Pianist  Cristina  Ortiz
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


While Cristina Ortiz has been identified with Brazilian and Spanish piano music, not least because of her spirited interpretations of works by Villa-Lobos, De Falla, and Granados, she has achieved acclaim in such a broad range of repertory, it would be unfair to call her a specialist. Indeed, her repertory includes all the concertos of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, and Rachmaninov, 15 by Mozart, three by Prokofiev, and scores of solo pieces by these and other composers out of the Spanish and Latin spheres. She has also delved heavily into chamber music, performing just as broad a spectrum of pieces, including music by Dvorák, Elgar, Fauré, and Shostakovich. In this genre she has collaborated with violinists Boris Belkin and Uto Ughi, cellist Antonio Meneses, clarinetist Dmitri Ashkenazy, and with various chamber ensembles, such as the Chilingirian Quartet and Prague Wind Quintet. She has appeared in recital at the most prestigious concert venues and with the major orchestras of Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, London, and Sao Paulo. In the new century Ortiz has given concerts, usually of Mozart concertos, while conducting from the keyboard. She has also held master classes at Juilliard and London's Royal College of Music. Ortiz has made over 30 recordings spread over a variety of labels, including EMI, Decca, Collins Classics, Naxos, BIS, and others.

Cristina Ortiz was born in Bahia, Brazil, on April 17, 1950. She was an astonishing prodigy, playing the piano at two and beginning studies at the Brazilian Conservatory of Music at eight. She had advanced studies with Magda Tagliaferro at the Paris Conservatory, and went to win, among other competitions, the third Van Cliburn in 1969. She had further studies at the Curtis Institute with Rudolf Serkin, even while her career was on the ascent. Ortiz made her first recording in 1974, Lambert's "Rio Grande," for EMI, and then two more for the same label the following year, LPs of the Shostakovich concertos and of piano music by Villa-Lobos, Guarnieri, and others.

Ortiz relocated to London and continued to appear regularly in recital, and with orchestras and chamber ensembles throughout the next decades. In 1996 she gave the highly successful American premiere of Guarnieri's "Chôro" at Carnegie Hall, with conductor Dennis Russell Davies. In the new century Ortiz is active as ever: her 2010 touring schedule included appearances in France, Denmark, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Brazil, and the U.K.

In February of 1989, the Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz was in Chicago to play the Stenhammar Piano Concerto #2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Erich Leinsdorf was the guest conductor that week, and had set up this interesting program. 

We arranged to meet, and the interview took place upstairs at Orchestra Hall a day before her first rehearsal.  We were invited to use a room known familiarly as
Soltis Studio,” since it had a good piano, and he often used it when working with soloists.  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]  It had several comfortable places to sit, and that is where we pick up the conversation . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Thank you for speaking to me today; I appreciate it.

Cristina Ortiz:    Pleasure.

BD:    We were talking a moment ago about comfort.  Is comfort on the stage a big factor in the way you play?

CO:    Very much, very much so.  If you’re not sitting right, if you don’t have the right placement of the orchestra, for instance, it makes quite a difference for your performance.  I find that if I have enough contact with the orchestra and have the right page, the right height and everything, I am at home usually.

ortiz BD:    Are there different places for the piano?  I am used to the standard place.

CO:    Like the Americans place it, where the piano is right out in front?  I feel that is very cool, very cold.

BD:    Where else can the piano go?

CO:    In Europe, the piano is very much at the edge of the stage, and so is the orchestra, which means usually the celli are right in front of the artist.  This is a nice way of getting immediate visual contact.

BD:    More like chamber music?

CO:    Absolutely.  So the first violins are right behind the pianist, sometimes slightly to the left.  It’s give and take immediately on stage.  It makes quite a difference.  I don’t know how it’s going to be here in Chicago, with such a big and famous orchestra, to try to get that warm placing of everybody.  I will try.  I hope Mr. Leinsdorf will oblige.  [See my Interviews with Erich Leinsdorf.]  It’s not that I want to be part of them, but I need to be as close to them as possible to make music.  It is that way with any orchestra for that matter.

BD:    So you need to be close to the musicians as well as to the conductor?

CO:    Definitely.  The conductor is a medium to get what you have to say through to them.  But somehow they need to get that feedback from you, pushing a force from you so that they can give you the feedback, and vice versa.

BD:    You mentioned that this is such a famous orchestra.  Is it easier or harder playing with famous orchestras than perhaps lesser-known orchestras?

CO:    It’s always a challenge.  I don’t play with many of the most important orchestras in America because basically my career is in Europe, across the Atlantic.  But it is a pleasure.  It is a bit unnerving just to imagine that I am here playing with one of the Big Five.  [Both laugh]

BD:    How do you divide your career between solo recital and concerts?

CO:    It’s actually less and less recitals.  Only very big names can go around the world playing recitals and filling halls
and making a lot of money so I tend to play about ten percent recitals, and only when it is part of a very good series.  Then I enjoy it; I enjoy tremendously playing alone, but it’s immediate fun, much more fun, playing with people and communicating with them.

BD:    Do you play chamber concerts also?

CO:    Not enough.  Not as much as I would like to because that is the best way of making music.  When I play with an orchestra, my tendency is to make it a kind of a chamber music approach.  People say, “Don’t you play for an audience?”  No, I don’t just play for an audience, but I’m sure they’ll get it if we are projecting enough.

BD:    So you play for yourself and the others on the stage?

CO:    That’s right.  Absolutely!

BD:    You’re not playing for the composer?

CO:    Well, that goes without saying, I hope!  [Both laugh]  I have to find myself in that composer, but I have to be personal about it without going out of the ordinary, or completely trying to be so different that it’s highly unrecognizable.  But that’s not the point; you have to add your views of a work and make it your interpretation.

BD:    Are you conscious of what the other pianists of the world are doing?

CO:    Definitely!  I am definitely conscious of that!  Actually, that’s the best way of learning what not to do
sometimes, not always.  Usually it’s quite a nice experience when you go to listen to concerts.  I find that I learn a lot from what I hear.  I don’t want to repeat an effect from someone else because it doesn’t work for me.  I want to make it better.  I have to rethink it and work with a completely fresh look at it.  I don’t do things because I am used to what I hear.  I try always to iron out all the “bad tradition,” so to speak, in Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and all of those.  I really come to it and try to make it a new breath of fresh air for me, and for everybody else.

BD:    But you keep the good traditions?

CO:    If they’re good, yes.

BD:    [With a sly nudge]  Are there any good traditions?

CO:    Well, I don’t know what good traditions are.  Some think that it is being true to the composer, but usually good tradition is simplicity.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Pianists have this vast repertoire to choose from. There are so many pieces that are possible for you to play, so how do you decide which ones you will perform in any given season?

CO:    It’s not as easy as that.  [Laughs]  I cannot really choose overall what I play yet, except in a very few places and with smaller orchestras.  If I am invited back for the sake of me, so to speak, then I can give a selection of works that I would like to perform.  But usually there is a lot more that goes into a date than one can see immediately.

BD:    How do you build this list of things you would like to suggest?

ortiz CO:    Let’s say I want to learn all the Mozart concerti.  I try to program them slowly, one or two per season, but it doesn’t mean that I am going to come to Chicago and play the Mozart concerti that I want to learn.  But I’m also always looking for new things, and this date, actually, came about when Leinsdorf asked me whether I would like to do the Stenhammar.  I like the piece very much; the recordings I heard of it were quite good, and gave me a lot of ideas.  It tickled me.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands into it.

BD:    What about it tickled you?

CO:    Well, it’s a big piece!  When I heard it I remember the first impression I had was,
God, I’m going to have to do weight lifting to really get the power going!  It’s a mixture of Brahms and Wagner and even Grieg, which is a bit later on in the repertoire, but still it’s a very Scandinavian-sounding piece with very luscious harmonies and so on, so it pleased me.  And there are a lot of dazzling technical scherzando bits which remind me of Dohnányi, and warm sounds.  There is even a little Bach there, so it’s a nice mixture.  It’s a lot of everything, but somehow it is in the language of Stenhammar — knowing the little bit I have heard of his music.

BD:    Why is it not a better known concerto?

CO:    Maybe not many people have been like Leinsdorf, asking somebody to play it!  Promoters want to have the usual
Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff — but nothing out of the ordinary.

BD:    Is that good?

CO:    Maybe it pleases most people.  That’s why they do it.  I don’t know.  I’m always looking for the new.

BD:    So you’d rather play more different concerti?

CO:    I am definitely looking more and more.  I’m in the profession now for twenty years, and I’ve been doing a lot of everything else, but I am quite pleased when I have something completely different to do.  I am looking for Vaughn Williams and other pieces that people don’t do, and if I have a chance to do them, I will.  Pieces like Capriccio by Stravinsky are very rarely played.  The Burlesque by Strauss is now coming into fashion, but it didn’t used to be played so often five years ago.  And being Brazilian, I have a big project ahead of me.  I have been asked to do all the Villa-Lobos concertos.  That is quite a bit of homework I’m going to have to prepare
five concertos that nobody hears.  Nobody knows what they are about, and I have to make it all personal.  And I have to try to help the conductor with it, with my knowledge of the idiom of the composer.  So I really have to work hard at that.

BD:    Are there any piano concertos by Gomes?

CO:    You mean Carlos Gomes the opera composer?  He hardly ever wrote for piano.  How do you know about Gomes?  You’ve been digging! [Both laugh]

BD:    Pianists should go through the library and find something that’s not published, perhaps.

CO:    I don’t have that much time.  Things happen, and I take them as they come.  For instance, it’s been quite a season for Stenhammar because everybody wants to hear it.  If I decide to do a piece like that, they wonder why and they want to hear the recording
which I will be doing soon with Järvi and the Gothenburg in Sweden, so here we are!  [See my Interview with Neeme Järvi.]  I have to learn it and go there to do their job!

BD:    Is this comforting to you, to work on a concerto and then be able to take it around the world for a season or two?

CO:    Oh, that’s terrific!  That’s all a pianist, or any instrumentalist, wants to do.  It makes all the work you put into it really worthwhile, obviously.  The Villa-Lobos will be a different story because I am going to have to record a couple
cold, so to speak.  It’s been very difficult to program things, and the project is quite recent, so there is not so much time to play the works in public.  It’s not going to be easy, but I hope after the recording I’ll have the chance of doing so, because I will try, certainly, to promote that music.  There are a lot of ideas in his scores, and what recordings there are, in my view, haven’t bothered enough with the music, so to speak.  There’s a lot of chaos going on.  Villa-Lobos never really bothered about writing a lot of the nuances and so on, so there’s a lot of little detailed work that has to go into it to make it sound at its best.

BD:    You’re not re-composing it for Villa-Lobos, though, are you?

CO:    No, definitely not; just adding nuance and trying to clarify the cacophony at times.  It is really difficult.  The only piece I play quite often by him is Momoprecoce, and when I recorded it, I must admit that I didn’t really know much about it.  Since then, I have been playing more and more of his material, and now I know how to project him, how to make it work and how to help the conductor.  And it makes such a difference.  In two rehearsals, I get the most satisfaction out of that concerto I ever imagined!  So it’s very worthwhile and rewarding for me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is all your work done in rehearsal or is there some little spark that is left for that night of performance?

CO:    Oh yes, always!  I do a lot in rehearsal, but there will be a lot more surprises when the performance comes, I hope.

ortiz BD:    Mostly good surprises, I hope!

CO:    Yes, but nothing really planned; it’s just the adrenalin is running.  It’s flowing, and if you pace yourself well enough, it can really work.

BD:    What about the new works?  Have you done some world premieres?

CO:    No.  Maybe the one of Villa-Lobos pieces will be a world premiere!  But no, I have never been asked so far.

BD:    I just wondered if it would be more difficult to present something that has never been presented before.

CO:    I’m sure it would be, but then you can maybe work closely with the composer, and that might give you more insight into it than you thought.

BD:    Do you play quite a bit of modern music?

CO:    No.  Not at all.

BD:    Why?

CO:    I’m busy with so much else that I want to learn before getting into it.  I don’t understand most of our contemporaries.  Maybe in twenty years; I’m not that old yet!  But in twenty years, what is modern today won’t be so modern anymore!

BD:    Do you have any advice for someone who wants to write a concerto?

CO:    No.  Good luck!  Don’t make it too modern for my taste, if he or she is writing for me.  I wouldn’t go for the too far-out.  I enjoy melody and I enjoy nuances and I enjoy building-ups, so I have to definitely hear what he or she proposes before I say yes.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Where is music going today?  Do you know?

CO:    Where is it, indeed?  I don’t know very much; I am too wrapped up in what I am doing, since I’m not in the composing side of it.  It must be very, very hard to write anything new.  Everything seems to have been written; everything has been tried.   Now with the synthesizer and all of these things, my goodness, it’s another world!  But still, to come to grips with it and make something pleasing, to make an impression with something that you think out from nowhere must be almost impossible!  I wouldn’t be a composer for anything in the world!  I wouldn’t be a conductor, either, but a composer I think must be even harder than being a conductor.

BD:    Staring at the blank page and having to come up with ideas?

CO:    Yes.  If there is any inspiration left to be there, I don’t know about it.  I don’t know how it should come about anyway.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is the standard of piano playing continuing to rise, year by year?

ortiz CO:    I don’t know.  The more I go to concerts, the less I want to hear many of us
even myself.  I am going to be on the jury of the Cliburn Competition coming up; that’s going to be quite an education!  All these youngsters coming out by the dozens and the thousands every year, and what do they have to offer?  It has to be something so special to stand out of the ordinary.  Obviously technique has been almost always conquered.  It has to be conquered for you to be somebody of a name, but you should be able to transcend the technique and not show off.  That’s the kind of pianist I hate the most.

BD:    You don’t like show-offs?

CO:    Absolutely not!  You should have it to give and sell, as we say in Brazil.  Technique should be there to give and sell, but don’t make a point of it, of showing it off.

BD:    What will you look for in the young pianists?

CO:    Oh!  [Sighs]  That depends on what they are playing.  Performing is such a distribution of energy
— pacing, simplicity, somebody who is true to the score to almost utmost degree.  If somebody chooses to interpret somebody who wrote so many years ago, why not follow that?  Okay, the piano has come a long way, and the grand piano doesn’t sound like the piano that Mozart had to cope with at the time, so you have to scale it down in a way.  It’s very difficult to generalize what I look for in a pianist.  I don’t.  I just want to sit and be surprised.  I want to sit up and listen, not to be appalled by histrionics or somebody trying to be different. I just hate that!

BD:    Is this what the audience should look for in any pianist
even yourself?

CO:    How am I to judge?  [Laughs]  I don’t know.  I’m not the audience; I am performing for them and they happen to be there.  I am performing, so they have to judge.  There’s all kinds of audiences.  You go around the world and you see people who would give anything to go and listen to a Mozart concerto rather than big Russian repertoire or percussive playing.  It depends where you are and at what point in time, and what the season is like in the society or the orchestra; maybe there’s a theme they are going for.  You find yourself in all sorts of situations.  My goodness!

BD:    Do you try to accommodate whatever theme is going on?

ortiz CO:    Of course!  Don’t you have to?  If you are invited and you accept the date, you have to do it.  You don’t have to say yes.  You don’t have to play French music if you don’t feel like it.

BD:    But you have had some success with French music!

CO:    Yeah, I have! I love it.  But what I’m saying is that you don’t specifically say,
I only want to play French music here.  It doesn’t work this way; it’s so complex.  The placing of a season and the repertoire in a season is so difficult to accommodate.  Thank God, it’s not my job!  I have people who do that for me, or try to do it for me, but it doesn’t always work.  It’s very difficult.

BD:    Do you try to balance yourself even within the program?  When you play a concerto, it’s going to be surrounded by a couple of orchestral works.

CO:    No, that’s not up to me to do.  Since I’m not a conductor or a music director, it’s not my job.  I never know what is being played since I don’t know what the program is until I get to town.

BD:    Are you ever surprised by what they’ve scheduled around your piece?

CO:    No.  I don’t think that everything should follow a theme or anything, but sometimes it’s quite nice to keep the mood
the Norwegian mood, the Scandinavian mood.  It’s quite nice, but you can’t generalize.  It’s quite difficult.

BD:    Let me ask the big philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of music?

CO:    I don’t know!  If you feel good, if you love music and you want to make it your life, it’s up to you to do it if you are allowed to do it.  And if you prove to be worthwhile, you will win the trust that some people put in you.  I can’t answer for everybody else, but in general music is there to be listened to, to be interpreted, and enjoyed or not.  I wouldn’t live without music.  It’s just been all my life.  I was apparently so young when I came to grips with music that I don’t know what I would be if there were no music.  If there were no sounds in the world?  I don’t know.  How would you be?

BD:    I’m not sure!

CO:    Yeah, exactly.  So we are very lucky to have it.  It’s an art.  It’s a way of  being for me, really.  I am a musician.  I live through that, through music.

BD:    Is there a balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment, or is it both?

CO:    Not for me; I’m not entertaining.  In a way, I am a show.  I am put on a stage to be looked at!

BD:    Like a trained seal?

CO:    [Laughs]  Maybe!  Oh, goodness.  I don’t like that!  I don’t like to be seen as an entertainer, though there were a couple of times when I had to be.  A few years ago, I remember I had just been to Texas and had played for American Airlines.  I was really an entertainer then.  Although I was playing Gershwin and a little Villa-Lobos, it was a place to entertain 250 very rich guests who were given each a couple of tickets to go to Brazil!  It was a promotion of the first flight of American Airlines to Rio.  We were kept in the kitchen waiting to go on stage when required, sort of between courses.  [Both laugh]  That’s when I felt I was an entertainer.  I had a nice time and it was great fun, but we had to wait there for a half an hour because they were not quite through the first course, or whatever it was!  Anyway, it paid well.  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you play the same in the recording studio that you do in the concert?

ortriz CO:    It’s a different approach.  You can’t just perform; you have to correct things, and not only in your playing.  If you are recording with an orchestra, there is so much that can go wrong
the cracking of the ceiling, or the creaking of the chair, or noises on the hardwood floor.  Gosh, the things you have to put up with and cope with; all sorts of things go wrong.  So it’s not like in a concert performance when you have to go through it once and later think, God, did you realize that?  Did you hear that person talking or going out?  It’s different.  When it comes down to the performance, you just have to do the best you can at that time.  In a recording, it can’t go on forever; you have an allotted time and you have to do it.  Sometimes it’s not easy, and sometimes it’s easier.  My last experience, which was about two weeks ago, was very nice.  Instead of using two sessions we just used one, which is really very pleasing for everybody involved... [laughs] certainly for the orchestra, who has a paid session to go home to do whatever they want to.

BD:    A gift day to do nothing.

CO:    That’s right.  But it’s not always like that.

BD:    Have you been pleased with your recordings as they are issued?

CO:    My own?  Not many.  [Laughs]

BD:    Why not?

CO:    Well, because you don’t know what goes on before the disc is released.  I feel that everything should sound; this is it, that’s what I really wanted that time.  It’s not as easy as that.  It’s not so bad that I say, “OK, that one is not acceptable,” and don’t allow it out.   It also depends on rapport with conductors.  If you are working with an orchestra, things can go wrong, and the pressures of the recording studios are just not to be believed!

BD:    Is it worth it?

CO:    It can be, yeah.  Sometimes it makes you wonder if it is or if it’s not, but most of the experiences I had lately have been really worthwhile.  So I forget about the past, and always look forward to the new things to come.  That’s the only way to go about performing, isn
t it?

BD:    Hope so!

CO:    Well, you can’t look back in life.  You have to go and try to do better and maybe grow from suffering; not everything is roses.  It’s nice; it’s all a challenge.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do pianists have a particular set of challenges because they go from instrument to instrument?

CO:    That’s an immediate challenge, and everybody knows that maybe you’ve never seen that instrument before the one rehearsal you had.  It makes it nice.  It’s different; every time is different but it can be bad experiences.

ortiz BD:    How long does it take you to get your fingers into that new piano?

CO:    For the performance you go through it at rehearsal.  You have to cope with it as it comes.  But for choosing a piano, it’s a matter of seconds for me sometimes, especially in America.

BD:    Ours are good?

CO:    I prefer Hamburg Steinways.  Usually the moment I touch an American Steinway, even the keys are different.  And because I’m used to playing much more over there, I don’t feel at home at all.  So whenever I can have a Hamburg Steinway, I use it.  Even if I didn’t know it was a Hamburg Steinway, the moment I touch it I say, “Uh-oh.”  One American instrument had the Hamburg keys.  The last time I played in Minneapolis it was an American Steinway which had been modified.  It even had keys from Hamburg, and that made quite a difference.  The case was American, but a case is for resonance.

BD:    If you’re working with a piano that doesn’t have quite the sound you want, do you try to get more sound out of it?

CO:    It can’t go through your tone.  That’s the problem with pianos that do not have a big sound.  I’m not a huge person, as you see, and I do not try to play as loud as John Ogden, for instance.  I don’t understand this thing of power.  Obviously I give everything I have, but I strive to get a nice round sound.  I have broken maybe two or three strings in my whole life, and that’s it.  I try never to push.  I play big, but in a round way.  I don’t know how to explain it.  Maybe when you hear it, you can explain it to me!  [Laughs]

BD:    What do you do when a string breaks?  Do you have to stop the concert, or do you go on?  [See my Interview with Franz Mohr, Chief Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons from 1968-92.]

CO:    It depends on which string it is.  If it’s one near the top of the keyboard and it goes into the next one, you have to take it off so it doesn’t vibrate badly.  So you take it out and do without one and a half strings on one and a half keys.  [Both laugh]  Oh, it’s terrible!

BD:    What about the hall
— are you conscious of the acoustics in the hall?

CO:    No, you just have to judge when you come to it.  As a pianist, I come to a hall and I never say these are the definite acoustics that we are going to cope with tonight, because it’s not.  I hear it and I judge from what I hear, but in a rehearsal it’s a different matter.  When the public comes in, it’s a completely different situation.  String players and singers all have this tendency to go and try the hall.  But don’t tell me it’s not going to change when the audience comes in and everybody’s dressed up, and curtains and everything are drawn or not drawn.  That makes quite a difference.

BD:    It all absorbs the sound!

CO:    Exactly.  But sometimes there are very pleasing surprises.  Usually it’s for the better, I think, when the public is there.  Maybe it’s just because they are there!  [Both laugh]

BD:    So you really do feed off the public.

CO:    Obviously I need to have feedback from the public, not that I’m playing for them.  I hear them.  I want to hear them; they want to hear me.  I want to hear them reacting between movements and things like that.  You get that electricity going.

BD:    You don’t want applause between movements, though, do you?

CO:    I don’t want applause then.  I hardly want applause in the end!  People say, “Go on, go on!  Rush, rush, back.  This is America!”  I say, “I don’t care!”  If I feel satisfied, it’s enough.  I think taking bows is just too much of an ego trip!

ortiz BD:    You’d rather we just applaud a little bit politely, and you go off?

CO:    No, not politely.  Applaud, and if I don’t come back, it doesn’t matter; it’s not going to take from my performance, I hope.  Whether I come sixteen times or three, it doesn’t matter to me at all.  Maybe it matters; it doesn’t look good.  I don’t care.  I’m not like that.  That’s why I don’t play in America!  I’m not the kind to play for audiences, and play-act and give thirteen encores.

BD:    Do you play any encores at all?

CO:    Not when I play with orchestras.

BD:    Okay, but at solo recital?

CO:    Hardly.  It depends because I usually have such a lot of content in my recitals.  How can you follow a Chopin sonata or a Brahms sonata or the Four Scherzi?  By the end you are completely dead, and to play a little lollipop here and a little thing there?  It is not right... unless people really go on and on and on.  Then I say, “Well, you owe it to them.”

BD:    Should that be taken into account when you are tailoring your solo program
— that you make the program just a little shorter and allow for a few encores?

CO:    No, no, no.  It’s not especially long.  Actually, [laughs] just recently there was a mistake somewhere and I was booked to play a full-length recital.  Somehow it got lost in the mail or on the telephone that I was required to play an hour of music.  In Holland it happens a lot that they have coffee concerts in the afternoon or evening, and this was an evening performance.  So, from the moment I accepted, it was a Chopin sonata and half an hour of Villa-Lobos that they wanted.  When I get there, it was a full length recital.  So with a Chopin sonata, interval, and half an hour of Villa-Lobos, I asked if they were happy.  It was a little bit short, but there is a lot in a Chopin sonata.  I didn’t think people were cheated, but then I played two encores.

BD:    Do you ever feel you’re a slave to the instrument?

CO:    No, Never.  I used to.  When I was very young I did not overwork, because I could cope with it, but just worked too much.   I did not know how to work, so I spent ten hours or twelve hours each day.  It’s so ridiculous!  These days I do with two or three hours, four hours maybe; it’s a lot, you know, and I enjoy it.  Yesterday, for instance, I was traveling.  I came from Texas, so I took the day off because I had had two concerts the previous days.  So here I am enjoying myself.  I could play for eight hours just for pleasure!  I have so much to work on, and I go through things — not that I am working at details
I just enjoy playing.  But if I have to work on a piece, I don’t think I would take more than two hours today, something like that.  It depends what it is.  The Stenhammar, certainly, gives me more work than that!  I can play that a lot, but it’s such a big, big, demanding work.

BD:    Is memorization ever a problem?

CO:    Depends how much time you have.  Actually, the first time I played the Stenhammar, I wasn’t going to memorize it even though I was going to play with Chicago Symphony!  So the first performance, I used the score.  I have prepared scores; they are tiny, reduced, so I don’t need a page turner, which is less of a distraction for the public than the normal situation.

BD:    So it’s really more of a cue sheet?

CO:    A cue sheet?  No, no, no, it’s not a cue sheet.  It’s the score in miniature.  I played the first performance with this score, just not to mess it up because it is a very complex piece.  Never having heard it in performance, I said I’m not going to do that.  By the second night it was already by heart; I was then in my element, so I was relaxed enough.  But coming back to the Villa-Lobos, I don’t think I am going to have enough time to memorize five piano concertos in three months.  So there you are.  I mean, who cares?  I think all of the traditional pianists playing from memory, and it is just our bad luck, really, so I found this way.  I have done quite a lot of German music concerts
not just very recently, but in the last five years, playing with violinists and then with cellistsand I devised this way of preparing the score so I have the whole movement in front of me.  Then I take that sheet away and have one for the second movement and another for the third movement.  It’s fantastic; it’s just changed all my life!  I remember a performance of Franck piano quintets when I could have killed the person who was turning pages in the last movement!  It goes so fast, and I am a vertical reader.  I need to read almost to the last bar — not the last note, but the last barand then the first note in the first bar on the next page.  So good luck to them!  [Laughs]  I have had nightmares of experiences like that, and I had enough.  It’s very tough on my eyes because the size on my sheets is all reduced, and maybe I am going to go blind, but who knows?  I enjoy it.

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago, and for speaking to me.  I look forward to the concert very much.

CO:    I must say, the best interviewers are radio people.  It’s true!

BD:    [With a big smile]  I am glad to give you this forum.

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© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in a studio in Orchestra Hall on February 21, 1989.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB later that day, and again in 1990, 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2011.

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.