Q&A with Pianist Marie-Ange Nguci on Beethoven, performance & music responsibilities
What is your relationship with Beethoven?
I think of Beethoven not only as a composer but also as a thinker and philosopher. He had such a difficult existence. He devoted his life to music, and his work traces a human path through doubt and sacrifice – it’s a personal, metaphysical and philosophical experience rather than just a musical and artistic one. His innovative spirit and visionary power propelled his legacy beyond his own era and allowed his music to cross every border. Liszt wrote in a letter to the writer Wilhelm von Lenz that, ‘For us musicians, Beethoven’s work is like the pillar of cloud and fire which guided the Israelites through the desert.’ There are few composers who have this power to inspire us.
When you work across music of different eras, how do you make sure you catch the right style for each?
It is the search of a lifetime to be able to represent the mind, spirit and style of each composer. You get to one level and then you have to acknowledge that there’s more to discover. It’s like when you are in a boat on the ocean – you continuously discover a new horizon beyond what you thought was there. There are traditions of interpretation, legacies that composers left to their students and guidelines transmitted by the people that gravitated around them, and it’s important to have all this knowledge. It’s also important to get to know the composer’s aspirations and the circumstances in which they wrote a particular piece. But it’s also necessary to take a step back to think about how a work can be understood today. Interpretation is a subtle art that asks us to plunge into the eras of both the composer and the performer: we have to find a balance between heritage and the present, and express our subjectivity within this frame.
How have your extensive academic studies helped?
The more knowledge you have in different areas – not only music, but art, philosophy and literature – the more open you are to various points of views and ways of thinking. Through studying, you discover what different people have thought and how they envisage our relationship to ourselves, to the present, to music, art and history. This helps you find a more authentic, original way. There is a philosophical idea that the best way to find liberty is to know what constrains you so that you can discover everything that is possible within those borders. The more you understand the frame of one style or composer, the better you can find your own way of expressing your liberty inside it.
How do you go about studying a new piece – for example the Gershwin Piano Concerto?
It’s not universal – there are different ports of entry, so I never start working on different composers in the same way. For Gershwin I try to get to know the many elements of his life as well as his inspiration for the concerto, how it fits with his other works and how he would describe it himself. I listen to his jazz music, the popular composers of the time, the work he did with his brother Ira. I try to get to know him, as well as his cultural background and what was surrounding him, and listen to different interpretations of his works. I read the letters he wrote to friends and composers to see his response to the music of the time and his own feelings about the concerto. When you finally put your hands on the piece and start analysing the harmonies and subtleties, all this background helps you seek for originality in playing it, so that you can look forwards in interpreting it.
What happens to that information when you perform it?
I do all the background work and reading for myself. On stage, my approach is very different. Performing in public offers a unique human moment of communication – with the audience, the conductor and the orchestra. Our art is different from painting or sculpture – it is an art of the moment, the reaction, the recreation. Of course, we do that preparation, but when we perform there is an immediate moment of interaction. This response will be different on every stage, in every hall and country, with every conductor and audience.
When I’m performing on stage, I’m very sensitive to that. I’m trying to enjoy the moment as much as possible, and to share it with the audience. For me, one of the greatest achievements is to meet audience members after a concert and that they say they had a beautiful moment thinking about music, forgetting the burdens of daily life, feeling emotions and disconnecting from the world. That is one of the most moving rewards one could have.
What are the musical responsibilities of artists?
Besides the demand for excellence in our execution, on stage we have to give the most authentic and best version of ourselves every time, whatever the conditions. We also have the responsibility of paying our respects to the composer. We are the medium through which the ink on the paper becomes living music and emotion, the translators of the notes and lines that the composer left. Why does a composer take blank sheets of paper and put music on it? It reflects a higher need and it’s our duty as interpreters and performers to bring that out, being true to the composer and to ourselves, as faithfully as possible.
Ultimately, the point of everything we do is to give to the public the possibility of loving and appreciating music, and to hope they leave a concert with the desire to continue listening or to come back.
What is your concept of an ideal career?
I spent my childhood in Albania during a period of great political instability. In the state of civil war, there was a lot of tension and everyday life was difficult, but art and music allowed us to extract ourselves from the terrifying world. Music helped us to get through the darkest moments – we could seek the light. So, it has always been very important in my daily life to be able to play, learn and share music. I hope to be able to follow this dream for as long as possible and to share many beautiful moments with different audiences.
You studied conducting – what did this give you?
Studying orchestral scores and being in front of an orchestra was game-changing, in many different ways. When you conduct, you find wider perspectives on polyphony, colour, structure, architecture, the spatialisation of sound. It has helped me understand music in a very different way, as if moving from a black and white vision to a full range of colours and new perceptions.
It made me think about what a conductor represents and the many facets of their activities. For example, conductors have no instrument in their hands and no way of directly producing music themselves, yet they are the heart of the orchestra’s interpretation, which is a very ambivalent situation. For instrumentalists, the orchestral experience allows us to consider music while being free from purely instrumental execution, opening another dimension.
Once you have studied conducting, you don’t think of a concerto as an orchestra plus a soloist any more – you think of the ensemble and become part of the interpretation in a very different way. You also understand the conductor’s words, gestures and position differently, and what your role is at various moments – how you can build an interpretation together, what you have to listen to. Your ten fingers become ten players alongside the existing orchestra and your ears become more sensitive. You find your way inside the orchestra. It changes your relationship with them and with the conductor – you feel a different type of understanding. It was a very important experience for me, and I learnt a lot from it.
What made you study the ondes Martenot?
I discovered the ondes Martenot when I was studying a piano work by French composer Tristan Murail, Les travaux et les jours. I learnt that he played ondes Martenot as a virtuoso, and that he had written quite a few pieces for the instrument, so I found the scores and listened to recordings. I was astonished that there was such a visionary repertoire devoted to the instrument. There is a special way the player produces a tone on the ondes Martenot, which aroused my curiosity about the particularities the instrument could offer. I had many questions, which led me to knock on the door of the teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, and studying in her class. It was an interesting experience, which gave me access to many new techniques, to a sensibility of sculpting sound, and to new visions of contemporary music.
What are your hopes and fears for classical music?
I’m both fearful and hopeful. Today we are in the grip of an overabundance of music and information, and a quest for speed and efficiency, and I fear that people are moving away from classical music, art and theatre – mostly because of this context.
On the other hand, I’m hopeful, because I see younger audiences, and parents bringing their children to concerts, and they enjoy it in a genuine, pure way. The spirit of classical music, and the values it represents, transcend human eras. Ideas, emotions and feelings remain communicative, and I hope classical music will always find its place in the future.
Classical music is an important part of our culture and history – the bricks that built the house where we live today, and it’s important to have knowledge of it and share this legacy.
The more we understand the situation, the better we can find ways to get through the pitfalls and be as helpful as we can. Human beings are resourceful, and I hope the future will lead us in the best possible direction.