Louis Lortie talks to Geoffrey Newman

Louis Lortie © Elias Photography

There are few Canadian musicians who have exhibited such consistency, versatility and high standards in performance as Montreal-born pianist Louis Lortie. After teenage debuts with both the Montreal and Toronto Symphonies in the 1970s, followed by prize-winning finishes in the 1984 Busoni and Leeds Competitions, Lortie has now released almost 50 CDs for Chandos Records, covering repertoire from the Classics to the Moderns. His pianism has always stood out as poetic, elegant and tonally beautiful, with a capacity for refinement on one hand and virtuoso strength and weight on the other.

Early recording highlights include the complete Ravel piano works, a complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas and some fine discs of Chopin and Liszt. He has now recorded all Liszt’s Works for Piano and Orchestra and released an acclaimed reading of the complete Années de pèlerinage. He is also finishing off an extended project devoted to Chopin’s complete piano works. Recent recordings include the five Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos with Edward Gardner and BBC Philharmonic and the start of a new Fauré series. There are two recordings as well with long-time piano duo partner, Hélène Mercier: Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Two Pianos and Rachmaninoff’s complete works for two pianos. Lortie was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1992. He last appeared with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in May 2019 playing Beethoven’s Concerto No.2 (review click here).

Geoffrey Newman: One of your big events last year was your 60th birthday concert at Wigmore Hall in April, where you played a wonderful two-and-a-half hours of all three books of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage.

Louis Lortie: I’ve performed all three books together since 2011, when I also performed it at Wigmore Hall and recorded them for Chandos. I felt then that it’s one of those programmes I want to keep with me and come back to every year or two. I’ve done it a lot recently and, of course, it has become something different with time. What’s great about such a long evening is that you can develop and balance all the variety in Liszt’s writing. You don’t have to always be immersed in profundity; there’s room for a great deal of lighter expression too.

GN: Speaking of recording for Chandos, it amazes me that you have now been with this label for over three decades.

LL: Yes, I’ve never had to think about another recording contract: it’s been so stable. I got together with them in my mid-twenties, only a few years after the company was formed by Brian Couzens. When I started, Chandos was mainly interested in English music and a few special projects, and just considering the possibility of moving to more standard repertoire. And they had few pianists. So I immediately filled some gaps for them. However, I was not actually looking for a recording contract at that time.

GN: How did the contract come about?

LL: It was really coincidental. In 1984, I won the Busoni Competition and was a medal winner in the Leeds Competition. The latter was televised in the UK, so it was likely that people from Chandos had watched me briefly in the finals. It just happened that, less than a year later, Chandos arrived in Montreal to make their historic recording of the two Shostakovich Piano Concertos with grandson Dmitri Jr. on the piano and son Maxim directing I Musici de Montréal. Somehow both of them got stuck somewhere – the plane wasn’t on time or something – and they needed a pianist to make sure the works were really well-rehearsed. This was not organized by Chandos but by the local people. They knew I was around and inquired if I had those concertos in my repertoire. I didn’t, but they asked if I could learn them in 48 hours, which I agreed to. I got the scores, learned them as best I could, arrived at the rehearsal, sat down and at least went through the motions with the orchestra.

The Chandos team arrived and initially wondered who I was. It eventually clicked: I was the ‘fellow from Leeds’. They apparently liked my rehearsals and asked if I had a recording contract. I said, ‘No, I just started’. Brian Couzens was there in person and countered, ‘Would you like to have one?’ So that was how it came to be! I was amazed that the company’s founder would be there, but that is what the label’s early days were like.

GN: In retrospect, do you think Chandos was the right choice?

LL: I’ve likely been able to build up my recorded repertoire much more easily than if I had started with a high-end contract. If one begins with Deutsche Grammophon and the Berlin Philharmonic, it puts a lot of pressure on you. It’s a different image, and it’s more difficult in the long term. You start by having to prove yourself in specific mainline repertoire, and you are almost too famous from the outset. Then perhaps the number of your concert appearances drop, and everyone immediately thinks that your career is not going well. In some ways, it’s ridiculous: maybe you just want to lead a more normal life, which is 50 to 60 concerts a year, not 120! You can do 120 a year, but will you survive? The last time I saw Yuja Wang, she played seven encores on top of a long and demanding programme. Even though she’s young and full of energy, I want to protect her. She needs to have big fees coming in four times a week to do that much.

GN: So, what’s your secret in maintaining your concert touring schedule over many decades?

LL: For me, it’s the art of living. When you are touring, you have to keep things interesting and also make it as much as possible like normal life. What’s inspiring about touring is meeting interesting people all over the world and seeing interesting places. If you stay in your hotel room, all you know is the hall and the piano you’re playing on. You’re missing it completely. At one point, you will get into problems. It’s not life.

When I accept a concert, it’s very much because I like the surroundings too. There’s no point in going to places where you don’t have positive vibes from the environment and the city. This is my first priority, and that’s why I still feel fresh. The world is changing, so you have to adapt to the good things that are possible. Now there’s Airbnb. It was there for years but I was slow in getting on it. I used to think that when you have a concert, you should be in a first-rate hotel and not have any noise, but now I’ve decided, let’s be cool and try it. When I was in Vancouver, I found a cottage close to the most beautiful hikes and trees. It’s at the foot of Mount Seymour, near the Baden Powell trail. So that’s my kick these days: to get to know the world in a different way using new apps. Of course, it took me time to find the right place: you have to read all the reviews and be your own travel manager.

GN: You’ll be like Anthony Bourdain!

LL: Yes, I really like good food too, and with the internet it’s easy to find good places. I also rented a car this time, so I could drive to my practice facilities.

GN: Many pianists think the worst thing about touring is all the different pianos you must confront. Do you agree?

LL: Yes, changing pianos every day is very tiring. And we have a lot of halls these days with pianos that shouldn’t be there. They are all right for practicing but not for performing. Symphony orchestras have to be convinced that they cannot get along with their ‘old’ piano forever. It’s bad for the orchestra’s reputation as well as the pianist’s. Maybe Beethoven’s piano music can survive anything, but lyrical repertoire cannot. There, you hear the difference, and the audience inevitably thinks it’s the artist’s failing.

Louis Lortie © Matthew Baird

GN: Is this one reason you’ve switched to Fazioli?

LL: I haven’t really switched. It’s difficult in the UK to rent good pianos, and I have a very fine practice facility with the Fazioli dealer in London. That’s why I started to use Fazioli a lot of the time. And it’s a blessing: Fazioli has a friendly action that doesn’t tire you when you do hours and hours of repetition. After all, you don’t want to strain your muscles and your back! In Vancouver, I was grateful to Showcase Pianos for providing a Fazioli for my complete two-week stay – this luxury is good for my system.

GN: Do you find a marked difference in concert ‘culture’ these days relative to the past?

LL: Yes, you must adjust much more to what a presenter wants. Of course, in the famous big city venues, you can perform pretty much anything – there’s an audience for almost everything. But outside the music capitals, you must be more careful, especially if the presenter needs to fill a large hall. I am now increasingly sensitive to what repertoire fits with the series being presented, the size of the venue and attendance concerns. I think most concertgoers still like to ‘explore’ different repertoire, but if a presenter wants to venture outside the mainline, they might be advised to put Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony on the programme too.

Recently, I was able to perform the complete Fauré solo piano cycle in Montreal – and, yes, the hall was full. Montreal is not a small city, but the programme was relatively daring. It greatly helped that the presenter had a benefactor who would write the cheque in any case. Here I had complete freedom to explore repertoire I love, but that’s rare. I try to respect the presenter’s problems: if they’re relying on box office, I’m understanding. I run a festival myself now, so I know the problems.

GN: Over the years, concertgoers have become well accustomed to your superb tone control and the elegance and beauty of your articulation. I know you studied with Leon Fleisher in your twenties, but it’s evident that your technical virtuosity was put in place much before that.

LL: Fleisher was probably the teacher I had more lessons with than anyone else, but we didn’t work so much on fingering or those sorts of things. That was my first teacher, Yvonne Hubert, who I studied with when I was eight or nine years old; she also taught Marc-André Hamelin. She was an absolute goddess for fingering, and I received amazing schooling. She would take each score and write the fingerings on it for my next lesson. These weren’t just any fingerings: she was a student of Cortot, so these were the clever ones he wrote on all her scores. (I still have these scores.) After that, I knew exactly what to do with any passage. You could even call me on the phone, and I could tell you exactly what to do. It made things so much easier.

Fleisher taught me other important things, like how to use the top part of my body, and the forearm in particular. I studied with him when I was 20, and there were still a lot of bad things I did at that age. Like, I moved my head a lot. Noting this, he said something that I will never forget: ‘Who do you think you are, Stevie Wonder?’ I thought, ‘Wow, it must have really looked bad if he said something like that’. It was completely helpful, as were all the smaller things he noted. I played almost all the Beethoven sonatas for him. Even if he didn’t have the score in front of him, it was all in his head. He would say on a moment’s notice, ‘I think you forgot a fermata somewhere’. He just remembered everything: he had performed so many of the works himself. There are great teachers who know a lot of repertoire, but it’s perhaps even a greater experience to study with a teacher who knows each work so intimately.

GN: Have you thought of your playing as in the Gallic tradition?

LL: Not really. By age 16, I was studying Beethoven with Dieter Weber in Vienna. Unlike many trained in the French system, I played a lot of Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven early on. In fact, apart from Ravel, it’s only in the last five or six years that I’m doing much French music. My early weakness was the Russian repertoire: I did play all the concertos of Rachmaninoff, mind you.

GN: Do you have any feelings for how your interpretations have evolved over time? I recall a concert of the complete Chopin Études I saw in London in the mid-1990s, which was full of sparkle and transparency, but I find your current Chopin somehow weightier and more decisive.

LL: With age, one hopes there is a greater sense of purpose in the playing, but I haven’t analyzed it much. Music critics like you are better equipped to judge. They have their CD and performance references, things that I occasionally look into but usually don’t have time for. With the Études in particular, the real question is how much longer am I going to keep playing them: at my age, most people have stopped. I’m actually surprised that I’m still able to programme them. At the muscular level, it’s a challenge, but it keeps me in shape.

GN: Would you give a similar answer for your current Beethoven playing?

LL: No. With the Beethoven sonatas, I notice an overwhelming difference. I’m going back to them all for the 2020 Beethoven celebration in Montreal, and apparently these will be filmed. For some music, like the Chopin Études, perhaps your first draft is best. But with the Beethoven sonatas, going back to them makes for a profound change, and I’ve seen a huge transformation in my playing. I think that with an immense personality like Beethoven’s, when you’re young, you overreact. In my previous cycle, I didn’t like overstating the aggressive aspect of Beethoven (as many younger pianists do), so I looked more to the poetic side. Now I see a bigger picture altogether. This is not just from reading more biographies (though I do read them): it’s from re-examining the score.

GN: Let’s move to your versatility as a performer. I recall a unique concert with the VSO – just under a decade ago – where you played a Bach concerto on the harpsichord, directed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 from the piano, then conducted the full orchestra in Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ Symphony after the interval.

LL: Yes, I remember – I did the Bach F minor. When we were getting the concert arranged, I was told that I had to play some Bach because the series was called ‘Bach and Beyond’. But Bach’s not really my thing: it’s always such a nightmare to get the right balance with the orchestra. In any case, I agreed to do the shortest concerto, the F minor, along with something else. Then I thought about it a bit, and it came to me: ‘Wait a minute. I was in Vancouver a few years ago, and I heard one of the most incredible concerts ever on the harpsichord. It was Ton Koopman and his wife playing the Art of the Fugue on a wonderful instrument. So, if we could just find that instrument, and the orchestra would agree to use only a small number of players, that would be perfect’. The VSO had recently hired Australian Dale Barltrop as concertmaster, who it turns out had done a lot of Baroque. The answer came immediately, ‘We’d be enchanted to do that, and we love to play Baroque music the way it should be played!’ I was amazed: it was just three weeks before the concert. So I ended up playing Bach on a cembalo with authentic forces. I studied the instrument a lot when I was an adolescent, and I love playing it. Not fortepiano for Bach; I really love Bach on the harpsichord. Most symphony orchestras wouldn’t have wanted to try this, let alone allow me to conduct the entire concert: the Bach, Mozart K467 and the Mendelssohn.

GN: How strongly would you advocate conducting Mozart from the piano?

LL: Well, you still have orchestral conductors leading Mozart concertos, and you still have Mozart with the piano lid on, where the winds don’t hear a thing you’re doing. Mozart would have thought this was absurd! I think you can do most of it yourself. This type of music always has to be performed in a special way: if the winds don’t hear what the piano is doing, it won’t work. It’s all chamber music.

GN: What about doing the larger concertos this way?

LL: I’m supposed to do both Chopin concertos with the Warsaw Philharmonic – conducting from the piano. That’s a coming project with Chandos. If the orchestra knows the piece, and if you have a good relationship with them, a lot of Romantic concertos can work well that way. I’ve done the Grieg, Saint-Saëns 2 and Liszt 2 without a conductor, and it was absolutely wonderful. A lot of orchestras love it because they feel very involved, almost as if they are possessing the piece.

GN: With all these talents and viewpoints, you must be an interesting teacher to take a lesson with.

LL: Having done a lot of conducting, I am naturally concerned about voicings and that a pianist knows the full concerto score. I initially have my students recognize that the piano, unlike other instruments, is very passive, where you can just put your foot on the pedal and pretend to make a long legato sound. Young pianists can be lazy in this respect and get into a lot of bad habits with the pedal. I tell them to practice without any pedal, and do all the voices separately. I also encourage my students to at least try conducting to get the bigger picture. I tell them that when you play a piano, it’s a piece of wood and you can torture it all you want. But you cannot torture the people in an orchestra. You have to know how to behave, and how to get the best out of them with your personal chemistry.

GN: How are you enjoying your current teaching in Belgium?

LL: I teach at the Queen Elizabeth Chapel in Waterloo, 20 minutes by car from Brussels. It’s where Napoleon had the famous battle – and I really like the life here. The chapel, built in the 1930s, was originally a modest art deco building, but they have built a fantastic new wing, and all the students live there. Each student has their own soundproof studio with a piano. I only take a maximum of seven or eight students. I head up the piano department while Augustin Dumay leads the violin studies. There’s lots of room for collaboration: I play with his students and he plays with mine. We also play together, and have so far recorded 2 CDs of the Strauss, Franck and Brahms Violin Sonatas. I should mention that he has taught one young Canadian violinist from Ottawa, Carson Leong, who I think is fantastic. I’ve never seen anyone blossom like this. He’s just amazing and will become huge.

GN: Another thing that distinguishes your career is how you have kept up your piano duo with Hélène Mercier.

LL: There’s such an incredible literature for piano four hands that we never hear anymore. We used to play these pieces at home when we did those sorts of things – but it’s all fading away now. At least we have some pianists who still perform the two-piano repertoire! Hélène and I have known each other forever, and while she lives a completely different life now, this has not affected how we play together. Our earliest recording – in the 1990s – combined the Mozart Sonata with the Schubert Fantasy. We continue to do a few performances every year, mostly in Europe because we both live there. We have recently recorded the Poulenc and Vaughan Williams two-piano concertos, plus Rachmaninoff’s pieces for two pianos.

GN: There are a lot of other composers, like Debussy, to name an obvious one, that I expect you perform and might record at some point.

LL: I actually perform the Debussy Preludes and other pieces a lot, and I probably play more Debussy than Ravel these days. But I would scarcely suggest recording these when Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Debussy has been one of Chandos’s great prize-winning success stories. My Debussy would probably be quite different than his, but I have great respect for his vision. He’s a great friend, a very engaging person, and I studied with his wife at the same time in Vienna when we were young. Chandos now has a number of wonderful pianists, and I’m happy to let them have their priorities while I have mine. I’ve performed plenty of Brahms and Schubert too, but have no plans to record them.

GN: Does Chandos sometimes suggest projects that might be slightly foreign to you?

LL: Sometimes. Ralph Couzens suggested for years that I do the five Saint-Saëns piano concertos, but I had little interest. It wasn’t the type of project that I was really thinking of getting into at my age.  But then I thought, ‘Why not? Sometimes it’s good to challenge yourself with something different’. Also, the market has heated up for these concertos in the last few decades: for example, Hyperion led with the famous version by Stephen Hough.

I started out by just trying the first concerto, then moved to the second and said to myself, ‘Well, I’ve only got three to go’. When I found the right orchestra and conductor [Edward Gardner], I thought, ‘Okay I’m up for the challenge. Let’s do it’. It turned out to be a very interesting project: you really have to have the chops and incredible facility. It’s Concerto No.3 which is problematic: you can’t believe how hard we worked on this! Gardner was amazing. In some passages in the very fast movements, he didn’t care if I had limitations. He just went and made the tuttis as bouncing and cheerful as possible. It really challenged me: you can’t play with any caution here.

GN: So, tell me a bit about how your festival at Lake Como came to be.

LL: Last summer was our third season of the LacMus Festival, and we started from nothing. The idea was mentioned to me a number of years ago, but I strongly resisted. My idea of Lake Como is rest and walks, and the last thing I wanted to discover was the workings of the Italian bureaucracy. When I see water and mountains, I’m usually a happy man with that alone! Yet everyone kept talking, including the mayor, who also happens to be a very cultured man. Ultimately, I was convinced. We started by just doing five concerts in one weekend in the first festival – as a little test – and it was so successful that everyone said we had to do more. We formed an association, and things just started rolling. More donors came on board, and now we have access to some of the most incredible outside music settings in the world, including villas with incredible views. The problem was: what do you do in case of bad weather? Fortunately, there was a school nearby that was building an auditorium. We went immediately to the mayor and said, ‘Listen, this would be an occasion. There are no really decent concert spaces between Milan and Zurich, so why don’t you put some good materials and design in the project?’ They listened, and did all the work. Even though the ceiling was a bit low, the acoustics turned out to be great.

GN: How did last year’s festival go?

LL: Very well. We aimed bigger: two full weekends with 12 concerts total, and we put a team together with everything online (programme). I did a lot of fundraising, which takes time, with a lot of dinners, a lot of meeting people – but it was interesting. We had our own chamber orchestra too, with 14 different nationalities represented. I played in some of the concerts and I am proud to say that harpsichordist Ton Koopman came in his 75th birthday year. Part of that inspiration goes right back to when I heard him in Vancouver. I thought, ‘If I ever have my own festival, I have to get this man to come’. Emmanuel Pahud came and brought his wind ensemble, and the fine violinist Gary Levinson, Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, participated in a number of different concerts. I also presented some of the young musicians from my class.

GN: That sounds inspiring. Let’s close by visiting a few long-standing Canadian connections. I know your association with the Toronto Symphony goes back a long way since I still recall your 1978 Liszt ‘debut’ performance with the orchestra, just before you headed off on a tour of China and Japan with a newly-appointed Andrew Davis.

LL: Yes, I performed with Sir Andrew and the TSO again last year. I have fond memories of concerts with all the Canadian orchestras. With the Vancouver Symphony, I have enjoyed playing with Bramwell Tovey on multiple occasions, and I remember special concerts from the 1990s too: for example, performing Rach 2 with that wonderful man and musician, Sergiu Comissiona. Hélène Mercier and I also first visited Vancouver around the same time. And I used to play some chamber music with violinist James Ehnes, though I never managed to get to his Seattle Chamber Music Festival.

Geoffrey Newman

I thank the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Showcase Pianos for making this interview possible. I am indebted to Kelly Bao for transcription assistance.

Previously published in a slightly different form on



Jonathan Biss and His Promethean struggle with Beethoven

Jonathan Biss (c) Benjamin Ealovega


The 250th anniversary of the birth of the irrepressible Ludwig van Beethoven late last year has unleashed ceaseless commemorative celebrations across the world’s concert halls and classical radio stations. It has also triggered a plethora of new recordings by some of the world’s greatest artists, not least the last of a nine-volume set of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas by the renowned Philadelphia-based pianist, teacher, musical thinker and writer, Jonathan Biss. He has dedicated many of his 39 years to interrogating the sonatas and has embarked on a punishing worldwide programme of Beethoven concerts and talks, including a series of seven recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall. Read more

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Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier talks to Gregor Tassie

Yan Pascal Tortelier is a French musician who can reflect on a tradition going back to the nineteenth century. He began playing the violin when he was four and studied at the Paris Conservatoire winning the First Prize in Violin at the age of fourteen. Following many years as a solo and concert violinist, and as a member of his father’s Piano Trio, Yan studied conducting with Franco Ferrara at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Sienna. He was principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra from 1989 to 1992, and the BBC Philharmonic from 1992 to 2003, of which he is Conductor Emeritus, additionally he has been principal conductor of the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, since 2011 he has been principal conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

Tortelier has recorded extensively for Chandos, and EMI, including Ravel’s Piano Trio (in his orchestration), and pieces by Lili Boulanger, Britten, Cantaloupe, Crusell, Dutilleux, Gounod, Lutoslawski, Karlowicz, Kodály, Hindemith, Messaien, Roussel, and Schmitt, and other more popular composers. Tortelier began his association with the Reykjavik based orchestra in 1998, and in 2009, he was appointed principal conductor, a relationship which continues until this year (2020), after which he will be replaced by the Finnish conductor Eva Ollikainen in the 2020-2021 season. In February 2020, Tortelier is bringing the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on their debut concert tour of the UK in the year marking their 70th anniversary.

Gregor Tassie: You were born into a distinguished musical family; both your parents were professional musicians, and you established a career as a concert violinist and performed widely with your father Paul, and sister Maria de la Pau Tortelier as a piano trio. What made you embark on a career as an international conductor?

YPT: You know my parents were both wonderful instrumentalists, and they decided that they would develop a musical family and so it was decided for me that I would take up the violin. From the age of five until I was ten – I played the piano as well. So perhaps it was a coincidence that I picked the violin and my sister chose the piano. As such with my father we played for a long time as a piano trio all over the world. It was all rather beautiful but I had this passion for music and I was not entirely satisfied  with the violin – perhaps I did not have everything that was required – and although I was a concert violinist for forty years, I was longing, or hoping to find the chance to express myself in a broader, and in a full feeling way.

GT: Many outstanding soloists, notably Ashkenazy, Menuhin, and Rostropovich have developed major conducting careers, did they give you the inspiration to take up conducting?

Yan Pascal Tortelier: I think it was the temptation to have a fully encompassing role that makes you want to conduct. Some do it professionally by solely conducting or doing both. For many years, I was both violinist and conductor, but then the question arose to hear this [music] how it is perceived by the musical world. If you want to have a conducting career you must concentrate on it.

GT: Do you have models in conducting, such as Furtwängler, Karajan, or Mravinsky?

YPT: There are a few examples and those which you mentioned are overwhelming [examples]; conductors like Karajan, Bernstein, and Kleiber were the three major names in the era in which I grew up. In the nineteenth century conducting started with a soloist leading the orchestra, but then it was the composer who would go the podium and conduct his music. Gradually, it became more of a speciality, but in time – to become a conductor you have to be a complete musician.

GT: During your conducting career I noticed that you have made many recordings of diverse repertoire, and notably you have recorded all the orchestral works by Henri Dutilleux. Is this venture of opening up lesser well-known music to a wider audience something that is important for you?

YPT: This is very important of course, being a French musician, and being brought up in the French tradition. My professor at the Paris Conservatoire was Nadia Boulanger who herself was a pupil of Gabriel Fauré. I also met some of the leading professors and musicians in French music, especially Charles Gallon who was a collaborator of Jules Massenet and he was the greatest teacher of harmony in the first half of the twentieth century. I met this man when he was already very old. So you can see the type of connection that I have with Boulanger, Fauré, and Massenet. Now to show you the connection, I am glad to say that my father won first prize in harmony – it was a very tough examination because you are locked in a room with a cup of tea or coffee, and a sandwich for twelve hours and you had to write your paper on harmony, which was very, very difficult. He won the first prize in the same year as did Dutilleux, so here was the connection, but it was a friendship which lasted all their lives – they were like brothers in arms. So I was privileged to know Dutilleux and was naturally inclined to approach his music very seriously, and I came to record all of his works for Chandos, and if I may say so, I am glad I had this opportunity because I think he is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.

GT: I remember attending a concert in the mid-nineties at the Royal Festival Hall in which you conducted the BBC Philharmonic in an all-Stravinsky programme including a wonderfully memorable performance of the Symphony of Psalms. Do you have a mission to perform works which are less well known?

YPT: I think that every conductor has his agenda, let’s say open up the little secrets of the repertoire and we all like to help discover gems from our musical world, or from Britain, America, Russia, or Italy; there are always things to be discovered. For me personally, you may remember that I orchestrated the Ravel Piano Trio which is one achievement as far as I am concerned. Talking of circumstances and situations, this was my achievement because we played this so many times and we became so involved – my endeavour to orchestrate it was because the piano part is symphonic in structure. This is what pushed me to orchestrate the Piano Trio, and I think that now everyone has the opportunity to perform those works which awake his interest in music. I repeat that conducting is a world in its own – you have music in yourself – it’s not just to be in front of an orchestra, you want to convey the music which is inside yourself. It’s like an extension of yourself – conducting is an extension of being a good musician.

GT: You have worked all over the world with many different musicians and orchestras, how do you find the world of music has changed in recent decades?

YPT: Of course, it has changed very much, but I am not going to say whether it has changed for the better or not. It has changed full stop. The result being that everything has become standardised these days. So you see it is not only in music, it is in everything. Everything in our own life has become industrialised, and it is reflected in music. I am not sure what will happen to music in the future, but the good thing is that you know we have not just more numbers of people playing [music], but even more orchestras and more people listening to music. If you think about it – so many masterpieces of music are completely unknown to 99% of the people. We try to be optimistic and I think there is much more to be done.

GT: The reason I ask is because 30 to 40 years ago there was a more distinct sound from certain orchestras; French orchestras were famous for their wind section, German orchestras were celebrated for their brass, and Russians for their strings. But today, orchestras the world over play Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique as well as the best Russian orchestras. There remains a small number of super orchestras in Berlin, Vienna or New York who have great virtuosity. But the quality of European orchestras has changed in becoming more universal in their sound.

YPT: You have touched on this point, absolutely, the world is becoming smaller by way of communicating and in more standardisation. It is a good sign that the sound quality is better than 50 or 100 years ago. But there is less distinction than before, I would say that in the arts there is a melting pot in the world which is happening and nothing much can change it. When we were students many years ago, we had one professor and this person would teach you and project on to you everything he had acquired. This local experience existed whether you were in Vienna, Paris, or Moscow. My teaching was specifically French, but now students move from one city to the next in 24 hours, and they have masterclasses with different musicians every year so inevitably the standards of playing are high, but they become uniform. There is a uniformity which comes from this melting pot.

GT: You are bringing the Iceland Symphony Orchestra to the UK in February so how do you find this professional orchestra from a very small country which doesn’t have a musical tradition. What is the standard of musical performance like in Iceland?

Hvitasunnudagr (Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval)

YPT: They are very interested in cultural achievement and in the sagas – the great Nordic sagas mean so much in their lives. They have some marvellous painters, and there is an extraordinary painter who, in my view, is one of the greatest painters in the world – he is called Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval. I recommend looking out for him, he is absolutely superb, not only that, but they have some music of their own. And one reason why one should be so optimistic is that in a country of 350,000 people, they have one of the best halls in the world. And they have one of the best orchestras, certainly in Europe, and they have a majority of Nordic and Icelandic players [in the orchestra] but with perhaps a quarter of the musicians from abroad. They all go and study in America – as did the concertmaster – a wonderful violinist who went to study at the Curtis Institute, and we have another wonderful concertmaster from Italy, so we have again a wonderful melting pot. There are some Americans, one English player, yes even some French players – why not – all included in this melting pot, and their principal flute player is also the principal at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It gives you an idea of how good they are. So I am looking forward to this tour with great anticipation. I am now 72, you know I have been on the road for 56, almost 60 years, and these eight concerts across the UK are quite an achievement. I want to thank my management IMG for putting it together. The point I am making is that it is like a reward for my career with them because over the last ten years, I have worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with the São Paulo Orchestra, and this is my third term with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in a row. I am not sure what you can deduce from this, but it makes me very happy and am extremely excited by this tour which has some superb repertoire and with an orchestra which responds beautifully to my musical endeavours.

GT: What can you say about the music which you are performing by Anna Thorvaldottir [whose music was nominated for a Grammy in 2020]?

YPT: Anna is a most talented and brilliant young lady who has written music which encompasses Nordic atmosphere with extraordinary lights, and textures and illustration which is so atmospheric. You get a sense of marvellous colours and feelings – you can imagine what I mean – the northern lights and the Nordic landscape, with hazy and beautiful colours.

GT: I know that you are involved as the President of the Jury at the Besançon International Conducting Competition, so how would you judge the new generation of conductors?

YPT: Well, in my view, I judge young conductors for their musical ability as much as for their conducting ability. I will try to be more precise; you find many really, quite young conductors who can secure a good ensemble and let’s say – a good result. In terms of orchestral work, they have an aptitude to be very clear and efficient in a way, and technically, some have it, and others don’t. I am not sure where I stand in this judgement, but never mind, some have got it, you know, they will never get their bearing wrong or anything, they are always easy to follow. Now on this basis, and only based on conducting, at Besançon, I am looking for those who will have a musical urge, an urge to project [their musical ideas] through their conducting, [even if] their conducting is not as effective as others, and I want to insist on this, that is what I am looking for. I am glad that we found this amazing young lady from Japan. Nodoka Okisawa who impressed us so much with her artistic concentration; she had a way of [conducting with] some gravitas, although she is quite small and petite, she is extremely delicate physically speaking. She was in front of a German orchestra and started conducting Strauss [Death and Transfiguration] with such gravitas which was quite stunning, and she won the first prize. We were all agreed, it was a unanimous vote for her, and I am glad that we found the winner – a distinct winner.

GT: It is interesting that this Japanese conductor won in Besançon last year because it seems to me that it is China, Japan, and Korea which are the countries coming up and producing excellent singers, violinists, pianists and conductors.

YPT: You are absolutely right, and this is a good sign that it is all very encouraging in that there are one billion and a half Chinese. I said that 99% of the world had not heard Beethoven but there is even a longer way to go, and I want to help do this, but the strange thing is that all our Western art and music is being received and welcomed in Asia by millions of people with a real passion but do we replicate this by taking into Europe Chinese opera or Sumo wrestling? We don’t do much in return. It’s a one-directional process.

GT: Well, thank you very much for this interesting conversation and I hope your UK tour with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra goes well. Is there anywhere in particular you are looking forward to taking the orchestra?

YPT: I remember well when I first played in the Usher Hall many years ago with my father and the London Symphony Orchestra, and I very much look forward to visiting Edinburgh once more.

For details of the UK tour by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra are CLICK HERE.

NEW! Carnegie Hall’s 2020-2021 season


Highlights from Carnegie Hall’s 2020-2021 season

Clive Gillinson (executive and artistic director)
announces the new season (c) Bruce Hodges)

Carnegie Hall’s upcoming 2020-2021 season will include more than 170 concerts, and feature performances by many of the greatest artists in classical, world, jazz and pop music from around the globe. Read more



Late in 2019 Sardinian tenor Piero Pretti impressed many with his Met debut as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. Bachtrack said ‘He has a fine lyric Italianate sound with plenty of squillo and dead centre pitch. He strikes one as a very musical singer; he clearly knew the arc of his phrases and the entire role. Pinkerton is a hard part in which to impress and it will be interesting to hear him as other, more sympathetic leads.’

Pretti has established himself throughout Europe since his 2006 professional debut. He will make his role debut as Turiddu, in a concert version of Cavalleria rusticana with Maestro Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago on 6 February (for details click here) and later that month (26 and 29) he will return to the Met to sing Alfredo Germont in La traviata, replacing Vittorio Grigolo (for details click here). On the eve of these forthcoming major engagements Piero Pretti answered Seen and Heard International’s questions about his early years, career so far, and hopes for the future.

Where were you born?

I was born in the town of Nuoro, in Sardinia, an island in the Mediterranean.

Do you come from a musical family?

No, there’s no musician in my family, but I do have several musician friends.

What was the first opera you saw?

I believe the first opera I saw was Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, I was a kid and it was performed in a public square in the summer months. 

Do you play any other musical instruments?

I am a self-taught guitar player, but I only play it for my own pleasure. I studied trumpet for a few years but because I was wearing braces I had to quit.

When did you first start singing and how did it progress from there?

I come from a place where singing, just like choirs, are very strong traditions. I started singing madrigals and ancient music when I was 16 in a polyphonic choir and immediately after that I started taking singing lessons. When I was 18 I started singing professionally in some of the opera productions of the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari.

Who do you credit for telling you that you had a voice and encouraging you as a singer?

It was surely Franca Floris, the leader of Nuoro’s Complesso Vocale (Vocal Ensemble) where I was making my first steps. She pushed me to attend the local music school where Antonietta Chironi, soprano and director of the school, took me under her wings.

Please tell us more about your musical and vocal studies.

Antonietta gave me the opportunity to not only study with her, but since she was a great producer, she had me singing in small productions of operas like Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne and L’oca del Cairo which we performed in schools. I attended some master classes with Gianni Raimondi and Renata Scotto. I realised I had talent and singing came easy.

What was the first opera role you ever sang on stage?

My first important role came with my professional debut: it was in 2006 as Rodolfo in La bohème with a touring company. A three-month tour singing every other day in many towns in Germany, Norway and England.

Did you ever enter any singing competitions, and do you consider anything like that are a good thing for a young singer?

I never entered singing competitions, and that was because when I decided to be a professional singer I was above the generally required age. I’m not against it, not at all. I think it’s a good way to face other singers outside your own music class or school. It’s probably also important to have healthy competition … as long as it stays ‘healthy’.

Your signature roles seem to be in La bohème, La traviata, Il trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and Madama Butterfly and you sang all these early in your career, where did you sing them first?

As I mentioned, La bohème was my professional debut. After that came engagements in operas like Rigoletto, La traviata, and Il trovatore: Duca di Mantova, Alfredo Germont, and Manrico are roles I have sung in important theatres like La Scala in Milan, the Paris Opéra, and then Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, New York. Of course, after having sung such roles in less glamorous but equally beautiful theatres like the Malibran in Venice, the Teatro Pergolesi, and the Treviso opera house. For example, I remember making my debut in Rigoletto in Spoleto.

What are the particular demands of the roles you sing?

Each role has its challenges and needs something different. Our commitment as artists is to interpret each role as close as possible to what the composer put in writing.

I suspect much has changed in the way you approach these roles since you first sang them?

Of course. Our voice evolves continually, just like we do, in every aspect. Surely approaching a score after many years – or sometimes even after just a few months – may produce surprises to the way our body responds to the different parts of the score. Perhaps because they have developed within us or we have processed them, or because we change the way we approach certain parts of the libretto or of the character. If on one hand our art is considered ‘old fashioned’; on the other hand we are lucky to be doing something that is alive, precisely because it is performed live.

Piero Pretti & Hui He in Madama Butterfly
(c) Richard Termine

You recently made your debut at the Met as Pinkerton and return there soon to sing Alfredo. Has singing at the Met been a highlight of your career so far?

I was very happy to make my debut at the Met singing in Madama Butterfly. It was wonderful. I immediately felt at home with the entire staff and I had a great feeling with the audience. I’m truly happy to be singing again so soon in such an important theatre.

I see you sang early in your career for Riccardo Muti and I wonder what influence he has had on your career?

I remember my first audition and all the musical rehearsals with Maestro Muti. Those were moments of true personal and professional growth. He is a great Maestro, in all aspects; I was always amazed by his ability to focus and to involve all musicians he is working with; the orchestra, the chorus, the soloists. He is a great example for me, and his words have been my guide and my comfort through the years as I developed my career. 

You will make your role debut as Turiddu with Maestro Muti soon in Chicago and tell us more about that if you can.

Yes, it will be in February. It’s a dream come true: an opera like Cavalleria rusticana, one of my old-time favourites, conducted by Maestro Muti in Chicago. I must say that it wasn’t in my short-term plans to debut Turiddu, but when the Maestro asked me I realised the time had come. I can’t wait to begin the musical rehearsals and hear what he has to say to me.

Is there anybody special you have particularly enjoyed meeting and working with over your career?

Our lives are constantly on the road, from one theatre to the other around the world. That’s why it isn’t easy to maintain personal contacts and develop friendships, but it isn’t impossible, if we want it. I was lucky enough to meet great people in the theatres, first of all my wife Antonella. Then, there are some conductors, directors and colleagues with whom I have very special relationships.

Where do you call home?

At the moment I live in Milan with my wife Antonella and with our son Michelangelo.

Do you enjoy all the travelling a singer’s life entails?

If by ‘travelling’ you mean the road I have walked, I say yes, very much so, I am fascinated by it. But if you mean the airports, the trains, the taxis … well, there are moments that I would happily do without, although I have always loved travelling.

If you have to learn a new role how do you prepare for it?

I always try to make the best of my time and to keep some periods free from work which I dedicate to studying, including any new roles. I think it’s essential.

Do you have a teacher now and how do they help you?

I’ve been studying for the last 15 years with the same teacher. His name is Gianni Mastino, he too is a tenor, and I believe he’s one of the best. He knows me really well; we have a great relationship and we are very close. But despite that he will always correct and alert me when he thinks it’s necessary, and I am very grateful for that.

You especially sing several Puccini and Verdi roles, what is special about their music?

Verdi and Puccini are masters of singing, theatre and beauty. Their operas are filled with magic and, even after centuries pass, they are still performed worldwide. I believe their works are archetypes of absolute beauty and that these two composers were ‘blessed by God’ to hand down their works.

What other composers do you particularly admire?

I listen to a lot of music, especially other than opera. But I adore Bellini, Bizet, Gounod, as well as Borodin, Bach … and the list goes on and on.

Do different composers make you need to use your voice in any different ways?

I obviously try to interpret the different composers by respecting their style. Bellini is different from Verdi, from Donizetti and Puccini. I prepare as if it was an Olympic sport … my training is very focused.

Do you do much concert work and if so what do you most enjoy singing?

I do more opera performances than concerts, but I would like to increase the latter because I am always very happy to perform symphonic repertoire (I often sing Verdi’s Requiem). One of my favorite rehearsals when I am in an opera production is the all’italiana’ (the rehearsal where we focus only on the music and sing).

What actually is your favourite role and why?

It’s a difficult question that I’m not sure I can give a straight answer to. I can say I adore Riccardo from Un ballo in maschera, Edgardo from Lucia di Lammermoor, Werther, Don Carlo … again, the list goes on and on.

Where have you not sung yet that you would still like to?

There are still many theatres and places where I’d like to sing … I think of South America, Australia, Canada, Russia.

What roles are you hoping to be invited to sing in the future that you do not sing now?

I hope I’ll be approaching many new roles in the future: there is so much music to study and sing … one lifetime isn’t enough!

Has anything funny happened to you on stage you can tell us about?

There are colleagues and friends I have a lot of fun with on stage, and we tease each other. Maybe the audience doesn’t notice, but when a show is well run-in some things may be amplified for our own amusement. I remember for example a pillow fight in Lucia di Lammermoor in Hamburg: trust me, it was very hard to sing after that particular concertato!

NEW! London’s Wigmore Hall in 2020-2021



Programme of concerts, learning events and broadcasts continues to expand as Wigmore Hall draws record numbers to its 550-capacity auditorium, with c.200,000 attendances at the Hall last season Read more

NEW! Tamara Rojo’s new Raymonda and ENB in 2020-2021


English National Ballet’s 2020-2021 Season

  • Tamara Rojo CBE to direct and choreograph her first ballet, Raymonda, after Marius Petipa
  • Raymonda to receive world premiere in Manchester, before UK Tour
  • Triple bill of works by William Forsythe to be performed at Sadler’s Wells
  • 2020 marks English National Ballet’s 70th Anniversary year
  • 10th Anniversary of English National Ballet’s Dance for Parkinson’s programme

Read more

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