Chamayou interview: Next focus contemporary music
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.
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.
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