Barry Douglas discusses – amongst other things – his career, composers, interpretation, recordings, masterclasses, chamber music, competitions, and his annual Clandeboye Festival.

Barry Douglas © Katya Kraynova

Winner of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1986, Barry Douglas has toured the world for the last three decades, bringing distinction and splendour to the wide range of concertos he plays, and taking on innumerable institutional responsibilities as well. That is to be expected from any major competition-winner, but perhaps closest to the artist’s heart is the founding of his orchestra, the Camerata Ireland, and overseeing his annual Clandeboye Festival, both of which serve as a meeting place for Irish artists in general and young Irish musicians in particular. The festival also allows Douglas’ participation in a wide-ranging series of masterclasses and chamber music performances. Another notable event is a recording contract with Chandos Records, which has so far spawned a six-volume cycle of the complete solo piano music of Brahms, and (in progress) an equally stimulating traversal of Schubert’s complete piano works. There is also a ‘Celtic Reflections’ disc. We sat down to investigate these developments, as well as the pianist’s current inspirations, as part of his visit to Vancouver in November 2017: he gave a structurally cogent and often glowing account of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 with conductor Lawrence Renes. Douglas was honoured with the title of ‘Cherniavsky Laureate’ at this appearance with the VSO, and was awarded an OBE in 2002.

Geoffrey Newman: I know you’re passionate in discussing all matters Ireland, so let’s start from the more modest topic of your recent Chandos association. How did it originally transpire and how did you initiate the Brahms and Schubert projects?

Barry Douglas: It was really very simple: Ralph Couzens invited me to lunch, and asked me what I would like to record. Not having anything particular in mind, he suggested, ‘Why don’t you do the complete this and that? Give me two names that come to mind’. And eventually I said ‘Brahms and Schubert’. So he said, ‘Let’s do it’. It wasn’t quite as banal as it seems, but after two pleasurable hours of food and wine, it was kind of like that. I feel remarkably fortunate in having met Ralph, and for the wonderful opportunity he gave me.

GN: In retrospect, do you think these composers were your right choices?

BD: I can’t say all the Brahms was what I preferred, but I’m quite proud that we did it – and I learned a lot. We recorded all the discs on beautiful Steinway pianos in Cambridge at the West Road Concert Hall. I had played about three-quarters of the repertoire before, but I ended up being fascinated by the more obscure pieces I did on the last disc. This features little tidbits and studies which pay homage to previous composers: I never knew any of these previously. Included were the Gluck ‘Gavotte’ and the Chopin Etude Op.25, which is single notes in Chopin and where Brahms made it more difficult by putting it in sixths. And the Weber sonata – where he put the right hand in the left and the left hand in the right.

I came rather late to Schubert, but this has taken over my life in a sense – by the very nature of the composer’s profundity. When I was a student, I listened to Sviatoslav Richter play all these sonatas in festivals in France and England: it was so inspirational. I’ve done three volumes so far, starting initially with the B flat Sonata and Wanderer Fantasy.  I also wanted to put in a few of the Schubert songs arranged by Liszt, so I did that in the first and third discs – a kind of homage too.

GN: Your experience with Brahms must really go back a long way: I recall your early Brahms recordings for RCA. Do you think your interpretations have changed?

BD: I think I did only two discs with RCA: the Brahms First Concerto, the Piano Quintet, and some solo pieces. Those were in the late 1980s. I feel differently now, but everyone does as they mature and get more experienced. I first played Brahms when I was a teenager. The very first concerto I played with an orchestra was Beethoven’s Second, then came Brahms No.1. I love this music very much. When people might ask ‘Who’s your favorite composer?’, I would always say I didn’t have one – which is true. But if really pushed for an answer, there is a strong possibility I would say it was Brahms. Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert are heavenly for sure, but it is the fragility and direct sensitivity of Brahms that touch me so deeply.

GN: Having listened to two volumes of your new Brahms, one thing that intrigues me is how you broke out the individual pieces from a given opus and played them in your own chosen order. For example, you play Intermezzo Op.76 No.3 just before Intermezzo Op.118 No.4, then follow with a Hungarian Dance before returning to Op.76 No.4, and so on.

BD: I knew it’d be somewhat controversial because Brahms wrote all these opuses as a set. In departing from this, I wanted to create three things: contrast, linkage and harmonic progression. I thought that it was instructive to put things together rather like a tasting menu. With some of the pieces, you might think ‘That would never go with that’. But my perspective is that they all are part of a common narrative and creative inspiration. It’s as if you were up in a space shuttle and looking down at Brahms, and you see these recurring patterns in his works: that’s a green lane, that’s a red lane, etc.

GN: It would be difficult to do this with many composers, wouldn’t it?

BD: Yes, unlike the early, middle and late periods of Beethoven, Brahms is special since he didn’t really have distinct creative periods in his lifetime; perhaps even his early compositions suggest some of the feeling of ‘late’ Brahms. So, it could be the beginning of Op.7 or 10 or some other mix, it is still a similar type of expression; however, Op.76 is sufficiently mystical that it could have been written after Op.119. As Schoenberg said, ‘Even in Brahms’ first works, you could see the end’. Perhaps the bedrock of it all is the polyphony and the contrapuntal sense, which is so consistent throughout. You couldn’t do this type of mixing with Schubert either, since his early works were simply youthful while his later works were profound.

GN: Perhaps your perspective on Brahms casts light on something I have gleaned from concerts over the last decade: fewer and fewer young pianists seem to want to play Brahms. Somehow the music seems forbidding to them. Is this something you have noted?

BD: No, you’re actually telling me something new, though I can understand the concern. On a yearly basis, I go to the Dublin Conservatory of Music and the Royal College of Music for single-day masterclasses. I recall recently one young pianist trying out the Brahms Op.116 pieces. These were relatively new works for him, but he had ample technical equipment and intellect. Yet his problem was how to use his emotions and experience to bring out the score without putting himself above the score. Interpretation is all about using your own emotional insight to turn the electricity on for the music and let it breathe – and, yes, Brahms really requires this grasp. Over the three decades I’ve been doing masterclasses, I admit that I sometimes find young pianists struggling to be emotionally engaged: their emotions are either too raw, or they don’t know how to harvest emotions – they’re not open enough. Then I wonder: Is it technology? Is technology interfering in their self-examination and their self-interpretation of what they’re buffeted by in the world?

GN: A number of music critics who have covered the major piano competitions have remarked that young pianists have so many ‘perfect’ performances to mimic on YouTube these days that they don’t have to do much thinking on their own anymore.

BD: That’s a very important point: there’s so much available that these young artists can often neglect self-reflection. They don’t go away from their life experiences and influences and mull: What do I think? Am I really happy? Am I down?  They can avoid considering their own feelings because they’re bombarded night and day by this huge information flow that substitutes for real experience.

Another factor perhaps is that we have fewer and fewer pedagogues who have connections to the great performing traditions of the past. With my own teachers, Felicitas LeWinter had an historical link right back to Liszt – through her teacher von Sauer; Maria Curcio was a pupil of Schnabel; and Yevgeny Malinin was a most distinguished pianist and teacher from Moscow. These pianists profoundly understood pianistic and musical traditions – a link which is becoming increasingly diluted.

GN: You are performing Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto for us. Do you think the same dilution has occurred in performing this composer?

BD: Perhaps pianists seek too much luxuriance and take too many liberties now. This is a ‘classical’ concerto dressed in romantic clothing. My ideal would be to pare back all those willful rubati and surges of strings that we typically hear and make it more transparent like chamber music. Schnabel used to say: ‘If the pianist is enjoying the music too much, then the audience will not’.

GN: You previously recorded Rach 2 with Michael Tilson-Thomas and Nos.1 and 3 with Yevgeny Svetlanov. It must have been an experience working with the Russian conductor.

BD: Yes, Svetlanov was an absolutely extraordinary conductor and quite the strong character. The first time I worked with him was in the Spivakov Festival in France, and we did Tchaikovsky 1. That was still at the time of the Soviet Union, and the instruments were held up at the border in Luxembourg, so the morning rehearsal didn’t happen. The instruments eventually arrived at 5pm for the 8pm concert. The maestro said, ‘Let’s just play it through’. We managed to play the first movement and bits of the second, and we seemed to think the same way on the piece. But I was nervous; I didn’t really know how it would go. Well, it all turned out very well, and after the concert he said, ‘I want to record with you’. Somehow it was like God talking to me. I was just 30-something, and all I could think was, ‘I want to record with you too!’  We talked about doing Concertos 1 and 3, and eventually did them. It was total joy. I’ve heard the slow movement of No.3 done beautifully by many conductors, but Svetlanov had a way of doing it, so the strings sounded like a choir singing. All the players breathed together like a single person. For me, that is the highlight of the disc.

GN: Which orchestra did you record with?

BD: It was Svetlanov’s own – the USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra. The LPO’s Vladimir Jurowski is their music director now. I have had an ongoing relationship with them. About five years ago and as part of the International Piano Festival in Moscow, they invited me to conduct Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto in Tchaikovsky Hall with Daniel Trifanov. There is no doubt that conducting this orchestra is like driving a Rolls Royce! I also just opened the season in September 2017 with the orchestra as soloist in the Schumann concerto, and it was a real pleasure working with Maestro Lazarev.

GN: Let’s move now to your own orchestra. You started the Camerata Ireland in 1999, and only two or three years later the ensemble was recording all the Beethoven symphonies and concertos.

BD: I can hardly believe we are approaching our 20th anniversary! At its inception, there were strong reasons for forming this ensemble: when the Irish peace process was finalized in the agreement signed in 1998, I thought we must do something to recognize the event. We should form an orchestra that represents all Ireland, both North and South, particularly including younger Irish artists who are just starting on their careers. Strikingly, we had joint patrons – the Queen and the President of Ireland – and having two heads of state come together had never happened before.

The ensemble simply took off: I didn’t plan for it to be a full-fledged orchestra, and I really didn’t expect it to be here now. The design was in principle just for that year, just to say, ‘We artists applaud you politicians, you got something right’. At the same time, as Ireland is typically known for theatre, U2, rock music and the like, I thought it was a crime that it’s not known for classical music. The quality of our musicians is second to none.

GN: So, there is a real message here?

BD: I think we artists have the duty to comment on and persuasively underline significant events, whether they be political or social. The other major objective was to encourage and nurture the careers of young musicians. Normally in Ireland, we tend to be more combative in the arts than we should be whereas the musicians of other countries often support each other. This cooperative ethic is what underlies the orchestra and the Clandeboye Festival in the summer. I want to find the best young talent and help that develop. And I actively look for concert opportunities and for teachers too if they need them.

That’s my little corner anyway – helping and nurturing young Irish musicians. I think there has been change and it’s getting better. For all the CD’s and the streaming, live music is becoming important again. I think it’s a very exciting time.

GN: You must also support Irish composers?

BD: We do, and as an orchestra, we commission a lot of young Irish composers and support them. For example, people like Ian Wilson and other fine talent have made it a very exciting and potent creative time!

GN: It always intrigues me how easily you picked up conducting.

BD: It was very easy. I actually conducted orchestras and choirs from a very early age, and it was only when I met Felicitas LeWinter at age 16 that she convinced me to play the piano.

GN:  Chamber music is a big part of your festival. Is that something you have always been interested in?

BD: I love chamber music, I did a lot in the first part of my career, but I haven’t done that much in recent years. But in my festival in August, I try to participate as much as possible in everything, and that includes a lot of chamber music. I get wonderful guest artists, such as violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky, cellist Andrés Díaz and violist Nobuko Imai, and we form various ensembles alongside the student quartets.

Over the years, I’ve also played with some of the finest string quartets – and that is quite a different experience. I’m coming in with my interpretation and they’re coming in with theirs, and we hope we can work it out. It is not automatic that any pianist can play with any quartet. I have toured with the Tokyo Quartet – and that was sublime. Very recently, I performed with the Pavel Haas and Borodin Quartets. When playing the Brahms Piano Quintet with the latter, I was very flattered because first violinist Rubin Aharonian said to me, ‘We’ve played this work dozens and dozens of times, but this was the best experience we’ve ever had’. I have seldom played with an ensemble that has a more wonderful sense of musical pacing and structure.

GN: So, a final issue: As a Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medalist, does winning that competition still live with you even now?

BD: It was a hugely important moment for me, and such an honour. One thing it has meant is that I have many friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg to this day. They’re so warm, and when I play there, I feel like I’m playing in my hometown.

GN: There must be an incredible amount of pressure connected with winning the Tchaikovsky Competition – and afterwards too.  Do you have any advice for young winners of major competitions?

BD: Van Cliburn was a friend of mine, and I’m honored to have counted him as one of my very important friends and colleagues. We talked a lot after I won the Tchaikovsky and the important thing he told me was, ‘Don’t be swayed by what people want you to do, just go on and do what you want to do’. I respect those words incredibly. My strong advice to new competition winners is to be artistically resolute and continue to push out creatively.

Geoffrey Newman

I am grateful to Matthew Baird and the Vancouver Symphony for recording assistance and Kelly Bao for transcription.

Previously published in a slightly different form on



Michael Cookson Meets Omer Meir Wellber

Earlier this year during a reporting trip to Munich I was fortunate to secure an interview with charismatic and hardworking conductor Omer Meir Wellber whose burgeoning career has taken him to the world’s greatest opera houses and working with the finest orchestras.

Probably best known for his work in the opera house in 2014 I first came across Omer conducting, when reporting from a Staatsoper Dresden performance of Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at Semperoper (review click here).

Whilst reporting from Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2016 I was able to see Omer conducting outside the opera house in concert with Israel Philharmonic Orchestra held at Frauenkirche featuring the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (soloist David Garrett) and Shostakovich Symphony No.6 (review click here).

Omer Meir Wellber conducting Guntram with Staatskapelle Dresden © Matthias Creutziger

Omer Meir Wellber conducting Guntram with Staatskapelle Dresden © Matthias Creutziger

A potted biography of Omer Meir Wellber reads: Born in Be’er Sheva in 1981, Omer began studying accordion and piano at age 5. He took composition lessons with Tania Taler starting at age 9, then continuing under Michael Wolpe until 2004. Omer graduated from the Be’er Sheva Conservatory in 1999 and received a music scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, which he used to study Conducting and Composition at the Jerusalem Music Academy from 2000-2008 with Eugene Zirlin and Mendi Rodan. Omer’s compositions have been performed and broadcast both in Israel and internationally.

The evening of my interview, held in the large conductor room of the magnificent hallowed halls of Nationaltheater Munich, I was reporting on Omer conducting a performance of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier in Philipp Stölzl’s production for the Bayerische Staatsoper starring Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros (review click here). That day prior to the interview my flight into Munich had been delayed and coincidentally Omer was behind schedule too. This meant a limited time than my usual one-hour interview, yet it didn’t seem to matter as the conductor was in engaging form and speaking remarkably frankly too. Given the clock was ticking for Omer to enter the pit and I had to get to my seat, this served only to add to the openness of the exchange. (Illness has meant that I am unfortunately several months later than I intended in transcribing and publishing this interview.)

Michael Cookson: Omer would you say your career was gradual or did you have a ‘big break’?

Omer Meir Wellber: It was both ways really. I’ll tell you why because if you had looked at my last seven years you might think my career was going pretty fast and going well etc. But, I had already started out twelve years earlier. I was with the Israeli Opera at Tel Aviv starting out as an assistant aged 20 or 21. In fact the big success came when I was around 29, which is quite early, but I had in fact been working inside the opera house for eight years.

MC: What was the break you had?

OMW: Well the first was unquestionably going to Daniel Barenboim for three years as an assistant at both the Berliner Staatsoper and Teatro alla Scala, Milan, which were of course most significant events. Then there was working as music director at Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia and a number of other things. My first big success in the opera house was in 2008 with Aida that I did at Teatro Verdi in Padua when I jumped in at short notice for a conductor who cancelled. Everyone told me not to do it, but I did.

 MC: So, it shows that big breaks can happen!

OMW:  Oh, yes. Several of the things I did have been down to someone who cancelled. You see in 2010 I once again jumped in to conduct Richard Strauss’s Daphne when the conductor cancelled just two weeks before, because of a fight. This was my debut production at the Semperoper, Dresden. [MC: A fight?] Exactly, it was Fabio Luisi, he was the music director at Staatsoper Dresden (at the time of appointing Christian Thielemann) who for some reason said he didn’t want to do the opening night. [MC: You mean a disagreement. Not a fist-fight!] That’s right, not a fist-fight that I know of. For me it was a big thing because no one knew this opera Daphne. So, I went and since then I have this really wonderful relationship with Staatsoper Dresden. It really is a special orchestra!

MC: I first saw you conduct at Semperoper, Dresden with Così fan tutte in 2014. You were directing the recitatives from the harpsichord plus an occasional accordion passage; I recall snippets from The Beatles’ song Yesterday and Edith Piaf’s La vie en rose being played.

 OMW: Yes! That’s right.

MC: I’d like to ask you about the differences you find between conducting an orchestral concert and conducting an opera?

OMW: Well there are differences. I’m interested in bringing qualities from the symphonic world into the pit, and bringing qualities from the pit into the symphonic world because most of the time one lacks the other. For example, the most obvious factor is that no orchestra that plays only symphonic music will have the flexibility that pit orchestras have. This is because of technical reasons because for a pit orchestra every evening in the opera house is different.

On the other hand, taking the most obvious example, sometimes the pit orchestra that is used to being hidden away there under the singers doesn’t have the same attention to detail as the symphonic orchestra. So actually, if a conductor can somehow manage to combine the two qualities of each type of orchestra it can be most interesting. Some orchestras can do this. For example, in Dresden with the Staatskapelle this orchestra is able to play this flexible way because it has achieved excellence in both qualities of the pit and the symphonic orchestras. Another example is the London Philharmonic Orchestra who plays opera at Glyndebourne each year, that does help the orchestra greatly. I can do a rehearsal with the orchestra and then at a performance I can change many things and it will follow and do it perfect. This is because of its operatic experience. Yes, there are differences, but I strive to somehow combine both qualities. What I personally like in opera is the dialogue with the pit orchestra and soloists that I sometimes miss with the symphonic orchestra. Yes, with symphonic music I have dialogue with the orchestra and sometimes a soloist of course, but basically interpretation wise the dialogue is between me and the composer. Here tonight in the Nationaltheater, Munich doing Andrea Chénier I have to liaise with many others involved in the production; the stage director, the light designers, the set designer.

MC: All the creative team?

OMW: Oh yes, the soloists, chorus, the orchestra of course, all these integral parts of the entire production. It is the communication aspect of my work I enjoy so much. You know even here at the Nationaltheater, as you will see tonight, I have to get something from the production. Even if I learn the score, even if it is specifically written by the composer, if it doesn’t match what is happening on the stage, for different reasons, we have to change it. I have to be flexible enough to say, for example, that if the set and lighting designers have made the stage dark and the music is light then I have to make the music sound dark because it is my job. This aspect of my work I like very much actually.

Omer Meir Wellber & Placido Domongo, I due Foscari, Valencia © Tato Baeza

Omer Meir Wellber & Plácido Domingo
(I due Foscari, Valencia) © Tato Baeza

MC: How do you deal with the star singers you encounter in opera? For example, we have Jonas Kaufmann tonight in the title role as Chénier?

OMW: I know exactly what you mean. One might be mistaken when one is working with the star singer, or stars in the cast generally, that he lacks the curiosity to do new things or attempt things, which is a mistake. If you come with this disposition, then you might not enjoy what they can actually give. For example, here tonight they are all stars [MC: Jonas Kaufmann, Luca Salsi & Anja Harteros] but also, we know each other very well as we have already worked together. It’s a rather unique situation as we trust each other very much, which means when I call them they come, I’m talking conducting wise. It’s a really nice dialogue because they of course give me what they want, but during the five weeks of rehearsal we managed to find our own version. It’s a trust thing, because they know they can trust me and I know I can trust them. We never leave each other in the battlefield as they say. If Jonas needs me to go faster tonight – because for example he takes a wrong breath – I will give it to him and if I put my hand down in a wrong place he will follow. We are watching each other all the time. You see I really need this dialogue with the soloists, I want it, otherwise it becomes uninteresting for me. The one thing that I don’t want to have is the same thing happening every evening, this is not for me I’m afraid. In order to make this ‘jazz’ possible you have to be aware what’s happening on stage otherwise it would be artificial.

MC: Tantrums from soloists. I was wondering Omer if you have had this happen?

OMW: Ah, behaving badly! Yes of course. In five weeks of rehearsal, seven days a week everyone has their moods and their moments. I think it’s part of the creative process. You see as we get to know each other better, the music that we make becomes more genuine. It is not about being better or worse, it’s about being genuine, being true to ourselves, and for this we need to know each other. I’m in this profession really because of that. I relish this kind of human contact, flexibility and knowing each other, and yes, it’s important if we as artists are having a good or a bad day. It’s important if you had had a row with your wife yesterday. It affects our relationships with others. This is all part of our lives.

MC: I realise that many conductors will not be like this. So, it’s important for you to empathise with your colleagues?

OMW: You know sometimes it would be easier for me just to say stop it, and that’s it. But I find this approach too dogmatic for what I feel about life. I don’t like this kind of situation. This is art and I need to feel alive when I work.

MC: I would like to ask if you have a favourite opera house to work and if there is one that you haven’t worked in yet.

OMW: Honestly, beside Covent Garden at London, which remains an interesting prospect and I’m sure I will get there, I’ve conducted everywhere that I’ve ever wanted to. Now I find it best to only work at opera houses that I really want to work at. [MC: So now you are able to choose.] Yes, I am. So, at the moment I’m working at the opera houses that have both chosen me and those I have chosen. You see time is so limited and I cannot do everything I would like to, so I must choose.

[At this point the tall imposing figure of Nikolaus Bachler intendent (director) of the Bayerische Staatsoper enters the conductor room to wish Wellber well for the performance, which is now just over half an hour away.]

MC: Renowned conductor Zubin Mehta has been on the Israeli music scene for some 55 years. As an Israeli conductor yourself I was wondering if Mehta has had any influence on your career?

OMW: Personally no. I have never actually worked with him closely, for instance, as his assistant as I did with Barenboim. But because of his relationship with the Israel Philharmonic, I would say Mehta is the most important music figure in Israel. Then in Valencia at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía – when I was music director there – Zubin was president of the annual Festival del Mediterrani that we used to do there, and we had a lot of contact with each other, communication and other things. But purely regarding music, it was not a relationship anywhere like I had with Barenboim.

MC: I last saw Zubin Mehta in Berlin at Musikfest 2015 conducting the Israel Philharmonic. I recall him walking gingerly onto the stage with the aid of a walking stick to conduct Mahler Ninth Symphony sitting down; having recently had surgery.

OMW: Yes, its tough to see him like this because Zubin is an Apollo-like figure, no? I worked with him one year ago and I saw him a month or two ago and yes, it is really difficult to see him like this.

MC: I’m conscious of the time remaining before you leave for the pit. I keep looking at my watch, but you seem so very cool and collected.

OMW: Well actually I’m much more nervous with my colleagues in rehearsals. You see in this case all the preparation work for Andrea Chénier is now done. You see in rehearsals I’m looking more for concentration, and I get angry because I want this and I want that, I want this to be perfect and so on. But now in actual performances I have to change my attitude and focus on the job in hand. It’s much more fun now that all the preparation work is done, I assure you.

Omer Meir Wellber with René Pape, Kristine Opolais & Joseph Calleja at ‘Mefistofele’, Bavarian State Opera © Wilfried Hösl

Omer Meir Wellber with René Pape, Kristine Opolais & Joseph Calleja at Mefistofele © Wilfried Hösl

MC: I recently reviewed your recent DVD/Blu-ray conducting Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofele from 2015 for the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich in 2015. It made a mightily powerful impact on me and I made it one of my ‘Records of the Year’ (review click here).

OMW: Oh, I believe in Boito’s Mefistofele so much. I’ve done the opera before for Israeli Opera and it took me several years to persuade the intendent here to do this opera. I was really passionate about doing it. And when you have such a top cast we have such a great success every evening.  In my opinion Gounod’s Faust is not as good as Mefistofele. I love this music so much and I really believe in this work.

MC: What is it about Mefistofele that draws you to it?

You see I tend to like genius works written by amateurs. This is always interesting. We have some people in history like this, for example, someone who just wrote a single book. Boito was a professional writer and not really a composer, but he was a music lover. Yes, music was his big passion, but composing was not really his thing. But eventually if you look at his score it is actually more modern, more controversial, more experimental than the music that was being written then by the famous composers. In a way Boito could try out things that well-known composers could not. You see he just wrote the music that he wanted, and this approach I completely adore. In effect this is an amateur composer who had a genius moment and consequently it is so interesting for us to experience this. I believe this is the best version of Mefistofele from the Faust story.

MC: Boito’s opera is regarded as uneven in parts by many, with some glorious highlights.

OMW: That’s true, but what music he has written!

MC: What do you have in the pipeline?

OMW: My project here in Munich for the Bayerische Staatsoper is to complete all three operas that have never been done here. The first was that Mefistofele – never done before in Munich – and tonight’s Andrea Chénier is the first production here too. Next in March 2018 I’ll be doing Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes for the first time here, directed by Romero Nunes.

MC: On a lighter note are you able to tell me about anything amusing that has happened to you on stage?

OMW: Oh, I have a lot of things to choose from. Mmm, probably the number one incident is the one that concerns a pizza delivery man. It was at the Israeli Opera house at Tel Aviv during a production of Un ballo in maschera. It was before one of the tenor arias during the preceding orchestral passage before he enters. You see at the Israeli Opera house there is an elevator that you can use that brings you out almost on stage. If you don’t know this, in the dark, you can find yourself on stage. You see all the stage was dark and the pizza delivery man walked in. I was concentrating looking at the stage and the tenor is on stage about to start and I can see in the background this guy walking across the stage. That is my number one incident and it was so funny. One of the most beautiful moments to happen in our opera house. There was huge laughter, but my mother who was in the audience didn’t notice! I think it depended on where you were seating. Looking back, it was wonderful!

MC: Anything else?

OMW: Certainly! There are lots of things that happen with the actual music. For example, one time I had to play the introduction music five times for a singer who did not appear. This happened in Valencia. I kept saying to the orchestra ‘and again’ but they couldn’t find him to send him on. Yes, five times we played his introduction before he finally appeared on stage. They had lost him, and I believe he had left the building and gone to a bar for a drink. He must have miscalculated and thought he had another 15 minutes or something before he was due to go on. Really crazy stuff, but these things happen.

MC: Thank you Maestro, time has finally caught up with us and I am going to have to dash to find my seat.

Michael Cookson




Lisitsa_Valentina_pc_Sam Jones_2_300

Valentina Lisitsa (c) Sam Jones

The Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa has achieved the accolade of becoming the world’s most popular classical artist since her first YouTube recital in 2007. By leading the way to finding new audiences with sensational success, Lisitsa has gained a staggering 95 million views and almost 200,000 subscribers on YouTube. Born in Kiev in 1973, she studied the piano from the age of three and pursued the conventional route of attending the Lysenko music school and studying at the State Conservatoire in Kiev. However, Lisitsa was intent on a career as a chess player until meeting her future husband who influenced her to make music her future. Together with her husband Alexei Kuznetsoff, she won the Dranoff Two-Piano musical competition in Florida in 1991, after which they emigrated to the USA, making their New York debut at the Mostly Mozart Festival in 1995. There followed tours with Hilary Hahn to Europe playing at the Wigmore Hall and the Musikverein, however after a few years the concerts dried up after her agent died. In 2007, as a gamble to revive her career, she asked a friend to film her playing Rachmaninov’s Opus 39, No.6 etude ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and uploaded it on YouTube, and soon after this was followed by a video of the 24 Chopin Etudes which became a No.1 best seller on Amazon. Three years later, she and her husband decided to put all their savings into making recordings of the Rachmaninov concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra. By the time, two years later, when Decca issued the 2CD set, Lisitsa had become a major star with a huge internet audience leading to a sell-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Lisitsa’s constantly growing repertoire is enormous with forty concertos and embraces Bach to Bernstein, and Scriabin to Tausig. When we spoke last week in Vienna, she was preparing to make recordings of all of Tchaikovsky’s piano works for Decca – her exclusive recording company. I asked her how she discovered the idea of launching her career online.

‘It was absolutely uncharted territory and still is, and I didn’t think it would develop as it has; I wouldn’t have thought I would have so many subscribers, millions of views all of which translates into what classical musicians really need is your own audience. Any young musician needs their own audience and now I travel all round the globe. I just came from a long tour to South Africa and then to South America, everywhere I go I meet thousands of young people who have discovered classical music and discovered me through YouTube. They come to concerts for the first time and for me its like a love for classical music is developing.’ Lisitsa reflects, ‘we do live in such a good time, although we complain so much, yet the whole world is connected up through the internet and we are becoming closer and closer through the internet, we are surrounded by music, it’s everywhere; it is streaming to us in airports, in shopping centres, everywhere. But the flip side of this golden coin is that classical music is a commodity and we don’t care who plays it, so how do you get people to come to your concert?’

Her early attempts at taking part in competitions were helpful in developing as a musician, however she also sees the negative aspects. ‘For me they are a wonderful thing, but they are like a lottery in the same way for the millions who take part, only a few people win and their names become known, they are marketed like lottery winners, this person has bought a lottery ticket and their dreams are fulfilled, they have a nice house, a car, the same is happening for competition winners, it is becoming like a sports event, in music, there is no means of checking and measuring musical performance, someone who has talent loses, with only one winner who has the ability of touching people’s hearts, then they will discover their audience. For me it worked on the internet, and for many people it does.’

Now that Lisitsa has her huge world-wide audience she has the opportunity of selecting the repertoire rather than the promoter. It interesting that she is in control and deciding the music she plays is romantic, modern, or even contemporary.

‘I was going by social media and developing my audience who were attracted to me at first and were attracted by romantic melodies, the Moonlight sonata or ‘Für Elise’, and then it started to develop, so YouTube is a means of actually growing the audience in how to develop my pieces, and I was much younger when it all started and they liked very flash romantic and liked the way my hands move on the keyboard in a visual way, it still attracts people but with the audience who follow me since 2007, I would never have thought that Brahms piano music would become a bestseller, with such cerebral music, there are no fireworks, the same is in contemporary music, also in baroque music, it is expanding both my audience and my own horizons.’

Lisitsa’s recordings of Glass and Nyman were chosen by her recording company as a way of building her audience.

‘They wanted to do it because they wanted to expand, and thought of me as the best candidate because of my young audience and for me too. You know classical music is conservative, it doesn’t go much further than Chopin or Rachmaninov, for me it was a challenge, a very interesting challenge in a way because it was new for me, they wouldn’t have been my choice. As I proceeded through the project for Glass, I found my fans were quite open-minded about it, they actually were fans of it, any time you find controversy, people who like it or hate it, people who don’t want to listen to it, it is like a minefield, in comments on YouTube it engages people on positives and negatives, it helps a great deal, people are not passive listeners and they help others become interested in finding out what it is all about, so for me it is a great thing and I am grateful to do it, it was very interesting, and enriching.’

I asked her if she would be prepared to take on little-known composers from Russia, and Ukraine like Mosolov, Roslavets or Silvestrov? ‘There are many composers, but life is too short.’ However, Lisitsa is prepared to open up little-known music by more popular composers, currently, she is engaged in recording all of Tchaikovsky’s piano music. ‘It’s a big project of maybe 9 or 10 CDs, and to my embarrassment or shame, I only know 5% of this music, yes we know his symphonies and operas, and the only time they were all recorded was in the last days of the Soviet Union, by Victoria Postnikova, a Soviet pianist and I am recording recently discovered works, with this immense amount of beautiful music, it will help expand the repertory of students and young kids because it is written in a way that is so accessible, in which they can learn how to play an instrument and by such a famous composer.’

I questioned the present state of music in her Ukrainian homeland, which has a very rich tradition of raising musicians such as Oistrakh, Richter, Gilels, Horovitz and Kozlovsky.

‘Of course, there has been much turmoil and with the destruction of the Soviet Union, many travelled abroad to make ends meet, and like me, there were hungry to get a piece of bread, but it is not based on a few people leaving, there are more young people interested in music, and continuing the tradition and it is just as strong as ever, of course they win competitions, and when I go to masterclasses everywhere in the Ukraine, they are still on a world level, I was quite smitten by it, they have difficult conditions, they have bad pianos, and schools are in a state of disrepair, but everyone has a bloom in love for music during such difficult times. We Ukrainians are like a small family of humans.’

The Ukraine is currently engaged in a bitter conflict in the Donbass and I raised the example of Daniel Barenboim’s creation of an orchestra of Palestinian and Israeli young music students to promote peace worldwide, in 2015, as a Ukrainian Valentina Lisitsa gave concerts in Donetsk which is the centre of a war zone, do she think it possible people can understand each other better through music?

‘It’s a wonderful question and I can give just one example of when I was there playing with the Donetsk symphony orchestra and we went to play at a festival in Crimea. The conditions were terrible, pianos were stolen, really much worse than in Donetsk, but there were musicians from China, Spain, Portugal, from Japan, and we played Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky and at the end of the concert, there were tourists from mainland Ukraine who spoke Ukrainian with accents from western Ukraine, you know the difference between West, East Ukraine, it’s like the difference between China and Taiwan, they said that we guys loved what we played and asked to sing folk songs and they just came on stage and sang duets and everybody enjoyed it, then a local cellist said he wanted to sing a Spanish song for our Spanish guests, everybody were singing and the concert went on for another hour, it was like a little island of humanity and for us it was like we were all family. I think that classical music is one artform that is non-violent, you can see violence in the theatre, in the cinema, in poetry but in classical music there is no violence, so it is one artform that unites us, and I do believe in its healing power.’

Have you given concerts in Russia?

‘Last year, I visited Tatarstan and they have a very good orchestra and a great conductor, and I was totally smitten there because I grew up in the Soviet Union, and Kiev was the third city, and certainly Kazan was never considered as a music centre yet they have grown into an incredible orchestra, without recruiting from other parts of Russia, they have done it all themselves and they have a great conductor Alexander Sladkovsky who you will hear a lot of in a couple of years, certainly they have support from oil and from the President of Tatarstan, because at the same time they understand this orchestra is an ambassador to the world, we played with this orchestra in Germany and they got a very good response.’

Valentina was enthusiastic about her 2018 tour to the UK with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra and Valery Polyansky in which they are playing in major cities. I asked her about her expectations for the tour after her successful solo concerts in London.

‘I played with this orchestra in 2001 in America just after the terrorist act, and it was a very, very difficult time for the United States and our concerts were highly appreciated and helped people together, I am looking forward to visiting new places.’

Edinburgh is capital of Scotland and is twinned with Kiev, and there are still exchanges, exhibitions, and there are a lot of Ukrainians who live there. You will be the first Ukrainian pianist to play there. What are your feelings when you play in front of big audiences, I know that you have played in the Proms and in a recital at the Royal Albert Hall, how does it feel like to play in front of such a huge audience in comparison to making a recording?

‘You know anything can be recorded, whether it be high definition, live broadcast, but nothing can compare with or possibly substitute a concert which itself can never repeat itself, you may compare this if you have the World Cup in soccer, you can be in the stadium in front of screaming fans or you can see it in front of the TV with all the different angles. Of course 99% of people will choose to be there, but classical music events do not have the excitement of sports events, but the audience listen because we are human creatures relating to each other so it is contagious on the other side if one person starts crying it is also contagious so people jump to their feet and react differently and some people clap louder but we all are the same and the way how people understand music is quite magical, people take their seats, and some are in the zone, the musicians are warmed up some are still thinking about problems left behind at work, or family whatever and in the silence just before the music begins there is complete attention and this is the time when everyone merges into the music, people can call it meditation or whatever so time stands still and we are in a different dimension, these magic moments will never happen in a recording, you can go back and listen again, but equally fine phrasing  but that golden silence never happens in your own Hi-Fi or home theatre so this is reserved for the live performance which absolutely wins.’

I mentioned to Valentina the famous Three Tenors concert at the 1990 Italian World Cup which became a sensation, and did so much for classical music, selling many CDs, DVDs, etc. Next year the World Cup is going to be in Russia where they have plans for classical concerts in the tournament. I recollected that they did this at the 2014 Sochi Olympics when Matsuev played.

‘Lang Lang played too, and he did so much to popularise music, particularly with State support. When this happens, it sends a strong message. It’s a wonderful message.’ We discussed the problem with audiences changing in the last twenty years, the problems recently that ordinary subscription concerts in London, Manchester and Glasgow are mostly attended by elderly people.

‘I remember a letter by Chopin to a friend about a self-promoted concert and he agreed to do it because he needed the money and there was a very disappointing attendance because only silver-headed people were in the audience while all the young people were out hunting so you know the problem of the elderly audience is the same for 200 years! You know there are always elderly people, but new people are still coming into the audience. When young people want to try something new when they come of age, they try drinking something, and they feel drunk and euphoric for the first time, it takes time for things to age, like a good quality wine, it is good that young people are listening to music, it means they will later in life develop a taste in something, all the governments are cutting the funds and cutting funds for school programmes, appreciation of classical music or for piano music, the piano is an instrument is not like a toy, and I think that local and central governments are making a big mistake when they say that music is not part of education, or mathematics is not done without calculators. To know multiplication tables or to sing twinkle twinkle star develops ourselves, it makes us human, and the ability to make some kind of music. If it is eliminated we are robbing the young generation of their brain, we are losing part of their brain, we make them into consumers of something and away from being creative, you know with studies of music through the efforts of making children play music, there will be one professional musician out of ten thousand kids, remember there will be many rejects, but those kids who don’t become professionals will teach their kids to love music, I don’t know the actual statistics but those people who studied music also taught their kids. The same way in that they understand the importance of it, some governments are doing something but its an ongoing conversation among the musical community wherever I travel.’

What advice would you give to young people who want to have a music career?

‘I would say they should take a piece of paper and write down why they want to be a professional musician, do you want lots of money or do you want fame, or want girls or boys screaming for you, there are other ways of life where you can achieve these kinds of things and pay much easier so in particular classical music is very difficult to master, there is a lot of competition, but I can say that I absolutely love music and want to share this with others and then this is a totally different thing. If you love something through loving classical music you won’t notice the long hours of practice, lonely travel and having great patience, it will be irrelevant because you are doing something that you want to and which you love to share with others and you know it is a wonderful gift, talent and at the same time when people can go and hear something like the Moonlight Sonata, there are people who never heard it in their life and you can think how proud you should be to be able to bring to people such an incredible masterpiece. So, if the feeling of sharing this incredible joy in music is what young people want to do then they should do it, very few professions can compare with it.’

I mentioned to her my experience a few months ago attending a concert given by Mikhail Pletnev in which he entered the room and approached the piano slowly as if he was a university professor about to share his knowledge with his students. He paid little attention to the audience and hardly ever changed his expression, only bowing when he gave an encore. He almost completely ignored the audience, but his attitude was strange, in comparison to the approach of the young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang who has a love for fashion and often wears sensational costumes in concert. What do you think of this?

‘You know it’s about two different things, if a musician ignores the audience it’s a way that I can understand because in sports there is an expression, its important to get into a zone totally separate from the audience, but from the audience’s view perhaps they would like him to smile. If you know that if you take young kids to a zoo, then one can spend an equal amount of time looking at an animal, there are little cubs who see all these people looking at them and it is the place where tigers live, and they pay no attention for you, look at adoring creatures who don’t look back at you. It is another form of communication as he [Pletnev] tries to draw everyone into a different world, but in the case of Yuja Wang and her fashion dresses, it’s a start of the same thing mentioned before of elitism, and of how we should be democratic, how is democracy reflected in short dresses? But if music was stuck in Hollywood glamour and actors are only known for their dresses at some society ball and at the same time we are like in a Japanese tea ceremony where everyone wears a tuxedo and bowties, you go away and bow, this is a very ritualistic life, again if you read Chopin’s letters which mentions that if you applaud at the pause or at the end of the work, people look down at the uneducated calling them an uneducated rabble. At the same time when Chopin played his First Piano Concerto, they sat down and played the first movement, they stood up, drank champagne and had some snacks, they heard two singers, had more champagne, played the second movement and then the finale. So, it was fine, we try to catch up with the times and no more tuxedos, perhaps Yuja Wang in her own way was trying to make the music contemporary and for people this was not so unusual, this is a club girl, where people dress up to go to clubs, society ball, this is the twenty-first century.

On Lisitsa’s website she says Liszt and Rachmaninov are closest to her, and I asked if this is still the case as her musical style is based on expression.

‘Yes, you are right, but I don’t confine myself to certain composers, but I am looking forward to try to make people cry. but the most important thing for me is the sonority. I am looking for ways of changing the sound of the piano, in old recordings you could always distinguish one pianist from another by their sound, their phrasing, you would never mix Rachmaninov with Backhaus, you always knew, and even in digital clarity and everything that came with that, everyone could have a good sound but it is still very average, particularly in recordings when not everyone has their sound signature and which for me is of absolute importance that the sound atmosphere would be your signature irreplaceable in a way. In the Russian, Soviet, Ukrainian, or Slavic school, the primary thing is in the voice, it is very important for phrasing differently, breathing of human voice, in gradations, so for me these phases in sound is what is for me important from anybody else and in this repertoire particularly.’

I said that it was interesting that Liszt and Rubinstein, gave many hundreds of concerts all over Europe making music accessible to thousands more people in the nineteenth century. How did she feel about doing this through the internet and bringing music to people who didn’t know classical music before?

‘I am trying to reach as many as possible, I reach 70,000 people a day, so I couldn’t reach so many playing in stadiums every day. It’s good and it’s my mission as a musician not just in playing in the most important places in classical music, but taking it out to places which never experienced it before. I do it all the time and have found how important it is for whom you bring it to, and how much they appreciate it individually so that you are doing something good in society but for these people it brings them into the fold and it makes them feel they are part of being able to do something. I’ll give one example when I was in a war zone people did not understand the music as entertainment but as oxygen – it was completely different for me, there was a big clash between playing in Donetsk and then going to play in the Berlin Philharmonic directly from there to an audience who had forgotten how it felt like to hear the bombs falling. It was great to understand that communication as a musician lies in healing people’s souls.’

Gregor Tassie

For more about Valentina Lisitsa click here.

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