Pianist  Mūza  Rubackytė

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



The stunning career of Lithuanian pianist MŪZA RUBACKYTĖ started when she made her debut at the age of 7 performing Haydn’s D Major Concerto. At 13, she won Lithuania’s National Young Artists competition allowing the promising artist admission to the Lithuanian Conservatory (now – Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre), and later also to the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

Upon graduation, she entered and won the Soviet Union’s “All-Union” competition and became known as one of the best pianists of the USSR. She was invited to perform with various orchestras under the baton of noted maestri such as Aram Khachaturian, Neeme Järvi, Valery Gergiev, Vakhtang Jordania and Eri Klas. The “ordered” recital tours in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Altai region, Moldova and elsewhere were held in a variety of concert spaces, such as halls of steel mills, poultry farms or dairy factories, small villages and major centers of culture and philharmonics. During those years of political restrictions, when performers were authoritatively told what, where, and when to play, she managed to build an impressive repertoire of 30 different solo programs and 40 piano concertos. In 1981 Rubackytė was granted permission to cross the Iron Curtain and participate in the prestigious Liszt-Bartók International Piano Competition in Budapest. There she became the winner of the competition to wide acclaim, but for another seven years the virtuoso’s artistic activities were restricted, and she could not accept offers of impressive contracts. With the beginning of “perestroika”, the pianist was able to go to Paris, where she became a winner of Paris international competition Les Grand Maître Français (Grand Master of France).

Now, a resident of Vilnius, Paris and Geneva, Rubackytė regularly performs throughout Europe, North and South America and Asia. On the list of her most important tours are such countries as Japan, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico. Her piano recitals are held in famous concert halls, among them are London Wigmore Hall, Bonn Beethoven Haus, Paris Salle Gaveau and the Opéra Bastille, Tivoli Villa d'Este, Buenos Aires Teatro Colón, Santiago Teatro Municipal, the Egyptian Opera and others. Rubackytė performs with the U.S. orchestras of Newport, Portland, Houston, North Carolina, Nashville, Canton, Austin, Virginia, Detroit, Washington, Texas, Buffalo, Champaign-Urbana, Oregon, and others, conducted by Uri Segal, Leonard Slatkin, John Nelson, Pavel Kogan, Stefan Lano, Peter Bay, JoAnn Falletta and others. She has played with symphony orchestras of Santiago Teatro Municipal, the Egyptian Opera, Buenos Aires Teatro Colón, Mendoza, Singapore, Malaysia, Flanders, Maribor Opera (Slovenia), Lausanne, with various ensembles in France (Paris, Toulouse, Brittany, Auvergne, Douai, La Garde Républicaine, etc.).

muza Rubackytė has been awarded the Honorary medal “For Merits to Lithuanian culture”, the 3rd Class Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas, she was also awarded the Project “LT Identity” prize for making Lithuania famous worldwide, and the Lithuanian Government Prize for merits to Lithuanian culture and active concert activities; as Lithuania’s cultural ambassador in the world she has received the Lithuanian National Culture and Arts Prize (comparable to the Kennedy Center Honors in the USA).

In 2015 in addition to performing two compleete F. Liszt Years of Piligrimage at Bayreuth (where Liszt died) and for opening concert of 10th F. Liszt Festival in Raiding (where Liszt was born) she was invited for the “Everest of the Pianists” at 30th festival of Radio France Montpelier and performed in one day two concerts 24 Preludes and Fugues of D. Shostakovitch.

Rubackytė is a Board member of International Liszt Association and President of the Liszt Society in Lithuania, jury member of Ciurlionis, Minsk, Pretoria, International Franz Liszt Piano Competition in Utrecht and others, artistic director of Vilnius Piano Music Festival. Commissioned by the Arte TV network, she played in “Play Liszt – Un virtuose visionnaire”, a French film by Judit Kele; she also took part in “Liszt's Dance with the Devil”, a film by Ophra Yerushalmi. In 2011, Rubackytė participated in an international tour “Liszt's World Pilgrimage”, gave more than fifty recitals and appearances with symphony orchestras at events dedicated to F. Liszt in concert halls of various countries, among them – the Paris Salle Gaveau and Opéra Bastille, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Buenos Aires Teatro Colón, Opera of Santiago de Chile, London Wigmore Hall, Beethoven Haus in Bonn, prestigious stages in Japan, Iceland, South and North America, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, China, South Corea. Etc.

--  From the website of BSArtist Management  
--  Names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

This meeting in Chicago was arranged by another fine Lithuanian musician, Arnold Voketaitis.  Being after his singing career was finished, he was helping a few other artists with his contacts and depth of experience.  On that same day, the pianist was having professional photographs taken, and when that was finished we sat down for a conversation . . . . .

muza Bruce Duffie:   You’ve just come from a long and tiring photo shoot.  Will it be a happy experience for you to get back to just the piano?

Mūza Rubackytė:   Musicians feel better with our instruments
singers with the word, and we with our instrumentsbut to make the photos is part of the profession.  So, it was very nice, and I’m used to doing it.

BD:   When you play a concert, are you giving the audience a snapshot of the music?

MR:   First of all, I prepare.  We try to understand the works or the pieces of the composers.  We try to enter inside and understand what it is inside.  Then we need to assimilate, and then we can transfer something to other people.  My artistic duty is to tell the composer’s story, and I try to be clear when telling this story.  Sometimes it happens that we have such an aura with the audience, and it’s the moment of happiness.

BD:   Are you telling the composer’s story, or are you telling your own story via the composer?

MR:   It’s impossible to begin by my story, but my experience as a human being, as an artist, will contribute to this story of the composer.

BD:   There’s a huge array of piano literature.  How do you decide yes or no for each piece?

MR:   This is difficult to answer.  Yes, it’s a huge repertoire, and sometimes there are very beautiful pieces, very nice pieces we don’t touch because it is not yet the time to play them.  Maybe we will come be back to them three years later, or ten years later, or never.  I have some music that I come to several times but I do not play, or some pieces I play immediately because I like them and can do them sometimes in a few days.

BD:   What is it that grabs you?

MR:   We need to find something personal inside, and to appropriate this music as our own music.  Maybe this is the reason.  With all the respect for the composer, we need to have this personal responsibility with each piece.

BD:   Is the responsibility only to the composer or is it also to the audience?

MR:   Both.  The best possibility is to transfer our own feelings, which are adequate to the composer’s feelings.

BD:   Do you feel that most of the composers whose music you play knew how to write well for the keyboard?

MR:   Those who were pianists, yes, like Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, or Bartók.  Some, like Reger or Berg maybe less so, or even Beethoven.  Beethoven was a pianist himself, but he wrote in a very uncomfortable manner.  Maybe it is just his feeling, and he didn’t think about the instrument when he wrote for the piano.  He thought only about the music.  On the other hand, Chopin always thought about the piano, so it’s different.

BD:   When you’re playing, do you think about the piano, or do you think just about the music that is coming out?

MR:   I’m trying to eliminate material things.  The piano is my voice, and at the same time it’s a piece of furniture.  So, this is a compromise between my voice and the object, to find something to pass through, and to say more important things.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I understand that in your early days you had to play in good places and poor places, and you met all kinds of pianos.  Were you able to accommodate your fingers to the various instruments?

MR:   This is the problem of pianists, because other instrumentalists are traveling with their instruments.  Only organists and pianists are at the mercy of the venue.  The pianist who is giving the concert can have a good experience, and we can adjust to the piano and the acoustic with different tools.  But we need to think about different possibilities and the ear correction.  It is not a finger correction, it’s ear and brain correction.

BD:   When you get to a new piano, is it a very quick change, or is it a long drawn-out change to make it your own?

muza MR:   It depends on the piano.  I’m a Steinway artist, and I know very well this piano.  There are differences between a Hamburg piano and an American piano, but I know well these pianos, so there is no surprise with these pianos.  It is the same with Bechstein, but I can have a surprise with another piano like Bösendorfer, or Fazioli, or more rare pianos.

BD:   Do you ever play older instruments, or are they all new instruments?

MR:   I have at my home a one-hundred-year-old Bechstein, and I’m very happy with it.  It’s one of my pianos, and I’m very happy to use it for Chopin, and other such kind of soft Romantic music.

BD:   If you could, would you travel with your own piano and a technician?

MR:   Yes.  When I am making my CDs, I always have my own technicians, and have had them for many years.  I’m recording now on the same piano always, and I try with him to make it better in my taste, from my point of view.  So, it would be Paradise for the pianist to tour with his own piano.

BD:   Do you play the same for the microphone as you do for the live audience?

MR:   I try to do the same because the audience is always the same through CD or the hall.  I don’t like the idea of CDs coming from cutting everywhere and mixing it around, so I’m trying to make it like a concert even if it’s necessary ten times to do the whole piece.  This allows us to feel the spirit of the concert hall, not just to make the little bits to string together.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

MR:   No!  In any case, we are never satisfied because then we would not make our research.  We would not work, nor would we be very happy, because it was boring!  [Both laugh]  We are trying to do better every day, and to understand better, to go into it better, and sometimes it’s almost ninety per cent okay, but never more.

BD:   [Surprised]  Never more than ninety???  [More laughter]  You’re your own worst critic!

MR:   That’s true.

BD:   I assume you must get some satisfaction out of all your performances... or at least most of them.

MR:   Sometimes it is a nice surprise to hear something five years later, and think it was not so bad.

BD:   When you’re playing, are you conscious of the audience?

MR:   Aware?  No!  Not at all, because we communicate in a way that it is not possible to close the window and the door.  We communicate, so I try to establish the contact.  The only problem, sometimes, in the little European halls or in private concerts is that you have the audience so close that you can see them in your right eye.  You might notice the feet of somebody, and you can be distracted.  So in this case, for example, in Campanella of Liszt, where everything is on the right side of the piano, I close my right eye.  Then I’m very secure.  I tried it once and it worked, especially for a piece where you need to be on the right side of the keyboard.  We try to establish contact, but not get too close.

BD:   Maybe then could you change the angle of the piano so that they are a little further away?

MR:   Yes, but it’s also the sound that is going a little bit in another direction.  So, it’s better to have a blinder, like the horses to close the eye!

BD:   Would you want to put a screen beside you so that you can play in private?

MR:   No, no, no, I want to be with the audience.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you play a concerto, obviously you have one large piece to play.  When you’re building a recital program, you have to select several pieces.  How do you decide what will fit together?

MR:   It’s experience.  It’s how you develop your recitals.  You begin with something, and then you develop.  The tension goes higher.  Then you have an intermission, and after that you have something once more to begin.  [Laughs]  It’s like a good supper in a good French restaurant.

muza BD:   So each section of the concert is a course in the meal?

MR:   Yes, and it fits together with the acoustic, like a good wine!

BD:   Do you do any teaching of piano, or are you just performing now?

MR:   I do some teaching.  I was one of the youngest associate professors in the Moscow Conservatory, and then I was professor, and am still now, in the Lithuanian Academy of Music.  But I’m teaching few students because I don’t have a lot of time to do it.  Mostly I’m giving masterclasses, especially in the summertime, but I’m failing my students if I am in Paris quite regularly.  I have not much time for the teaching.

BD:   Is there any kind of general advice that you have for students of the piano?

MR:   To be crazy about the piano, to be crazy about music, to play without feeling that you are playing for four, five, or six hours.  Just to love it.

BD:   I assume you love it?

MR:   Yes.

BD:   Is the music that you play for everyone?

MR:   I hope so because we are touching the chef-d’oeuvre, the highlights of culture, of human feeling and human intellect.  We understand it, and we try to transmit these kinds of universal human values, so I think we can touch everyone.  If we touch them or not, maybe there is another reason.

BD:   Let me ask a balance question.  When you play music, how much is art and how much, if any, is entertainment?

MR:   It depends on the pieces.  For example, if you play Sonata Funèbre [Chopin], is there a sense of amusement?  If you do something intellectual, is it to be very high, or is it to have fun?  It depends, but if you are speaking about fun, like a joke, it depends on what you play.  We are not composers, so we follow the written line.  We’re like the actors.  We appropriate, but we play sometimes tragedies, sometimes comedy.

BD:   So there are some comic pieces that you play?

MR:   Yes!  I like a lot the things of the Twentieth century, like Prokofiev or Shostakovich pieces, or other composers.

BD:   A little Burlesque or something like that?

MR:   Yes, or Vision Fugitives, or Sarcasms, or different things.

BD:   Then let me ask a very easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

MR:   [Thinks a moment]  You see I made a little bit of silence, so it is not an easy question.  I think music, like other arts, reflects life, reflects the interior of the human being.  So, the purpose of music is to speak between one and another person, to speak about high things, to speak about common things, to speak about simple things, to communicate.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You have to travel all over the world for your performances.  Do you enjoy the life of a traveling musician?

MR:   We have no choice.  A musician’s life is a gypsy life.  I’m always thinking about other luggage now that I’m in the midst of a Tour.  It is already twenty days, and I will be home the 27th, so it is a very big tour.  But I cannot sit at home more than three weeks.  I don’t become a very nice person, so we’re the alcoholic of traveling!  [Laughs]

BD:   You just have to get out on the road again?

MR:   Yes.

BD:   How do you decide which venues you will accept when they ask you for engagements?

MR:   Musicians are very anxious.  They want more, and more, and more, and more, so just to make selection between the more interesting propositions depends on the places, the hall, the conductors, the programs.  But we want to play more and more.  This is our profession.  Everybody wants to play always more.

BD:   So you would play three hundred and sixty-five days a year???

MR:   I never tried!  [Much laughter]  But for the moment, I want more.

BD:   When you go to a place and find the piano is really very nice and to your liking, does that then influence you to try and get more engagements in that city and in that hall?

MR:   It can be, because it remains in the memory.  Along with that acoustic, like a smell, like a taste, it remains, yes.

BD:   I assume though that the acoustic will change if the hall is empty when you’re rehearsing, or full when there’s an audience.  You can account for that in your fingers and in your ear?

MR:   Yes.  We never know how much audience we will have.  It could be two thousand people or even just two!  [Laughs]  I’m laughing but, yes, sometimes it’s a very big difference, and in the scales we adjust with the pedal and with the other things.  This is just being a professional.

muza BD:   You’ve played some older works, like Scarlatti, and you play Romantic pieces, and Twentieth Century pieces.  Do you play any brand-new pieces, such as world premieres?

MR:   Yes, yes, I was one of the resident artists at the Abbaye de la Prée in France.  We were seven different kinds of artistssculptors, writers, etc.and we had some composers.  So, I was very happy to play the music of my neighbors that written three days ago.  It’s very nice.  One thing I do not like on my piano is noisy things.  I will not bang on it because I love this instrument.  I don’t like it when the composer uses the piano as a percussion instrument, so I do not play those kinds of pieces.  But contemporary music, especially in chamber music I do like.

BD:   I was going to ask about that.  You play solo recitals, and you play orchestral works.  Do you get enough time to play chamber music?

MR:   Yes, I like it, but there is not enough time.  We pianists are very, very lonely, maybe the most lonely people in the music world, so it’s a big happiness to meet somebody, and to speak like a jazz man to exchange feelings.  I’m playing very soon with a quartet, some quintet repertoire.  I have all the big Twentieth Century pieces in my repertoire, and chamber version of the Concerto No. 4 of Beethoven which was found in ’96 in the Beethoven House.  It
s a very interesting version, very different from the full concerto.  It has the same quantity of measures, but eighty different places in the piano part.  I’m playing both versions, so it’s tricky.

BD:   Is this Beethoven’s version or someone else’s?

MR:   It’s Beethoven’s version for Prince Lobkowitz, for his chamber music concerts at home.  It was discovered just when the Soviet system collapsed.  It
s a very exciting project, and I have performed it with a String Quartet for the past five years in different European towns.

BD:   Do you have to accommodate not only the solo part, but a little bit of the orchestra sometimes?

MR:   No, no, no, only the solo part, which is very different.  I mentioned eighty differences, but I need to do a little bit of conducting to show indications because we are five strings, a quartet with an additional viola, plus the piano.  It’s an exciting thing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re presented with a new piece of music
perhaps another standard workabout how long does it take you to get it into your fingers and into your mind?

MR:   It depends on the piece.  Sometimes I know that I will play this piece... for example, a Romantic piece that I will play one day but I never touched yet.  Maybe I will have worked on it with my students, or I have heard it, or simply know this music.  Then when I decide, it comes immediately.  You can see the results in one week or even in five days.  I like things like that.  It was like I’d played it all my life, but I had never touched it.  Then other pieces, especially if they are in a new language, not a very common language to me, will take time.  Don
t forget, we pianists need to have all this stuff from memory.  It’s a tradition, and a bad tradition... well, not bad, but a tradition and a difficult tradition given to us by Liszt.  So, it’s not so easy, and it takes time.

BD:   Would you rather have the score on the piano for you to look at?

MR:   It’s habit now to play without, so no, I don’t think so.  But it takes more time than just to put the music together.  It takes more time to put it in the head.

BD:   Have you ever launched into a selection and been in the wrong movement?  Or, has it ever happened to you that you’ve come to the end of one piece and then started another piece, and it’s not the next piece on the program?

MR:   [Laughs]  No, no, fortunately not.  I have heard that my colleagues have difficulties on the stage.  Fortunately, it has not yet happened with me.  I try to prepare carefully.  It’s a question of preparation and concentration.

muza BD:   Are you always able to concentrate, even if you’ve had, say, a poor meal, or you’ve stubbed your toe, or you’re longing to be home instead of playing another concert?

MR:   Or we have jet-lag, or we play at three in the morning.  We try to do it.  We have some little secrets for it, but it’s mostly just experience more or less.

BD:   You’re a Lithuanian, so tell me the special joys of playing music of Čiurlionis (1875-1911).

MR:   It is like speaking your own mother language.  You are born with it, you listen to it in your home, so it’s such a pleasure to do it, like touching your toys of childhood.

BD:   Is it part of your mission to make this music more well known around the world?

MR:   Sure.  I feel it, and I’m very happy to play his works in Bermuda, in Santiago in Chile, everywhere.  People come backstage for me to sign Čiurlionis’s CDs, so I am so happy to do it.

BD:   Are there other Lithuanian composers that you champion?

MR:   We have a huge community of contemporary composers, a lot of good composers.  In France I did a lot of radio broadcasts about Lithuanian music.  It was very interesting for me to do it, and I hope also for the audience.  Unlike details about myself, I try to transmit what I know about these composers.

BD:   I asked you about advice for other pianists.  What about advice do you have for composers who want to write for the piano?

MR:   For three years I have been waiting for one concerto which I imagined.  I would like a contemporary composer to write for me a concerto for different keyboards.  I would like to have about four or five keyboards on the stage.

BD:   Four or five pianos, or piano, harpsichord, virginal, etc.?

MR:   Different instruments.  I studied harpsichord in the Moscow Conservatory, so I know this instrument, also others like Ondes Martenot, celesta, and things like that.  So, I’m waiting for it...  Maybe one day it will happen.

BD:   Have you suggested this to a composer, or are you just hoping it will happen?

MR:   No, no, I suggested it around, but for the moment it does not work.

BD:   I hope it comes to pass, I really do!  Do you have any advice for audiences who come to hear you play?

MR:   Just to open the heart and to try to listen, and maybe to prepare a little bit the ears.  Listen to the CDs of the same composer.  The audience will understand more during the concert when the ears are prepared by this knowledge, or by the feelings, or by the sounds.

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

MR:   Do you mean satisfaction, or understanding the art, or success?  It depends on what do you mean.

BD:   Do you feel you’ve had enough success so far, and do you want more success to come?

MR:   As I told you, we want more and more!  [Both laugh]  But to the first part of the question, I’m quite happy in this period because I’m living now in a period of my life when I am not old, but I know a lot.  So, it’s a good time.

BD:   Are you pacing yourself for a long career?

MR:   Oh, yes, till the hundredth year.

BD:   You look to have a hundred-year career???

MR:   [Smiles]  Well, like M
ieczysław Horszowski.  Why not?  I heard him play at 98 or 99 years old.  He was walking very slowly, but he was playing quite fast!  [More laughter]

BD:   I hope that happens for you.  One last question.  Is playing the piano fun?

MR:   Very!  I began to play the piano when I was a child, and I never needed to have a doll.  I never played with dolls, I played with instruments
with violin, with piano, and I sang.  It was very funny, and it’s good fun.

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success.  Thank you for coming to Chicago, and for the conversation.

MR:   Thank you, Bruce.

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© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 20, 2005.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

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.