Nov 28th 2018

Chamayou interview: Next focus contemporary music

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

French pianist Bertrand Chamayou plunges into major composers one by one, reading works by and about them, traveling to their favorite haunts, and absorbing their art almost into his blood.  As he told me in an interview, he tries to immerse himself in the era of the composition, and to think of it as “new” for its time. In the past ten years he has done this with Liszt, Ravel and Saint-Saëns. 

What annoys him most is young pianists who try to take short-cuts, imitating the great virtuosos of the recent past, copying the rubato of a Horowitz, for example. 

His own individuality and virtuosity are beyond doubt. He performed at the recent l’Esprit du  Piano festival in Bordeaux, packing the Bordeaux Auditorium and delighting his fans with some rarely heard Saint-Saëns solo études and mazurkas. He also breezed through Schumann’s Blumenstuck and Carnaval effortlessly. 

After much reflection, he says he has understood the enigma of Saint-Saëns. The secret is in the “elusive space where the inexorable gives way to matters of the heart with a sense of abandon at times approaching the bizarre”. 

His new CD of Saint-Saëns solo and concerto works is his most recent demonstration of individuality in his devotion to various composers. He acknowledges that Saint-Saëns can be superficial and has suffered ups and downs like few other composers. But he finds beauty and excitement and bizarre surprises in the writing. 

Chamayou has produced a three-CD box of Lizst’s Années de Pèlinerage, all of Ravel’s piano works and  a selection of Debussy compositions. 

Chamayou, now 38 and on his way to becoming internationally established, was unknown at the beginning of this ninth annual Bordeaux piano series. Now he ranks as one of the great hopes for the future of French pianism. He has recently performed with major U.S. orchestras in New York, Boston Cleveland, Los Angeles, Detroit, Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle. 

As his career evolves, he is now taking a turn toward contemporary composers, working personally with two of Europe’s leading composers Wolfgang Rihm of Germany and the Swiss Opera and instrumental composer Michael Jarrell. 

At the top of his planning is an innovative duo with a dancer performing 12 John Cage prepared piano pieces from the 1940s. Several venues have been secured for the new year. Chamayou has exhumed these pieces and had them rechoreographed.  This production may well prove a turning point toward contemporary music, as he explained in my interview with him. 

Bertrand Chamayou

Bertrand Chamayou, by Michael Johnson the author of this article and interview.

An amiable, thoughtful talent, Chamayou sat down at the Grand Hotel Continental in Bordeaux for an hour recently to discuss how he almost became a composer, how he views the crowded piano scene today, and the joys of creating music with living composers. Here follows our question-and-answer transcription, which I have translated and edited. 

 

Q. You have written that at one point Liszt became a relatively central focus of your work. After your three-CD box of Les Années de Pèlerinage, you recorded all of Ravel’s solo piano and now Saint-Saëns seems to be a focal point. 

A. Good question and partially accurate. Yes, I plunged into Liszt, Ravel and Saint-Saëns long before I decided to make a recording project. As for Saint-Saëns, I traveled in North Africa, along the paths followed by him during his trips there. As for Liszt, I know Lake Como and Lake Wallenstadt and other locales. This kind of research is extremely passionate for me, and not necessarily related to music I might perform later. There is a lot of selection to be made. Each case is different. Ravel, for example, made his own selection, even throwing some works into the fireplace. So the surviving quality is higher. As for Liszt, much of his output was a work-in-progress, always being refined and rethought.  I read biographies, and in the case of Saint-Saëns I have sorted through many possible pieces to play – and some are much more important than others.

 

Q. So have Ravel and Saint-Saëns displaced Liszt? 

When I was young, my first love was Beethoven -- revolutionary, heroic, audacious. And then via Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Ravel, I was propelled into the 20th century and toward contemporary music. At the age of nine, I was already focusing on becoming a composer. In my adolescence I returned to older music. Naturally, Liszt was almost the only composer who dominated me at that stage.

 

Q. In what way? 

A. Because he was a great composer who connected previous music and showed the way into modern times. What fascinated me was the way he connected his era with the future.  I was also very, very taken by his transcriptions. He was an admirer of Wagner, Mendelssohn, and even Saint-Saëns. I was passionately interested in his music but also in his place in music history as an beacon. He was a true visionary, and helped me understand what I was searching for in music.

 

Q. You are getting more involved with contemporary composers, aren’t you? 

A. Yes, I have developed a strong interest in contemporary music. For example, I am working on John Cage prepared piano pieces in conjunction with a dancer. I like movement in music. I enjoy working with composers. One of my models would be Liszt – not so much for his music per se as for his generous attitude. So all this perhaps explains why he became so central in my own musical development.

 

Q. You say you had ambitions to become a composer at an early age. Is that still an objective? Will you turn your creative attention to composing later in your career? 

A. I was composing music at eight years of age. It was only a beginning and maybe it wasn’t very good, but I had some good ideas.

 

Q. Why didn’t you pursue your composition ambitions? 

A. That’s a question I am still asking myself.

 

Q. How did the piano take over your life? 

A. When I started on the piano, I saw it as a kind of hobby. I didn’t think I had the capacity to become a professional. But various people approached me and encouraged me. Jean François Heisser at the Paris Conservatory, for example. And Maria Curcio invited me to come to London to study with her. But in composition, I was not lucky enough to find a mentor like those. The piano just naturally became my future. I didn’t force it. I never contacted agents. Concert opportunities were offered, and the snowball effect took over. The piano occupied me to such an extent that I put my compositions away in a drawer.

 

Q. Will you get back to them? 

A. Well, it has been 15 years since I last touched them.

 

Q. Where does contemporary music fit in? 

A. I have devoted a lot of effort to contemporary music, playing Luigi Nono, Boulez, John Cage, György Kurtag, Henri Dutilleux, Thomas Adès, Bruno Mantovani, Philippe Hersant and Guillaume Connesson. Little by little I realized I have been very pro-contemporary music.

 

Q. I don’t see this contemporary love in your discography. 

A. That’s something I want to change.

 

Q. What’s holding you back? 

A. The market is very hostile toward contemporary music. Record companies are focused on what sells and what doesn’t sell. What sells now is concerts.

 

Q. What can concert-goers expect from you? 

A. I am very inclined to lean toward the future without abandoning the past traditions of music. So I have decided to give contemporary music a central place in my repertoire. It is not evident yet but it soon will be. I have even commissioned several works from living composers.  Of course the important thing is to find the finance.

 

Q. Who are some of the composers your are commissioning? 

A. My two major projects for this year have been with the German composer Wolfgang Rihm for a long piano solo, and then also the Swiss composer Michael Jarrell, who is producing a piano concerto. These are examples among about 30 projects I have under way. In The case of Wolfgang Rihm, it’s Radio France that is financing the projects. As for Michael Jarrell, there are three contributors, Radio France, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and a Cologne partner. This week I am meeting with IRCAM in Paris to develop a project financed by a private contributor.

 

Q. Working with a living composer takes you in a different direction from Liszt, Debussy, Saint-Saëns. Does this help satisfy your urge to compose? 

A. The fact is that I wanted to be a composer and that I have done a lot of work with contemporary music. Even playing established works, I put myself in place of the composer and think of the piece as something new. I try to transform myself into a player from the 19th century, playing something “new” for the time.

 

Q. Is it possible to find new ways to play old music? 

A. Oh yes. That’s what I do. What irritates me most is the repetition of traditions among some of the young players. For example, sometimes they try to apply the same rubato that Horowitz did! This is the worst kind of interpretation. You have to take a piece and remove all traces of cliché.  Of course we can never play a traditional piece as it was originally performed. We can try to imagine it, but that’s all. Our ears have been transformed and the environment of our world is so different.

 

Q. You are free of cliché when you play a new piece for the first time, right? 

A. Yes, playing something contemporary and new, there is no point of reference, no other performances.

 

 

Q. What are you developing from the John Cage legacy? 

A. Twelve prepared piano pieces, including the Bacchanale, originally created for dance. They have almost never been rechoreographed since they were created.  I have done this, and turned the compositions into a sort of dance-recital.

 

Q. Is this a real project? 

A. Yes, several performances around France are planned.

 

Q. Your career has finally expanded geographically. Now you are often in the United States, and your agent is the prestigious Harrison-Parrott in London. 

A. Yes, last May I played with the New York Philharmonic under Simon Bishkov. Doing Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto. And I played in the Mostly Mozart series at Alice Tully Hall in New York, and then in Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Seattle and Portland.

 

Q. What is your feeling about this crowded era of piano performance. And the plethora of virtuosos, many from Asia. Is there room for everybody? 

A. The level of playing has increased a great deal, there is no doubt about it. In the past there were great pianists whose playing it almost forgotten – Rachmanninov, Josef Lhévinne, György Cziffra, had a level of technique that few could equal today. There have always been great virtusos. But today even average pianists are technically very strong. There are a lot of Chinese capable of playing the entire repertoire.

 

Q. Are you worried by the arrival of so many Chinese? There are supposedly 20 million youngsters hand-picked to learn our classics. Does this concern you? 

A. No I see it as a good thing. The more we develop good musicians the better it is for music. Anyway, every career develops independently from others. Each player finds his or her own public – not necessarily the same as other pianists’ fans. Look at Kissin, Mme. Argerich – their admirers are not necessarily the same people.

 

Q. You have said the late Maria Curcio completely transformed you. What have you retained and continue to apply from her teachings? 

A. In a way, I was ‘raw material’ when I started studying with her. When I arrived in Paris, before meeting her, I had become a bit stiff in my playing, a bit mechanical. Maria helped me find a way to play as if singing naturally.

 

Q. You have said it’s not necessary to understand music to appreciate it. 

A. It’s very difficult to pinpoint when one starts to understand a piece. There is always a mysterious element. In education, notably in France, if one does not understand something, one does not have to right to touch it.

 

Q. Isn’t music a special case, with true appreciation limited to music students and professionals while the greater public is left in the dark? 

A. True, in music, some people consider they understand something and they have a certain snobbery against others. It’s even worse for contemporary music, for it is rejected outright by people who fall to understand it. This may be changing. More people accept the abstraction of the music, and plunge into the colors and emotions.

 

END

 

 

 

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Jun 9th 2019
Australian pianist Shaun Hern Lee, 16, took first prize on Saturday in the final round of the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition following 12 days of eliminations and associated activities in Dallas, Texas.
May 25th 2019
  In a rare combination of artistic talents, pianist Jack Kohl offers seven erudite essays on great classical music compositions and his favorite readings, merging both to make an exciting volume of fresh ideas. Bone over Ivory: Essays from a Standing Pianist (Pauktaug Press, New York) puts on display Kohl’s background as a classical pianist and his lifelong obsession with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Along the way, we encounter Gershwin, Fitzgerald, Thoreau, Dickens, Beeethoven and Master Yoda of Star Wars fame, among others.
May 9th 2019
"On the day before he was to play his marathon concerts, Maestro Buchbinder sat down with me in the 'Teddy Bar' of the Grand Théâtre de Provence to discuss his love for Beethoven. He was relaxed and cheerful and spoke freely......An edited transcript of our conversation follows."
May 6th 2019
One of the more exciting piano experiences of recent years is the development of a 108-key grand piano in Australia, built by Stuart and Sons and expanded with additional octaves at bass and treble extremes. The sound is new and audiences who have witnessed it tend to erupt in standing ovations.  If you don’t live in southern Australia, you probably will not hear it in all its glory but it’s worth a detour. I have recently had the privilege of listening to a high-definition recording, at 96 KHz, to be exact, of the inaugural concert performed a few months ago. The effect of the expanded keyboard, known as the Big Beleura, is stunning to mind and body. I sat with a friend in his music room in Bordeaux, listening for an hour, flabbergasted.
Apr 16th 2019
It’s heresy to say this, I know, but the great masterpieces of the 19th century piano composed by Liszt, Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven sometimes leave me exhausted. The complex structure and concentrated emotion, the moods, the arpeggios and stunning fingerwork demand an effort to reach true appreciation.  And so when I first heard the new CD “Musiques de Silence”  -- interwoven selections of Frederico Mompou, matched with Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Henri Dutilleux, Frederic Chopin, Toru Takemitsu, Claude Debussy, Enrique Granados and early Alexander Scriabin – I felt a surge of relief. (Eloquentia EL1857).  The repertoire is selected and beautifully braided together by the rising young French pianist Guillaume Coppola. 
Mar 1st 2019
The lingering resonances and extreme bass and treble notes are new to the piano world and the premiere audience knew it, rising at the end for a standing ovation. This was the recent premiere of Big Beleura, a 108-key grand piano built by the prestigious Stuart and Sons firm, the only practicing piano maker left in Australia. Some say the piano world will never be the same.  "It's important," explains the designer-developer of the instrument, Wayne Stuart of Tumut, not far from Canberra, "to realize that we perceive sound not only through our ears but all of our body."  That’s how Big Beleura gets to you. 
Dec 12th 2018
The work ethic among young piano students in China shows no sign of abating as their tiny fingers fly up and down the keyboard ten or twelve hours a day. Competitions are welcoming the new Asian talent and European concert halls are filled with admiring fans.  Some of us don’t quite know what to make of it.  It’s not all about Lang Lang, Yuja Wang or Yundi Li. Potential new superstars are emerging every year. Brace yourself for more in the years ahead. Some 20 million young Chinese are said to be practicing madly as our European and American kids diddle mindlessly with their smart phones and iPads. 
Nov 28th 2018
French pianist Bertrand Chamayou [in the drawing by the author, Michael Johnson] plunges into major composers one by one, reading works by and about them, traveling to their favorite haunts, and absorbing their art almost into his blood.  As he told me in an interview, he tries to immerse himself in the era of the composition, and to think of it as “new” for its time. In the past ten years he has done this with Liszt, Ravel and Saint-Saëns. 
Sep 24th 2018
The rich culture of the proud and ancient Basque people is sadly underexposed outside their homeland, a remote bi-national region where Southwest France meets northern Spain. Their language, Euskara, is a world in a bubble with no relationship to other living languages. Most outside interest in recent decades has sprung from the sometimes-violent Basque independence movement. Basque music, however, does travel well across cultures, and is worth a detour. The French sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque, born in Bayonne, grew up with Basque melodies and lyrics in their ears. Now an established two-piano duo, their new CD (KML Recordings) Amoria” groups14 disparate pieces of Basque music they researched over several years. It is a departure from their usual classical repertoire.
Sep 11th 2018
I know several professional pianists who will admit under pressure that they find their work ultimately unsatisfying. Not because of the crowded marketplace, the dreary practice rooms, the clapped-out pianos or too many exhausting tours. No, they are tired of something more basic — the endless repetition of notes penned by someone else. True artists seek self-expression, artistic adventure. They feel the urge to “own” their work. But written music places strict limits on all but the most marginal departures from notation. Some musicians eventually realize they are mere messengers whose teachers steer them relentlessly back to the page. This may explain why so many pianists and other professional musicians also paint.
Sep 7th 2018
With a large cast, full orchestra, and incredible jazz-inflected music, “Porgy and Bess” stands alone as the one American opera that is recognized around the world. Written by George Gershwin and premiered in 1935 on Broadway, it had to wait until mid-1980s to become a standard of the operatic repertoire. The jazz idiom that Gershwin used was surely one of the reasons that “Porgy and Bess” was adopted slowly by the operatic world. But another roadblock was the story, which told about the love between a crippled beggar, Porgy, and a drug-addicted woman, Bess, who live in an impoverished African-American community in the South.
Sep 5th 2018
Frederic Chopin left detailed markings of tempo, dynamics, phrasing, pedaling, even some fingerings, for his 21 Nocturnes to guide interpreters. Yet no two versions – and there are dozens of them -- are anything like the same. The essence of playing Chopin today is deciding how far to veer, how sharply to swerve, from the master’s ideas today without losing sight of his artistic intentions. The player must ask, “When does Chopin cease to be Chopin?” Now comes the rising French pianist François Dumont with a stunning new version that sets him apart (Aevea Classics). PICTURE: Dumont by Johnson.
Sep 5th 2018
Princeton University in the United States is best known for its big thinkers, top scientists and heavyweight historians but now is embarking on a determined effort to make a splash in the arts. Princeton’s new Lewis Center of the Arts is going about it in the most American manner, with millions of dollars upfront investment and a business plan to attract young talent into its music program. Nothing is left to chance. This fall, a new crop of music students have full access to 48 freshly minted Steinway pianos, a large enough stock to attract global attention among pianophiles.
Jul 19th 2018
San Francisco Opera’s revival of its Ring Cycle got off to a rousing start with a top notch performance of “Das Rheingold” at the War Memorial Opera House on June12. The production featured outstanding performances from top to bottom by an exceptional cast and new video projections that were even better than the ones used back in 2011.......
Mar 26th 2018

Johann Sebastian Bach’s B Minor Mass, performed at Symphony Hall on Friday (March 23) and again on Sunday (March 25), was delivered in impressive Baroque style by the Handel+Haydn Society orchestra and chorus.

Mar 15th 2018

The Brahms Scherzo Op. 4 opens with a delicate and playful theme, then carries us along on waves of emotion swinging from the filigree, to the lyrical, the thunderous, and back to the delicate.

Mar 9th 2018

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. After all, she was only human. 

Feb 21st 2018

A new “electronic opera” from Ireland, “Heresy”, broke new ground in contemporary opera a couple of years ago, bringing together Irish vocal talent and the synthesized music of much-decorated composer Roger Doyle.

Feb 4th 2018

Elegant, poised and deeply musical Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to the Franz Schubert piano sonatas, a phenomenal achievement considering how often they have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years.