Thursday, January 12, 2006

Ravel poses big challenge: left hand only

The Cincinnati Post's Mary Ellyn Hutton interviews French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in this article, published today:
Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard has no idea how many works he has premiered.

An exponent of new music since his student days at the Paris Conservatory, he was selected by contemporary master Gyorgy Ligeti to record his complete works for piano and is the dedicatee of several of his Etudes. For 18 years, he was the solo pianist of Pierre Boulez' cutting edge Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris, and he continues to proselytize for the music of our time (his CD of Charles Ives won a Grammy in 2005).

For his debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, however, Aimard, 58, will not perform Elliott Carter or Ligeti or Boulez. He will bow in with Maurice Ravel's 1930 Concerto for the Left Hand.

The concerts, to be led by CSO music director Paavo Järvi, are 11 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Hall.

"I've lived with new pieces for decades," said Aimard, by phone from Paris where he was cooking dinner for his children, ages 11 and 18.

"But not only that, because I've always done old and new music at the same time. It was always completely necessary to me. I started with the other Ravel Concerto, the G Major, when I was 15, and I've played it so often."

Ravel's jazzy Left Hand Concerto is the gem of a genre created for pianists with disabilities. It was commissioned, along with works from several other prominent composers, by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I.

"It's very challenging because it should sound like a concerto for two hands. The challenge is to play it with the left hand only," Aimard said.

Ravel achieves his goal in very "sophisticated ways," he said. "He creates beautiful acoustic illusions (utilizing the pedal) to have the instrument sound very large, though it is played with only one hand."

Sometimes performers fudge and use their right hand also (including Ravel himself on one occasion). Aimard cited one instance in which he finds it justifiable.

"The first cadence has very large chords and it's not nice to have them broken, so some of us play one of the notes in one of these chords with the help of the other hand. I think it is not a bad thing, because it avoids the chords to be broken."

The Left Hand Concerto should be, and normally is, played as written, he said. "First of all, it's a challenge, and second, it sounds differently to make the fingering with one hand."

Does being right-handed or a southpaw make a difference in playing the piano in general?

"A big difference," said Aimard. "You think often that being right-handed allows you to play the melodies better (the melody line is usually written for the right hand). I'm convinced that it would be better to be maybe left-handed for a pianist, because you have better basses. You construct everything on your basses. Having worked hard on the Left Hand Concerto by Ravel allows me to play the piano better."

Aimard is a committed teacher in addition to maintaining a busy concert and recording career. He is on the faculty of the Paris Conservatory as well as the Hochschule fur Musik in Cologne, Germany.

"I think it is important not to be only on stage. First of all, it is not good psychologically to be too much isolated on stage. I think it is healthy to go back to a more normal life, to have contact with new generations and to express the things that you do on stage another way.

"Second, I think that all the prestige that is surrounding the function of being a soloist is not always very healthy. Teaching is one of the activities that can keep you a good balance, not to becoming too arrogant and too neurotic."

Besides that, being around young people is an education itself, he said. "You receive new questions every day. It's marvelous way to make progress, not just like a pianist, but like a human being."

Aimard loves to present lecture recitals and he has made a series of films for French television focusing on great composers of the 20th century. His new recording of music by Elliott Carter and Ravel includes an extra CD with an introduction to the music and music examples.

"I'm convinced that if people have some curiosity, if you help them with a couple of keys to hearing the music, then there would be less borders (obstacles) than they expect."

Aimard accepts that he has been tagged as a new music specialist but he says it has been "exaggerated."

"People thought probably that I wasn't able to play Beethoven and Mozart. Well, it seems they have changed their minds now."

Aimard's recording of the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe received rave reviews, and he has just completed a CD of Mozart piano concertos for the 2006 Mozart celebration (the 250th anniversary of his birth) where he conducts the COE from the keyboard.

"For the next one, I will focus with romantic repertory, with Schumann," he said.

Aimard likens it to "being a walker, making a promenade in the history of music. The holes in the museum where we can make our promenade are a lot. They are very large and it's a pity to have a restricted area with too conventional repertory."

Aimard wants to challenge audiences, he said.

"I will not always make life easy for them. I don't want to invite them to lazy, easy moments. I want to lead a strong event. There are also light moments, I hope, but I think that pleasure is not only for the emotions but also for the intellect."

Still, Aimard respects their tastes. "If I play for a more traditional audience, I have to take care. I want to communicate. All audiences are different, so I pay attention to the mix of the program."

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