What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
When the audience remembers it for a long time after they've left. I don't think it's important to hear bravos or have standing ovations. It's more the idea that someone will come back to another concert and say: I remember the way you played that. I want to give them something to remember. And maybe, if I look into the audience, I will see someone I recognise. And they'll tell me they heard me play somewhere a couple of months ago and I really liked it, so I came again. That kind of thing shows me I really made a difference in someone's life.
My biography mentions that my ideal performance would entail moving people to tears and a few times that has happened - not really sobbbing tears, but they'll be listening and it strikes a nerve in them. They'll remember something from their childhood, maybe just one note will stir an emotion. Once, I played the Nutcracker suite and I had this Russian lady who came up to embrace me. She said: 'I was so homesick. I played it as a child and just remembered.' That's very moving.
In our previous interview, I said something like I like to keep my mind blank, which sounds like I'm mindless up there (laughs). But what it really means is that I want to free myself from inhibitions up there. In school, you're by yourself. You can imagine there are people there. But it's not the same. When you go on stage and you can feel there's an audience and they paid money to listen to you, they are taking time out of their lives, you want to give them something great. You don't want them to just think it was an okay way to spend their day. There's this electricity, for me at least. I go up there, I feel that they're expecting something and I want to give them that.
What I notice especially here in Germany is that the audiences are silent. You can tell they're listening so well. Let's say I'm playing a big Brahms or Chopin sonata. After the first part, people will often cough or take their candies. But then, there are times, when there's dead silence, even when the first movement has ended, they don't want to make a sound, they don't want the spell to break. And then you just feel the intensity. I listen for the silent moments, not the cheerings. When you're going for the climax at the end, you're not looking for the applause, you want them to be overwhelmed and it's a slow coming back to reality.
After the performance, I am almost never satisfied. There are concerts, where I feel it was good. But I would never think it was a great concert and it can't be better. After a concert, it's hard for me to sleep, because I'm reviewing the concert. I'm thinking about how it went, revisiting mistakes.
I do like to perform at unusual occasions. I played at the Pianosalon Christopheri and will play there again in September. This is a really interesting place. You enter and all the chairs are mismatched. The first time I was there, I remember, there were bicycles and keyboards on the wall. It's really like a garage. And yet, people came from everywhere. Some of them were on holiday in Berlin and just stopped by. Tickets were free, it was totally open and there are about 300 seats. For me, this is a great idea, because it's closing down all of the borders. People are going in there, wearing their flip flops, dressed in really casual stuff. They won't necessarily hear classical music often. And they really appreciated it. There should be more of these events, not all events need to be in big fancy concert halls. I also think the Yellow Lounge concerts are great at getting the attention of the younger audience.
Once, I did this concert at JPC for just the employees. (laughs) It was in their storage rooms, basically just a factory. People were getting the CDs from the shelves and delivering them. And then they all stopped. We were playing in the middle of rows and rows of CDs. It was very special, too.
As Charles Rosen put, “the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition”. From your perspective, what are some of the root issues for what is generally referred to as the “crisis of classical music” and what, to you, are sensible ideas for improving it?
I haven't seen the crisis too much. People are always pessimistic. They feel that audiences are too old, so in a few years, there won't be any audiences. What I see, though, is that there are new older people coming. Some of my classmates, for example, you won't see them in a classical concert. They're interested and of course, they'll listen to it. But maybe when things have settled down in their own lives, that when they'll start going. There's always a new generation of 'older people'. And what I see in Germany is that there's such great musical education. The kids know classical music well from the beginning of their lives. And yet, you still don't see young people going to classical concerts that much. At the same time, concerts are often sold out.
I think musicians need to get rid of their stereotypical thinking, that classical music is for people with more education. There are some people who are kind of snobbish. I, for one, am very happy to go to schools and talk to students. To play for people who are less fortunate. There's an organisation in America, which sets up concerts in prisons or hospitals. For people with Alzheimer's disease in clinics. And that's nice. It's a huge contrast, but people are still listening to your music. It's humbling. We musicians are not something special, we're not delivering a message from higher beings. We're just sharing our feelings and appreciate that other people are listening to them. And what they give us in return helps us deliver. It's an interchange. Without an audience, we're not alive. I play much better and more inspired than in my practise room.
Reaching audiences usually involves reaching out to the press and possibly working with a PR company. What's your perspective on the promo system? In which way do music journalism and PR companies change the way music is perceived by the public?
I think that journalism is really important. Now we're on the go all the time, it's really the only way to keep up. Classical music is from hundreds of years ago, but it has to keep up with today. That's why I think it's important for the musicians to take on a more active role in their career. Interact more with their listeners, to give them a way to contact you. You have to build up your image. And it's really flexible, you can create your own image and decide how you want to be positioned.
I follow reviews of my work very much. But I find some of them really funny. I don't just look at the good ones, I read them all equally. There are also very bad ones. I got many reviews for my current Scarlatti CD – there's around fifty already. And most of the time, I'm lucky that they're good. But the very first one was done by a very big radio station in Berlin. They gave me a really good review for my first CD, but this time, they said it was strange, like a pretty butterfly flying away and leaving no impression. I completely understand, though, I walk away from a concert like that, too sometimes. I want to know how people perceive my music any which way, because it changes me inherently. So with that review, I asked myself, do I feel that. Let's be really objective. And sometimes, I would agree.
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons – or an idea of what music itself could be beyond its current form?
I like to take things in stride. I don't see myself having these big goals. I think things come to you when they come to you and I am willing to wait for them. And I've been lucky. Things haven't been moving not at a skyrocketing pace, but at a steady kind of growth. And It's giving me enough time to develop as an artist and a person. Some people lose themselves if they grow too quickly. And with me, I play 40,50 concerts every year, I don't know what's coming in the next 5 years. I hope the same as now, maybe on some bigger stages.
If I'm still doing this in 20 years, I'd define that as success. It's really just a question of the longevity of your career. A lot of things are fleeting in the music business. There are so many pianists! The demand is really not enough to cover the supply. And you can be replaced any time. Anyone can be replaced!