“Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love”

The inspiring and moving story of the oldest living Holocaust survivor and concert pianist Alice Herz-Sommer.

Now 109 and living in a tiny flat in London, Alice still plays the piano for several hours every day, practicing her beloved Bach and Beethoven. Once a renowned and celebrated concert pianist who performed to enthusiastic audiences around central Europe, Alice was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where, like thousands of others, she endured unspeakable hardships. Yet it was music that enabled her to look beyond the horrors of day-to-day life in the camp. She played more than 100 concerts inside the camp, and still talks with great passion about the experience.

Allice’s extraordinary story has now been made into a full-length documentary by Oscar®-winning filmmaker Malcolm Clarke

Full details about Alice and the film about her life here

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

I was brought up by a musical mother who studied the piano with Moisés Moleiro, and sang in the choir in the premiere of the ‘Cantata Criolla’ by Antonio Estévez. Unfortunately she fell ill very young and had to abandon music. When I was 7 I was accepted as a student at the Conservatorio Juan José Landaeta in Caracas where I had the most wonderful and generous teachers. My piano teacher was Guiomar Narváez, strict and very artistic, with a great passion for the classical composers and Latin American music. At 16 I won a scholarship to come to the Royal College of Music in London, where I was assigned to Phyllis Sellick as the teacher who would carry on developing what Mrs. Barbara Boissard and Michael Gough Matthews saw in my style of playing when they heard me in the audition in Caracas. For that I am very grateful: Phyllis was an extraordinary human being who taught me the art of piano playing.

Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?

My main teachers obviously, including Polish pianist Regina Smenzianka and Paul Badura-Skoda, and also the many concerts I went to as a child growing up in Caracas. I remember listening to Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, George Demus, Willhem Kempf, Yoyoma, Alicia De La Rocha, and conductors such as Charles Dutoit, Cuban Nicolás Guillén reciting his poetry, popular singers like Mercedes Sosa, the cinema of Carlos Saura, Stanley Kubrik, Herzog, Chaplin….all these wonderful true artists, giving us the best of their knowledge and gigantic talents, seeing, listening and receiving all the universal and most humane expression and energy.

Then in London I have enjoyed many concerts of classical music and jazz, plus all my friends who also play and are now the great musicians of our time.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

Every concert you play, every CD you make is a challenge. To teach very gifted children is also a challenge. I think we face climbing Everest nearly every day! Nothing is easy. To play phrases in the most clear of ways, respecting the intentions of the composer is a challenge. When you decide that you are a pianist you understand that the challenge is what motives you, that’s what takes you out of bed.

A big challenge we face today is that classical music has been marginalised by the media, and by the idea that fashion, cookery and frivolous cinema or football stars are more important than profound thought, creativity and art. We have to keep going, as it is now up to us to make sure that this precious legacy we have acquired through centuries survives. It is a very hard and heavy burden!

Which CD in your discography are you most proud of?

Although I have recorded about 9 hours of music from Venezuela, by Venezuelan composers, I consider them all to be very different from each other. I have also recorded one CD of music by Chopin and another one by Ernesto Lecuona, which will come out in the autumn. I am sensitive to the qualities of the piano, acoustics and sound engineer. I have produced most of my CDs and am in general satisfied with the results; perhaps sometimes I am over critical and cannot bear listening to something that is too slow (I can think of one piece that I let myself be influenced by the engineer and now I do not agree with the tempo…). I think each CD is a world of its own: they are “concepts” and represent moments of our lives.

Critics are not familiar with Venezuelan music and a few years ago those CDs represented a kind of “political statement”. What’s good now is that those critics are more receptive, less “Eurocentric” and are beginning to understand (after 500 years) that Latin America is part of western culture.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I love the Purcell Room, the Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square, Invalides in Paris, and the Teatro Teresa Carreño and Municipal in Caracas. Any hall with a decent piano and lovely audience will be always great!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love every piece I play, and with each of them there really is a love affair. From Bach, Scarlatti, Mateo Albéniz, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, to Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin, Scriabin…the list is very long. Equally I have to constantly listen to classical music, salsa and Latin American popular music.

Who are your favourite musicians?

All the musicians that show passion, love, understanding, involvement, imagination… There are millions of fantastic musicians in our planet.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to students/aspiring musicians?

I think I have answered this above, but there is a concept I have discovered recently and it is to do with sharing with the young one’s knowledge, experiences and very importantly giving these young, very talented musicians the opportunities to perform and express their ideas and art. I think experienced, successful musicians should open the path for the young. Not many people in the “business” will do it for them now days.

What are you working on at the moment?

Beethoven ‘Emperor’ Concerto, Mozart Sonatas, Villa-Lobos, Chopin, Piazzolla, exploring Colombian music…

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness can be found anywhere, at any time, the thing is to be aware of this and enjoy it while it lasts.

‘Joropo’ by Moisés Moleiro

Caracas-born pianist, Clara Rodriguez studied with Phyllis Sellick after winning a scholarship from the Venezuelan Arts Council to train in London at the Royal College of Music. There she was the recipient of numerous prizes and performed as a soloist with the RCM orchestras including De Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and the Ravel Concerto in G at St. John’s Smith Square.

In Caracas she made her debut playing Mozart’s last piano concerto with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra under the baton of José Antonio Abreu at the age of sixteen; from then on Clara Rodriguez’s career as a concert pianist has taken her to perform all over the world. Her large and interesting repertoire covers works of the best known Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern composers; she has also intensely promoted the music of the Latin American continent.

Her discography includes CDs of the piano music of the Venezuelan composers Moisés Moleiro, Federico Ruiz and Teresa Carreño; her catalogue also includes Popular Venezuelan Music Vol. 1; El Cuarteto con Clara Rodríguez en vivo as well as the piano works by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and of Frederic Chopin late works.

Her recordings are regularly played on BBC Radio3, Classic FM, Radio Nacional de Venezuela, Radio France International, and networks from Argentina to the USA, Australia and China.

Clara Rodriguez teaches piano at the Junior Department of The Royal College of Music in London.

 

Leon McCawley (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

My parents didn’t come from a musical background but bought an upright for my two older sisters to learn so I am eternally grateful for that decision. For some mysterious reason I was drawn to the sound of the piano as an infant. I finally got my way and started piano lessons at the age of 5. It was my own choice and by the time I was 12, I had decided that I wanted to be a concert pianist.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

My amazing teachers: Heather Slade-Lipkin, Eleanor Sokoloff and Nina Milkina. I feel very fortunate to have studied with the right teacher at the right time in my development. My playing is also very inspired by my wife, the artist Anna Paik. As she works hard on achieving a subtlety of different colours and nuances in her studio upstairs, I’m not that far away from these creative concepts in my own studio downstairs.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

An artistic career will inevitably have its ups and downs and often many aspects of it are out of one’s control. The greatest challenge is remaining true to oneself, to forge an individual path without any compromises and not to be shattered by any frustrations that one may experience along the way. I feel so fortunate that I am pursuing my childhood passion and making my living out of something that I thoroughly enjoy. When I face any challenge, I always remind myself of this.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

With every recording I feel I am growing and learning more as a musician, as in every concert season. Recording the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas for Avie Records in 2006 was a huge undertaking and I am very glad to have accomplished this early in my career. I am happy to have a wide variety of repertoire in my discography: Barber, Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann to the less familiar Hans Gál and British composer Ronald Corp. I have two more discs out this year of Brahms solo piano works (Somm) and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (Naxos).

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

We have so many good ones in the UK so it’s hard to single out one. I love Wigmore Hall, The Sage Gateshead, King’s Place and Symphony Hall Birmingham to name but a few. I have happy memories of playing in the Rudolfinum in Prague and also the fine acoustics at the Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas.

Who are your favourite musicians?

From the past, I aspire to the pianism of Sergei Rachmaninov and Artur Rubenstein. I’m a great fan of Murray Perahia and always try and attend his concerts in London whenever I can.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing at the Musikverein when I won the Beethoven Competition in Vienna back in 1993 is high up there. Also the sheer thrill of walking out on stage at the vast Royal Albert Hall at the BBC Proms is special.

What is your favourite music to play?

I love the music of Schumann and am currently wrapped up in his glorious Carnaval. As a pianist there is endless scope and I am constantly updating my repertoire from season to season.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

Concentrate on your own goals and try not to be affected by all the pressures around you or make unhealthy comparisons with other musicians.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Lounging on the sofa with my cat on my lap!

What is your most treasured possession?

My wedding ring: a gold band with a blue sapphire, designed by my wife.

English pianist Leon McCawley leapt into prominence when he won both First Prize in the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna and Second Prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition at the age of nineteen in 1993.

Since then, McCawley has given highly acclaimed recitals that include London’s Wigmore Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, Berlin Konzerthaus, Lincoln Center New York, Prague Rudolfinum and Vienna Musikverein. McCawley performs frequently with many of the top British orchestras and has performed several times at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. He broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio 3 in recital and with many of the BBC orchestras. Further afield he has performed with Cincinnati Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Netherlands Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Vienna Symphony among many others. Conductors he has worked with include Daniele Gatti, Paavo Järvi, Kurt Masur and Simon Rattle.

McCawley’s wide-ranging discography has received many accolades including two “Editor’s Choice” awards in Gramophone and a Diapason d’Or for his boxed set of The Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas.

McCawley studied at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester with Heather Slade-Lipkin and at the Curtis Institute of Music with Eleanor Sokoloff. He also worked with Nina Milkina in London.

Leon McCawley is a professor of piano at London’s Royal College of Music and is married to the painter, Anna Hyunsook Paik.

www.leonmccawley.com

(Original interview date: April 2012)

 

In our celebrity-obsessed, ‘image is everything’ times, it seems that the fledgling concert pianist’s path to the modern concert arena – the ‘Three C’s’ of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto – has turned professional piano playing into a kind of Olympian activity whose creed is “faster, higher, louder”, and has reduced the vast and wonderful repertoire to a relatively small stable of over-played warhorses, most notably, perhaps, the ubiquitous Rachmaninov Third Concerto. Today’s young piano superstars are using technique as the be all and end all, rather than as a means to serve the music. Thus, while we might be impressed by flashy technical prowess and grand gestures, we are often being offered only superficial display.

Just as the four-minute mile has been shaved down by 17 seconds over the 50 years since Bannister’s record-breaking run, certain pieces in the standard piano repertoire seem to be getting faster – and/or louder. I ran an informal poll amongst my Twitter followers and Facebook friends to see what other people thought about this. As one person said, “….people are generally and more easily drawn to the more obvious things in life (just take a look at anything in the media today). Faster and louder is definitely more obvious than subtle and artistic. It also requires less work….”

Thus, certain pieces are wheeled out over and over again by young, ‘generic’ pianists, not because they are necessarily the hardest in the repertoire, but because they are the most impressive, both visually and aurally. And here I must admit that I was absolutely gob-smacked by the speed at which Marc-Andre Hamelin’s hands moved around the keyboard at his late-night Liszt Prom, even though I didn’t like the actual piece (Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H) that much. But in his Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude, Hamelin proved that he is not just a brilliant technician: his account was ethereal, luminescent, profound and emotional, and it spoke of a long association with the music, something which younger players may not appreciate with their desire to rush from showpiece to showpiece.

My informal poll revealed a general consensus about certain works, acknowledged amongst pianists to be some of the most challenging in the repertoire, in terms of technical difficulty and/or length. These include, in no particular order (links open in Spotify):

Beethoven – Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’. The daring opening leap should, of course, be played with one hand!

Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit

Stravinsky – Trois Mouvements de Petrushka

Chopin – Etudes (especially Op 10 Nos 1 & 2, Op 25 Nos 6 & 11)

Liszt – Transcendental Etudes (especially Feux Follets, Wilde Jagd)

Liszt – B minor Sonata

Brahms – Paganini Variations

Rachmaninov – 3rd Concerto

Prokofiev – 2nd Concerto

Bartok – 2nd Concerto

Alkan – Concert for Solo Piano

Messiaen – Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus

Godowsky – transcriptions of Chopin Etudes

Sorabji – Opus clavicembalisticum (a piece which lasts around 4 hours)

Of course, while being hugely technically and physically demanding, many of these works, when played well, sound effortless (which, of course, is what we as pianists are all striving for!). And yet even the simplest piece, such as Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica, which I heard played as an encore at an eccentric little arts venue in Highgate some years ago, can sound sophisticated and refined – ‘Olympian’ even – in the right hands!

As a postscript, my own personal ‘Olympian’ works include:

Chopin – Etude Opus 10, No. 3. As my teacher said, the difficulty lies less in the technical demands, and more in the fact that this Etude is so well known, so one wants to do it justice.

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge, no. IV of the ‘Vingt Regards’. For someone who had not really attempted any true atonal music before, the difficulty in this piece lay, initially, in “tuning” my ear into the discordant harmonies. Also, at first sight it looks utterly horrendous on the page!

Debussy – Prelude & Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano’. The Prelude requires playful, fleet and pristine fingers, while the big, hand-filling chords of the Sarabande presented their own problem for the tenosynovitis in my right hand. Exercises and solid technique have enabled me to play this piece comfortably and without pain.

More on ‘Pianistic Everests’ from Tom Service