever since 2000 when I started playing a lot of Brazilian music, I’ve had quite a few people writing in and asking when I would record those as well as also how to get the parts. A couple of years back, in Australia, some young pianists came backstage most enthusiastic over what they had heard at my recital and desperate to get hold of the scores. A group of them then went off to Xerox my own copies ‘just around the corner’, leaving me feeling slightly apprehensive in case I never saw those again: some were manuscripts and the only ones available! Of course the kids were duly back, each holding quite a few pages having copied the whole lot! I suppose one could call that a recipe for success! Well, it's now been done and I am thrilled about it.

There are 5 composers altogether; ‘Villa’s presence is assured in two of my favourite encores: Valsa da Dor and A Lenda do Caboclo. Apart from the two other composers mentioned above, Alberto Nepomuceno and Camargo Guarnieri complete the list.

Once “Alma Brasileira” comes out - this time recorded for Intrada-France (any of you remember my 1st LP, ever, for EMI?) to celebrate ‘l’Année du Brésil’. I hope many people will enjoy my journey down memory lane. Look out for its launch in mid-June in France, and by September it should be released internationally.

I was asked to write an Introduction and although I am no writer, finding out that no translation of ‘my’ text actually ever said accurately what I meant when writing it, I had to do it myself in the three languages I’m familiar with: a task only made harder by deadlines and 'word counts', especially when my computer twice crashed on me. Concerts, any day: so much more enjoyable! Here goes, read the preview before it's out!

“Alma Brasileira”
Whilst preparing for this recording in Paris, I experienced some very intense emotions. Unforgettable memories often made me break into tears. This music evoked the near-tangible presence of my parents, the tenderness of sweet childhood lost forever, the unavoidable suffering of dear ones, the purity of innocent love, the sumptuous colours and perfumes associated with that fertile land, my beautiful Brazil. The solitude in the life of an artist at work is not conducive to reminiscence, but despite many years living abroad, I have never felt the strength of my origins so vividly. What title could best describe all these feelings, Saudades - an almost untranslatable expression of nostalgia? or Valsa da Dor - waltz of pain?

I first heard the music of Lorenzo Fernandez when aged nine; then proceeded to win five consecutive times a competition where his music was performed. I played to Fructuoso Vianna and also met Camargo Guarnieri. There was alas no personal encounter with the great Villa-Lobos, but by the time I went to Paris aged fifteen, I was already imbued with the wealth of his unique musical language: riches that would stay with me for life.

With the advent of Brazil’s 500 th anniversary, proud of my cultural heritage, I started to take real pleasure in performing the music of my country. By then I had added courage to maturity, and could delve deep into this music which is so visceral, rather like me!

In this CD, I want to emphasise the nostalgic, sentimental and dreamy aspects of the Brazilian character, more heartfelt than the carefree exuberance that ensues from rhythmic gaiety.

We begin with Prece, which I dedicate to Ude, my dearest cousin. Of course, there are dances: Galhofeira, Dansa Negra, Cateretê, Corta-Jaca, Jongo; but what I would like my listeners to discover apart from the ingenuity of Nepomuceno, the inventive chromaticism of Fernandez, the sophistication of Guarnieri and the genius of Villa-Lobos, is the passion and wit of Fructuoso. This emotional journey ends with his exquisite Prelúdio no. 4 - evidence of an astounding knowledge of the keyboard - an ‘abraço’ which grips my Brazilian soul.

 

 

MAY

Understandably, after recording “Alma Brasileira” in Paris last month, my recital in Seoul, which started a mini-tour to South Korea, consisted of mainly Brazilian music combined with a few ‘forever-favourites’ from the French repertoire. And a week later I was to play one performance of Villa-Lobos’ most ‘accessible’ of Concertos: his no 2, with the excellent Daejon Philharmonic Orchestra under its charismatic conductor, Shinik Hahm. Of course, the rehearsal time allotted for the Concerto was too short - not the 1 st or last time – a fact which usually upsets me more than with any other composer because I take very personally the threat to Villa-Lobos’ heartfelt but naïvely orchestrated music being forever banned from the repertoire, due to a disastrous performance! Having been through the recordings and many a performance of all five of them, plus of his “Momo Precoce” and Bachianas Brasileiras no 3, I’m well aware of what’s in store…

And guess what? We were short of time for justice to be done in getting the piece as well together as it should. I was most unhappy and even considered changing composers; but at the dreaded general rehearsal, everyone was in their best behaviour, most carefully attentive and helpful, so the ensuing Concert was successful enough. I had to play encore after encore, but it is Vianna’s solo music which sends pianists into the “where and how to get the scores- mode” in order to learn the newly discovered and exciting works!

As usual in the Far East, everyone looked after me extremely well. So nice to see you again, Myung-Wha and Sam and thanks for the hospitality. Also Soo Hee (from Daejon) who went all the way to pick me up by train from and back to Seoul, at the end of my stay! Didn’t we have fun, with Euna?!

Between the two engagements, I gave a short but promising Master-Class at the University in Seoul, and then decided to teach endless youngsters from the Music Schools of Daejon. Most of the very capable translators (even Soo Hee helped) asked me whether I wasn’t exhausted from all that teaching but since I love the challenge to go from Bach to Ravel, back to Mozart, through Chopin, then Rachmaninov and end it with Brahms-Paganini -- sorry ladies: I’m not sure from where I get it, but it seems I have an enviable supply of energy and am never tired, if I enjoy the job at hand!

Not easily forgotten though, that “missing Korean thumb” or “the-left-foot-which-never-gets-near-the-soft-pedal” – nevertheless, I heard some very exciting talents whose progress I will eagerly follow; keep-up the good work all of you and most importantly: enjoy Music! I hope to hear some of you soon somewhere, definitely if I visit South Korea again! And for those interested in Fructuoso Vianna’s music: check my new CD “Alma Brasileira” (v. in Projects): it’s all there, plus a lot more!

 

 

JUNE

A quiet month of June lay ahead of me: a private recital in Paris, for the clients of COLT, generous sponsors of my new CD “Alma Brasileira”, -- for that I had conceived an ideal recital programme, mingling the composers, shoulder to shoulder. Thinking of l’Année du Brésil in France, I started with Villa -Lobos and followed it with some Debussy; then after a group of Vianna’s passionate pieces, I dared to couple Brahms with Nepomuceno -- to think that “Nepô” as he was known, wrote his ‘Prece’, in Rio de Janeiro, a few years prior to the time when Brahms wrote his Intermezzi op 118, somewhere in Germany! -- Ravel with Guarnieri, and finally Chopin with Fernandez; it seemed only natural to worry simply about tonalities …(To me Music should be treated with equal respect, main stream repertoire or ethnic discoveries!) I think it really worked! Many of the Parisian audience told me so!!

A while ago, through my PA Ivan, I re-met Janice Melhem Santos, who’s lived in Paris for many a year. She and I went to the same primary nun’s school, the exclusive Santa Marcelina, in Rio’s Alto da Boa Vista, ages ago as you imagine! What a pleasure to find each other; we have since become very good friends, and the coincidences started to amaze us: not only was she also born in Bahia and had two daughters like me, but she is also a most talented artist (in the visual field). Imagine our surprise when we discovered that, after many tos-and-fros, both that afore-mentioned private recital of mine and the ‘vernissage’ of a long planned exhibition of her works, ended up happening on the very same evening (also her birthday) only at a few hundred meters from each other, on the same Avenue d’Iéna and at about the same time.

Result: having ‘lived so intensely’ those all-important decisions leading up to them, yet we were ‘prevented’ from attending each other’s gig!!

To wrap up the month, Brahms’ Concerto no 2 was my chosen repertoire for Sintra, Portugal, a performance with the lovely Gulbenkian Orchestra under its wonderful principal conductor, my good friend, Larry Foster. Even rehearsing with Larry is a real joy: here’s someone who knows how to time things to perfection; never worry about lacking in detailed-work: even where such a massive piece is concerned, all will be taken care of somewhere, somehow, and in time for the performance!

I admit I didn’t play my best at that concert; the rehearsals were just too good; and just before the end …oops...; but hey: I am human, after all. I am too hard on myself; but this was only the first of a series: 5 performances at the end of September, another in November and perhaps one more, sooner than expected. So, plenty more chances to play my heart out. Truth be told, I adore playing that work; By the way: the run in thirds in the last movement is quite simple and that famous octaves-passage in the “little Scherzo” (in Johannes’ own German sarcasm!): it’s all about “phrasing”!

Performing all over the place also means that old friends can surprise you! It was great that the Mendes. old loyal friends, appeared when I least expected, having left their contact numbers at home! But then the Santos or “Prr-L’l”, I mean Luís, were away! Pity.

NB: Hey Radu, you really must play Brahms 2, a piece you have known ‘inside-out’ all your life and yet, never performed: we, your friends and admirers definitely think so…

Rachmaninov’s # 3 is a lot harder and more physically demanding: no doubt about it.

What do you all think, out there?

 

 

JULY

At the end of June I went to the south of France for an early start to Summer: travelling from there whenever necessary to the few concerts during the following 2 months. The first was to be a performance of Beethoven’s Concerto # 3, with the Hungarian Radio Orchestra, in St Moritz. Playing under Jan Schultsz was great fun and at the reception which followed the concert he revealed having become a conductor because of a situation which happened ‘thanks’ to me: apparently I was the “last drop” in causing a tyrannical, unfeeling and unmusical conductor’s tenure to end, whereupon he, Jan, was asked to lead the orchestra until they found a new principal conductor! Hilarious to hear that; also flattering to be told he had been hopelessly attracted to me as a teenager, in Holland … I wonder if there were many more young men like him? It could be fun to dream back to the time when I was young and beautiful! And talking of fun, the happy Hungarian orchestra musicians and I had a ball, at that same party: hey guys, I look forward to that promised Brahms’ Chamber Music Cycle, in Budapest!

The hosting St Moritz Opera Festival had offered me an extra week of accommodation in a chalet (owned by the charming Heidi), with space enough for a family of 4. Mine being unavailable, I asked around but without luck: none of my friends were available any longer or … willing to put up with me! Upon arrival, lonely and unsettled by the shocking news of the terrorist attacks in London that very day, I called some loyal friends from Lugano for a chat - who had joined me for many Concerts - and hearing of the deal they came up ‘trumps’, arriving the next day in time for the performance and stayed for a lovely weekend. Thanks, Dario & Luli: what a treat to hike in the mountains of this beautiful region with the two of you, although the pace could have been slightly faster, Luli? Joke! We had some good laughs, didn’t we?

Arriving back in London, from where I’d been away for over a month, I had this feeling of unease while waiting at Victoria Station for a driver to pick me up for a quick “In tune” interview for Radio 3… Anxiety hit me in the midst of thousands of people, loads of policemen about – rather ‘sticky’, unlike those peaceful surroundings, both in France and in the mountains where I’d been!

Life goes on though, and the next morning I drove myself to Oxford to take part in the delicious Philomusica Festival. This time I had a recital of Franco-Brazilian music that same evening, followed by a couple of Master Classes the next day. Unfortunately, the opportunity of possibly selling quite a few copies of my new CD “hot-off-the-press” of Brazilian repertoire, was lost - you’d think that distributors would be grateful for obvious chances like this? Not one CD in sight. Audiences usually come asking me how they can get hold of this wonderfully rich music and when told of the recording, HE-L-LO, where were they? How frustrating! And why bother?! There’s Uppingham Music School next month, I doubt whether the scene will change.

A near miss/mechanical mishap: while on the way to Oxford a strange warning orange lit up but because it kept flickering I paid little attention to it for a long time! Thank God I finally stopped to check: the tank was smoking and probably about to catch fire!! I hardly use cars these days, due to my ‘wandering’ life-style and servicing only happens in a minimal fashion leading up to the MOT. I know one should add water to old cars’ radiators and check the oil once in a while only… I forget and there isn’t anyone but me. Tsk-tsk.

 

 

AUGUST

Real vacations followed: from the end of July to mid-August as well as the rare company of my husband, I had the visit of some very dear friends. Among others there was Janice - we went to the same primary nun’s school, in Rio - who needed a short but deserved break from a lot of pressure, back in Paris; we had such fun and talked and talked… Then my young and talented Czech friend, pianist and composer Adam Skoumal came from Prague for a few days, mainly to play his new Concerto for me. It was most exciting to play 2nd piano for him, discovering this lyrical, evocative and passionate work and if some day it deservedly became part of the repertoire, ‘history in the make’ actually happened in my house! And how honoured and delighted I was when he dedicated it to me! I can hardly wait for the chance to perform it! Bravo and thanks, Adam!

It’s always impossibly sad to leave my place in the South of France at the end of Summer – those who know the place understand why I call it my ‘haven of peace’ - but after the recital and master Classes at Uppingham School - as I half-expected, no CDs for sale here either - I had committed to giving lessons in London, before my trip to the Far-East in early September, therefore I knew that this was: ‘Good-bye, Meynardon’! Until next time.

Back to my beautiful Steinways at home, I enjoyed giving lessons to José, Ron (good luck for the ‘Chopin’!) and the charming and talented Manon, a new recruit from Oxford! I also managed another quick trip to Paris and had the possibility of seeing my two adored daughters, whom I miss so much before. Then, off to the Far East for the 1st Hong Kong International Piano Competition wondering if this time I would enjoy being in the Jury: with Ashkenazy as chairman and names like Fleisher, Graffman, Krainev and Rogé as jurors, surely Music would be discussed ?

Let’s wait and see. 

 

 

SEPTEMBER

Arriving in beautiful Hong Kong, I had ‘great expectations’: the 1st International Piano Competition had put together a Jury impressive enough for rival organizers to ‘salivate’ at the sheer qualities of its members: solid musicianship, humility of character, intense commitment as performers, the mental strength needed by some to survive hard regimes, integrity as teachers at world-renowned institutions, intrinsic musical vision … and so on.

Guests at the fabulous Peninsula Hotel with excellence of service and great facilities, each of us was provided with a brand-new upright Yamaha piano in our rooms, with head-phones for total silence, if you can bear it… There was also a Music Room with two baby-grands, mainly for the use of Ashkenazy, the chairman. Any of us were welcome to rehearse, teach, or whatever, depending on Maestro’s timetable and busy he was too: my room being across the hall, I heard an awful lot of ‘Diabelli’ going on in his spare time!

Breakfast was a joy: start the day by having dim-sum? I couldn’t resist: so much so, that I put on 3 kilos, during my stay! But I knew that back in Europe, playing Brahms’ no 2, five times in 6 days, would take care of those! There was also a marvellous spa with sauna, Jacuzzi, massages, and a gorgeous pool in navy-and-gold mosaic, plus that stunning view over Hong Kong harbour! Great, when still sleepless, after having watched the US Open most of the night, and too early at 6 am to do any practising, I could have the place for myself! Utter luxury!

Now, to the Competition! Regardless of the calibre of the Jury, my fears were confirmed and believe it or not, there were no discussions: if random-members of the audience were to vote instead, results might be just as good … or fairer!! Neither was anyone required to explain the musical reason for any dodgy marks, there were plenty of them. In my view, the ridiculous voting system used here, was a major problem: once, instead of 12 all the way down to 1, one juror had absent-mindedly allocated two 8s and two 9s – Sudoku, that addicting Japanese numbers-puzzle comes to mind: when you think you’re about to solve it, you find a repeated digit in one of the last rows and have to start all over again! Same here; still worse: in the final voting 3s, 4s and what-not, were mistakenly allocated, inverted … And there when really it could have mattered, or did it? Oops! I give up!
As you imagine, being a Jury-member again is not high on my priority list - for a long while anyway!

At least, there was a lot of fun ‘hors-concours’, excuse the pun. I was taken for a ‘fann-tastic’ boat ride on South China Seas, thanks to dear Lydia; I ate plenty, had high tea and Champagne, thanks to Iren, Gigi and Lydia; once the competition was over, we and some contestants went for drinks and later on, dancing (hey, Domenico, Mei Yi, Andrey, Colleen, Wen-Yu, Sung-Hoon, Ilya, okay-okay?); I bought the right laptop, thanks to Margaret; and laughed a lot with Wing-Sie, Gigi, Margaret, Iren and … Lydia: how generous of you, ‘old girl’! Thanks.

Back in Europe, I resumed the lonely existence of a performer-on-tour but much happier to be the active musician once again and ‘doing the talking’! 
I’ll tell one funny episode from my Brahms 2 ‘marathon’: the unpredictability of what the piano will be like in the next town, is always a total gamble. Now imagine this: one evening I arrived on stage to hear the technician dealing with a broken string with very little time to spare – a nasty job, stretching a string to keep it to pitch -- so I had to let the poor guy carry on, unable to try the instrument at all. Since it was the 4th of my five performances, I wasn’t too bothered... Result? Humph: at the start of the Concerto, as I ‘warmly’ weighed down that 1st bass B flat … he-l-lo! Where, how, what?! The note went ‘pptt’, and no sound was held whatsoever! I presume the movers hadn’t fixed the pedal properly and it only sort of worked when a lot of pressure was applied! Everyone knows how challenging this concerto is: I don’t think that the pianist should be required to wear an extra heavy shoe, as well! For the next couple of days, the whole of my right leg ached from the effort! 
All the experience in the world and … I haven’t learned to go and check the pedal, honestly!

On the subject of pedals: have any of you, readers, heard of the Fazioli ‘308’? I never forget when I first used its ‘alternative’ 4 pedal-lyre: trying endless new effects provided me with sheer pleasure, a bit like ‘playing’ with the pedals of a Masserati, gorgeous!
It’s nice to dream, anyway!

 

 

OCTOBER

The donation of a Steinway grand, prompted this month’s 1 st concert and I was the invited VIP soloist …but when i n rehearsal, the music that came out of a tired orchestra hardly sounded like Beethoven, I wondered whether I was really in Germany! In desperation, although tempted to giving up, I had long discussions with the friendly conductor and in the end, Music won!

Most of you may not be aware that I spent three years studying in Paris in the late 60s. So when Intrada chose the Salle Cortot for my recital of a Franco-Brazilian program to solidify the release of our “Alma Brasileira” CD (last month) it felt strangely coincidental: it was there that Tagliaferro, my teacher, presented her yearly master classes entitled “Les couleurs dans l’harmonie”, attracting young pianists from all over the world. Among her many devotees was Bernard Gavoty, famous musicologist who never missed any occasion to be inspired by Magda, she of the flame-red-hair! As an impressionable teenager I spent many of those marvellous evenings soaking up every nuance of her imaginative attitude to music. It was also in this same venue that I competed through the earlier rounds of the 8 th M.T. International Piano Competition and at 18 years of age, went on to win my 1 st Grand Prix.

So it was with great emotion that I re-entered that cosy stage of my youth. An audience more reduced than one wished for took me by surprise and the first group of pieces by Guarnieri was somehow delivered in an atypically cool manner. But it wasn’t long before I found myself in my luminous Debussy and with Vianna’s passionate pieces, got to the end of the 1 st half. A gorgeous instrument and great acoustics are just what I need to commune totally with the music I perform; that interval never seemed to end! Then came my ‘old friend’ Fernandez’ Suite Brasileira # 2, partly responsible for my win at the Van Cliburn, followed by some kaleidoscopic Ravel. On my 1 st ever Parisian 14 Juillet, this the Year of Brazil in France, I had seen the Tour Eiffel light up in the Brazilian colours of golden-yellow and green, un unforgettable vision, and ending this recital with Villa-Lobos’ boisterous ‘Festa no sertão’ became ‘Festa em Paris’: I like to imagine him chuckling at my cheeky liberty!

The lady who interviewed me at her very popular radio-show, revealed how when very young, she had come across my LPs of the complete Piano and Orchestra works by Mendelssohn, playing them so often that she just about wore them down! French music lovers tell me of great emotions when listening to my pianism and find quite strange that my career hasn’t embraced their country…But I feel that day will come!

Well, all the hype I had lived through recently, caused a slight mistiming of the preparations for a new Rachmaninov-Brahms program and the day of the 1 st recital arrived rather too quickly for my taste. ‘Face the music’ I did but mainly due to guts; after all, unless unable to walk to the piano SOS Ortiz would never cancel! At least, Brahms’ F minor Sonata came to my rescue and I very much enjoyed playing in The Stables, new venue, since I’d been!

During some free days, I attended the première of a Concerto for piano and strings by Arturo Cuellar, a recently acquired friend -- the 2 nd movement in slow-samba is especially nice. Afterwards, we went for lobster with champagne…and then salsa: composer, wine-connaisseur and art-collector, this Colombian is also a very good dancer! The next evening my husband and I had scheduled a rare social dinner at home to celebrate the launch of yet another company to his belt, over which a guest hearing that I was going to play in Haarlem, mentioned the wonderful exhibit of 90 of Michelangelo’s sketches brought together by the local Teylers Museum! Travelling on the day of a performance, doesn’t leave much spare-time or so I thought, until Neil, the promoter of the concert series, promptly managed to organise a private visit, the venue in question being literally next to the Concert Hall. The young and enthusiastic curator’s instructions were not to miss the virtual display of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And magical indeed it was: chosen details of the master’s genius are picked, drawn out from their spot for closer inspection, then ‘flown’ back and superimposed into place! Rather inspired by the lucky break, my recital was filled with unusual joy! I also had the surprise visit of Elizabeth, a Dutch friend with whom I had lived in NY, in the 70s, and this time, our trip was down memory-lane!

I then taught a couple of enjoyable lessons, then I went with my husband to our haven in the Gironde where we spent some gorgeous days (the weather is rather fabulous at this time of the year); all there was left for me to do this month, was to dive head-first into Villa-Lobos’ score of the Choros # 11: a work filled with hundreds – and I mean, hundreds -- of ideas, as yet unscrambled by me. About time too: the 3 performances scheduled in the wonderful Sala São Paulo, were approaching rather quickly!

 

 

NOVEMBER

When asked to learn Villa-Lobos’ Choros # 11, the only information I had was its length, all of 65 minutes! But the moment I read two or three of the most beautiful themes he ever wrote, my decision was made and I never flinched: the pleasure I would get from playing them, carried me all the way!

By the time I was off to Brazil, I had mentally prepared to cope with anything that came my way, knowing the people and circumstances I was to face. Upon arrival I soon realised that I was the only one having put in enough work in this most complex score of a Piano Concerto I’ve ever come across…It simply meant an awful lot of unnecessary hassle again! The whole experience was more like going through a grinding-machine, emotionally! You will understand how one could consider it a ‘pilgrimage’ of sorts! On the other hand, being back in my home country, I can top up my batteries with the love, tenderness and appreciation of the family and friends I left behind. That gave me extra strength and I’m glad to say the end result was enough of a success – v. article in Press Review; sorry, only if you read Portuguese! I am so looking forward to having this Choros # 11 ‘in the can’; pity that BIS didn’t record it the following week: we will almost have to start over, next February.

Never mind: “cin-cin, Heitor: here is to posterity”!

Back in Europe, and almost straight to Norrköping, where I had to face, reluctantly, a conductor who had never done Brahms Concerto # 2 -- what, again? I must be getting lazy with age, and can’t bear the idea of going through all of that hassle, sometimes to no avail; and for one performance! When my girls were teenagers, I nicknamed each in turn: Ms Can’t-be-bothered … Funnily enough now, the cap fits me!

But I am glad to say that the young Catalan conductor Caballé-Domenech, was most patient and by considering all my comments and suggestions, an intensive transformation of the orchestra took place and the concert was most satisfying : well done, Josep! I enjoyed every minute of it! Maybe your next soloist won’t know this war-horse as well as I … Good luck!

A loud snag (oh my God, when I think of it): 2 minutes into the 1 st movement, a hearing-aid started to buzz …and buzzzzzz it did until the last few bars of the movement, greatly disturbing my concentration, destroying the clarity of my hearing and spoiling very badly what I felt could have been my best performance of the work. I was so near stopping! Before we continued, at my request, the principal 2 nd violin stepped up to make an announcement from the stage explaining the problem to the audience (were they all deaf?) and asked “please, could that nice person, very kindly… TURN THE THING OFF?!” After that, of course everything was perfect: now relaxed, I could play my heart out: sadly it was to be my last Brahms 2, in 2005!

To wrap up the month the inauguration of Cripps Court, a new building and concert hall at Magdalene College Cambridge. They have acquired for the venue, a reconditioned – brown-- Steinway which belonged to Eileen Joyce, the lady-pianist who was famous for changing dresses during intervals! Does any of you know what she was like? Or how she played?

Prior to the recital, the Duke of Gloucester was asked to unveil a celebratory plaque having himself attended Magdalene; he did also stay for the meal, which was brilliantly catered for, I must say.

There’s no better relaxation following a performance, than to eat and drink with old friends … or make new ones, right, Mark? 
PS: No, I didn’t change outfits, not even for the meal: half an hour’s music hardly works up a sweat! Nothing to compare with the marathon-like proportions of a Villa-Lobos’ Choros # 11, Brahms 2 or Rach 3!

 

 

DECEMBER

Having no concerts to worry about this month, time and opportunity were aplenty to enjoy freedom and do anything that took my fancy or go anywhere, whenever I felt like it!

Last month, I had been to the “Versailles de Marie-Antoinette”, at the cosy Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Bordeaux, where my dear friend Valérie de Raignac was a faultless guide through the impressive display of items belonging to the Queen in her golden days. Back in London, an invitation awaited me for the Private View of “The Three Emperors”, at the Royal Academy: those fabulous Chinese! I was left speechless at so much unimaginable beauty!

At the start of December, a trip to Paris where Frédéric, who had hosted last year’s closing concert of my Workshop, had a vernissage for his collection of pictures of French musicians taken in the 50s, by a relative; that was followed by a jolly dinner: it felt as if the Sud-Ouest had moved up north!

Next day a trip to the Louvre was in order: there was an exhibit of landscapes by Frans Post, the Flemish artist who in the 1650s went along to Brazil with the Dutch expedition. For this occasion I had the best of guides in Ivan my PA, who’s a most enthusiastic and potential historian of art; to this fact add the fun of riding through Paris in the back of his moped… helmet and all!

For sometime I had planned to visit a fabulous – mainly private – collection on display in Tübingen, Germany. On display, works by Corot, Rubens, Friedrich, Daumier, Monet, Sisley, Roault, Rembrambt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Dufy, Van Gogh, Géricault, Manet, Picasso, Menzel, to cite but a few, all belonging to the family of Arturo’s wife (v. October): simply mind-blowing! Then to end this weeklong cultural orgy, a relaxed Sunday visit (here I was joined by Janice, another great guide!) to the stunning Rubens’ collection at the National Gallery in London!

By watching beauty portrayed in Art, one can better sense it!

Reflections. The issue of giving as opposed to receiving.
One night I found myself half-dreaming or“sleepless in … Bordeaux” -- too much cheese or wine?; just as in that virtual display of the Sistine Chapel I told you about, endless images kept flying … but here back into … me: I was the recipient of all…what? How could I analyse this? Maybe it had to do with my complaint about how the life of a solo pianist can be so lonely or how draining is the constant giving which goes with performing, without much in retribution… But.. I’m in the receiving end of… endless appreciation and kindness! I should be only too glad that some people even bother to make constructive criticism although at times difficult to take; but one must suffer, get angry, desperate or disparate, feel discouraged or lonely; for better portraying emotions, one needs ideally to have lived them!

Why?
Why did I cry my eyes out that day, long ago, standing in front of Monet’s profusion of Lilies, my heart and lungs seeming filled to the brim? When the power of emotion coming from The Secret and other sculptures by Rodin, like a hand out of the rock, gripped at my throat?

What about the goose-bumps, looking at the tragic power of The Beheading of St John the Baptist, by Caravaggio; or recognising the ecstasy in Leda’s face when Zeus rapes her in the guise of a swan, as depicted by Rubens or in front of the portrait of his little daughter, imagining his pain when she died two years later? The humanity on Christ’s face, caught by Delacroix; the seeming dissolution into thin air of Mother-and-Child, by Daumier? What explains the nostalgia which grabbed me at the familiarity of lights on one of Frans Post’s Brazilian landscapes? Absorbing that purest of abandons ‘The Kiss’, by Canova; or sensing the plight of the burning Amazonian forest, in an installation by Frans Krajcberg; and enjoying the illness-stricken Menzel’s portrait of his handsome brother.

And on and on: intangible and inexplicable Art’s need to create or interpret beauty, death, desperation, bliss, ephemeral suffering! All there for the benefit of anyone who’s capable of ‘receiving’! Ours is a world of beauty and terror, fighting and peace. Confrontation will forever teach us to feel, to give, to suffer or to love. To me, contrast, communication, feelings are key-words!

The perennial child in me refuses to comply with the strange habit of making New Year’s resolutions, something I had never heard of until my arrival in England…

Is it due to the fact that things uncharacteristically slow down and people have to function out of their comfortable routine?

In an ideal world, trying to better conditions of life around oneself should be the norm. One last bonus just before the year was over: I heard a radio program on the lavish voice of Jessye Norman, going from Purcell, through Poulenc, Les parapluies de Cherbourg (!), Strauss’ September, Wagner (the yummiest of Isoldes), Berg and ending with a favourite negro spiritual, all of which brought tears to my eyes.

For a musician, being able to feel is the greatest of gifts!

And as I lay in the last blissfully-hot bath of 2005, I found myself in a rare ‘thanksgiving’- mood.

-- Thus, I thank my parents for the gift of life. 
-- I thank God for giving me talent. 
-- And I thank my husband for the daughters to whom I have given Life: they are my pride and joy!

© G.Staffetti (2017 - 2019)

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