Pianist  Janina  Fialkowska

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Janina Fialkowska

2012 Lifetime Artistic Achievement (Classical Music)

For over 35 years, concert pianist Janina Fialkowska has been enchanting audiences and critics around the world with her lyrical interpretations of the classical and Romantic repertoire, particularly Chopin, Mozart and Liszt. She has appeared as a guest soloist with prestigious international ensembles, and her discography includes several JUNO-nominated recordings. As the founder of the Piano Six music outreach program, she has championed works by Canadian composers and brought the joy of live classical music to thousands of Canadians living in remote communities.

Ms. Fialkowska was born in Montreal in 1951 and studied piano in Montreal, Paris (with Yvonne Lefébure) and New York (at the Juilliard School with Sascha Gorodnitzki). She made her debut as a piano soloist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11, and placed first in the 1969 CBC National Talent Festival.

Her career was launched in 1974, when renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein became her mentor after her prize-winning performance at his inaugural Master Piano Competition. Since then she has performed with the foremost orchestras in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and has won special recognition for a series of important premieres, notably Liszt’s newly discovered Third Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony in 1990.

As the founding director (1993) of the Chalmers Award-winning Piano Six project and its successor, Piano Plus, she has brought some of Canada’s greatest classical music artists together with Canadians who, for geographical or financial reasons, would otherwise be unable to experience this calibre of live performance.

In 2002 Ms. Fialkowska developed a malignant tumour in her left arm. Undaunted, she transcribed and performed (with her right hand) the left-hand concertos of Ravel and Prokofiev. After successful surgery, she resumed her two-handed career in 2004.

“My thing about playing the piano is the lyricism,” she says. “That’s why I’m so happy playing Mozart, Chopin, Liszt and Schumann, because that’s where I find that lyricism. I feel I’m doing what I was meant to do in life, what I can do well.”

Other awards and honours include Officer of the Order of Canada (2001), the Paul de Hueck and Norman Walford Career Achievement Award (2007), the Turzanski Foundation Award (2011), and honorary doctorates from Acadia and Queen’s Universities.


[Photo of Fialkowska with Governor General David Johnston]

Janina Fialkowska returned to Chicago in May of 1989 to perform a Chopin concerto with the Chicago Sinfonietta.  T
here were two performances at different venuesRosary College in suburban River Forest and Orchestra Hall in downtown Chicago.  At that time, it had already been announced that she would be giving the world premiere of a newly-discovered concerto by Liszt with the Chicago Symphony the following year, so when we met at her hotel, we talked about her ideas, the upcoming premiere, and the fact that she was a big hockey fan . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    What else do you do besides play piano and enjoy hockey?

Janina Fialkowska:    I play tennis, when I can, when I’m ever at home, and I walk the dogs... and I eat a lot.

BD:    Do you get enough time for yourself away from the chores of practicing and concertizing?

JF:    Yes.  Whenever I’m at home for more than a week, I’m worried that I’m not playing a concert, and whenever I’m on the road for more than a week I’m worried because I think I never get home.  So I enjoy both of them equally.  It’s a nice balance, and the telephone bridges everything.

BD:    Where is home for you?

JF:    Connecticut.  Although I’m Canadian, I’m now a resident of this country.  I have been for years.  I am originally from Montreal, hence, the Montreal Canadians fan that I am.  My loyalties were divided when the Hartford Whalers were still in it, but then they were eliminated early, so I’m okay.

BD:    At what age did you decide that you wanted to become a pianist full-time for the rest of your natural life?

fialkowska JF:    I decided that many times.  First when I was about four and then when I was about nine.  Later I decided to become a lawyer but at twenty-three I again decided to become a pianist.  Then when I was twenty-seven I thought I couldn’t be a pianist, and then I was miserable for a few years.  Finally, when I was thirty I said, “I think you’ve got a talent.  Therefore, I think this is what you’ve been put on the earth for, with your little talent, to play the piano, and if you don’t play the piano for the rest of your life you’re going to be miserable.  So why don’t you just settle down and practice?”   I’d always done that, but now I did it with heart.

BD:    Does it make you a better pianist to have come to it and gone away from it several times, so that now you know this is a special thing for you?

JF:    I think it’s far easier for me now to have had all that struggle and all that angst and misery, and even illness, almost, in rebellion.  It is character-building, maybe, but also it makes it so much more precious to me now.  For some people, where it all came very easily at a young age, and the career and the playing and everything, maybe they get a little bored now.  I can’t ever see myself ever, ever, getting bored.  I can see myself getting panic-stricken or unhappy with a performance or a concert, but never bored.  I will always be happy doing this career now.  I won’t say that I suffered too much to get it, but almost.  [A bit wistfully]  Almost.

BD:    Are you basically pleased with the pianism that you’re turning out in the concerts all over the world?

JF:    One’s never fully happy.  What I’m basically pleased with is that I know I’m capable of something whether I actually manage to do it on the night.  Sometimes it comes out and sometimes it doesn’t.  Right now, more often than not it’s coming out more like the way I want it to sound.  It’s going well.  I feel there’s an improvement year by year not only with muscular strength but just my whole outlook as to what I’m doing.  I feel there is more and more communication with an audience and that my ideas are going over more.  My love for what I’m doing is going more to the audience, so that’s all I ask for.

BD:    What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear one of your concerts?

JF:    I would like their attention, but that, of course, I have to win.  [Laughs]  If they could just feel the music the way I do it; that’s my job to get them to at least be touched by something that I’ve done.  Actually, I was thinking about this the other day.  I was wondering what I really want most in an audience to feel.  I think I’d rather make an audience cry than to make it excited... or at least smile.  Like a Rubinstein recital or concert, I hope that an audience will leave a recital or a concert of mine with some joy. 

BD:    Does that reflect itself in the choice of pieces you make on each concert or the choice of concertos you play?

JF:    Not really.  I love playing Chopin, so that goes very well, and I love playing Mozart.  Chopin and Mozart are the two composers I love playing the best, but I’m certainly not against playing flashy virtuoso stuff.  I am still enough of a show-off that if I have the chance to show off fingers, I will.  That’s heady stuff and it’s fun, but I won’t get the big emotional kick out of it that I will out of Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Chopin, those people.

BD:    How are audiences different from city to city or country to country?

JF:    Very different.  It also depends on how well they know me.  A Chicago audience, for example, now knows me very well, therefore it is far less scary for me to come here.  It means I’m basically more relaxed when I walk out on stage, and that means I’m more able to do what I want, which means they usually get a better performance.  So that all feeds on itself.  If they come to hear me, generally they’ve heard me before and are expecting to like me.  In New York it’s a different kettle of fish completely.  Although I’ve played quite often there, in New York you’re seen to be trying to prove yourself all the time, or to impress, which is just completely the wrong premise in playing to the public.  I am still not comfortable playing New York.  In London, England, I am absolutely comfortable.  In general, the British audiences are there for enjoyment’s sake.  You walk on stage, you look out at the audience and people have smiles on their faces.  They come not even especially to hear you; they come to hear the pieces.  They love the pieces, so they come and hear them.  France is a tricky place to play...  I’m getting myself into all sorts of trouble here, but there are certain countries that have very preconceived ideas on how things should sound.  Maybe then that puts the onus on you to either change and do what they want
which one would never do because that’s a form of prostitutionor do your own thing and then run the danger that this might be exactly the opposite to what they think it should sound like.

BD:    What about your native country, Canada?

JF:    That’s different.  I’m the old adage of ‘you’re not a prophet in your own country.’  It took them a long, long time, but certain towns have always been terrific to me in Canada
the smaller ones such as Winnipeg, Kitchener and even Vancouver.  They’ve always been terrific, always invited me, but the big onesMontreal, Torontohave taken a while.  For example, I will be playing in Montreal next year with the symphony and it will have been twelve years.  They finally invited me, so I’ll be plenty nervous playing in Montreal.

BD:    They waited for you to go out and make your mark on the world and then come back as a returning star.

JF:    Exactly.  That’s very typical.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Here in Chicago you’re going to be playing the Opus Posthumous Liszt concerto next season.  Tell me about that work.

JF:    I just got the music Friday and I just looked at it for the first time last night.

[Items from two newspapers about this Liszt discovery.]

150-Year Wait For a Lost Liszt

Two-continent debut will feature 1839 piano concerto.

By Laura Van Tuyl, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 3, 1990


Audience members will be on the edge of their seats when a piano concerto by Franz Liszt receives its world premiere tonight in Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Performance of the "new" work has been eagerly awaited by music enthusiasts and Liszt historians, ever since 1988, when a doctoral student from the University of Chicago announced he had stumbled upon missing manuscripts while doing research in Europe.

``It's a huge find,'' says pianist Janina Fialkowska, reached by phone, who will play the work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of associate conductor Kenneth Jean. Ms. Fialkowska ranks the piece as a major piano work, sure to excite the classical musical world.

The European debut of the piece is tomorrow in The Hague, Netherlands, where Stephen Mayer performs with the Resedentie Orkester at The Hague Museum.

The concerto, similar in form to the composer's other two, appears to date from 1839. "At that time, we think of [Liszt] as a virtuoso pianist who was stunning audiences around Europe," said Jay Rosenblatt, discoverer and editor of the work, in a phone interview. "This is a good opportunity for the general public to realize Liszt was always concerned with the serious side of composing."

The 15-minute work, written in one continuous movement, includes cadenza passages for the soloist at the beginning, "a lovely second theme, which is really quite beautiful," says Fialkowska, and a "marvelously virtuosic" ending, she adds.

When Rosenblatt went to Europe to research Liszt's works for piano and orchestra, he had no idea he would unearth a lost concerto. From archival materials, he was able to piece together a hitherto unknown composition, which had become dispersed over three countries. Some pages had been wrongly identified as drafts of Concerto No. 1 and shuffled into piles of unrelated manuscripts.

Liszt had scratched out a few passages of the solo part, "and there is no question he intended to come back and revise it," Rosenblatt says. But the original notes are still legible under the cross-hatch, making a performance of the work possible. "It's an example of where his development was at the time he wrote it."

Fialkowska says the premiere "gives me an amazing sense of power" because there is no precedent for how the concerto should be played. "There are no dynamics markings, no tempo indications - just the bare notes."

Subsequent performances are slated for Chicago (May 5 and 8); Santa Barbara, Calif., by the Festival Orchestra of the Music Academy of the West (Aug. 5); New York, by the New York Philharmonic (Jan. 3-5, 1991); and Youngstown, Ohio, by the Youngstown Symphony (Jan. 12, 1991).

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May 26, 1991|By Steven Brown, Orlando Sentinel Classical Music Critic

(...) This week, the main item of interest is a recently discovered, 15-minute piano concerto by Liszt, which Orlando audiences will finally have a chance to hear.

Jay Rosenblatt, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, unearthed the concerto in Europe about four years ago. Last spring, pianist Fialkowska and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the concerto its world premiere with Jean, who also serves as the Chicago Symphony's associate conductor, on the podium.

Rosenblatt was looking through manuscripts in an archive in Weimar, then part of East Germany, when he came across the first traces of the new concerto late in 1987. At the time, he was studying the well-known Piano Concerto No. 1.

''What I discovered among the material for the First Piano Concerto was this material for another work in the same key, which had been labeled by the archive as part of the First Concerto,'' Rosenblatt said. ''But upon closer examination, I was convinced that it was a completely separate one-movement work that happened to share the same key.

''But I didn't have the composer's own manuscript - what I had to work with was a copyist's manuscript. Liszt had probably given the concerto to an associate to make a clean copy of it, and this copy had a lot of mistakes. Liszt had not gone back to check it.''

During the next spring, Rosenblatt found Liszt's original. He was in Budapest, and once again he made his discovery amid papers related to the First Concerto. Three pages of the new concerto were missing - but thanks to the copyist's version he already had, Rosenblatt was able to fill in what was lost.

The music Orlando hears (now dubbed the Piano Concerto in E-Flat Major, Opus Posthumous) will be ''99 percent Liszt,'' Rosenblatt said. His main contribution lay in recognizing that the manuscripts he found belonged to an independent, previously lost piece. Otherwise, Rosenblatt explained, what editing the concerto needed mainly involved correcting some wrong notes and finishing some lines in the orchestral parts that obviously had been inadvertently broken off.

Liszt wrote the piece in the late 1830s, Rosenblatt said, when he was under 30 years old. But there's no evidence that he ever played it in public. If he had, Liszt probably would have thinned out the piano part - which is packed with notes, making it awkward and all the more demanding for the soloist. But even as it stands, Rosenblatt added, the concerto is unmistakably Lisztian - in its fireworks and in its free-flowing, one-movement form.

''There's no question that this is Liszt's music,'' Rosenblatt said. ''It bears all the fingerprints of the great master.''

BD:    How can you agree to do something
even when it’s by Franz Lisztwithout having actually seen the manuscript?

JF:    [Laughs]  You’re asking me a good question!  I’m wondering... well, because the conductor did see it, and I have enough faith in him when he said he thought it was interesting.  Besides, you don’t turn down this kind of a chance; this is a musical event.  I trust Liszt; I trust Kenneth Jean; I trust the Chicago Symphony.  They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t have some merit.  I looked at it last night and it does have merit.  It is a lot better than even I thought it was going to be.  I really haven’t played it through carefully yet, so I have to look at it.  It’s a very short piece, but it’ll be fun.  If anything, it’ll be very flashy and it’s got some good tunes.

BD:    What is it about a piece of music that makes it have merit?

JF:    Have merit?  Gosh!  [Laughs]  The inspiration that goes into it, the melody — the non-use of melody or use of melody
the harmonies that are used, the creativity of the whole thing... basically, if it grabs you or not; you can tell instantly something has merit or not.

BD:    Really?  It’s that quick?

JF:    Yes, oh, yes.  Sure.

BD:    Do you ever play any music at all that has very little, or even no merit?

JF:    I wouldn’t do that.  The only situation I can see where that would happen would be if, as a favor to some new composer they asked me to play one of their works and I agreed to do it, and then the work turned out to be awful but I’d already agreed to do it.  That would be the only occasion.

BD:    Have you commissioned any works yourself?

fialkowska JF:    Yes, with the help of the Canada Council we commissioned a piece, a piano concerto by Anne Lauber, a Quebec composer.  It’s nearly finished now and it looks like a terrific piece.  We have to get an orchestra to do it, but I’ll leave that up to the Canada Council.  Similarly, there’s a few other solo works that I’ve played, such as a piece by Henri Dutilleux.  He wrote it for the international competition in Maryland last summer when he was there and I was on the jury.  I heard this piece played, I think it was nine times in a row
not very well most of the timeand it stood up.  The piece still was interesting at the end.  It wasn’t published, it was in manuscript form and I said, “Would you mind if I played it?”  He was very sweet.  He’s a very nice man and he said, “Oh, please do.”  So I’ve been playing that piece this year, and as far as I know, I’m the only one who’s done it.  So I actually gave the official premiere, but it’s an excellent piece.  I look around all the time for really good contemporary pieces, and they’re around.  You just have to look.

BD:    Do you know when you look at it if it’s a good piece, or do you have to actually play it
even in publicbefore you can really make a decision?

JF:    Yes.  All those things!  [Both laugh]  It’s harder, of course, for some of the contemporary works because the notation is so difficult to follow.  You have these pages that are three feet tall and five feet wide, so to look at it and actually hear how it goes is slightly difficult.  So you have to play it and try it out in public.  But certainly in the Dutilleux I could tell after the first time I read it through myself that this is a fine, fine piece.

BD:    Do you stay strictly on the keyboard, or do you also go messing around in the guts of the piano?

JF:    No.  I don’t agree with messing around the insides of piano.  That sounds pompous, but mess around in someone else’s piano, not in mine!  I approach a piano in that it’s like the human voice.  I want it to be as close to the human voice as possible, and I consider the human voice as the most perfect instrument.  That’s why I like playing Chopin, the Romantics, and Mozart because for me everything is lyrical.  I have more difficulty playing the composers that treat the piano as a percussion instrument
Stravinsky, for example — and messing inside the piano is really treating the piano as a percussion instrument.  It may be really fun or interesting to hear it, but it’s not for me.

BD:    Do you always use the normal piano, or do you ever go back to fortepianos or harpsichords or any other keyboard instruments?

JF:    No, just the modern piano.  It is very interesting to use the other ones, but it’s basically like going to a museum.  So when people say, “This is the authentic way that an eighteenth century public heard Beethoven played,” it isn’t at all.  Even if you reproduce a piano to be exactly like Beethoven’s piano or Mozart’s piano, you are not hearing it the way they heard it in those days.  Back then they heard a diminished chord, for example, as something completely different from the diminished chord nowadays.  Every piece of music was completely different, so it’s nonsense when you say this is the authentic way that people heard music.

BD:    Then how can you bridge the gap of playing a piece that’s one hundred or two hundred or two hundred fifty years old today when we’ve gone through so much musical as well as political and social upheaval?

JF:    The whole thing of music is that each performance is a creation in itself.  Each performance that Beethoven gave of his works improved or didn’t improve, but it changed every time.  He heard it differently every time, and that’s what it’s all about.  Certainly every performance I’ve given of the Chopin F Minor has been radically different even though there’s always the same idea behind it.  I love lyricism and I want to sing this piece out and I want to wrench heartstrings with it, but I’ll do it differently every time (a) because every instrument that I play on is different, and (b) I’m going to feel different every time.  I’ll have eaten something different, the audience will be different, the hall will be different, and that’s the most wonderful thing about music.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

JF:    Very, because no one can live without it, and today people just have to realize this, that’s all!

BD:    Should concert artists such as yourself try to entice rock audiences or non-audiences into the concert hall?

JF:    Yes, but not with compromise, not with the cross-over stuff.  I don’t see that working.  The public that comes to a cross-over concert or a pops concert is never, ever going to come to standard concerts.  Maybe one one-millionth of a percent might actually change and come to hear the Bruckner Eighth or something with the symphony.  I think the thing is to try and get them really early.  It’s up to the parents and the teachers at school, because once someone’s hooked, once someone, as a youngster, hears music, real music and likes it, they’re never going to be interested in the other stuff
except maybe for peer pressure.  They’re going to pretend, but it’s like eating a bad hamburger as opposed to going to a very good restaurant.  It’s junk food.

BD:    So it’s junk music, then?

JF:    Junk music, right.  It’s easy, it’s fast, and you don’t have to think about it.  You don’t have to take the trouble to appreciate what you’re eating or hearing.

BD:    And it doesn’t last.

JF:    It doesn’t last at all, and it gives you a stomachache or a headache. 

BD:    Or a soul ache?

JF:    Yes, exactly!  Think of what music can bring to a life or to a person just for one day.  The funniest was when I played a Mozart concerto, and a very, very famous neurosurgeon came backstage and said, “I hope you won’t take this in the wrong way, but tonight was the first night that I’ve been able to sleep in two weeks.”  [Laughs]  I said, “I’m not sure if that’s a compliment!” and he said, “No, I’m sorry.  It was your Mozart.  It just made me so calm and so relaxed and so serene that I fell asleep.”  So all right, I took it as a compliment but you see it does do things to people.

BD:    Is there any set pattern on what music should do to people?

JF:    No, not at all.  It’s what you want it to do to you, I suppose.

BD:    Then what’s the purpose of music?

JF:    I don’t know...  To stir emotions...  That’s all I can say.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re putting together a season or two seasons’ worth of concerts, how do you balance recitals and concerti, and maybe some chamber music, too?

fialkowska JF:    It’s really not up to me that much.  Frankly, I would much rather be doing many more recitals than I’m doing.  The recital, unfortunately, seem to be dying out in North America.  There are very few recital series.  You talk about them, then you start talking about the financial brackets.  When you’re the management you have certain fees, and God knows that I am very good about lowering my fee to play recitals, but there are limits to which my manager will agree.  This is very nitty-gritty and I’m not sure I should be saying this, but I love playing recitals perhaps because I don’t get a chance to do them that often.  Probably I’m over-priced for the small community recital, although I will go and do it if I can arrange it myself.  There are not that many big series.  I know Chicago has a couple of recital series, but you can’t do those every year.  You just don’t.  Even the biggest artists don’t do them every year.  Minneapolis has one and a few cities in Canada and New York, but there are just not that many recitals around, and it’s very sad.  I think the problem is that to sell a recital series, at least the smaller ones, they always have to hire one big name to sell the whole package, and unfortunately some of the big names nowadays have really outrageously out-priced themselves.  It kind of ruins it for everyone else, and that’s why so many of these recital series have gone under.  I’m lucky if I play three or four recitals a year, officially.  Unofficially I do three or four more for places in small towns where I’m friends with the people and I just want to play.  But most of my year is filled up with orchestra work, which is wonderful.  It’s terrific.

BD:    You like sitting in front of eighty or ninety men and women that are sawing away?

JF:    Love it.  What a trip!  It’s just great; it’s a heady experience; it’s wonderful, but you’re only on a maximum forty to forty-five minutes.  You build a rapport with the audience, but it’s nothing like if you have them for two hours.  The repertoire is wonderful, but it’s also one composer only, so there are disadvantages.  And then sometimes the orchestras are not so good, or you don’t get along so well with the conductor.

BD:    Do you then not accept those engagements again?

JF:    It depends.  I’ve never really got that bad an experience.  Actually, if it’s a really bad experience, the conductor usually gets fired before the time when I get back.

BD:    Hah!

JF:    [Explaining]  It’s not my fault that he gets fired, you know, but if he’s that bad he’s bad to everyone.  I get along better than most.  I don’t like conflict, so I’ll just try to get along.

BD:    When you come to a city to play a concerto that you’ve played a dozen times, do you have a set interpretation or do you work with the conductor, and do you accept all of the conductor’s suggestions?

JF:    I have my own idea how it should go and how I’ve done it.  It depends on the conductor, again.  If you have someone of the caliber of a Solti, for example, first of all he’s more experience than myself.  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]  Let’s face it, he is a huge personality so I listen to what he says.  Obviously he is a good enough conductor, but he will let me do my own way.  If he feels strongly about something, well then, okay, I accept it.  If it goes completely against what I want, then I’m going to be trying the whole evening to persuade him to do what I want to do.  But when I did work with Solti there was no such problem.  It was okay, but that’s what I’d say.  If it were someone of that caliber, yes, I’d be very likely to listen to what they have to say.

BD:    I assume there are only two or three on that level.  Everybody else, then, falls to the next level or the next level?

JF:    Sure, but if anyone has a good idea I listen to it.  Then you have the question where a conductor is not quite as competent as he should be.  Then you have to compromise to try to just get the performance slightly off the ground.  That’s happened quite often.  Or maybe the conductor is very good but the orchestra is just simply incapable of doing something in the correct tempo.  Then instead of getting up and leaving the stage in a huff and saying, “How can I play with you?” I’ll compromise.  You can always find some good solution.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Always?

JF:    Nearly.  There was a time in one of the Dakotas.  I was playing a Ravel concerto and the orchestra came in, during the middle of my cadenza.  That was interesting.

BD:    I assume you immediately made a big cut.

JF:    I made a big cut, but the orchestra was smart enough to know that they’d come in wrong, and then they stopped.  So then they started again and I had already made the cut, but then I came back and joined them and we ended happily together.  But that’s the challenge.  That’s sort of fun!  Luckily, it doesn’t happen all the time, but I sure knew the Ravel concerto after that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made some recordings, and I trust you’re going to be making more.

JF:    I hope so.

BD:    There’s the cut and splice.  Does that make it too perfect?

JF:    The problem is then you get into competition with your own recordings.  That’s what happened for years.  In the sixties and early seventies we got this breed of young pianists that were too perfect for words, and it started sounding a little clinical.  Actually, a lot of them still sound rather clinical.

BD:    All the notes are there in the right place but there’s no fire?

fialkowska JF:    They are too careful.  There’s fire, but it’s just a bit careful.  The creative imagination is repressed slightly.  Obviously, I want to hit all the right notes.  The perfect thing is to have technique...  Technical perfection is basically to get your technique to do what you want to do, to interpret the way you want to do.  So when people say, “They’re just technicians,” that means they’re just not good enough technicians.  I just made a recording for CBC Enterprises, and believe you me I’m sure the way we recorded it is not normal.  I didn’t even get to hear back four of the pieces.  I would play it once through and it’s in the can and that’s it.

BD:    Is that not the way, really, to present music, to play it once and have it be presented?

JF:    Of course if you play and you like what you’ve done, then that’s perfect, but it doesn’t always work that way, especially if you’re doing a program of virtuoso music where you’re bound to miss something.  If you miss something, then chances are you’re a little bit more careful when you re-do it.  If only you could leave the mistakes in.  That’s what I always say, but never mind, you can’t.  The BBC in lovely England has asked me to do all of the Chopin for the radio, and if it takes twenty years, that’s fine.  So when I go in there I never listen back.  I just play Chopin for hours and doesn’t matter if I miss certain things here and there.  I call out to the little control booth and they say, “Oh, that was lovely!”  I do my best playing that way.  There’s no pressure.  People are appreciative.

BD:    If you’re playing for hours, obviously you’re playing each piece several times.

JF:    No.  Never more than two or three times.  Twice, probably, is the usual thing.  The last time I was in there, in four hours we did the four ballades and two sonatas and eight mazurkas.  So that’s what I mean by playing for hours.

BD:    It’s quite a lot of material to get through.

JF:    It’s quite a lot of material, yes, but it’s fun!  That I love doing.

BD:    When you get a piece of music that you’ve not played before, how long does it take before it gets into your fingers?

JF:    I like to memorize as instantly as possible
two or three daysbecause that’s the way I’ve always done it, and I don’t feel like I know anything until I know it by heart.  Then to actually get into my fingers, maybe it takes another couple of weeks.  To actually get it into my soul, it could take up to twenty years, but to get to concert performance, never under six months.  I prefer to have worked a piece six months to a year.  Then it really starts to sound well.

BD:    Are you constantly working on it during that time or do you play it, then leave it, then play it again?

JF:    That’s the best way to do it.

BD:    Do you have a regimen of practice
so many hours a day of practice?

JF:    Not really, no.

BD:    Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

JF:    Yes, I like it fine, as long as I get home in the end... to the dogs.

BD:    Can’t take the dogs with you?

JF:    No, unfortunately.

BD:    If you play in your home town, can you have the dogs there on stage with you?

JF:    It’d be nice, except they don’t all particularly enjoy my playing.  Three of them do...

BD:    Is that a bad sign?

JF:    No.  The dogs are very interesting.  The collie loves Mozart, the retriever likes noisy music, and the oldest one likes anything; she just loves music.  The puppies can’t stand music.  They come in to bother me to be fed or to be taken out, but then they always leave.  I think it has partially to do with the fact that it’s a stone tile floor where the piano is, where I practice, and they prefer to go into the other room where there’s a carpet.

BD:    [Being helpful (?)]  Try an experiment
put a carpet under the piano and see if they come.

JF:    It’s all right.  I don’t need them.  [Both laugh]

BD:    I assume that you have favorite pianos all over the world that you like to play on.  How long does it take you to get into each new piano that you’re playing on?

JF:    Ideally, I like to have two days
two hours the day before and then two hours the day of, and just right before going on.  Then I’m fine.  I prefer, of course, a Hamburg Steinway, but the Steinway is the piano that I like the best.

BD:    Because of the touch, or the sound, or both?

JF:    Both.

BD:    Do you ever run into a poor Steinway?

JF:    Many times.

BD:    Why are they so variable?

JF:    Because each one is built as an individual piano; they’re not assembly line creatures.  The wood can be different because they have their own trees.  In Germany they bring it with the bark and everything.  They have their own little saw mill in the factory, so there’s all these variables.  One man builds a piano.  He’s one man who’s building the piano, so another man might do it differently in the other end of the room.  That’s why they’re all different.  That’s why certain other pianos do sound all the same.  If you want to be sure to have a Holiday Inn everywhere or this kind of other piano everywhere, sometimes that’s comforting.  A lot of my colleagues are going that way because they don’t like the great variation in pianos.  But I’m still at the point where I find to tame a new piano is rather exciting
as long as it isn’t awful.

BD:    Do you travel with your own technician?

JF:    Wouldn’t that be nice?  But then I’d have to pay for it!  My very best friend, who I grew up with as a child, married a Steinway technician.  I thought that was incredibly sensible of her.  He looks after my piano in Connecticut.  He’s an excellent technician.  They have threatened to come to Chicago and hear me when I play this new Liszt concerto, so he could look at the piano at least.  [Laughs]  But I don’t want to offend anyone here.  [For more on the subject of technicians, see my Interview with Franz Mohr, Chief Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons, 1968-1992.]

fialkowska BD:    We have some good technicians around...

JF:    Oh, I’m sure you do.

BD:    ...and some good pianos, I hope.

JF:    I hear the Hamburg Steinway at Orchestra Hall’s in excellent shape.  Everyone’s telling me that now, so I’m looking forward to that.

BD:    So it’ll be a different piano from the first of these concerts.

JF:    Oh, yes.

BD:    Because of that, is it like playing two separate concerts rather than a pair?

JF:    Absolutely.  Also because the hall is so different.  It’ll be quite different.

BD:    Do you adjust your playing at all to the size of the hall?

JF:    Oh, yes.  You project either more or less, or in a different way.

BD:    Are you really in the right place to hear how your sound is?

JF:    No, not really, but you guess a lot.  Obviously, if it’s a three thousand seat hall you do have to project more.  You have to put a little bit more elbow grease into it, but in a hall like at Rosary College it’s slightly more relaxing.  It’s more intimate; you play in an intimate style.  The Chopin F Minor will take on far more heroic proportions in Orchestral Hall than it will at Rosary College.  That doesn’t mean it’ll sound any better or worse, it’ll just sound different.

BD:    Have you ever been in a hall that was too small for your sound?

JF:    No.  I like small halls.

BD:    Really???

JF:    Yes.

BD:    Singers do, but I am surprised that an instrumentalist would.

JF:    I like it just because you’re more in touch with your audience.  You feel them.  You hear them.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do you ever wish you could say ‘stop coughing?’

JF:    Yes, many times.

BD:    Be like Jon Vickers and scream at them!  [See my Interview with Jon Vickers.]

JF:    No, but Rubinstein, who I knew quite well, always said that was very unprofessional behavior.  He said that you just put up with your audience because they were so kind as to buy the tickets and come and hear you, so you should be grateful.  I’ve taken that attitude and so I forgive them most anything
except screaming children or flash bulbs.  When that happens, I have the usher remove this vile person who’s flashing a camera in my face.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You feel that you’re more than a trained seal on stage?

JF:    Yes.  I’m their friend.

BD:    So you build a friendship through the music?

JF:    Hopefully.  That’s the whole point.

BD:    You’re looking forward to coming back next year for the Liszt?

JF:    Yes.

BD:    Will you be back again in this next season, or not until then?

JF:    Only in O’Hare Airport, catching planes. [Laughs]

BD:    Wave at us as you fly by.

JF:    I will wave, always.  I’ll be in Rockford, which is fairly close from here in September, but I won’t be in the Chicago area.

BD:    How far ahead are you booked?

JF:    Until June 1990, although I’ve been away from New York, where my manager is, for so long now that I really, literally don’t know what they’ve been booking for me.

BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  Really???  You don’t have yes or no on each concert?

JF:    I have yes or no only on what I’m playing at each concert.  They know me well enough; I’ve been with the same management now for twelve years.  They know exactly what I can do and what I can’t do.

BD:    Do they ever overbook you?

JF:    No.  They’ve never done that
— not so far.  [Laughs]  I think they realize, no, they know it’s in my interest that if they want me, they want me to play well as well.  It reflects on them, so if they’re going to tire me out, they’re risking that I might not play so well.  So they wouldn’t do that.  Oh, they might...  For money they might do anything, but they haven’t yet.  [Both laugh]

BD:    I assume you’re looking for the long career.

JF:    I’m looking to be playing until I’m ninety-one at least.

BD:    Be another Horszowski!

JF:    Oh, that’s even better.  How old is he?  Ninety-six?  That would be just fine.

BD:    Apparently he is still playing very well.

JF:    Yes.  That’s the thing, and not even in a way that everyone says, “Isn’t it amazing he can still get ‘round the piano?”  Actually he’s playing really well
— at least that’s what I hear.

BD:    I assume that you’re always improving?

JF:    I hope so.

BD:    Thank you for being a pianist.

JF:    Well, thank you very much.  Thank you for making this so nice.


© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in her hotel in Chicago on May 22, 1989.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB the following year, and twice in 1991.  The transcription was posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.