The woman who sees the world through her piano

muza-s3fe21A

MY ‘black sailing ship’ and I: Lithuanian-born pianist Muza Rubackyte only needs to touch a piano to feel at peace with the world. Photograph by Christine de Lanoe (Geneva).

YOU MIGHT BE forgiven for thinking the Johannesburg Musical Society in association with the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival has somehow managed to bring out Meryl Streep to perform its first concert of the year. You’d be mistaken; Lithuanian pianist Mūza Rubackytė brings not only her classic facial features to South Africa, and she is, indeed, a bit of a Streep dead-ringer, but she also brings her flawless technique, which will dazzle you completely. Last week, she took the time to chat to My View, from her home in Paris.

Hers is a story of piano love and the need to earn an international reputation not once, but twice. It’s about the privilege of working with beautiful music, and above all, of being at home in the world.

“I was born into a family of musicians,” she says, explaining that her first name, Mūza, is a derivation of the Greek term ‘muse’: it’s like her family knew her talents before she was born. “The challenge was to find out which instrument to put into my hands. My mother and her sister were pianists and my father, an opera singer.”

They put a violin into her toddler hands. They got her to sing. She smiles. “I played a lot of instruments as a child; my preference was always piano. I grew up in a house full of pianos. My aunt taught students in the house. For me it was fantastic to be a part of that world. I asked my aunt to add me to the list of her students, so that I could be like the ‘big’ people.”

She wasn’t that big when she debuted: She first played in public with the national philharmonic orchestra of Lithuania when she was seven. And the die, it seems, was cast for a brilliant career.

But growing up under a Communist regime, even after 19 very serious and focused years of music study, she was still a big fish in a small pond. Or was she? She didn’t know. She was not allowed to leave the Communist Bloc to spread her wings.

By the time Gorbachev came into power, in the 1990s, the draconian laws had softened a bit and there was a possibility that she could travel to the west if it was with a plan to study.

“It felt like nonsense to me at the time, as I had studied for so long and achieved so much, already. The Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Moscow, which is still considered among the best in the world, was where I had learned my skills, but the one thing I felt was lacking in their teaching programme was French music.”

So in 1991, with a bid to spend 10 months studying French music, she left the Communist Bloc for the first time. “So, this was my beginning in the West,” she says. “It wasn’t difficult to integrate into western culture, because music is a universal language. But it was difficult to start my career again. In the West, no one knew my successes. I had to start again from nothing. It took me almost 10 years. I met the good people, step by step, but it was a tough time.”

She mentions how her win of the Grand Prix at the Liszt-Bartók International Piano Competition in Budapest in 1981 was not recognised by the music fraternity of the West. It took time, and hard work, but eventually, she won First Prize in the Concours International Les Grand Maîtres Français and she was back on track.

These days, Mūza commutes between Paris, Vilnius and Geneva, when she’s not travelling further afield for concert performances. What’s it like to be on the go all the time? “You need to like it,” she’s frank. “I like to escape from the routine, but being on the move has become a part of who I am. I cannot be at the same place more than three or five days. I get restless. To travel to faraway countries is extremely exciting for me. It’s snowing in Vilnius right now. Here – in Paris – it’s raining. And next, week I will be in hot South Africa.”

But it’s more than just weather. “I like to see the world,” she says. “I am like a shipman or a gypsy. I see the world through my piano. And it’s the happiest of careers for me: I get to travel to the big halls to meet new audiences. I get to live in high level music, and to touch fantastic composers – to understand them and transmit … it’s extremely exciting.”

“Nevertheless,” she adds, “I also adore ‘home sweet home’, where my beloved husband and I dance together, cook together and write together. We are writing an autobiography at the moment about my enchanted life. Often my husband joins me in my tours to live the strong moments in art and see the world together. It’s a real joy for us. The nature is also something that we both really need,” she says, anticipating South Africa’s warm climes and magnificent landscapes.

Acknowledging the complexity of a musician’s career – you may have the ability but what happens next: do you teach or compose? Record or travel? When do you practice? – Mūza composed prolifically until she was about 18-years-old. “There were lots of compositions for piano, for violin, for small ensembles. Doing this was part of my education, but finally, you must choose.

“Being a performer, you need lots of hours of music. It’s not only about playing the piano. It’s about travelling, organising, recording, publicity.” Rubackytė gives master classes wherever she goes. She’s a piano professor at Lithuania’s National Academy of Music and organises a big piano festival in Lithuania, now in its fifth year.

Next week, she performs works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann in Johannesburg. “The programme is my choice, but it complies with JIMF’s theme this year of opposites. Schumann’s Carnaval and his Arabesque illustrate a dual personality,” she adds.

With a life’s repertoire of about 40 concert programmes concertos, over 40 piano concertos and 30 recordings, Mūza remains hungry to learn more. At the beginning of the year, she went to her library and took out all the scores she would need for her concert fixtures. “It’s a pile like this,” she indicates a lot. “I cannot take scores in my luggage; they’re too heavy. I have to carry them in my head,” she grins.

She baulks at the idea of choosing a ‘favourite’ composer. “It’s all about the piano. I cannot be ‘vegetarian’ and choose one over another. The privilege of touching the piano is everything.”

Two years ago she was a jury member for the Unisa piano competition, in Pretoria. “It was marvellous. I invited the winner, Daniel Ciobanu, to this year’s Vilnius festival, so I have good souvenirs of your country.”

  • Mūza Rubackytė performs in a piano recital for the Johannesburg Musical Society and the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival at the Linder Auditorium, Parktown on February 3 at 8pm. Visit jms.org.za or www.join-mozart-festival.org for more details.
  • She also performs in Pretoria, on February 1, Knysna on February 6 and Cape Town on February 8. Visit muza.fr.
  • CDs of the programme she will perform in South Africa – recorded in Tokyo – will be on sale at her performances.
Advertisements

Ciao, Piazzolla; thanks for all the tango!

trioneuklang

FUN and tango and seeing what happens next: Nikolaj Abramson (clarinet), Jan Jachmann (accordion) and Arthur Hornig (‘cello). Photograph by Christoph Herpel.

WHAT DO YOU get when you toss some well-heeled classics together with an unusual kind of trio, an appetite for experimentation with symphonic rearrangement and a clear, fresh look at the future of music audiences? That’s easy: you will experience it all in Johannesburg next Sunday evening, courtesy of the Johannesburg Musical Society, played by Jan Jachmann (concert accordion), Nikolaj Abramson (clarinet) and Arthur Hornig (‘cello), collectively known as Trio NeuKlang. In South Africa for the first time, the trio took the time to chat to My View last week.

In 1998, it was the universe effectively, who put the trio together. Given their respective skills, Jachmann and Abramson were approached separately to premier a new work by contemporary German composer, Georg Katzer.

“We met each other in rehearsal,” remembers Berlin-born Jachmann (35). “Had we stayed within that framework, there would not have been much for us to do: the trio is an unusual combination of instruments; there are not many pieces composed for a clarinet, concert accordion and ‘cello.” But the premier went well and music organisers’ ears pricked up, the world over.

Their first international invitation as a result of this performance was to Japan. “We told the festival director in Japan that we only have the one piece and it is very modern,” Hornig takes the story’s reins. “He replied, ‘Yes, well. Japan is a very modern country. It will work out well.

“But a few weeks before the festival, he came to Berlin to find out what we were doing, and … well, he said Japan’s not that modern after all. And he asked us if we could play something ‘normal’ instead. And so this was the start of us arranging things, for our instruments. After a while, we added some jazz chords and tango rhythms, which is how we came to be where we are now.”

Says Abramson (40), who also rearranges the music: “The challenges of rearranging the work are not that difficult. The accordion is like a little orchestra all of its own. The ‘cello is the bass, and I have the solo in clarinet. It’s not that difficult. The left hand of the accordion is very near to the ‘cello, and the sound mixes very well.”

Born in Moscow, Abramson immigrated to Berlin as a child, with his parents. “It was a time when a lot of Russians were immigrating to Germany,” he says, which made it possible for him to experience the best of both worlds in terms of music education.

Both he and Kornig (30) were educated at the same professional music school, ten years apart. Born near Kassel, the son of an actor and an amateur musician, Hornig remembers moving around a lot as a small child. Berlin became his home when he was a teenager.

“My first ‘cello was like a viola with a stick,” he grins. He joined the trio in 2004.

Speaking of the trio’s unique sound, Jachmann says that it is “a bit more of symphonic than a conventional piano trio, because the sound of the accordion is closer to that of woodwinds.

“The novelty of our trio – NeuKlang means ‘new sound’ – was the combination of instruments; it’s all new. But it’s still developing. We can’t say what we will be doing in five years from now,” he grins.

You think of the idea of a German trio calling themselves NeuKlang and in your mind, you might conjure up an image of three proto-Dadaists of the teens of the twentieth century, wearing leder hosen, out to reinvent the world, armed with skills and beliefs.

You’d be only a little wrong: not that Jachmann, Hornig and Abramson are Dadaists, or that they wear trousers made of stiff leather, but rather because they’re deeply savvy as to the value of culture and how it conflates with music.

The accordion’s an unusual instrument, says Jachmann. “It’s not very loved, nor very popular, but there have been other developments over the last several decades with good accordion players who were keen to get it into the canon of serious instruments, so it’s no surprise we found each other playing contemporary music. Original compositions for this instrument all date back just 50 years.”

These days, the accordion has become something of an avant-garde trendsetter and the folksy instrument it was has been pushed and pulled into a variety of contemporary directions, but nothing’s that simple, Jachmann explains: “On the one hand you have this folk music thing. And on the other, you have this modern contemporary thing which wants to be serious and has nothing! To! Do! With! Folk! Music! At! All!” he shouts, emphasising the purists’ viewpoint, but not without irony.

“It also has nothing to do with money,” interjects Abramson, with not a little dollop of cynicism.

“If you compare German folk music to that of Italy or France,” Jachmann adds, speaking of how the Third Reich’s history sullied its reputation. “It’s less vivid. It’s rather a different kind of a thing, and it fits more into museums than on the street.

“In Germany you have serious music on the one hand and not-so-kosher volk music on the other. The accordion knows both worlds. Not only in Germany but in other countries too: from Russian to Argentina, it’s a part of popular culture, and fits neither in one world nor another. This is what we do: get two worlds in dialogue with one another, and see what happens.

“When you’re in the audience,” he adds, “You might not notice these things consciously. But listening to music is not about thinking. It’s about feeling something which you can say ‘oh! That spoke to me!’ and often you can’t explain why.” That’s the trio’s magic.

But what brings them to Africa? In short, a youtube video. Some time ago, the trio embarked on a project: a bit of a lark, but also a bit of a promotional exercise, it’s a four minute mash-up of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the tango, which you can see here.

In it, they take the weather indicated in the work to heart, playing in fountains and car washes, on fake snow and in direct sun. “Hermann van Niekerk, the promoter of the Sasolburg Theatre saw this video by chance on youtube,” says Hornig, “He’s loves the accordion. And one thing led to another.”

Technology today makes the world turn, Jachmann grins: “We’re living in a time of globalisation with all its effects. The music is a by-product of this interconnectivity and it is universal.”

The repertoire for the JMS concert draws from the trio’s second CD, entitled Goodbye Astor. It’s a tribute to the influence quintessential Argentinean tango composer Astor Piazzola (1921-1992) has had on their work, but it’s also testament to where that work is currently going.

“If you don’t want to just play stuff other people with other instruments have played before,” says Jachmann. “What do you do? We thought: what could be new? What could be interesting for us and the audience? It was a collaborative decision to blend classical music with tango lingo. We put it out there, and said ‘let’s see what will happen. Nikolaj started arranging and everything fell into place.”

Retrospectively, it feels obvious: if you have an accordion, it always seems to shout out Piazzolla! even before you take it out of its case.

Says Abramson: “We combined it a consideration of Piazzolla and how he influenced other classical music, and we got this feedback which said Piazzolla’s nice, but this is more. It’s our goodbye and thank you to Piazzolla for everything,” he laughs.

Goodbye Astor comprises arrangements by us,” adds Jachmann. “It’s still tango, but it’s also something else. Something I can’t describe in words.”

Each piece on the programme is dedicated to the composer from whom the music derives, says Hornig. “Schubert, Brahms, Bach … in a tango net.”

Jachmann laughs. “It’s a bit of a trial to see how South African audiences respond to it. In Germany, the very conservative audiences love us most, as they have knowledge and can recognise the classic originals. It’s then when the fun really starts.”

But this kind of mash-up is no joke, or self-indulgent trick. “It’s very easy to do a crossover thing with some melody,” he adds. “But if you want to take the music you are playing seriously, you must get into proper dialogue with it. We respect the music. We’re looking forward to playing for an audience, who does too.”

Melvyn Tan: Music to change your life

Melvyn Tan. Photograph courtesy www.melvyntan.com

Melvyn Tan. Photograph courtesy http://www.melvyntan.com

Witnessing concert pianist Melvyn Tan perform — either with the Buskaid Soweto String orchestra or alone on stage for the Johannesburg Musical Society — as he did on the weekend, is the kind of experience that will makesyou believe there is a God, after all. Tan has a magical relationship with the music and his piano that seduces his audience.  He holds the notes in his hand as though they were sacred water, and he caresses his piano keys and touches you with his music in a way that you will never forget.

A relatively regular visitor to South Africa, Singapore-born London resident Tan was another of this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival’s unequivocal draw-cards. He spoke to My View, a few days before his concert, focusing on the blessed education he received in London, the value of giving back and the infinity of Schubert and Messiaen.

His concerts in Johannesburg were immensely special: “This is my first time to perform with Buskaid; it’s the first time Buskaid, founded by Rosemary Nalden in 1997, performs with a pianist. I’ve known Rosemary for 30 years. She played with the London Classical Players, under Roger Norrington, with whom I did all my EMI recordings of Beethoven.  When she first started to come to South Africa to run Buskaid, we remained huge admirers of her project.  A few years ago, my partner Paul Boucher, research director of the Montagu Music Collection at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, brought  them to England for some concerts he was organising; it started the ball rolling.

“Since then, they’ve done really well. Last year they came to England and we discussed the idea of a piano concerto. I said, why not? I’ve heard them perform a lot; they don’t often play Mozart: I wasn’t sure what to expect in our first rehearsal, but it was wonderful. They’re such lovely kids, and their performance gets better and better. Last year, in England, they played a suite by Rameau and if I closed my eyes I could have sworn it was a professional orchestra. We were gobsmacked.”

Tan also has a professional passion for piano history. Most of his older recordings were performed on period pianos – from Mozart’s time and Beethoven’s. “The fortepiano is what the piano was, before it developed into the modern instrument, which dates from 1860s. Mozart’s piano was much smaller than the piano you or I would recognise as such. It’s a five octave instrument; wooden in construction, so the action is much lighter and therefore the way you play is very different. I did a lot of my EMI recordings on the fortepiano, which is not to be confused with the harpsichord, an instrument which originates from the 17th century and which is plucked, rather than struck.

“But since then, I have gone back to playing modern piano and repertory, because every artist likes to feel stretched artistically.”

Baulking at the moniker ‘prodigy’ Tan explains that he started piano as a five-year-old in Singapore. “I came to England when I was about 11 and was offered a place at London’s prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School of Music, and basically I stayed there: I have never gone back to Singapore to live. But I do go back now to teach and coach students and also to perform. I didn’t come from a particularly musical family, but my sister who is much older than me played the piano, so I kind of followed. That was how I started to play.

“I wasn’t encouraged to be an independent child, but I was, actually, very independent. When the chance came for me to go to the Menuhin school, I recognised it as a chance in a lifetime. Most of my teachers were French. One was a pupil of Debussy, another, a pupil of Ravel… The wonder of those roots and that education has never left me. Being at the school, it was like we were all part of a family. That ethos still exists – even though Yehudi has died. It’s not a competitive environment: that’s not what you’re taught. Instead, you’re taught to make chamber music and how to listen to everyone else.

“That’s the crux of music making. And it’s lovely. Yehudi was the most wonderful man. He taught us that there’s no such thing as being just a musician. You have to be a person, a human being, first.”

Tan ponders the idea of a favourite composer. “It’s difficult: It would be Schubert. Or Mozart. No, Schubert. If there’s one composer I want to play until I drop dead, it is Schubert. The music has that feeling of eternity about it. It comes from nowhere and it goes to infinity. You could go on playing that music forever.”

But he continues on a stream of consciousness to another love: twentieth century composer Olivier Messiaen, recognised for – amongst other things – transcribing birdsong.

“Messiaen changed my life when I performed his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus – the twenty gazes of Christ. It’s a cycle based on various writings from the bible, as well as Messiaen’s personal  views of Christ and Catholicism. He started writing it when he was interred in a prisoner of war camp in Nazi-controlled France, in 1943. He wrote it for Yvonne Loriod, whom he married in 1961 and who was the first person who performed it. It was only in the 1960s that the work was recorded and people began to see it as a monument of twentieth century piano music.

On the idea of playing two performances in one day, which he did yesterday, he grins: “Everyone thinks I’m crazy; it was the only way I could do it. I have had worse days: The worst is flying in and doing a concert, on the same day, with jetlag. Funnily enough when you are tired, you play best: you don’t have time to worry about nerves or memory… you just get on and do it. There is no other distraction in your brain. God takes over.”