Keyboard’s Francesco Piemontesi doesn’t just visit a composer’s world; he lives it
Francesco Piemontesi, the celebrated Swiss pianist who will make his debut Friday, May 24, with the Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts series, is not one to just wing it. He prepares meticulously for his concerts.
His diligence has more to do than with just the technical aspects of a piece. Thanks to a philosophy he learned from his teacher and mentor, the famed Alfred Brendel, he delves deeply into the music’s history and backstory so he can perform as intelligently as possible. Piemontesi says that Brendel taught him “to love the detail of things.”
Pictured above: Francesco Piemontesi likes the West Coast. Who wouldn’t? Photo: Marco Borggreve
His program includes works by Brahms, Debussy and Rachmaninoff.
I caught up with him via email to ask a few questions before his Fresno appearance:
Q: I know you’ve spent time on the East Coast of the United States, and that you just played a concert at Lincoln Center. Have you been to the West Coast before?
A: Yes, I played in Portland and Los Angeles before. I love it. Please don’t tell anyone but it’s so much nicer than the East Coast. Perhaps it sounds strange, but I feel more at home here than in New York.
Q: In reading about the “Alfred Brendel tradition” in terms of the time and research you put into preparing your music, it reminded me of “Method” acting. Actors who follow this approach spend a lot of time getting into the mindset of a character, learning all about the time period, style of speaking, personal characteristics, etc. Some Method actors even stay in character when they are offstage or when the camera isn’t running. Why do you think your “immersion” method works so well compared to a musician who just plays the notes without any regard to context?
A: Just playing the notes without any regard to context doesn’t exist for me. First of all we should have great respect for the written text. I’m a reproducing artist, and the first thing is to respect and honor the text. If you carefully read and respect it, many, many things clarify themselves all on their own. The context completes the picture; it gives the frame.
I sometimes hear a colleague of mine playing a Beethoven sonata and sounding like Shostakovich; the frame doesn’t allow you to make those mistakes. But maybe most importantly: We shouldn’t ask ourselves what a composer wrote, but instead why he wrote it. Why is there an accelerando at a certain point? Why is a sforzando there? What do these things communicate within the piece?
Q: Following up on this, I want to use your study of Debussy as an example. You studied impressionism and read James Joyce to prepare. When you sit down to play the Debussy in this concert, say, do you actually get “in character,” as an actor would? Do you put yourself in Debussy’s world?
A: You shouldn’t put yourself in his world. You should live in that world: in the world of art, of poetry, of Joyce, of Proust in the case of Debussy. The instruments from that time, the architecture… It is an immense privilege to spend my life learning about art, aesthetics, humanism. This is by the way certainly not a one-way road; the emotional immediacy of Debussy adds perhaps even more depth to our understanding of Proust than vice versa. Hearing Debussy when you read Proust.
Q: I was able to watch part of Roberta Pedrini’s documentary film of your “Italian year” section of Liszt’s famed “Années de pèlerinage,” his musical travel diaries. (The film and his CD were just released.) Your emotional connection to the music as you play is remarkable. You take full advantage of the medium of film in terms of dramatic lighting and color as you play. It’s something you wouldn’t see in a normal concert setting. What was that like? Did it change the way you played?
A: Thanks a lot. I had general ideas about this Liszt pilgrimage film, but the color and lighting were the work of Roberta. This said, I really enjoyed working with her and have learned a lot about cinematography and nuances of color. Also, it was an inspiration for me to visit many of the locations where Liszt spent an important part of his life.
Q: As you travel around the world, do you ever think in terms of your own “musical travel diaries”? What would America sound like?
A: Honestly, I’m not a composer; I don’t have a musical travel diary. Maybe I would associate Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles… or Ligeti’s San Francisco Polyphony with this country. Or the first movement of Harmonielehre by John Adams.
Q: Of the pieces you’ll be performing in Fresno, can you pick one and tell us one thing about it that would add to the audience’s understanding?
A: In general, the first half of the concert is a big picture in itself but has different layers. I treat the transcriptions as they are written—true to the lenses of Busoni and Kempff, in a very Late Romantic style. On the other hand I try to reconstruct the sound and style of harpsichord playing in the Italian Concerto. The modern piano can achieve all of this.
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Q: Before I go, I have to tell you one amusing thing. One of the best known and loved Italian delicatessens in Fresno is named Piemonte’s. Every time I saw an email pop into my inbox with your name in the subject line, I thought of roast beef sandwiches. Maybe you’ll get a chance to visit when you’re here. So, for a silly question: What is your favorite kind of deli sandwich?
A: I’m a vegetarian, so I can’t help but reject the roast beef suggestion. I’m not so much a sandwich guy. In Berlin, where I live, I often go to a fantastic restaurant which offers bowls in … Californian style.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: Really looking forward to my first visit to Fresno.