Q&A: Pianist Jean-Paul Gasparian

Jean-Paul Gasparian played at the Monte-Carlo festival a couple of months back. His next concert is a mid-morning concert in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 27 May including works by Chopin, Mozart and Debussy. 

Hello. How are you?

I’m fine. I just came back from Germany from Ingolstadt where I had to replace Till Fellner for a recital. Now I have a few days in Paris before going to London. Ingolstadt was great – it’s a great venue. I knew two weeks before. So I played my current programme with Chopin Four Ballades and the Brahms Fantasies.

How much time do you get to get familiar with the piano you’re about to play, before a concert?

Well usually, nowadays, in most of the concert venues across the world, the organisers use D-Steinway piano just as I have at home. Hence there are no big surprises for me if there’s a Steinway.

Of course in some places the piano is different. That’s not a bad thing. A different piano will create a different sound. I’ve tried Bechstein, Fazioli (as in St James) or even a new Yahama. As for the Royal Albert Hall I understand it will be a Yahama – and I think it’s the red one that belongs to Elton John.

I have seen pictures of it and it is very red ..

Ah, so its true. I know that I’ll have an hour before the concert on Sunday. That will be enough time for me to work out how to manage the sound with the acoustics.

What adjustments – what are you listening out for – are you making in this hour before?

Well, of course, I’m not changing my vision of the work or the interpretation of the work, but if the acoustic is generous I can use less pedal or if its dry I can use a little more pedal to apply a little more resonance in places. Also, I can pay more attention to the bass and the treble. Or maybe I need to make adjustments in order to make the piano sing or make sequences legato.

When you explain all of those things – as an audience member I’m reminded that we take a lot of these things for granted. Is that preparation time a pressured experience or a relaxed one?

When I know that the piano will be a little bit different than those I’m used to then its good to know that I have time to get used to it. It so happens that just recently I was playing a concert in a place called Senlis near Paris. The day before I had been in Florence, the flight back was cancelled and by the time I made it to the church in Senlis I didn’t have much time to try the piano. When you’re in that situation that doesn’t necessarily mean the concert will be bad. In this case it turned out to be very good indeed because I didn’t have time to ask questions of myself. Sometimes playing with this spontaneous energy is really good. Sometimes its good not to ask too many questions.

So you’re a risk taker? You like that pressure?

Not especially. But for me, the piano and the concert hall – I can’t remember exactly who said this – is your destiny. You have no choice. There’s no point about questioning the quality of the piano or of the acoustic. You have to adapt.

As a pianist , you have an unusual relationship with the instrument you play because you don’t bring it with you like other musicians do. You don’t feel accustomed to that instrument like other musicians do with theirs. You have to establish your connection with your instrument very quickly.

Absolutely. Some pianists from the past used to bring their own pianos with them all around the world. There are also pianists who have special relationships with a piano tuner and they travel around with the pianist too. That’s useful in some respects because it means that the pianist can make requests to have special adjustments made.

Tell me about the programme you’re playing on Sunday at the Royal Albert Hall. What prompted you to put those works together?

First of all, the Chopin pieces is part of the repertoire I’m concentrating on this year. I released my first recording dedicated to Russian music earlier this year, including Rachmaninov and Scriabin and Prokofiev.

As I have an agreement for three recordings, I’ve suggested that the next one be dedicated to Chopin – this year I wanted to complete Chopin’s four ballades, so including them in a concert made good sense. 

The concert will also include the Mozart sonata – that’s a recent piece I learned that this year. There will also be Debussy’s Estampes – that’s an homage-come-tribute to Debussy in his centenary year. These three pieces I like very much. It’s not the typical or modern Debussy. This is ‘hedonist Debussy’. A lot of sensuality. It’s a very warm work for the audience.

If you’re playing these a lot, how do you go about making sure you don’t get bored of them?

That’s a really important part of practising a work. I do sometimes leave a work for one or two months or one or two years. I’ll play them and then I’ll leave them. That gap is always important. One of my former teachers said that when you leave a work, the work is still practising itself. Even if I’m not playing it myself, its being practised in my sub-conscious. In that way, when I return to the work I experience new ideas when I play it.

Have you found yourself in a situation where your enthusiasm for a work has changed?

Oh. You mean in a bad sense? I can’t find exact examples – that’s a good sign I think. But, if you’re playing a piece a lot, you can get a little bit tired. That’s precisely the point where you have to be careful about not falling into a routine. You musn’t let it stay the same. You need to look for new ideas. And sometimes that’s done by listening to other recordings – not to imitate, but to seek inspiration.

Jean-Paul Gasparian plays Debussy, Mozart, and Chopin at the Elgar Room in the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 27 May at 11.00am. Tickets are £12.50 and include coffee and pastries.

Listen out for: Layale Chaker

Royal Academy of Music ‘Fellow’ Layale Chaker played at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday lunchtime. It was an unexpected treat.

Her trio – a seductive combination of jazz bass with a mysterious soulful Arab sounds – played at the Verdi Restaurant on Friday, sharing some of the music that will feature on a new album Layale is recording for release in November. I know already who’s signed up to feature them on their programmes. That says to me they’re heading for something big.

Their’s is an arresting and outward-looking sound. Other-worldly yet strangely familiar. Reassuring. Needed.

Layale is a humble appreciative sort too. That makes the music she creates all the more entrancing. I rather wished I’d spoken to her for longer.

Feast your eyes and ears on this seqeuence of Layale playing from a different gig.

New concert hall, new logo

Today, the Royal Albert Hall made public its new logo (above) for the central London venue.

This just a week or so after Boris Johnson, Nicholas Kenyon from the Barbican and Kathryn McDowell from the London Symphony Orchestra started talking up the possibility of a brand spanking new concert hall for the capital.

Johnson, Kenyon and McDowell, geed on no doubt by Simon Rattle’s interview with BBC arts editor Will Gompertz, were all terribly keen on the idea. The classical music fraternity has, as one would expect, got terribly animated about the possibility.

The idea of a new concert hall was folded into a HM Treasury announcement about improving the lot for Londoners, of which a significant nod in the direction of the capital’s cultural producers no doubt seemed like a good idea.

I’ve taken the precaution of reading Southbank Sinfonia’s James Murphy Huff Po blog, so won’t be making the schoolboy error so many others before me have made. Suffice to say, it wasn’t until last week I realised quite how many people were so unhappy about the current provision for concert halls in London. Nor did I realise quite how difficult people who wanted to go to classical music concerts (or any culturally-related events) found it locating the Barbican. Poor things.

I’ve always loved the Festival Hall and the cosmopolitan feel the Southbank Centre have managed to cultivate. The Barbican was where I first heard ‘a proper concert’ in person, so that location combined with its brutalist architecture (yes, really) also holds a special place in my heart. I don’t see how another venue could convincingly justify its existence with a sustainable business plan. Aren’t orchestral marketeers always bemoaning how difficult it is to sell classical music to new audiences? Isn’t another venue going to make it even more difficult for their ever dwindling budgets?

I’ll be honest and say that the Royal Albert Hall isn’t my first-choice destination for a pure classical music experience. The acoustics aren’t fantastic. But the lack of guaranteed acoustic is more than made up for by the overwhelmingly sense of inclusion I experience when I attend a Prom, for example. Pick the right seat – ideally in the choir seats, one of the boxes close to the stage or the first few rows of the arena, for example – and the music reveals itself in a way it can’t in say the Barbican. It’s also a breathtaking spectacle when I set foot in there for the first time at the beginning of the Proms season. Every time I visit I feel like I’m making a pilgrimage, and that for me as a classical music lover is important. I have a relationship with that building.

It is – whether you like it or not, or prefer to kick the venue because you’re a classical music snob – a venue which the majority of people who don’t relate to the genre, instantly connect classical music with anyway. If you’re looking to speak to people who wouldn’t consider classical music, that’s currency. It is a theatrical space – a visual treat on TV. And it’s quintessentially British too. A space to be valued, appreciated and not taken for granted.

The RAH’s new logo makes me appreciate the venue a little bit more. The design taps into the same love affair I have with nostalgia that the Festival Hall’s implicit narrative leans on from time to time. The RAH’s new logo doesn’t tap into a Victorian nostalgia however, but one from the 1970s – harking back to a time when the only other substantial concert hall in London was the Festival Hall. There’s a innocent optimism in the font used for the venue name, for example – something I remember seeing on the covers of endless recipe books and part-works my mother collected when I was a kid. The graphic above the name eschews the venue’s plush Victorian past, instead illustrating the hall’s versatility. And that isn’t some vacuous marketing aspiration. It’s a statement of what the Albert Hall really is. In the next month I’ll see Status Quo at the Royal Albert Hall. In its history, it’s played host to wrestling, tennis, boxing and the Eurovision. It’s a versatile space.

I’ve never felt as though London is lacking in concert halls. I’ve never been to a concert hall and felt dissatisfied by the quality of the acoustic. What matters to me is what I’m listening to or watching. Purity of sound is, for me at least, a mask behind which those with a superiority complex hide behind. I want the complete experience. I want an authentic experience when I go to a concert hall, not one which seeks to knock the competition dead.

So, I suppose I’m making exactly the schoolboy error James Murphy warned against. Why aren’t we just grateful for what we have? And why don’t we plough the money into something else instead?

Recommended concerts at BBC Proms 2013

In advance of booking for the 2013 BBC Proms opening on Saturday 11 May, I’ve cobbled together some purely subjective recommendations (largely based on the repertoire in each programme).

The recommendations link straight through to the Royal Albert Hall ticketing website (rather than fannying around taking you to the BBC Proms site). Bear in mind there may be a queue for tickets around busy times. That isn’t my fault.

Remember you can nearly always get into the arena or the gallery (standing only) even if you start queuing an hour before the concert begins. It also pays to ring for availability and even returns on the day of the concert. Contrary to what you might assume, not all concerts sell out completely. There’s more to be found on how to book concert tickets here.


Prom 6, Tuesday 16 July, 7.00pm

A ‘Meat and Potato Pie’ Prom. Something new, something familiar and something on a grand scale performed by one of the best of the BBC bands. David Matthews’ A Vision of the Sea, Rachmaninov’s unashamedly lush second piano concerto plus Nielsen’s ‘Inextinguishable’ fourth symphony.

Prom 7, Wednesday 17 July, 7.30pm

The work Britten wrote in response to a commission from the Japanese government who on receipt of the composer’s Sinfonia da Requiem were a little disappointed with the result. Shame on them. A crackingly dark and early evocation of Britten’s enduring style. There’s Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto (if familiarity with Shostakovich’s popular works has bred near-contempt, then Lutoslawski’s more developed gritty sound-scape should help).

Prom 10, Friday 19 July, 6.30pm

Because Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 will make you cry in the third movement. If it doesn’t, you’re a cold-hearted bastard.

Read More

John Eliot Gardiner & the Monteverdi Choir’s Easter Monday Bach Marathon

There is something wholly reliable about Bach-guru and the-man-you-most-like-as-your-backup-grandfather Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Him marking is 70th birthday with a 9 hour long marathon concert of JS Bach’s repertoire at the Royal Albert Hall on Easter Monday only emphasises the point.

As concerts go, it’s an unusual proposition. Many ‘normal-length’ events struggle to sell to capacity, so the idea of putting on such a total immersion-style day and selling all-day tickets is bold. At £125 for a grand tier seat for 9 hours of music, or £29 to stand in the arena (presumably they’ll let you bring a cushion), the ticket prices represent excellent value for money not least because there’s more going on in the Royal Albert Hall than just performance.
Read More