Jul 1st 2020

Ivan Ilic: ‘Recording the old warhorses seems wasteful and trite’

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”



The American pianist of Serbian parentage Ivan Ilic was raised and educated in California where he studied mathematics and music at the University of California at Berkeley. Now living in France with his wife and two children, he has a reputation for discovering neglected piano works and delivering them in sensitive, authentic interpretations. His revival of Antoine Reicha’s piano works has drawn critical acclaim internationally, as did his discovery of David Stegmann’s piano transcriptions of symphonies by Joseph Haydn. Previously his unconventional repertoire explored Morton Feldman’s ‘For Bunita Marcus’ and the 22 Chopin Studies for the left hand by Leopold Godowsky. In our interview he says that bringing such works to public attention ‘is probably the most worthwhile thing I can do’. .Two ‘Reicha Rediscovered’ CDs are published and Volume 3 is scheduled to be released. Two more solo recordings are planned, and Reicha’s Piano Concerto has been scheduled later because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Other repertoire is in preparation with Chandos. At present, Ilic is also working on preparations to launch a new piano festival in a French chateau next June.

An abridged and edited text of our interview follows [below the picture, Editor's note]:


Ilic Castle
Château la Borie


Q. How do you see the music business evolving, recovering or changing as a result of the virus crisis?

A. In the short term, it will be catastrophic. My hope is that in the medium term it will bring the emphasis back to more intimate concerts, which I prefer anyway.

Q. You are one of those musicians who studied mathematics and music at the same time. Were you strong in math from an early age?

A. Yes. I grew up near Stanford, and the public school system was unusually competitive: they tested students for aptitude, constantly. I always tested in the top percentile in math. I also enjoyed it from the beginning; it was always like a game to me. Advanced mathematics is a different story. You have to enjoy struggling with elusive concepts, and most people get discouraged. To my surprise, I enjoyed it the more difficult it got.  

Q. Was there a sudden revelation that determined music as your calling?

A. No, nothing sudden. At university, I began attending music classes assiduously and spending my time in practice rooms. I wanted to absorb all things musical. I couldn't even say it was a choice because it didn't feel like one. Something clicked. I had excellent teachers who were totally committed, which makes all the difference, of course.

MJ Ilic
Ivan Ilic as seen by the author


Q. What kept you in the more precarious world of music rather than going into more conservative business and industry?

A. In the music lectures, I was excited by everything. For example, my first university-level music course was about Middle Eastern music. I learned to sing in Arabic, recognize Umm Kulthum's voice immediately, and play basic Middle Eastern percussion rhythms. I was even infatuated with a classmate, an Egyptian named Dina. Equally, I took a class on Brahms given by a distinguished professor emeritus took delight in introducing masterpieces like the Horn Trio to oblivious students. Or musicianship classes which involved singing the oboe parts of Bach cantatas while other students read the figured bass. Or combative musicological readings of history by Richard Taruskin, one of the most inspiring musical minds I have encountered.

Q. What were you playing at this stage ?

A. I was deep into Bach partitas, Chopin études and Beethoven sonatas, and was asked to premiere student and faculty pieces, and play in the orchestra. It was inspiring and a broader education than I had imagined possible. I originally anticipated that I would just practice the piano three hours a day and study to become an electrical engineer like my father. I was wrong. I graduated with a double major, math and music.

Q. How did you end up at the Paris Conservatory? You didn't speak fluent French at the beginning. Was there a teacher there that you wanted to study with?

A. I had studied French in high school, and since it was my third language (after Serbian and English), I spoke it reasonably well. The year before I finished college, I spent eight weeks at a summer festival in Aspen, and my roommate was French. We became friends and he helped spark my interest in France. The plan was to stay for a year, then attend graduate school in the US. I applied to the Conservatory and, to my surprise, I was accepted. My first year in Paris, paid for by a scholarship, eliminated any desire to return to the United States.

Q. You studied with the eccentric René Duchâble. How did that come about?

A. I saw a flyer in Paris for master classes with him, so I applied and was accepted. I then traveled to Annecy, his home, to visit and work with him a few times a year. Then I became a part of his small class at the Ecole Normale, for one year. He was generous with me, and expansive in his lessons, but also practical. He doesn't have a premeditated pedagogy, which meant that he was like an older brother showing me how to do tricks on a motorcycle. I loved that fraternal aspect of working with him. 

Q. Why did you part company?

A. I increasingly felt the need to find my own way, and I subsequently lost touch with him and all my teachers over the years.

Q. Your first recitals and CDs focused on Debussy, Haydn, Liszt I believe. But weren't you also interested in contemporary music?

A. My interest in contemporary music started at university, and I took to it immediately. I gave premieres of new chamber and solo works. Frankly, it felt easy to me, compared to traditional repertoire. Other musicians seemed intimidated by the complexity, but compared to my math classes the musical complexity was a joke.

Q. Are you collaborating with living composers?

A. Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me.

Q. Who starts the process and how closely do you work together?

A. Usually they send me fragments or finished works, as Wollschleger does. I record myself practicing them with my phone, and share via instant messages, very early on, to check if I'm on the right track. Sometimes they provide hints, sometimes detailed discussions ensue, and sometimes I suggest changes. With these three composers, I feel I have a good intuitive grasp for their music, which makes it more enjoyable from the beginning.

Q. You have become known as a pianist who brings neglected works to the fore. Is this your main thrust now? Do you have other revelations in the wings?

A. I have a list, a pipeline in progress, of works that I plan to record or perform which I think of as ‘just below the surface’ in terms of notoriety. Scientists have made the point that although colonizing outer space captures the public's imagination, the ocean contains such a multitude of species and landscapes that is mostly hidden in deep, inaccessible waters. The repertoire is also like that. Bringing these works out into the open is probably the most important thing I can do. I have young children, and that has made me conscious of the fact that I want to look back on my career and feel like I did something worthwhile. Rerecording the warhorses of the repertoire yet again seems wasteful and trite.

Q. How confident were you when you decided to bring Antoine Reicha’s piano music to public attention. Wasn’t this a career risk?

A. It didn't feel particularly risky. It felt like a logical continuation of everything I had done. I was mostly confident because the music is superb and this is something record companies should have identified decades ago. Personally, it felt like taking things a step further, since these are first recordings. This gives me great freedom to recreate the works, and also a sense of heightened responsibility. But as time goes on it matters less to me whether other people agree, because few people have what it takes to discern quality.

Q. What is the critical reaction to your Reicha interpretations?

A. It has been overwhelmingly positive, thankfully. There are some people who just don't respond to his music, and that's fair enough, I appreciate their honesty. I certainly don't expect everyone to love it. What's more important to me is that people respect the seriousness with which I am approaching his music, and give it a chance.

Q. You have done little ensemble work recently. What makes you focus on solo repertoire?

A. The collaborations early in my career led to disillusionment. I came to believe that most musicians are lazy, unreliable, and intellectually limited. Or maybe I'm a sociopath. Either way, I adore working alone, and it seems to work for me.

Q. Do you have long-range aspirations to compose or conduct?

A. There are so many pianists out there who are poor conductors that it has become a cliché. I hope I don't fall into the trap of thinking I can just wave my arms and get away with it, and no one will notice. 


The full text of this interview will be published in the forthcoming book Lifting the Lid: Revealing interviews with 50 concert pianists.



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

Nov 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "Most important  to him, he explained, is maintaining his individuality in interpretation. He feels it was a mistake in his past to pick and choose bits from different teachers and combine them into a finished performance. He has decided to create his own perspective, and 'go for it'."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The 16th International Beethoven Piano Competition came to a rousing climax in Vienna on 21 October with first prizewinner Aris Alexander Blettenberg’s lyrical rendering of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1." ---- "The other two finalists, Austrian Philipp Scheucher and South Korean Dasol Kim, played Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Concertos respectively."
Sep 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "Top prize, worth 22,000 euros, went to Jae Hong Park, a flamboyant, emotive player with and a firm grasp of Rachmaninov, and second prize went to Do-Hyun Kim, who played Prokofiev’s second concerto with some considerable verve. Placing third was Lukas Sternath, a young Austrian who performed Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto with cool charm -- the opposite of Park’s style."
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: " .....I have to give everything in these concerts,.... "
Jun 26th 2021
EXTRACT: What do you want to be known as? --- As “Stewart Goodyear, composer and pianist”.
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: Denis Pascal, founder of the French Trio Pascal: ".....recording studios began working again. We recorded our Schubert trios at the end of September. And musicians everywhere are finding that the crisis allows time for a certain introspection and questioning into the way music is performed. Music will play a much more important role after the crisis."
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACTS: "She began her piano training rather late in life – age 8." ..... "I want to contribute a sense of joy by discovering atypical works that might surprise an educated public. I have great experience and am inclined to share them with anyone who can appreciate them, or as André Gide wrote, anyone “who has an open mind”."
Jan 31st 2021
EXTRACTS: "A new recording of Franz Liszt’s piano compositions presents ten carefully balanced pieces in a double-CD album aptly titled Between Light and Darkness, launched by Piano Classics. The pianist, the veteran French virtuoso Vincent Larderet .... Larderet opens his CD with a moving exploration of Après une Lecture de Dante with a tortured lyricism unmatched by many of his contemporaries who play it. I was stunned the first time I heard his performance. In our interview below, he describes lyricism as “an essential facet of my musical conception. The piano must be able to sing like the human voice.” "
Jan 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "Jack Kohl is an American pianist and writer with three novels and two essay collections to his credit. His new collection, From the Windows of Diligence: Essays from a Standing Pianist, has drawn critical acclaim in the U.S. and Europe. In these reflections, he examines the power of ‘hack pianism’, the metaphor of running vs. the piano, and the ‘hidden gift’ of the Covid virus pandemic on solitary practicing. Robert Beattie spoke to Kohl about his music training and how he made the transition from pianist to author. (This edited interview was first published on www.Seenandheard-international.com and is reproduced with permission.)"
Dec 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Freedom in Beethoven’s music takes many, frequently overlapping forms. There is heroic freedom in the Eroica (1803), freedom from political oppression in the Egmont Overture (1810), artistic freedom and innovation in the Ninth Symphony (1824). Today, Beethoven’s music remains deeply connected with a true humanism, which has the principles of freedom and self-determination at its heart. The composer’s music grew out of the age of European Enlightenment, which located human reason and the self at the centre of knowledge......"
Nov 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "One of the most durable tales in Western civilization – the legend of Faust – is brilliantly rendered in a piano adaptation, performed this week by the multi-talented Australian musician of German/Slovenian parentage, Ashley Hribar. A new recording of the music, now available digitally, will appear as a CD in the New Year. Hribar calls his recording, “Faust: A Mortal’s Tale”.  It is a personal musical reflection on the Faust story, loosely based on the 1926 silent film by Wilhelm Friedrich Murnau."
Aug 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there."
Jul 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Scarlatti sonatas are enjoying a popular surge in recent years, tempting pianists –Europeans, Americans, Asians -- to try to master their broad range. Margherita has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to slow down, to speed up, to play the truly singable melodies with a quasi-Romantic feeling.” "
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The dizzying output of John Cage the musician, the poet, the writer, the thinker, the artist, was so prolific that one of his sidelines – his interests in wild mushrooms -- has been almost overlooked. A new a two-volume set of books, beautifully designed by Capucine Labarthe, packaged in an elegant slipcover, seeks to fill this gap."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "In our chat by telephone, Paley spoke from his Paris apartment and asserted his belief that Rameau was “the greatest French composer ever. Pure genius and very special colors.” He acknowledges his extensive research into the period of Rameau’s life (1683-1764) in order to recreate the spirit of the time."
Jul 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "In A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and subsequent films, Morricone opted for an unprecedented fusion of archaic-sounding lines in the melody, reminiscent of medieval modal music. He intermixed this sound with contemporary pop touches (the Fender electric guitar), wordless choirs, unusual instruments (Jew’s harp, ocarinas, mariachi trumpets…) and ambient sounds (whip cracks, whistles, gunshot, coyote’s howls). He also infused scores with his trademark humour. This can be heard in the comedy western Il Mio Nome è Nessuno (My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973) where a toy trumpet toots bits of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries."
Jul 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: Are you collaborating with living composers? Answer: Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me."
Jun 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: How do you see your musical mission today? Answer: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness........."
May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”