Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
My grandmother owned an upright piano and used it to play simplified arrangements of jazz standards. As a young child, I used to live in the flat above and enjoyed visits during her morning ritual, which consisted of drinking Turkish/Arabic coffee, cigarette in hand, and listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie and Billie Holiday amongst other jazz artists from the Golden Era. She almost certainly passed on her pure love of music to my father, who had similar recordings playing on cassettes, LPs and CDs in our own flat most of the time.
I’m not sure that this led to me becoming a professional classical pianist though. I believe the joy experienced by amateurs while listening to or playing music is often lost on professionals (especially within the classical music industry) who often use music to serve rather personal goals in their lives, such as becoming the very best at something – a very questionable goal to aspire to in the subjective world of the fine arts, in my opinion. My family’s love of jazz certainly made me want to have music all around me and led to drum kit lessons with my father at the age of three and piano lessons at the age of five with Agnes Bashir-Dzodtsoeva – an exceptional teacher and composer who was based in Amman at the time. I moved to the UK as an eleven year old to pursue my professional training and education. This was probably what actually placed me on the path to becoming a professional, having received a solid technical foundation in the Russian School of piano playing from Agnes, a Georgian educated in Moscow.
My grandmother gave me her piano about a year after I started lessons because she felt that my electric keyboard had surpassed its usefulness. This will always be one of the most precious gifts anyone has ever offered me.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I’ve been very fortunate indeed to have received input from quite a few extraordinary musicians; I met Yo-Yo Ma as a ten year old during the first West Eastern Divan workshop, which was directed by Daniel Barenboim who has mentored me on many occasions since. He has also invited me to tour with him and the West Eastern Divan as a soloist, playing works that include Berg’s Chamber Concerto which certainly shaped my interest in the Second Viennese School. I am privileged to have been introduced to a genre by one of its top authorities.
I will certainly never forget the late Sir Colin Davis’ advice on how to start the angelic ‘Siciliana’ movement (II) as I prepared for our performance of Mozart’s Concerto no. 23 in A major with the English Chamber Orchestra at the Barbican Centre. Furthermore, my lesson with the late Pierre Boulez on his own ‘12 Notations’ for solo piano at the Royal Academy will remain one of the most important and cherished musical experiences of my life, of course.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that my piano, theory, composition and conducting teachers had the biggest influences on my development, as they helped shape my musicianship very directly. Since leaving Jordan, I have studied piano with Tatiana Sarkissova (who was my main professor in the UK), Hinrich Alpers and Tessa Nicholson, composition with Jonathan Cole and Graham Williams, conducting with Paul Brough, Denise Ham, Quentin Poole and Peter Stark. Though I have had many fantastic theory teachers over the years, the Chicago-based conductor and arranger Cliff Colnot was one of the best pedagogues one could ask for, as I discovered during the many hours I spent analysing full scores of the symphonic repertoire with him. We met during summer West Eastern Divan workshops Seville, Spain and during visits that I made to Chicago for intensive courses as a teenager.
Since moving to Berlin, I have spent a lot of time learning about early music from the renowned scholar, viol player and director of Phantasm, Laurence Dreyfus. I remember attending one of his lectures during his visit to the Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and subsequently reading his essay ‘Beyond the Interpretation of Music’ which, I can safely say, forced me to reconsider everything I had learned about studying and preparing repertoire of any genre.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Remaining moderately sane.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m quite concerned about the levels of narcissism within our industry – especially since the onset of social media – so I’m careful to avoid pride, as much as I can. For clarity, I do use social media but try my best to be as pragmatic about it as possible. Focusing on the experience of performing is more of a priority for me, rather than the many emotions and thoughts that follow. They are after all pretty useless unless they help me improve.
However, if I had to choose one memorable performance to discuss, I would say that it was particularly interesting to play Schoenberg’s op. 11 to a group of students at the Hind Al–Husseini College in occupied East Jerusalem, Palestine. It is very likely that some of these students had never been exposed to any classical music at all until then (within the frame of attending live concerts). So the discussion about ‘Drei Klavierstuecke op. 11’ that followed my performance was fascinating, particularly as they had the advantage, as listeners, of having no strong standard to compare atonality to.* I remember one student saying that she imagined a scene from a horror movie while I was playing. Considering the fact that Schoenberg moved to Hollywood in 1934, I thought that this was very perceptive indeed. After all he must have influenced a whole generation of film composers as one of the University of Southern California’s and University of California, Los Angeles’ most valued pedagogues.
I’m very pleased that this event took place.
*Arabic music is mainly monophonic, with intricacy and complexity in the melodic ornamentation and rhythm rather than the homophonic movement of parts – in other words it’s more of a horizontal tradition.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Not sure, tough one. Sorry!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I am naturally quite a curious person, so my approach to music has always been interest-driven. What I offer in recitals is usually linked to what I have been exploring as a listener, these days, now that I am no longer a studying in a traditional sense. Certainly my engagement with English Renaissance music developed because of my interest in Renaissance music in general. I was exposed to it at the Purcell School – we had to sing a fair amount of Palestrina, Lassus and Byrd in choir – and really enjoyed the counterpoint and modality back then, although I was probably too young to fully appreciate its beauty. However, it was a performance of Monteverdi’s ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’ at the English National Opera (especially the final duet) that really got me hooked as a listener. So by the time I met Laurence Dreyfus, I was ready to start working on and studying the genre more extensively.
There is no rich tradition of performing Renaissance keyboard music on the modern piano, (Sokolov and Gould are both true heroes of mine, as different as they are, but there aren’t many others who venture out into this territory) so the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s survey of John Bull’s keyboard works was a very important and revelatory recording to listen to. Thankfully, he was very generous when I emailed him with questions, and invited me to Prague for some coaching. It was heart-warming to see how very encouraging he was about playing this music on the modern piano and using the instrument idiomatically to serve it. He had many suggestions for further keyboard repertoire that I should explore.
In general, I avoid chronological programming, so called well-balanced programming where one tries to tick boxes across genres that are limited to music written between about 1750 and 1950, exclusively nineteenth century programmes and single composer programmes (unless it’s a performance of the Goldberg Variations, which I sometimes play on it’s own, but usually start the concert with some Boulez or Schoenberg).
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Not really, but playing at Luzern’s KKL and the new Philharmonie de Paris, both with Daniel Barenboim, were exceptional experiences – the acoustics really allow you to take risks with soft dynamics. Both halls were designed by the architect Jean Nouvel.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Playing Mozart’s K467 in Petra, Jordan as an 11 year old. Nothing quite beats Mozart in the middle of the desert, in front of a World Heritage Site as far as memorability goes!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Artistic fulfilment and paying all the bills simultaneously.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
1) Constantly listening to and studying (not only practising) music with child-like curiosity.
2) Keeping a healthy check on one’s ego – it’s important to know when it’s appropriate to be the centre of attention (i.e on stage) and when it’s in one’s best interest to be a more generous spirit (backstage and everywhere outside the concert hall).
Karim Said’s new album ‘Legacy’ is available now on the Rubicon Classics label. Further information
Karim Said came to the public’s attention in 2009, playing concertos with the late Sir Colin Davis and the English Chamber Orchestra in London’s Barbican Centre and at the BBC PROMS with Daniel Barenboim and his West Eastern Divan. Karim has regularly toured with the Divan orchestra as a soloist, under Maestro Barenboim’s baton, performing at such halls as the Philharmonie in Berlin, Musikverein in Vienna and the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. Mostly recently, Karim appeared with the Maestro as a soloist in the opening night of the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, playing the Berg Chamber Concerto.
Karim’s debut album ‘Echoes from an Empire’ (Opus Arte – 2015) was one of Gramphone’s ‘Top Ten recordings of Janacek’ (2016). The repertoire on this album was inspired by his London recital debut series at the Southbank Centre in 2013, where he played the complete solo works by Arnold Schoenberg over three recitals as part of the ‘International Piano Series’ and ‘The Rest Is Noise’ festival. As a chamber musician and song accompanist, Karim has collaborated with artists including Waltraud Meier, Dorothea Röschmann, Gabriel Croitoru, Adrian Brendel, and the Utrecht String Quartet.
Earlier this year, Karim launched the Etihad String Orchestra in his native Jordan as its first Music Director and performed with the European Youth Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko at the Dubai Opera House.
Born in Amman, Jordan in 1988, Karim commenced his piano with Agnes Bashir-Dzodtsoeva before moving to the UK in 2000, aged eleven. He studied piano, composition and conducting at the renowned Purcell School of Music and later at the Royal Academy of Music, both on full scholarships. At the Academy he studied with Prof Tatiana Sarkissova. In more recent years, Karim was coached by Hinrich Alpers in Berlin, where he is currently based. As a conductor, Karim attended masterclasses with Bernard Haitink at the Royal College of Music during his studies in the UK.
Karim Said was made an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, London in 2017.
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