JANUARY

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The nicest thing about a crisis is coming out of it! In an “either/or” situation, there is bound to be some compromising, surely this happens in the life of most people! Having to make decisions brought about by unexpected circumstances can be a good thing... I can assure you that from having felt so vulnerable for a long while, I could only resurface stronger: whatever convictions I had in me solidified rather like granite!

As long as a heart ticks away, there will be ups-and-downs but also energy, ensuing emotions, ambition and ideas: want it or not! Being healthy will remain the most important requisite in our life: we will forever have to deal with ... the rest!

Once this hiccup over, I felt better within myself, even phrases in music started to breathe more easily reaching out with an impact more palpable than ever. Myriad details, gone amiss until then, seemed to ‘scream’ into life!

Time came to prepare the next course on my ‘concert-menu’: Brahms’ Concerto #2, with its ‘little’ Scherzo – something you certainly need to get your teeth into -- nothing better than such a challenge to get one slowly back to reality.

Before this emotionally taxing month was over, I flew off to the Amazon, where I was to play in an opera house built in the middle of the Jungle!

 

 

FEBRUARY

Ever since my honeymoon, light years ago, I never forgot the moment I gasped at the sight of perfection: the Teatro Amazonas, visible from the river and every angle in town. It had been inaugurated at the end of the XIX century, in the year of 1897. Coincidentally as I was due to play the massive Concerto in B flat by Brahms, 1897 had also been the year of his death. 
From my hotel room as I opened the curtains, I knew that someone must have chosen my room quite strategically: I could look straight down at the Theater, majestically set at the back of a charmingly quiet and atmospheric square. Later, daydreaming as I lay in bed, happily exhausted from the day’s work, the amazing building, seemed to come to life, peeping, smiling at me -- images which made me think of that most adorable of Ravel’s work “L’enfant et les sortilèges”! Indeed the magical moments spent playing to my heart’s content, on the stage of the gorgeous 780-seater will remain in my mind, as the most magical of my career: the whole experience felt surreally like a dream come true! 
Given that I come across few compatriots on the podium and still haunted by last year’s nightmare (v. February 2006) -- do you wonder -- working with the ever-so-calm conductor, Luís Malheiro, was a breath of fresh air. The Amazonas Filarmônica is filled with Bulgarians and Russians; most of them, married to local men or women have made Manaus, this gentlest of Brazilian towns, their home for the last 8-10 years. 
The life of a concert pianist can be the loneliest of all professions in the music business. Contrary to common belief and although Music is conducive to loving or sharing feelings, the existence of a keyboard soloist is not synonymous to gregariousness: once rehearsals are over, ever so swiftly, everyone goes back to his/her own daily routine. The visiting artist has no choice but to remain hanging on to the piano, mainly for comfort’s sake! Opportunities to meet some great people are abundant but encounters of the spontaneous kind do not happen that often: everyone assumes exciting programs pack one’s day ... not true! 
When I noticed some musicians looking in from backstage, quite a long while after rehearsal was over, I beckoned at them to approach for a chat and timidly suggested going out for a drink or two later on, my treat: this time I was lucky!

Never mind that ‘sweet’ Glória (1st clarinet) had a flat-tire as her car approached the hotel: back-up relief, promptly arrived in the shape of ‘quiet’ Daniel (timpanist). 
In the morning of my scheduled departure, ‘emotional’ Claudinho (2nd flute) offered to drive us around town -- revealing how my soulful encore Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor had touched him deeply. We took some pictures (v. Photo Gallery) and stopped to drink “água de côco verde”, the delicious water of young/green coconuts -- a ritual usually associated with a stroll alongside the gorgeous beaches of Rio or Salvador. However here we were, on the bank of The Amazon, a river that at its widest, can reach some eight kilometers: it felt more exotic and picturesque than any sea! 
On another occasion, ‘guided’ by Noemi (harp), a carioca* full of life, we spent a lot of time looking for her favourite places, only to find them shut ... on a Friday? Still, the ice cream was great and we had lots of fun! 
“Obrigada, gente e até breve, espero”!

(* native of Rio)

 

 

MARCH

The experience in the Amazon left me sorry for one reason: coming back home I realized I never thought of asking someone to take a picture of the ‘opera house in the jungle’ -- I must soon put this right but I no longer bother with cameras and prefer to let my inner eye indelibly fix images so I can bring them back, ‘on demand’.

I had to resort to the ‘beckoning’ process during the last rehearsal with the Valencia orchestra to get what I require in Ravel’s sunny ‘Concerto in G’: “Guys, you are as much soloists as I am! And if you don’t play as such, it won’t work!” Luckily, my surprise-approach caused the ‘pin to drop’ and the results were most satisfying.

Comes the second evening, different venue and town, as I walked onto the stage a surprise awaited me: would you believe that, in order to fill a wider area the stage-hands had spread out the orchestra miles back from me (had I been directing from the keyboard I would at least have used the rehearsal to make sure hat I could see the key-players; instead, following the prior night’s performance the conductor didn’t even bother to ask whether I wanted to rehearse anything in the Concerto...) Next, I noticed that the piano stool had not been set at the inclination I like, so to put that right I had to crouch and fiddle with the screws under the hind legs. Then it turned out that the piano had been placed out front, American-style, which I hate: “me, in front (they would never say correctly I) and the rest of them”. When I realised that I could barely see the cor-anglais player, I shut my eyes while counting to 5, breathed hard and gave the nod... I should say, a concert better forgotten!

Am I alone in letting things like this get to me? I wonder.

Live and learn should remain my motto: experience tends to breed relaxation > wrong! One must forever keep watch: one second one’s feeling great, everything is going fine, and the next: BANG on the head, it never fails!

Later in the month one last engagement: a lunchtime-recital -- of some ‘heavenly’ Schubert plus Debussy in one of my favourite smaller venues: the lovely acoustics of Wesley Chapel, in Harrogate. I arrived in town the evening before, just in time for the birthday celebrations of the ever-so-well-informed and enthusiastic music-lover in charge of local events.

“Thanks Andrew, for including me in those happy moments and by the way, you don’t look a day older ... than 50!”

 

 

APRIL

Having had the pleasure and relief of playing for the first time a group of Schubert pieces in Harrogate last month, it was that I to do the complete programme in Modena, Italy as the first of a series. 
That day the rain came down in buckets, which did not help my budding sore-throat: of course, I only realized how low my level of energy was once the recital started. Though as I always prepare my students for the battle of the fittest’ by saying that playing a concert is the best cure for any flu; and by having sweated through Schubert’s exposed A minor Sonata I shook myself out of that debilitating state and found myself ‘back in track’ by the time Debussy’s turn came, managing even to deliver the rest of the programme up to quite a good standard, I think! It’d be nice to know if someone present would concur with this opinion...

Following the successful replacement of a colleague last year, for a spot-of-teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, I was called back, but instead of an easily invigorating public Master-Class I chose to try my hand at a long session of “one-to-one” coaching: 4 very talented players were scheduled to play.

Truth be told: I have for ever refrained from belonging to any institution; being obliged to stop a session in the middle of one of Chopin’s Ballades...or Beethoven’s op 110, while having a fantastic time at getting real results, all because time approaches the next slot?! It’s like … well we won’t go into that…

No, I’ll stick to private teaching: time is mine to use as I see fit! Of course, that requires a lot of stamina...especially from the students as most of them would no doubt concur with...

A strong sensation hits me as if my wings were tied: like a caged bird, my freedom taken away!

 

 

MAY

Oh, what joy to re-prepare Beethoven’s greatest, his G major Concerto. The writing of # 4 is like lace, making it the most exposed and lyrical of all 5. The 1 st movement contains such perfectly intricate set of dialogues that pace becomes a most important element, every phrase supposedly blending with the next. Follows the most sublime of Beethoven’s slow movements where the piano gradually tames the Orchestra’ sturdiness in short outbreaks from the soloist of themes of most soaring, sheer beauty!

Having arrived at the top of my musical maturity, I so felt ready to give it my best ever performance.

Knowing that Rumon (principal conductor of the Icelandic Orchestra for a few years, now) was to partner me in this venture, following our musically rewarding collaborations in Barcelona and Lugano only made me long the more for this date.

Believe it or not, since getting married there so many years ago, Reykjavik will always retain a special place in my heart; not only from the warmth and honesty of its people but because every time, from the moment I land in the country and breathe-in those uniquely strange landscapes, it feels as if roots take a grip on my make-up as an adult!

Then, it all happened as I expected.

“Thanks, Helga, for being there for me! What a pleasure to work with such responsive musicians: Rumon and the Icelanders are definitely a great match!”

Ahead of me lay a long stretch in my beloved ‘haven’ in the south of France, where I was to prepare for 4 gorgeous concerts in the vicinity. I so looked forward to being back there since I remembered well the discovery of unbelievable profusion of flowers at exactly the same time last year! What more could I ask but vibrant colours, perfumed alleys, plenty of birds busying about, sunny weather and a beckoning swimming-pool as a break from work on a very extensive list of repertoire?

I was scheduled to appear twice at the delightful “Orpheus & Bacchus” Festival. Firstly an appearance with the wonderful Chilingirians, my 1 st ever professional quartet — long gone were the days when, as a very green pianist I recorded that work with the even greener young Medici Quartet for EMI, with John Willan as the producer. The complex of ‘Le Faure’ being situated only at 20 minutes from my own place, it felt quite cosy going to-and-from rehearsals. César Franck’s massive F minor Piano Quintet was the work:

“What joy guys, I loved you so: will we ever work together again I wonder?”

The following evening, I was to play the programme I’d done in Modena (v.April). The invited audience comprises of semi-and-wealthy retired couples (mainly from the UK and Europe) taking a so-called luxurious and exclusive ‘dry-land cruise’: visiting wine châteaux and interesting towns in the French country side during the day; then in the evening they’re offered high quality musical entertainment being provided in a relaxed atmosphere. I could expect a few cherished friends in the region and I must confess, the occasion served as an excellent outlet for recent collection of pent-up emotions: a most moving experience in every way.

To explain the formula used by Ian Christians the enthusiastic host: drinks are provided to the guests before and during the interval of a full length concert; that is followed by a delicious cordon-bleu dinner prepared by a charismatic chef, Georges, brought-in for the length of 3 weeks or so; the lot is ‘washed-down’ by wonderful wines chosen by connaisseur Ian. Between the cheese and desert courses time comes to offer some ‘encores’- it cleverly helps with the catering... You can imagine how elated one is feeling by that time; surely, the guests will enjoy whatever comes their way!” But it has a very special feel to it all.

“Anytime Ian, just ask and I will come to play again!”

For a while now, François Querre from “Les Grandes Heures de Saint Émilion” had been trying to bring Antonio Meneses so that we could play what I so often refer to as my most enjoyable partnership imaginable. This year it finally was fixed and chosen as the place where our concert was to take place: Château Cheval Blanc, he-l-lo, the very first of the Grand-Crus!! Wow!

A week in which to regroup and finish learning the Chamber Music pieces of the calibre of Shostakovich’s and Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonatas plus some Villa-Lobos – was all I had ahead of me.

Playing that evening in the glassy “Orangerie” cum-concert-hall, it felt as if we were in a sauna, due to the intense heat that fell that day... We had to make our own excitement even more intense, so that the people couldn’t tell what was hottest, the air or us!

Earlier, while planning for the concert, François delighted with my choice of programme, mentioned en passant that “I shouldn’t be shy about suggesting any other wonderful colleagues that I could bring for a second evening of music...” I wouldn’t dream of losing the opportunity of Antonio’s presence and on the spot I couldn’t think of anything else but Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, around which I duly built up a programme. For a few years, I hadn’t been able to persuade Antonio to find time to learn the barely heard Poulenc’s Cello Sonata (upon working on it we realised that this must be due to a lack of initiative in the cello part: most pacing and strong beats are given to the pianist: “trust me” I’m proud to say!). So once Meneses agreed to giving a go, I grabbed the chance of combining that with the Clarinet Sonata as the 1 st half of the programme... And so it was that we asked Dimka Ashkenazy to join us for the concert, which would take place two days after that of the Duo, giving us plenty of time to rehearse!

Wonderful idea + wonderful players + great atmosphere = wonderful concert, in the well known/fabulous acoustics of the Salle des Dominicains, in St Émilion!

Meneses & Ashkenazy .

I have known Dimka since he was 2-3 years old, when I first arrived in Europe! He was a most sensitive and ‘wise’ child – I well remember his telling me how welcoming the view of Christ the Redemptor over Guanabara Bay, in Rio de Janeiro, felt to him everytimw he looked at it: this aged 3 or 4! He has turned into a gorgeous human being: besides being an accomplished and very focused musician, full of original opinions which are very helpful in rehearsals, he’s and a joy to be with and very charming.

Now Antonio, I’ve known since he won the Tchaikovsky Competition, in the early 80s. An astounding artist (he has no technical problems!), highly professional, he used to give the impression of being rather distant but I believe from shyness rather than from coldness. We have played often and always had good enough concerts but now, with the passing of the years , he has mellowed so much – haven’t we all?!- and has of lately completely changed for instance as a dinner companion; as to before, he couldn’t care very much about anyone present, simply sat down at table to enjoy his food; now he stills does that, for certain, but golly has he relaxed and loves telling jokes! Musically of course, it was always tops; now it is miles better and warmer than before and as a human-being so much more pleasant to be with: we laugh a lot together.

At St Émilion we had almost a week of great moments. We will repeat our Trio, this time adding Beethoven’s op 11 – which by the way, in order to play the slow movement as an encore, we had the music sent by fax which arrived late morning on the day of our concert. Sure, the two of them knew it>> not me, I don’t play chamber music that often, and surely not trios... Yes, it took courage to sit down to perform it, having read it through a couple of times together... but hey, I am completely mad and a sucker for challenges! Probably from having to cope with 5 brothers as a child – no better preparation for toughness, I assure you!

A word about the meals cooked by delightful Almuth -- François’ wife and a most generous and sensitive hostess -- were as usual sublime! We are all spoiled by the quality of the wines served but also by the unerring touch of a superb “chef”!

“No doubt Antonio, you would consider coming back another time, huh? And Dimka, let’s hope that you’ll get some deserved bike rides next time — at least I won’t have to lug the thing back and forth... for nothing! I might even go with you!”

 

 

JUNE

I spent most of this month in France, between Paris and Bordeaux. The city of London hardly counts in my life these days. I miss it, but most of all I miss being missed ... no comments.

With a “funny” tour in Brazil during the summer months: two of the four weeks without any concerts -- not everyone has the manager one deserves, you know-- I had quite a lot to plan for; otherwise nothing much happened this month worthy of mention... sorry!

 

 

JULY

Dental trouble was very unexpected and painful – but having already had trouble from that same tooth while sitting in the jury of that ‘eventful’ HK Competition two years ago, I shouldn’t complain since it left me untroubled for a long time. Well, let’s say it’ll no longer bother me.

Sunday the 8 th came-- that was the day I was to drive with and in my husband’s car down to the south of France, stopping on the way, to have lunch with our younger daughter, in Paris: that’s one way of seeing her!

We were then to continue the journey downwards and had fixed to stop for dinner plus a subsequent sleep-over at the house of very dear friends. Oh, but you might remember, guess who that was? Werner Herbers, my Dutch congenial oboist of last September’s “C*O* et ses amis Festival”, a great musician, plus jazz-arranger, bass-player, piano improviser, a freak-biker, you mention he does it, or is! Together with his delightful Leonie, they are two of the most gentle and wonderful friends anyone would wish to have, absolutely!

Two weeks of supposedly working-vacations started with emotional trouble which I could have done without... an unnecessary exercise in the life of anyone! Let me be thankful for the fact that I have my Music and at times like this, IT takes over completely, stronger than ever!

Soon after having come out of that hassle, my trip started badly when, arriving at the airport to check-in, besides a strike of ‘ground-staff’ although my flight wasn’t cancelled like so many others, it was delayed by at least two hours which meant of course, that I’d miss my ongoing International connection to São Paulo, unless there was miraculous handling by the airline in question... Of course, no chance of that!

It’s awful to remember what I went through... I finally arrived there, what felt like some 48 hours later on a horribly rainy and miserable morning, without trace of my luggage, at 6am now, on the day of my scheduled recital... recital ???? I was ready to die!!

My bags did eventually show up – amazingly enough, following that dreadful disaster in São Paulo’s domestic terminal a day earlier, on that evening TAM, the disgraced airlines operated two flights from Paris to São Paulo: had my luck somehow changed? Hard to believe!

I played that evening not knowing what had hit me — I don’t mind playing on the same day I arrive, if I’m mentally prepared for it: I wasn’t and it threw me completely! I won’t say it was my worst recital – still it was billed as the high point of that year’s Festival by the inelegant critic – but it remains one that I’d prefer to forget!

Giving a Master Class in Campos, turned out to be a great experience: plenty of lovely, eager and receptive students – seeing how many came backstage at the end of the recital, queuing up to see and talk to me, shouting out their proposed repertoire for the next day, I felt quite sorry, and tried to imagine how they were to be chosen?! Then I had the brilliant idea to offer to stay over longer and teach more MasterClass, to the delight of everyone. But because the students were helping to close the festival by giving a concert of their own, only one day was available.

Therefore it was arranged that I would move onto the beautiful farm of a couple I must admit I had never dreamed existed, let alone be such welcoming people:

“Eliane and Paulo Gala, you are bliss, in disguise!”

So generous and down to earth, unbeatable in their ways! The students would be ‘brought to me’ by mini-bus... I must say, we all had a great afternoon I think, working very hard but also laughing (apparently I do not coach: I “grill” people); that reminds me, they even had a delicious snack prepared for them. At the end of the evening they never wanted to let go or leave, and just kept embracing me, made me play on and on, amazed-crazy at some passages in Brahms’ Concerto no 2 or Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau”: they’d call me “a witch” or would joke: “it must be the rings on her fingers that allowed those passages to be played so well...”

“Thanks, all; I hope that you learned to listen more to how you play, read the scores better in order to find out what the composer wants; or at least that I inspired you a little.”

I then went into the ‘interior’, to stay with my dearest cousin Ude (the one to whom I dedicated “Prece” from the Alma Brasileira CD) who so inspires me with her inner strength and positive attitude in life. Those were two fabulous weeks in my life, so needed at the moment.

“Thanks, my dearest Ude: não tenho palavras para agradecer o amor que você causa em mim!”

 

 

AUGUST

After a lot of quality time spent in Matão, town of my childhood where I had first unforgettable experiences, I went back to São Paulo to “face the music”. I had accepted to perform “Rachmaninov’s Concerto no 2” with the Banda Sinfônica de São Paulo.

But before I got onto that that process, I had accepted to give a Concerto Master Class, in the SP “Uni”. A young colleague, Eduardo Monteiro, who usually teaches there, was in charge of proceedings. The demand was amazing: there were 17, who had put their name down as hopefuls... And so it was that I faced quite a large crowd of students and teachers alike: that used to worry me when I first started doing classes publicly. But no longer: it’s my duty to try to get the best results from each performer and with that in mind I have no qualms to say what is needed: if there are notes, read wrong, not just ‘missed’ (I make sure of that!) of course I will correct them, without asking who the teacher is who missed seeing that; I will concentrate on style, pedal, quality of sound, projection, and deep respect of the score and/or the composer’s intentions!

Funnilly enough, the longer the lesson is, the more confident and animated I get, instead of dying from exhaustion... Teaching, to me, is one of the most exhilarating chores in life: to inspire, to ‘clear’ technical faults, to solve pedal issues and, publicly get obvious results in the quality of the playing, wow! When a young person starts to hear him/herself the points I made, or to notice the hands are not together, important but missing polyphony, notes hit with butter-fingers (without any energy) and therefore not together or bad pedaling... then I feel I’ve accomplished something! I so enjoyed that afternoon! At the end I was encircled by many students and teachers; then the director thanked and begged me to come back for ...two weeks!!!

Now, back to playing to my accepted of playing a different Rach 2, meaning there were to be no strings in the accompaniment of that most famous of all warhorses of the piano repertoire -- a Brass Band consisting mainly of wind and brass instruments. Actually Abel Rocha, an extremely good conductor, had cleverly added 3-4 bass-players for the pizzicatos. The transcription had been made by a certain Harold Pottenger in the 60s if I’m not wrong -- others include the Paganini-Rhapsody. Some people criticized me for accepting to do it...

I tell you: I felt I came out it a winner for having done it: I assure you that concert will remain a very special occasion in my career! I can only wish Sergei could get in touch and tell me what he thought of it...

“Thanks, Abel, for being so patient during rehearsals and for putting up with my good-humoured reactions upon that first reading, give me a break: it was too surprising having never heard any of it! But you must admit, all our work paid off: the results were fannn-tas-tic?! Let’s do some more ... Rach-Pag next?”

With that unique experience ended my ‘funny tour’ but as a dear friend put it: “I feel Cristina is back in Brazil’s soil”.

Back to Europe I went: during my free two weeks I had been practicing away, preparing an all Ravel/Rachmaninov Recital which I was to play next.

Arriving in Ascoli Piceno and later in the nearby town of Offida to try out the piano in this gorgeous little theatre, immediately brought back all the seduction of Italy!

A day later I gave a Concerto Master Class for some talented students of Eric’s in Amandola’s jewel of a theatre: suffice to mention that this one is a minute copy of La Fenice of Venice, all of 100 seats!

I so enjoyed spending time with the charming Olivia and her husband Eric, both pianists, promoters of the Per Piano Solo Festival. And what could one possibly say about the meal Vincenzo and Elisabetta hosted at a restaurant called “Il Cantuccio”: the three of us guests, were astounded by the sheer quantity of tastes, textures and dishes, all presented in the most exquisite plates, cups, glasses of all imaginable shapes, designs – why did we bother to order a starter plus a main dish, for that matter? It never stopped coming, “with compliments of the chef”: pre-pre-appetizers followed by pre-pre-first and yet pre-pre-main-course and I’m not exaggerating: there were around 10 - 12 tastes of desserts!

An orgy of the senses... BASTA (enough)!!

If ever any of you find yourselves in the area of Ascoli Piceno, don’t miss experiencing that! Back to the south of France for peace, quiet and ...a well deserved “desintoxication”!

 

 

SEPTEMBER

Following the summer months almost totally spent abroad, how I looked forward to spending September in my haven in the south of France … my only commitments being two recitals at two weeks interval and in benefit of local churches in need of restoration: 
St. Georges-Montagne is one of three roman churches in the area in need of attention: my recital would be the very first one in that slightly austere venue, a few kilometers from where my good friend F. Querre lives he of Les Grandes Heures de St Émilion, the festival already famous among artists who are also wine lovers. Unbeknown to me the promoter, who is very keen to get involved in that main Festival, had asked François to introduce the program to the audience. As usual it was done to perfection in his inimitable style , so much so that hearing it from the vestry-cum-backstage I couldn’t refrain from wondering whether I would possibly do justice to such flourish. Ta-ta: it was up to me to deliver! I had built a first half of ‘growing numbers’: 2 Impromptus (Schubert), 3 Intermezzi (Brahms) and 4 Études (Chopin); then markedly contrasting music Ravel’s jewel of a Sonatine and Rachmaninov’s all encompassing 2nd Sonata in the second half worked wonders: cool elegance x total passion! After the dedicated list of encores, a few of us were invited to the promoter’s house, where a few surprises were in store: in lieu of a Sauternes to crown the foie gras to perfection Mr Boidron served a very special vin blanc of his own creation, Mayne d’Olivet; later when Querre gently pressed him over the undetected delicious blend of cépages, it remained a mystery, oh, so subtly well-kept; and why not?! We then went through a selection of his very best rouges until one last twist: alongside the platter of cheeses, he proudly proceeded to open a bottle of a famous 20 yr-old Port to ‘’soothe’’ the included “Stilton”-- no doubt aware that I had chosen to live in London -- a touching thought. “Merci infiniment, Jean-Noël”!

L’Église de Saint Pierre is situated in the small village I call my own, where for many years my family and I come over for vacations. From the moment I recently entered this charming local chapel I “saw” it as a perfect concert venue and duly offered to play what turned out as the first ever classical music recital in the village. It was planned so that profits would go towards the reparation of its quite unique frescoes painted, in mid XIX century, on the medallion-shaped wooden ceiling. Despite the fact that the rented Yamaha was only a baby-grand to keep down expenses, the acoustics were a revelation and following a thorough distribution of flyers and posters and a couple of local press interviews the church was filled; present also were the mayors from three of the surrounding villages: that alone, a local success! 
This time dinner was at our place. To my rescue I had the help of wonderful Fernanda flown in from Lisbon -- she of the “Les Amis” two summers back – who produced a great dinner. With a little help from friends -- Valérie de R. made a couple of delicious tarts of tomatoes and figs; Victoria provided some of her own vegetables and my husband’s invaluable coolness at setting some 35 dinner-places aided by Janice* , who had arrived from Paris for the occasion -- we got our act together: September 22nd will remain a very special memory. The organization of the event was in the hands of Mme Caffy, local historian and painter in her spare time, who artistically devised the beautiful flyers and posters, the atmospheric lighting in the venue, the comprehensive cocktail … which reminds me: “Françoise, two corrections for next time: the piano must be a concert-grand, if only to do justice to both artist and venue but also… the food must not be heated until after the music ends, no comments… But bravo, you came up trumps: next time it will only get easier”!

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x
Time to get back to London in order to prepare for my 1st visit to Beijing; the invitation had come through T. Ungar, of the TCU’s Institute of Piano, in Ft Worth, Texas who had tried to make that work for a couple of years. After a long exchange of emails, it surfaced that I needed to go myself to get a visa of entry from the Chinese Embassy: I’m always terrified that something will be wrong and that I’d be refused it… Underlying deeply in me was an unfounded fear of that massive red-country. What would I find? How do people repressed for so long behave?

 

*Janice, Brazilian friend and painter (v. October 2007)

 

 

OCTOBER

Arriving in the Chinese capital, I was disappointed in a way to find everything almost more westernized than in the west! So it was that it felt much the same as being anywhere else in the world. I came across one very disturbing aspect – due mainly to the lack of control by ushers in the Honoured Liberation Army Hall where all proceedings took place -- 75% of the kids which formed the audience for the recital of Joaquin Achucarro (the first of four invited fellow-Masters) had his/her mobile phone in hand during the performance, lights shining all over the dark place. Be it for communicating from row-to-row via text messages, playing games, taking pictures or even videoing parts of the Spanish-half on offer… Even though muted, some mobiles had accessories of rustling beads or tiny bells, their owner completely unaware of the noise but very annoying to people ... like me! This multi-task-generation doesn’t seem interested in concentrating on only one subject at any time: I wouldn’t put it past the ultra-technical-Chinese, being capable of managing emailing, homework, playing an instrument one-handed and possibly composing a new computer-generated work with the other, all at once! 

Otherwise, everything worked to Swiss precision. In order to experience China’s mysterious ways one would have to go back a few centuries or have plenty of free time to visit islands or small fishing villages. One day, perhaps …
From Beijing I flew to Hong Kong for the pleasure of working with Wing-sie, conductor of the HK Sinfonietta. In the program was the Paganini Variations known as “Rach-Pag”; the concert was cleverly entitled Rhapsody since it happened to coincide with her birthday. After the performance this charming lady was being presented with a celebratory medal awarded by the French Government for her contribution to French music within China. Everyone concerned was indeed in ‘party-mood’, a factor which added a welcome light touch to the otherwise serious business of music-making. 

The Grainger Quartet (from Australia) and I, soloists involved in that original evening – had also been asked to perform at a fund-raiser for the Sinfonietta playing Schuman’s Piano Quintet a few days later for the delight of a very select and duly rich audience at the China Club. Its owner, tycoon David Tang is a most enthusiastic music-lover and charming but fierce businessman. An Oxbridge graduate who lived in the UK in the early 70s, had heard many a concert of mine in London, was most entertaining over a luncheon he hosted in order to meet up. I had brought along a few CDs which we decided to auction as an added contribution. On each table there were forms so people could fill in their details. Fun was had by all but mostly me: I was to play a few samples from the CD. The elected master of ceremonies (his first time ever) started the bidding at HK$ 5,000!! When each time I was asked to play another I suggested the bid be raised he decided to up it … by another 1000!! Apparently they made more than HK$ 100,000!! Brilliant! Money is only paper for people who ‘bathe’ in it … images of Walt Disney’s Uncle $crooge come to mind…

Instead of embarking on to Australia, I had to go back to London for all of 5 days -- no sponsor ever wants to hear of facilitating the life of an artist. From there I flew to Brisbane, where I played at A. Thompson’s series to start my itinerary of 3 long weeks with the formula of recital + Master-Class. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with Ann, loyal friend and admirer, who this time had actually helped to get opportunities elsewhere. Also in Brisbane I met Natasha and husband -- whose pupils played in my MC. Next I found Margaret Farren-Price in Melbourne where she and her renowned musicologist-husband Ronald reign supreme! I have hardly met a more convivial person with whom I have so much in common! How sorry I was to leave “Mme Impresaria” –the clever name of her very successful piano series. I had also given a particularly stimulating Master Class to students of Rita R. -- who like me had been a student of Rudolf Serkin’s at Curtis in Philadelphia, many years ago. 

The moment came when I was to fly to Adelaide (pronounced Ai-de-lllai-de!) to play the last of my 3 recitals. Rather pressed and coping with a horrible jet-lag (it gets worse with age) that same evening I somehow played my best recital ever, I thought. At the reception following that ‘personal’ triumph, upon meeting the lady-teacher in whose house I was due to teach next day, I mentioned that I found her proposed program far too long (6 or 7 students in the space of 2 hours) but equally a bit of a problem because it consisted mainly of transcriptions which I refuse to coach, as a matter of principle. I asked whether the kids couldn’t play any real music, written originally for the instrument. Whereupon she became most distant and on the defense ie aggressive… Arriving at her house the following afternoon --- I usually choose only the pieces I want to work with in whichever order I think fit – and unaware of her manner in de-selecting her various pupils -- for the first time in my life I found out that she had decided to ‘display’ 3 pupils, 2 of which were doing … transcriptions and so inadequately that it was not to be believed!! The whole situation was a joke, to say the least.

Considering these kids apparently have been playing the same stuff to different visiting artists, over and over, one must wonder: to what purpose if they can’t even play the simplest of toccatas? What will they learn from such complex scores, written by accomplished pianists for the purpose of showing-off the transcriber’s monumental technical prowess, something most of us can only dream of possessing? Why not get youngsters to earn their bread-and-butter from Bach’s Preludes & Fugues, Partitas or Suites, or any of Mozart or Beethoven Sonatas? I find this type of behaviour simply criminal, coming from someone who is paid to guide and inspire! Wake up, you lot! 
By the way: I had told the promoter who drove me away that I would waive my fee for the Class-Which-Wasn’t…On hindsight I do realize how badly I mishandled the whole thing by not explaining to the few listeners and students alike, my position as to why I refused to comment, perplexed and crowded in that horribly airless and low-ceilinged garage-type studio… This sad chapter will figure in my books under the name of “a disastrous saga”. So it was that I left Adelaide to fly to my final destination, Sydney, with a sour taste in my mouth but without a hint of what was to follow: a chain of abusive emails were sent right-and-left to the agency in London, no doubt instigated by her ladyship… 

I would just say: win some, lose some … 
My dear friend Earl Owen – brilliant micro-surgeon -- had kindly offered me to stay at a flat he owns, across the bay from the Opera House, what a view. With swimming pool and only a short 5 minute ride from Circular-Quay on the Star ferry. He had kindly taken upon himself as well, to fix various Master Classes at different girls-schools around town, in the 5 free days before starting rehearsals with the Sydney Symphony. A busy schedule lay ahead of me, Earl driving/accompanying me to each of these places, where I am glad when I find the right thing to say about whatever piece is heard; then practice a bit, on my own… I had also agreed to play mini-recitals at the end of each class, providing an idea of what it is that makes a performing musician! But oh, what lovely hours I passed in the company of the various head-mistresses (one master) either of the School or of its Music Department and then of the chosen best ‘candidates’ – candidly wearing their school-uniforms and eager to show how hard they worked in preparation to my visit! 
Down memory-lane: all those uniformed girls reminded me of my own school days in Rio at the Colégio Santa Marcelina*, or indeed the Colégio N. Sra. da Misericórdia (both nuns schools)… what a shame one loses contact with one’s peers! “Is any of you, reading this, I wonder?”

*Janice (v. September 2007) and I were at this Primary school together, aged 10-11! She has lived in Paris with her two daughters for over 20 years; we ‘found’ each other through Ivan – my close friend, gaúcho from Porto Alegre, the in south of Brazil who worked a while for me when I needed help with ‘servicing’. He had taught piano to her youngest. Small world! A very talented painter as well, she’s possibly the person I’ve known longest … than anyone else in the world, family apart! Happy thought.

 

 

NOVEMBER

V. Ashkenazy’s Rachmaninov Cycle with the Sydney Symphony.

Having done the same Concerto # 2 with the Maestro, in Luzern many years ago to great praise both from him and his wife-- I remembered being very surprised at that because I didn’t think I had performed it that well -- I arrived at the Opera House most relaxed and proud of having been selected to be doing the opening concert in the Cycle...

Things progressed well enough in rehearsals. The piano on stage although quite new wasn’t great; surprised and a bit desperate, I was lucky to come across another one in the depths of the pit which certainly felt more powerful in that huge hall. Arriving for the general rehearsal I announced to Vova that because I was so tired with jet-lag and the lack of sleep I really should ‘’save a bit”, in order to have ‘something left’ for the evening.... Eyes wide-open, he replied: “But you have to play out, it’s being recorded”: the Japanese recording company present in the deal was expected to tape/use the general as a back-up to the real performance in the evening… I don’t want to dwell too much on this: the end result I thought was a normal performance. 

Now arriving onstage for the following concert, the moment I sat down I noticed that the chair had started squeaking; knowing that mikes would pick-up any noise, I did not have the guts of asking for another, in front of a capacity audience! He-l-lo? How much more must I learn? As a result I felt totally restricted and uncomfortable: my mind left me for a split-second in the 2nd movement and bang: a memory-lapse. It wasn’t that important a place and it didn’t displace anything more than the big pizziccato at the end of the run up which Vova brought the orchestra down God-knows-where… It upset me for two seconds once I got backstage, no longer and Vova immediately said: ”never mind”. 

Just to recap the above: it seems my contribution wasn’t good enough to be included in the recording… No comments.
Then on the last day of my stay, injustice over the Adelaide incident started to hit me so that when I arrived back home in London I had to cope with plenty of hassle (v. November).
Much nicer an occasion was the next date: with dear R. Milanov who had conducted me in Philadelphia + Slovenia + Haddonfield, in 2006. This time he invited me to his home town, Sofia on my first visit to Bulgaria. 

One most weird experience begs telling, which marked that performance of Prokofiev # 3. From the moment I played the piano entrance: “do-fa-sol” ….what …in the world …?? I noticed a lady seated in the 1st row, half-mad?, wildly waving both her arms as if conducting, shaking her head and broadly smiling, as if in ecstasy… throughout the performance! Oh no… please someone, make her stop… 

By the end of the 1st movement, a security guard kneeling by her, tried to convince her to move back a few rows. Because the stage was at a much higher level than the floor, Rossen noticing none of this, started the 2nd movement… I was completely thrown by the commotion going on in my field of vision to my right… and could hardly play that short cadenza preceding the variations… The guy had by then sat down to kept her in check, physically holding down her arms for the remainder of the concert… I wanted it to end, so badly. Pianists knows how much of Prok 3 is played at the very top register… imagine: a new variation and… oops, there she goes... At least she never stopped smiling at me! Help!
The Brazilian Ambassador had kindly invited the conductor and management to come along with me to join them for some Brazilian hospitality and fun. His wife, like me comes from glorious Bahia; we did enjoy ourselves. It’s a pleasure when diplomats living abroad are enthusiastic about ‘exported’ goods and show interest by being well informed, without one having to advertise one’s presence in the country… He told me he had always adored my recording of Gottschalk’s “Fantasia Triunfal sôbre o Hino Nacional Brasileiro”… I promised that if ever I got to visit Bulgaria again, I’d prepare that as an encore. Actually he’s trying his best to get me back this coming summer, so I had better start practicing: a promise is a promise!

Next, I was to play Mozart’s most gorgeous of Concertos, the K 595 in B flat. With the Cannes Orchestra not under their principal conductor – ‘old pal’ Philippe Bender -- but a visiting Bulgarian trained … in Germany. From the moment I sat down at the piano in the rehearsal-room, never had I imagined feeling as utterly alone as I did. Once the orchestra came slowly in, it went on as if no-one was there with me. Usually I have such an ‘entente’ with fellow musicians: not this once. It got worse: absolutely no contact, my music never seeming to touch anyone (apart from the bassoonist, at least he was alive enough to feel and tell me so) … strange. France hasn’t been often on my itinerary recently, therefore there are very few earlier experiences for me to judge by. It gets worse: it must have disturbed me more than I knew, when on that Sunday afternoon performance, a few minutes into the exposition the winds came in ... a clashingly dissonant key … I realize I had taken the wrong turn in the preceding solo passage! A nightmarish few bars ensued and a ‘life-time’ later, I got back in: there is nothing more exposed than a Mozart score! Christ, was I shell-shocked! Quickly, I must concentrate in putting it all behind me not to let it get to the subconscious: to err is but humain and it certainly wasn’t from lack of preparation or love for the score, I absolutely adore it! 

My self-explanations: in Sydney, there was that disturbing and squeaking chair; in Cannes the atmosphere wasn’t propitious to good music-making. I strive more and more on comfort … and togetherness. It shouldn’t have happened but one can’t always control everything, right?! 
A light at the end of a long tunnel: Brazil lay ahead of me on the last trip of this busy month of November! Phew: that put me back in the right track, I’m happy to say. Batteries recharged to the tilt, loads of loving family and friends constantly fussing over me. Nicest also to be able to spend time with my elder daughter who decided to move to my country, no doubt trying to find her roots! 

Musically speaking I had a program to ‘salivate’ over: a recipe for success: what better than a contrasting concoction of Ravel and Rachmaninov to challenge one? Two of the most satisfying pieces written for piano: the glorious triptych of Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit” and Rachmaninov’s Sonata # 2; en passant by “Jeux d’eau”, Sonatine and/or a haunting Étude-tableau in a-minor ... Plus my public, my people: my bliss! 

The fact that I had not played solo in Brazil for five years caused a stir among cognoscenti and colleagues, who did not want to miss that chance of hearing me. Nothing more appropriate than a new series called Piano Solo, where everyone is most united in launching this project for helping children in need. The enthusiasm of Eduardo M and Érico V is crowned by the charm of the team of ladies who make it happen! 
“Bravo, estão de parabéns, muito obrigada pelo apoio, carinho e ... paciência!” 

Also I’m delighted to announce that I managed to squeeze in there, a three-setter of social-doubles of tennis, my favourite sport. The most traditional of Rio’s hotels, the Copacabana Palace, may leave a lot to be desired in the quality of handling/welcoming of guests who aren’t of the status of Madonna or the Rolling Stones, but the discovery of its perfectly looked-after outdoors tennis-court, free for their patrons’ use made up for it! 

Paulo (who’s 1st flute in the local OSB) and I had been planning forever to play together. Here a last was our chance; although he arrived late and seemed ‘half-asleep’, after a little urging from ‘keen-me’ woke-up and to the dismay of Stella and Pedro (joint-sponsors of the piano series), we duly won the grueling combat!! 
“So-r-ry guys, but it felt great”!

 

 

DECEMBER

Another long trip back took me from home-Brazil to home in London… Ahead of me was one week in which to prepare the two Piano Quintets by Gabriel Fauré. A few months back I was asked to perform/record them with the Fine Arts Quartet, for Naxos. Whenever in the comfort of my piano-less Sydney flat, I tried to listen to a recording of both the Quintets, absorbing their unfamiliar idiom as if through an aural Intra-Venous drip! Those works were not at all the accessible, sweet, sensual music I for one, associated with that composer, nor were they in the same verve as the lovely Quartets. Only very slowly did I start to enjoy their strange appeal. There are sometunes but most of which happen in the strings … no passionate piano solos: one bar here and there! Actually, the real reason why I accepted this recording deal was Franck’s monumental F minor Piano Quintet – due to happen later in the season: having recorded it for EMI when I was so very green surely, light-years later, I should have a lot more to say in any score! 
Let’s wait and see!

So off I went to Milwaukee, where we rehearsed and played a concert at Wisconsin University where the FAQ is the resident Quartet, then met up a few days later, in Purchase College, upstate NY where the recording took place. 

Ralph E, the FAQ leader – (not of the Internet) – told me that when the projected record producer had cancelled at very short notice, having exhausted all other possibilities, out of desperation tried for and got through to Steven E., top-class guy who happened to be free: sheer luck! He was a joy to have at the other end of the mike. He gently handled the hard pressed sessions brilliantly. Though I for one, am never sure of anything, it was finally declared “in the can”, in good time and we all rushed away: it was December 22nd!

Back in Europe, arriving in Paris, I found there was pandemonium at CDG: Air France claimed that due to fog in the UK most afternoon flights to London were cancelled but, after a delay of 4 hours, mine did go! Good luck seemed to have come back in my horizon and I arrived at Heathrow just in time to help with some preparations of our Christmas Eve dinner: a close call you’d say, talking of which: 
“Best of luck, Steven: I do hope you have got the two Faurés well covered!” 

Next March we’ll be concentrating on the Franck: performances in the USA (NY and Washington DC) will precede the recording, which this time round will take place in Switzerland. I can’t wait for that one.

A note on recordings.
Throughout my recording life, when any of my producers said: “we have that covered…” I could never be too sure. One can always do it better; why not use any remaining time of a recording session?! Ideally once everything "has been covered", I like to play for my own enjoyment, with the tape running: that is how I produce my best! On another note there is so much to keep track of … the producer too is human, he/she could miss noticing a few things wrong, especially given that he doesn’t play the score… Oh dear, also it’s so much easier to record alone there being no-one else to worry about. I find it safer to stop short, it being the only way you can be sure that the take will not be used. But consider a whole orchestra sitting there – here, a Quartet -- and because of a couple of smudges, the pianist decides to halt recording every time, no way! If only problems happened to all at the same time, it would help! 
The other snag with string players, cellists specially, is they press onto metal, after a while must hurt and/or take its tow on their flesh. I recall the “Complete Villa-Lobos” with Meneses: by 4 pm, with many hours of the evening ahead of us to my dismay he would pack-up to go! That’s it? We pianists can have a short break and return for another couple of hours… Funnily enough although on paper I would have thought: Fauré, easy-peasy. Gosh: for almost a week my right arm hurt from the strain of those days! 
Do you know the best cure in my case? A few tennis matches which seem to work wonders, believe it or not... After all apart from strengthening my feeble right arm, it’s the most complete of sports! If any of you think me a freak, I will agree gladly!

Christmas & New Year.
Christmas in London and in Brazil can never be compared: my family is so vast that it’s hard for many to keep track of all the names whereas, small is beautiful is closer to the scene here: since both our daughters live away, there’s only his 96-year-old mother now besides my husband and me. To have our younger daughter around is a breath of fresh air. As a friend of mine put it: ”she comes into a room like sunshine …” Her sister’s visits no longer coinciding with hers, she has to do with friends. The seasonal meal, cooked for some years by my husband has now become our Christmas’ Eve dinner: a delicious goose plus all its trimmings. I certainly wouldn’t have managed any of that by remote control, from the air. My side of the deal, apart from an extra occasional vegetable and the final dessert, will forever be Brazilian feijoada* --derived from “feijão” the Portuguese name for black beans, its main ingredient. Eating it at night time is rather crazy because it requires at least a few good hours if not a whole afternoon plus a nap, in which digestion can begin to complete! But the girls wouldn’t miss it for the world! 

With that over, our haven in the south of France appeals to us where many of our friends have made us part of their festivities, a treat of conviviality and generosity! So much eating and boozing … help… it must stop! But who can resist especially wine like theirs? Only the other night, following her own gleaming blanc and velvety rouge, our hostess of one evening Patricia A., was proud to open a bottle of a 1999 Monbazillac, rated 100 out of a 100 by famed American critic Robert Parker: it was a liqueur for all senses! Thank God, January is upon us!

“Happy New Year, everyone: cheers 2008!”

© G.Staffetti (2017 - 2019)

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