Once upon a time, a highly-talented musician, Ignaz Bosendorfer (OBM) had the fundamental vision to build a piano that would not only deeply satisfy the performer on a mechanical level, but would also inspire the audience with an exhilarating listening experience.
With this vision he attracted the attention of fiery young composer and artist Franz Liszt. Known for his impulsive playing technique, Liszt (OBM) had wrecked nearly every piano made available to him, and thus required an instrument that could withstand his notoriously passionate virtuoso performances.
At the recommendation of his friends, Liszt decided to select a Bösendorfer grand for his 1838 concert in Vienna. The audience was thrilled, as was Liszt, who was quite taken by the fact that he didn’t have to hold back his artistic energy, in large part due to the instrument’s durability and powerful, inspiring sound.
In 1839, the Emperor of Austria named Ignaz Bösendorfer “Imperial and Royal Piano Purveyor to the Court”—the first piano maker to be granted this honor. Numerous gold medals and first prizes followed.
As a result, Bösendorfer became famous overnight, as well as the instrument of choice for many concerts to follow. In 1839, the Emperor of Austria named Ignaz Bösendorfer “Imperial and Royal Piano Purveyor to the Court”—the first piano maker to be granted this honor. Numerous gold medals and first prizes followed.
Since then Bosendorfer has become one of the leading piano manufacturers in the world wowing the connoisseurs of art with its beautiful collector editions.
Here is the story of one of them – the Bosendorfer Grand Bohemian Piano.
In 2014, an American entrepreneur – owner of the Kessler Luxury Hotels – and an art collector, Richard Kessler (MGBH) who started his endeavor with piano in the second grade, was approached by a representative of a Bosendorfer Company. It was a surprise that he received that day. He had no idea when he came to work that morning that he would be asked to create an artistic piano for the Bosendorfer Collection Edition.
As he began to think about the project being the design of the Grand Bohemian Piano, he thought of three criteria that were important to him. The first one was not to diminish or compromise of the instrument itself in any way. The second criterion was that the design itself needed to be feasible. And the third criterion, which was the fun part, was creating a piece of art that truly was the piece of art of beauty. He wanted the Grand Bohemian Piano to be a complement to the instrument itself and to be truly a collector’s piece of art.
The design for the Grand Bohemian was inspired by pieces from Kessler’s personal collection, including a painting of a peacock and a special collection of bronze sculptures.
The design for the Grand Bohemian was inspired by pieces from Kessler’s personal collection, including a painting of a peacock and a special collection of bronze sculptures. Fascinated by the beauty and elegance of the peacock, and the ideal use of bronze for the base of the piano, Kessler selected these themes and works of art to cultivate inspiration for the design (1).
The next thing he needed to do was to choose the artist he wanted to work with for the design of the piano. The name that immediately came to his mind was Mr. Frank Castellucio (MGBH), an international artist of incredible talent.
Frank Castellucio describes the process:
“You begin with the sketches to come up with the design, and when you find something you like, then you create a scale model. And once you have your scale model, then you go ahead and you build a life size model. And from the life size model, which is in clay, you begin to make molds – you make the silicone molds and you pour wax to get duplicates. Once the duplicates are cleaned, you send them to the foundry. Then you get what you sent them in bronze. From that point, the bronze has to be welded and chased and the whole base is assembled.”
While Frank was doing all that work, and he was certainly intense about that project, Bosendorfer in Vienna were also busy at work. They had to do all the design work on the specialty case itself, and that was done and completed as Frank was completing his work.
The pianos are crafted using an exceptionally high concentration of spruce—more than 80 percent, more than any other manufacturer.
The basis of each Bösendorfer Grand is spruce that is naturally dried by air and has proven to be the ideal tone wood. The pianos are crafted using an exceptionally high concentration of spruce—more than 80 percent, more than any other manufacturer. The four seasons, sun, wind and wide temperature differences gently prepare this wood for its final purpose – to resonate. The Austrian spruce must be grown at a minimum of 800 meters above sea level guaranteeing a very dense and regular grain structure. Harvested in winter, when the sap is at its lowest, it is subsequently quarter sawn for parallel grain. Additionally, all of the bass strings are spun in our unique way. A steel core string is the basis for 1 or 2 layers of copper. The carefully spun strings are a substantial element of the warm and sonorous Bösendorfer bass. Each string is individually attached with a handmade loop. Over time this improves tuning stability and is particularly service friendly. Bösendorfer is the only piano manufacturer that applies a detachable and independent Capo d’Astro in the upper register to assure most precise adjustment in the upper register guaranteeing the original Bösendorfer Sound for generations.
Once Frank was finished, and all the parts were sent to Vienna, they assembled all the parts to make the Bohemian Grand come alive.
“It is certainly exciting to be part of this and to see my part of the project being the base, being incorporated with a box. It’s so unlike any other project that I’ve ever done where I complete a whole sculpture. This sculpture is a combination of different artisans from around the world. It’s amazing,” says Frank.
“Bosendorfer started building pianos in 1828, which makes us the oldest premium piano manufacturer in the world. For such a project, we would never compromise in the acoustical setting of the piano. However, for the exterior, we have almost unlimited possibilities, and the Grand Bohemian piano is a perfect example of traditional craftsmanship and a magnificent design,” says senior product designer Ferdinand Brau (MGBH).
The unveiling ceremony of the Bosendorfer Grand Bohemian piano took place at the Imperial Hotel in Vienna, where both Mr. Richard Kessler and Mr. Frank Castelluccio were invited as the honorary guests.
In the US, you can hear the Grand Bohemian Piano at the Bosendorfer Lounge of Richard Kessler’s Bohemian Hotel in Orlando, FL.
And since there are only nine of these pianos made worldwide, I wonder, where did the other eight find their home?
Bolshoi Theater strikes us with its opulence and grandeur. Today, with the help of the most professional teams in the world involved in its renovation, it looks more solid than ever, but its history is comprised of a serious of unfortunate events paired with perseverance to preserve this national monument that became a hallmark of Russian cultural life.
Built by Price Peter Urusov (OBM), Bolshoi, or Petrovsky, Theater opened its doors on December 30th, 1780, with the help of theatrical entrepreneur Michael Maddox (OBM), whom Prince Urusov invited as a business partner. Its opening performance consisted of a solemn prologue The Wanderers by Alexander Ablesimov (OBM) and a big pantomime ballet The Magic School, produced by Leopold Paradis (OBM) to music by Joseph Starzer (OBM). Later on, the Theater repertoire consisted for the most part of Russian and Italian comic operas with ballet interludes, and separate ballets. (1)
After becoming a sole owner of the theater and having taken too many loans from the government, Michael Maddox was forced to transfer the ownership of the Theater to the hands of the Government Loan Office.
In the fall of 1805 the Theater building burned down, and the Company had to perform in other private theaters. In 1808, it started to perform at the New Arbat Theater, designed by Carlo Rossi (2). During the 1812 war against Napoleon, this building burned down as well.
The new Petrovsky Theater was redesigned by Alexei Mikhailov (OBM) and Joseph Bove (OBM). On January 6th, 1825, the Theater, accommodating over 2,000 people, re-opened its doors. As it was much bigger than the original theater, it was often referred to as the Big (Bolshoi) Petrovsky Theater. The opening night performance was so successful that it had to be repeated the next evening for the people who weren’t able to get in.
Thirty years later, on March 11th, 1853, the fire broke down in the Theater and continued for three days (3), destroying everything but its walls and columns. A renowned architect Alberto Cavos (OBM) won a privilege to re-design and rebuild the Theater. On August 20th, 1856, Bolshoi Theater re-opened its doors to the public for the third time with a performance of Vincenzo Bellini (OBM) I Puritani.
In 1917, the Bolshevik government entertained the idea of clothing the Theater, but spared it later. On 7 December 1919 the house was renamed the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre.In 1921, after the Soviet Revolution, the government commission examining the condition of the Theater, found it to be catastrophic(4) and started emergency repairs under the supervision of the architect Ivan Rerberg. Beethoven Hall opened on February 18th, 1921. In 1938, the stage was majorly reconstructed. In August of 1941, the Theater was closed for complete reconstruction.
On October 22nd, 1941, a German bomb was dropped on the Bolshoi Theater building. Despite the wartime hardship and the severe cold, restoration work on the Theater was initiated in winter 1942 (5). In 1943, the Theater re-opened its doors to the public.
Forty-six years later, after yearly cosmetic repairs, in 1987, the Theater has undergone another major reconstruction to build a second stage that would open in 2002. In 2005, its Historic Stage was shut down for reconstruction and refurbishment, which turned into a world-level project.
In 2010, the Lobby, the White Foyer, the Choral, Exhibition, Round and Beethoven halls were renovated. “Muscovites were able to admire the restored facades and the renovated symbol of the Bolshoi Theater – the famous Apollo quadriga, created by the sculptor Peter Klodt (OBM). (6)
The modern version of Bolshoi Theater boasts not only its opulent look, but also its supreme acoustics and state of the art machinery. The main stage consists of seven two-tier rising and descending platforms. The platforms can easily change their positions with the stage having an ability to become horizontal, raked or stepped. The depth of stage space can be achieved by connecting the stage and backstage areas.
New upper stage equipment, remotely controlled by computer, makes it possible to derive maximum use from lighting, sound and visual effects. Cutting edge rigs have been installed for the deployment of lanterns, special effects apparatus and acoustics (7).
The orchestra pit seats up to 130 musicians and is one of the largest in the world.
The installation of state of the art stage equipment was a unique world-scale project. The reconstruction has doubled the Theatre’s total floor space. Thanks to the expansion of the Theatre’s existing underground spaces (under stage house) and to the construction of new underground space under Theatre Square, this has been achieved without any change to the Theatre’s external appearance.
Thus the Theatre has acquired badly needed new space, including an underground concert and rehearsal room, which has inherited its name from the Beethoven Hall, under the Theatre lobby.
This hall is a multi-functional space, which can be used in different ways. It consists of five main platforms: the central platform is the stage itself, two platforms to the right and left of it can be used either to increase the size of the stage or as audience space. The two remaining platforms form the main space of the auditorium. All of the platforms can be raised to foyer level to create a space for holding formal, receptions. Apart from this concert hall and its auxiliary premises, the rest of the underground space under Theatre Square accommodates a large number of technical, service and staff rooms.
The Bolshoi Theatre reconstruction project also included the renovation of the Khomyakov (OBM) House, a protected architectural monument of the first half of the nineteenth century situated immediately behind the Bolshoi, which has been transformed into a service wing. Due to numerous 20th century reconstructions, the historical interiors of the Khomyakov House have been totally lost. While its main walls have been preserved, the interior layout has been redesigned to meet the Theatre’s present-day requirements. Thus the Khomaykov House, which is linked to the main Bolshoi Theater building by an underground tunnel, is a key element in the gigantic Bolshoi Theatre complex.
PIANO AT BOLSHOI
Although Bolshoi Theater was originally built to host opera and ballet performances, it also has a rich history of hosting piano concerts by such prominent pianists as Svyatoslav Richter (OBM), Emil Gilels (OBM), Dmitry Shostakovich (OBM), Alexander Goldenveizer (OBM), Maria Yudina (OBM), Lev Oborin (OBM), Grigory Ginsburg (OBM), and Yevgeniy Raikov (OBM).
Today the Beethoven Hall continues to host piano recitals and events. It has become one of the main locations for the Vladimir Spivakov’s (MGBH) International Festival “Meet the Friends” as well as a series “Faces of the Bolshoi Theater” featuring collaborative piano performances.
In the early nineties, Martin T:son Engstroem (MGBH) had an ambitious idea to create a summer festival in the heart of the Swiss Alps, far from the major cities where most festivals take place. Verbier had the intimate atmosphere he felt was necessary to encourage musical excellence, and at the same time be open to the world. He imagined a festival with a resident youth orchestra and an academy where renowned artists would teach the next generation and audiences would have a wide choice of activities from early morning until late at night. In 1994, his vision became a reality.* Today, in 2017, it is much more than that – it is one of the hottest events for the who-is-who in the world of classical music.
Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): What does it take to start a festival? Martin T:son Engstroem (ME) : Starting a festival is very much learning as you go. There is no profession that prepares you for it. You have to know psychology, finances, organization, languages, music, and fund-raising – a little of bit of everything. And then you’ll need a big chunk of persistence. In addition, you have to believe in what you do. The first two years will probably go OK, but then it’s all about stamina.
PPM: Prior to organizing the Festival, you were a talent agent. Who are some of the artists who worked with? ME: I worked with Germinal Hilbert in Paris from 1975 – 1987. I also worked with such artists, pretty much from the beginning of their career, as Giuseppe Sinopoli, Han-Na Chang, Kirill Troussov, Jonathan Gilad, Ilya Gringolts, Barbara Hendricks, Neil Shicoff, Jessye Norman, and Gino Quilico, to name a few.
Talent is God-given, but succeeding in life depends on what you do with it. The one who makes it has an equal part of talent, discipline, and luck.
PPM: What is your secret formula in discovering talent? ME: Trusting my intuition. There are thousands of young talented musicians, but you look for talent PLUS personality and charisma. Talent is God-given, but succeeding in life depends on what you do with it. The one who makes it has an equal part of talent, discipline, and luck.
PPM: You used to work Deutsche Grammophon, didn’t you? ME: Yes, I did. From 1999 till 2003, I was a VP of Artists & Repertoire. Thereafter, for 3 years I was a Senior Executive Producer and Head of Artists Development. I signed Lang Lang, Yundi, Anna Netrebko, Esa-Pekka Salonen and many others to the company. I was also instrumental in the signing of Yuja Wang, Daniil Trifonov, and Gregory Sokolov. Although I am presently not on their payroll, we still work very closely together.
PPM: So, having worked in the industry did help in attracting talent to your festival? ME: Yes. Prior to starting the Festival, I already had a pretty important address book. I invited one of my best friends – Avi Shoshani (Secretary General of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) to join me, and together we covered most of the artists we wanted to come to our first event.
PPM: Under what circumstances did you meet Evgeny Kissin, and how did you convince him to be part of the Festival? ME: It was Avi who brought Zhenya to Verbier. He loved it from the very first year and has been back 19 times (out of 24 Festivals).
PM: Who handles talent at Verbier? ME: I myself am responsible for all the artists performing at the Verbier Festival. I also work closely with the artists in putting together the programs.
The atmosphere at the Verbier Festival is very warm, and we welcome music lovers with open arms.
PPM: What types of sessions take place at the Verbier? ME: Every day we have 4 paying concerts, 3 free student concerts, plus another 20 free events including open rehearsals, Master Classes, “meet the artists” talks, etc. The atmosphere at the Verbier Festival is very warm, and we welcome music lovers with open arms.
PPM: Who are the typical attendees of the Verbier Festival? ME: Our audience is very eclectic. The sheer fact that we are in the mountains and in a tent eliminates those who just want to dress up and show off their latest jewels. Our audience is younger than that of most classical music institutions. Our festival attracts the locals who would normally never go down the valley to see a classical music concert.
PPM: How did the idea of the Academy come along? ME: Through working with my artist friends and challenging them to new collaborations. Since its inception, the academic part has grown enormously, and we now have 300 music students between the ages of 13 and 30 studying between 3-5 weeks each summer pending the course they have chosen.
PPM: How closely do you work with the Music Director of the Festival Orchestra? What decisions are you involved in? ME: I have worked extremely closely with both James Levine and Charles Dutoit. Creating the right programs for our young orchestra musicians is key to its success. You need to schedule challenging repertoire – not only technically, but stylistically and musically as well. Maestro Dutoit has given “Master-Classes” in French repertoire having conducted Pelleas, Damnation, which will stay forever with these young incredible talented musicians and give them a base of how to interpret French music.
PPM: Where do the Festival volunteers come from? ME: Lausanne Hotel School, music students, children of our public or children of our musicians.
PPM: You studied Russian at the University. Why? ME: I have always been fascinated by the Russian culture – writers, painters, composers, and musicians. That culture has accompanied me since I was a young kid. I starting traveling to the Soviet Union from the age of 16 and still go back 3-4 times a year. My spoken Russian today is not very good, although I can get around.
PPM: What character traits does a person have to possess for you to be comfortable to do business with him or her? ME: As a person, I am pretty open and curious. If I like someone, I will be his best friend, but I f I don’t trust someone or feel that he is not truthful – that person has lost me.
The crazier the world becomes the more we need things that speak to our senses.
PPM: In your opinion, what does classical music give to the world and where is its place in the future? ME: Classical music makes peoples lives richer. Music, Theater, and Literature are there to make us more complete and more harmonious as human beings. As parents, we owe it to ourselves to challenge our children to reach further and give “culture” a chance. They might not like it at that moment, which is OK, but they will appreciate the gesture later in their lives and, perhaps, will come back to it. The crazier the world becomes the more we need things that speak to our senses.
When I found Oleg’s (MGBH) performance videos on such shows as Ukraine’s Got Talent, The Minute of Fame, and Britain’s Got Talent, I experienced mixed feelings. The intellectual classical snob in me wanted to say, “Oh, no!”, but in my heart I truly rejoiced as I watched his performances. I also thought to myself, especially after the comment of one of the judges who criticized him so harshly at The Minute of Fame, “Here we are, whispering in dark corners about the demise of classical music and how a young generation is not so interested in it so much as the older generations used to be, and here he is – this young, brilliant, creative musician who is offering at least a partial solution to this problem, and we are throwing stones at him. A little hypocritical…” All these thoughts inspired me to learn more about this pianist.
Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): Dear Oleg, at some point, trying to do what you did you experienced criticism from the classical piano watch dogs. They just didn’t understand what motivated you. And I am sure, some people are still raising their eyebrows and wrinkling their foreheads. Is it hard to be different? Oleg Pereverzev (OP): With my performances I wanted to show that music can also transfer information that can feed your heart and soul. I didn’t just want to come out on stage and play the well-known compositions of Chopin and Bach. There are many people doing this already. I wanted to create an exciting show where the audience could feel my soul. I wanted to affect the hearts of people not only through music, but also through special effects. And I think I was able to achieve it. I receive letters from many people around the world – some of them started listening to classical music, others started improvising. The process of communicating with my audience and connecting to it is very important to me. I constantly work on it.
I didn’t just want to come out on stage and play the well-known compositions of Chopin and Bach. I wanted to create a show….
PPM: Please, tell us about your family. Who created an environment for you to study piano? OP: My mother was a doctor, and my father was in the military. I have a sister, who became a doctor just like our mother. Everyone in our family loves music, but no one, except for me has formal music education. It was my mother who instilled love for classical music in me. She would always buy music magazines and vinyl records. Thus, I would always hear the sounds of classical piano in our house as I was growing up. Once, when I was six, I attended a concert of the legendary Svyatoslav Richter (OBM). I remember the dark music hall, complete silence, and then… music…. As a child, it made an indelible impression on me.
PPM: Please, tell us about your classical piano background. OP: I went through all the stages of formal classical music training: seven years of music school, four years of music college, five years at the Kazakh National Conservatory , and two years of post graduate training. Then I had my apprenticeship at the School of Music and Theater in Hannover, Germany with a piano duo “Genova and Dimitrov.” (MGBT)
I loved going to music school. I would come up with all kinds of stories to skip classes in my regular day school to practice piano every chance I got.
PPM: What was it like for you to be a piano student in a music school of a post-Soviet space? OP: Those were still Soviet times – 1986 through 1993. I loved going to music school. I would come up with all kinds of stories to skip classes in my regular day school to practice piano every chance I got.
PPM: How did you get an idea for your first creative performance? OP: Do you mean the video where I play two pianos at the same time? Here is the story. I created a YouTube Channel, and to attract the attention of the audience, I started thinking of what I could do that no one else had done before. That’s why I had to find a cat, had to drink coffee, and, finally, to play the most technically challenging piece “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” in Rachmaninoff’s (OBM) arrangement. And the video became tremendously popular. That year – 2011- it got 460,000 views.
PPM: Please, tell us about that moment when you looked at your piano and decided – let me try to play backwards and see what happens. OP: After the “Flight of the Bumble Bee” video I had to come up with something new. And that was the video where I play piano backwards. It was very challenging. Both my arms and my back hurt. It was very uncomfortable, but I managed to accomplish it. Two weeks later I recorded the video where I played an excerpt from the 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody by Franz Liszt (OBM).
PPM: In one of your videos you play “Fur Elise” backwards – starting from the end and ending at the beginning, which turned out pretty good, by the way. How and why did you get the idea to do that? OP: There is a joke where a student brought his own composition to an exam in a conservatory. When the student was asked whose composition it was, he answered, “I just copied the composition of my teacher backwards. That’s it.” When I was thinking of my next video, I thought of this joke, and it inspired me to take Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and play it backwards.
PPM: You did a commercial for BeeLine, a Russian cell phone company. Is it hard playing piano in the air? What was your experience like filming it? OP: We actually shot two versions. The second one, where I am in the air, turned out to be more successful and more visually appealing. It was very scary to play piano in the air. Since I didn’t have aerial training, I kept thinking, “Oh, no. Something’s gonna happen now.” So – yes – I was very frightened.
PPM: What is your dream as a musician and an artist? OP: I wish that all people had an opportunity to be exposed to beautiful, high quality music. Today there is a lot of bad music out there, and, somehow, people allow themselves to be exposed to it. Of course, everyone has their own opinion and their own taste. However, in general, there is a lot of garbage.
Every aspect of a pianist’s work is a big job: working on your spirituality, developing business relations, giving performances.
PPM: Is it hard to earn a living as a pianist living where you are? OP: It’s hard to make money no matter which profession you choose. I doubt that all pianists lead a luxury lifestyle. Every aspect of a pianist’s work is a big job: working on your spirituality, developing business relations, giving performances. Writing your own compositions also takes an enormous amount of effort. There is a lot to accomplish. That is why it is very hard for an artist to focus on making money. A good example would be Rachmaninoff as a pianist. While he made money as a pianist, but didn’t compose anything.
PPM: Are you planning to tour some time in the future? OP: In the near future, I definitely plan to do tours. For now, I try to perform at least once a week.
PPM: Please, tell us about your CD albums. OP: My first album is called “Classics For All.” In this album, I play the most famous pieces of Bach (OBM), Mozart (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Schumann (OBM), Schubert (OBM), Chopin (OBM), and Liszt, to name a few. There are 21 tracks in the album.
My second album called “Dudarai” is dedicated to Kazakhstan, where I was born, grew up, and received my education. Here I play Kazakh folk songs in my own arrangements as well as five of my original compositions.
My third album is still in my head. That’s what I am working on at the moment.
PPM: Besides being a pianist, you are also a composer. Please, tell us more about writing your own music. What is the process like for you? OP: When I was a student at the conservatory, I got familiar with the music of contemporary composers. They would ask me to play their music. And I was very interested in it. I started composing my own music back when I was a child, but then I stopped. At the conservatory, I felt inspired to start composing again. I would compose in the style of Chopin (OBM) and Rachmaninoff. Today I compose in a neo-classical style. One of my musical inspirations was Yiruma (MGBH), a Korean pianist and composer.
PPM: Do you have a family of your own or is music taking all of your energy right now? OP: I don’t have my own family yet, but I have my sister and my father, who both live Russia.
PPM: Who are some of your favorite composers – classical and contemporary? OP: Oh, the list is quite long. Every composer that I studied affected me in his own way. Today I can listen to Shostakovich (OBM), tomorrow – to Badalamenti (OBM), and the next day – Morricone (MGBH). I listen to a lot of music and love almost all composers. I am not talking about avante garde here – this is absolutely not for me.
PPM: What made you choose a career of a professional pianist? OP: It’s a hard question. When I was thirteen, my father asked me – what are you going to do next? I answered him, “I will continue my piano studies.” And that’s how it went.
PPM: Where do you live and how often and where do you travel? OP: I live in Alma Ati, Kazakhstan. I like it here very much out here – the nature is beautiful, the city is small. Recently, I had a chance to live in Los Angeles, CA and see what life like is out there. It was a very interesting experience. I try to travel as much as I can. In the past, I have also visited Turkey, China, Germany, and Holland.
PPM: Has a music piece ever made you cry? If so, which one? OP: Music is a reflection of feelings. One can start crying hearing Beethoven’s (OBM) Moonlight Sonata, for example. It’s about what it’s in your heart. And if the music touches your heart, it will make you cry. I enjoy music videos. If the visual component matches the music – it’s genius.
Today’s time is characterized by demise in many spheres of society – music, economy, politics … And, certainly, it is not a good thing. However, the cycles are such that there will always be a peak and demise. And it is through these cycles that humanity evolves.
PPM: Why do you think young people are not so interested in classical music as the older generations? OP: In my opinion, music was at its peak in the 19th and 20th century. Today’s time is characterized by demise in many spheres of society – music, economy, politics … And, certainly, it is not a good thing. However, the cycles are such that there will always be a peak and demise. And it is through these cycles that humanity evolves.
PPM: Where do you draw your inspiration from? OP: … from nature walks, travelling…. For a musician it is very important to travel. Sometimes it happens that a melody comes to me in my dream. I try to remember it and write it down afterwards.
PPM: Are you planning to perform in the US in the near future? OP: Once I performed in Glendale, CA where I played my music as well as the music of other composers in my original arrangements. I would definitely love to perform in many different cities and music halls. I very much enjoy doing it and am open to invitations.
PPM: Tell us, please, about the piano duo “Vivat.” OP: My friend and I decided to form a piano duo. We started working and sent an application to the Taneyev (OBM) Chamber Music Competition in Moscow. We got accepted and won 3rd prize among the piano duos. This competition was very important to us – we worked very hard and, as a result, reaped the fruits of our labor. During the same competition, one of my compositions “Kazakh Rhapsody” was awarded a Tchaikovsky prize. My friend and I performed together a lot. I created many piano arrangements for our duo.
PPM: Do you have an agent or a manager? OP: I have an administrator, who helps me handle all my performances.
PPM: What is your favorite Kazakh food? OP: I love pilaf. There is a folk saying: How many kinds of pilaf are there? As many as there are towns in the Middle East.
PPM: What’s your plan for the next 5 years? OP: To find new ways in wowing my audience.
PPM: Thank you, Oleg. We are looking forward to be wowed! OP: My pleasure.
She instinctively knows who to touch the audience with her delicate, sophisticated, yet powerful manner of performing some of the most technically complex classical pieces. When I first heard Zlata (MGBH) at the Miami Piano Festival, I thought to myself, “She is very special.” Maybe because of the way she performed the Chopin (OBM) Etudes, maybe because of the way she gracefully carried herself on stage in a princess-like manner, or maybe because of a little bit of both. Zlata’s sophisticated personality is intriguing, and her performance style points to genuine authenticity. She plays with sensibility and class.
With this interview we took the opportunity to learn more about her and her work.
Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): Please, tell our readers a little bit of yourself and your family. Zlata Chochieva (ZC): I was born in Moscow. My parents are Ossetians from Tskhinval, South Ossetia. They moved to Moscow when they were young. So, I grew up in Moscow, having absorbed Russian culture in all its glory. However, I also feel the Ossetian blood in me that I inherited from my ancestors. My Mother is a pianist. My Father was a TV man who was also extraordinarily musically gifted. I have an older beloved brother, to whom I owe my introduction to music. It was his piano lessons that gave me the first impressions of the sounds of music. I wanted to play piano like him, and my parents became my supporters in this difficult matter. They helped me, gave me faith and hope, and inspired me for any creative achievements.
PPM: Who named you Zlata? ZC: My mom gave me this name. Zlata is a Slavic name, quite often used in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia. My mother liked this name, and I have no complaints about it.
Blind imitation destroys creativity, but unadulterated individual expression, which a great artist can provide us with through his pure art, enriches and teaches us.
PPM: Who were your role models as a child and a teenager? ZC: My parents – both then and now. And yet, I try to see myself beyond imitation and comparison. Unfortunately, a nowadays profession of a musician dictates different rules which is, of course, our choice – to follow or not follow… Everything is subject to strange laws: we live in an era of competition in every sense. People devour themselves and, sometimes, others around them… All this destroys individuality, without which existence of a true artist is impossible. It’s so important to find your own voice in art, your face in this world. Blind imitation destroys creativity, but unadulterated individual expression, which a great artist can provide us with through his pure art, enriches and teaches us. For me, an example of such artist was and still is Vladimir Horowitz (OBM).
PPM: What is your dream as a pianist? ZC: I want to be able to express as much as possible through the piano, and better yet – beyond the scope of this instrument.
PPM: Who are some of your favorite composers of the past and the present? ZC: Mozart (OBM) and Rachmaninoff (OBM). To me, they have always been more than just composers – they’ve been my best friends. Not just because of their music, but also because of who they were as individuals. Rachmaninoff is my favorite though. In my world, he is the greatest pianist of all time – nobody who can come even close.
I never have a goal of memorizing music. It comes naturally to me – the same way people become friends.
PPM: You have a beautifully recorded CD titled “Chopin – Etudes Complete” where you play a complete set of Chopin’s Etudes. You frequently include the Etudes in your concert repertoire. How long did it take you to learn and memorize these? ZC: I never have a goal of memorizing music. It comes naturally to me – the same way people become friends. Ten years ago I choose Chopin’s Complete Etudes as part the program for my graduation exam at the Moscow Conservatory. And a few years later I decided to record them, but for a different reason. My goal was to overcome any technical difficulties by means of music only, and to create poetic sketches showing the real meaning of the title “Etude.”
I like the recording process. It’s very different from a live performance, but it has its own magic, I think. You play for the microphones, and they are your strictest judges.
PPM: What is your process of recording an album? ZC: I like the recording process. It’s very different from a live performance, but it has its own magic, I think. You play for the microphones, and they are your strictest judges. Being in the recording studio leaves you completely alone with music. You don’t feel the breathing of the audience. Instead, there is complete silence. It’s just you and music.
When I record, I always play by memory – you need to make music become yours…
PPM: Do you have a daily routine? ZC: I had a lot to do with a routine when I was a child. When I grew up I felt that I wanted to somewhat play with my time, to make my day and work a bit more spontaneous. But when my work and travel schedule becomes demanding, I have to admit of becoming a slave of a routine.
I have a deep appreciation for jazz. Not only I get inspired by it, I also learn from it. I admire great jazz players sometimes more than anyone else. Jazz is a pure art in its natural flow and freedom.
PPM: What CDs (of performers other than yourself) do you have in your car? ZC: To be honest, I don’t keep my own CDs in my car. And it’s quite a torture for me to listen to myself… I try not to listen to classical music, because I get quite distracted and can’t pay attention to the road. I have deep appreciation for jazz. Not only I get inspired by it, I also learn from it. I admire great jazz players sometimes more than anyone else. Jazz is a pure art in its natural flow and freedom.
PPM: Do you collaborate with other musicians? ZC: Yes, I play lots of chamber music. For me it is an inseparable form of performing art. Recently I started playing a piano duo with a pianist Misha Dacic (MGBH), whom I admire enormously, and this collaboration brings me a different perspective on piano and its potential.
PPM: Would you, please, share a story from your performance tours? ZC: I feel very lucky to have a chance to travel over a huge, very diverse, but beautiful country – Russia. One of my favorite parts Russia is Siberia. Once I had a series of concerts in Novosibirsk and in-between rehearsals with the Novosibirsk orchestra, I was offered to join a group of musicians and organizers to go to a private aerodrome and fly a small plane. I dreamt about it for a long time, and suddenly my dream came true. I had my first flying lesson and flew up into the skies. And since the owner of this private aerodrome is the biggest admirer of Chopin (and I was lucky to be playing Chopin concerto # 1), he offered to give me complimentary lessons. I would love to go back and practice more. It’s something what makes me feel time and space in a completely different way. Unfortunately, one can’t feel it by being a passenger of a big Boing or Airbus…
PPM: Under what circumstances did you start teaching? What is it like for you to share your knowledge with others? ZC: Some years ago I moved to Salzburg to study with Professor Jacques Rouvier (MGBH) at the Mozarteum University. A year later, he offered me to become his assistant, which was a big honor. And now, after having taught for four years, I can say that it makes me happy to have what I call “a friendship” with young and talented musicians. They are all very different, and they have their own world. I teach them, and they teach me as well, because any kind of musical collaboration gives a different perspective. It’s an extremely interesting growth process. It is simply amazing to be a witness of a process of “becoming an artist.”
PPM: What is your favorite city in the world? ZC: New York. It is definitely one of the few places in the world where I feel free.
PPM: What affects your choice of performance wardrobe? ZC: I must admit that an artist’s look is important. To me it’s one of the ways of showing respect to an audience. However, in my opinion, eyes shouldn’t distract ears in any way… Everything should act and collaborate together hand in hand with music.
I love forests as I feel time is different there – it flows organically and doesn’t put pressure on you. Nature has it’s own music created by wind, birds, trees, and leaves…
PPM: How do you connect with nature? ZC: For me nature is the most powerful inspiration together with experiences that life presents to us … I enjoy walks as a chance to connect with nature, which is so important, but quite difficult in our modern epoch. I love forests as I feel time is different there – it flows organically and doesn’t put pressure on you. Nature has it’s own music created by wind, birds, trees, and leaves…
PPM: Where does God fit in your life? ZC: In the world’s beauty, love, and hope. In its meaning. Life without faith, which we can call God, or Spirit, or anything you choose, is pointless…
PPM: Do you compose your own music? ZC: No, unfortunately… Or … maybe…. fortunately? When I start thinking about composing something by myself, right at that moment the music of Bach (OBM), Schubert (OBM), Schumann (OBM), Tchaikovsky (OBM) jumps into my head, and then I ask myself, “Why?” And next minute I start sight-reading Tchaikovsky’s operas… I’m more interested in improvising and transcribing. I would like to devote more time to it.
PPM: What character traits do you admire the most in people? ZC: Honesty. Modesty. Ability to look at people beyond their status, nationality or religious background.
PPM: As individuals, we all have to grow, whether we like it or not. Some grow through their own conscious efforts and others through the push of the circumstances. What kind of person do you aspire to be ten years from now? ZC: A better one? At least not worse than now, at least…
PPM: What architectural style do you like the most and why? ZC: Art nouveau. It drives me to another galaxy. I love Russian wooden architecture and Russian orthodox churches.
PPM: What are some of your favorite foods? ZC: Peruvian. I was first introduced to Peruvian food when I came to Miami to perform in the International Miami Piano Festival. I hope to have a chance to visit Peru one day…
PPM: What repertoire are you working on at the moment? ZC: I’m focusing on the repertoire, which I’m going to record for Piano Classics label in September. It will be Rachmaninoff’s transcriptions, Variations on the Theme of Corelli (OBM) and his Second Sonata in the first 1913 year version. This repertoire inspires me enormously. And it’s going to be the best summer for me, because I will be surrounded by something, which I call “worthy of living for”.
PPM: Name three things that make you happy. ZC: To see my loved ones healthy and smiling. To help people and any living creature with whatever they need or with whatever makes them feel happy and more fulfilled. To play the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Sergey Rachmaninoff.
Motivation, from the Latin movere meaning to move, is the fuel that starts, stops, directs, and sustains human behavior. It creates a desire to persist beyond the boundaries of comfort, to overcome obstacles, and to achieve beyond our own, and others’, highest expectations. Motivation is the pre-cursor to music practice. Motivation gets results. It is, therefore, an overarching concern for pianists and teachers.
In general terms, motivation is categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic. When we enjoy an activity for what it is and for the pleasure it brings, we are self-motivated, or intrinsically motivated. The reward for doing the activity comes from the activity itself. With extrinsic motivation, the reward is an external benefit from doing the activity. We observe intrinsic motivation when students engage in activities alone, when they choose to participate in activities without external pressure, and when they engage in activities in the absence of the promise of or opportunity for external reward. It is not only the choice to engage in activity that defines intrinsic motivation, but also the quality of that involvement. Does the student attend to difficult passages thoroughly or just go through the motions? Trying hard and spending extra time on a task are examples of intensity and persistence. These are hallmarks of an intrinsically motivated student.
External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears.
Extrinsic motivation is entrenched in systems of education. External rewards – including gold stars, stickers and grades – are both material and verbal and presented with the hope that students will be encouraged to learn. In his massive body of research, John Hattie (2009) found “praise, punishment and extrinsic rewards are the most ineffective forms of feedback for enhancing achievement.” External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears. Extrinsic performance goals and intrinsic learning goals are different. Getting an A in music is an extrinsically motivated performance goal, whereas becoming a better musician is a learning goal. This is one of the drawbacks of grading systems. Students are interested in achieving good grades, but become less interested in learning because of being graded. When students focus on grades they do the work that is necessary to get that grade, but rarely more. When told that work will be graded, students are less likely to enjoy the task and less likely to return to that material after the test. In comparison to learning goals, outcomes from performance goals are shallow and limited.
Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer.
Intrinsic interest sustains motivation. We are born curious, with a natural desire to seek out novelty and challenge, to exercise our abilities and to explore. Have you ever seen an infant who was not curious and self-directed? However, extrinsic rewards can deliver short-term boosts. They can serve as a last resort to kindle a desired behavior or as a symbol of competence and belonging, but the effect wears off and can reduce longer-term motivation. Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer. Therefore, a central mission for piano teachers and parents is to influence how children motivate themselves. Only then will children freely apply the effort required to reach greater heights. To foster intrinsic motivation in the music studio requires attention to three innate human needs: the need to belong, the need to feel competent, and the need to direct one’s own actions.
Autonomy refers to actions chosen and endorsed by self. The key here is choice. Increasing students’ options and choices is more likely to foster intrinsic motivation and subsequent effort. As early and as often as possible, teachers should give students some control of their learning. Choice might be as simple as involving students in selecting repertoire, but teachers must discern when allowing choice is wise. Permitting a student to decide which music fits the requirements for their technical and aesthetic progression is not prudent, but a teacher-selected assortment of several pieces that fulfill the criteria allows students to then choose a piece they like. Choice can be offered in the context of tasks and task order (“which piece would you like to start with”) as well as learning goals (“would you like to aim to improve sight-reading, playing by ear or playing from memory?”).
Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers.
Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers. Students need to think that teachers like, respect, value, and care about them. When students connect with and respect their teacher, they are more likely to subscribe to the values and practices of that teacher. If the student does not like the teacher, very often they will not do well in that subject.
“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, ” (Theodore Roosevelt)
An increasing level of competence, or progress, is a great motivator. One must believe in his or her capacity to accomplish a task. Even if students have healthy self-esteem, are interested in the learning content, and believe it to be important, they will not fully engage if they believe the task is beyond them. Hence the number one reason people quit music? Lack of progress and lack of competence.
“I’m not getting any better.”
“I’m no good at this.”
“I just can’t do it.”
Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort.
Students need the tools for making musical progress. A practice system that incorporates repetition, chunking and slow physical movement, when done on a regular basis over time, will deliver progress.
When students quit music, they give reasons like “it was boring, I can’t be bothered”, or “it’s stupid.” The challenge to play music is not boring; if anything, there is too much for the mind to pay attention to when working through a musical challenge, not too little. Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort. Devaluing an activity allows one to quit without the embarrassment of failing. Kristin Neff puts it well:
“One way to increase self-esteem is to value the things we are good at and devalue the things we are bad at. The problem here is that we may undercut the importance of learning valuable skills just because it makes us feel better about ourselves. In other words, our desire to achieve high self-esteem in the short term may harm our development in the long run.” (Neff 2011, p. 138)
The real reason for quitting is fragile competence beliefs. And this points to a lack of practice. Progress cultivates pride, enthusiasm, and perseverance.
Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning for Teachers. New York & London: Routledge.
Victor Borge (OBM) used to bill himself as an “unmelancholy Dane,” a description that modestly understates the laughter and joy this pianist – turned comedian has brought to millions around the world. If his father who played violin in the Royal Danish Symphony, hoped for a son to follow in his musical footsteps, this son was not one to follow the footsteps of anyone’s footsteps. Long before he fled the Nazi occupation of his homeland, Victor Borge found the magic and the fortune to be made from combining the talent for music with a facile wit and the sense of the absurd. And as if to prove that every Dane has at least two sides to his character, he found time between world tours, one man shows, command performances and television specials, to start, of all things, a highly successful business, marketing frozen cornish hens.
James Day (JD): Mr. Borge, I would like to ask you about your one-man show, which you performed before all kinds of audiences, all over the world. You performed before royalty, before heads of state. I want to ask you to imagine what you think it might be like if you performed your one-man show for a very select audience made up of Bach (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Tchaikovsky (OBM), Brahms(OBM), Mozart (OBM), even throw Debussy (OBM) in there. How do you think they’d receive your show? Victor Borge (VB): Sitting down, I guess, first (laughing). And I think I could compare it with an audience or some people that have had an audience. For instance, when I had a luncheon performance for the New York Philharmonics some years ago when Bruno Walter (OBM) and Metropolis and all the leading musicians in the world, you name them – they were there – and sat with napkins in front of their faces, not because they wanted to hide themselves, but I think it was from laughter. I think the composers would have done the same, because when I perform, for instance, with symphony orchestras, which I do very often, I conduct the evening, and then in-between I would do some of my piano things. And of, course, they are the first to grasp the humor, the depth of humor in it, and there are often times when they’d break the instruments.
JD: They do? VB: Yes. Not deliberately, I guess. This is my best audience.
JD: Well, they were clever men of humor, were they not? VB: Of course. Some of them.
JD: Which one would you chose to perform before if you had that selection to make? Which one do you think would be the most appreciative? VB: That I don’t know. Because what I would do, I would, of course, not ridicule a particular person. And I don’t ridicule, I just have fun with. For instance, when I play with a symphony orchestra, I never use the orchestra as a scapegoat or as a gimmick. I do it with them and for them. And the same with the composer.
I have a young singer who has been now with me for a couple of years. And we do some travesty, you know, on opera singing and accompanying. And I do things that are normally being done, but I may underline then a little more.
The same when you do an opera parody. What do you do if it’s not funny to see a 250 lb primadonna who is supposed to be 17 or 18 years old?
If people knew what takes place in the minds of the musicians when they perform, I think it would enlighten them quite a lot, and I think it would justify many of the things I do.
JD: It’s almost the way of looking at it. Something that we all see, but we blind ourselves to the humor sometimes, because we are expected to take it quite seriously. VB: Of course. If people only knew what’s been said by, for instance, singers during an opera, during the most dramatic scene, what they whisper to each. If people knew what takes place in the minds of the musicians when they perform, I think it would enlighten them quite a lot, and I think it would justify many of the things I do.
JD: I talked with one distinguished musician, and I asked him what was on his mind when he played. He told me it was sheer concentration upon the music, which it required. There are some musicians, where, apparently, this is not always the case. VB: Well, there are certainly musicians who concentrate on it get frightened…
One of the things that ruined my career as a concert pianist, so to speak, was fright.
JD: Frightened? VB: Yes, they get frightened. One of the things that ruined my career as a concert pianist, so to speak, was fright. Because if I would concentrate on what comes next or does that cadenza begin with the C# or with something else, it would drive me out of my mind. And I couldn’t go through with these things. I did it for a while, but I thought, “If this is going to be in my future…” And I know, you know very well also, that some of the great pianists of our time like Horowitz have gone through hell sometimes before a concert. And they don’t want to perform. And I think that it’s terrible that people have to perform, and nervousness or circumstances takes away maybe 30 or 40 percent of their ability. I think it doesn’t make much sense.
JD: What do you do about nervousness or are you without nervousness? VB: No, I am terribly nervous, of course.
JD: Before you go on to one of your own performances? VB: Depending, of course, on what kind of performance I do. If I play, for instance, when I play with an orchestra, which I often do when I conduct it from the piano, when we do Gershwin, maybe, the concerto in F or when we do some special arrangement, I am terribly nervous.
JD: … and nothing I can do about it. VB: …and there is nothing you can do about it. Well, there is nothing I can do about it. May there there is something you can do about it (laughing)?
JD: You began to play piano at the age of 4 or 5 in Copenhagen. VB: Yes, whenever I could reach the keyboard (smiling).
JD: Were you ever encouraged or forced to play the piano? You father was a musician. VB: No, I was forced not to. By the neighbors.
JD: Your father was in the Royal Symphony, was he not? VB: Yes, he was there for 33 years.
JD: As a violinist… VB: Yes. I think he played viola.
JD: Oh, did he? VB: Yes.
JD: Why did you take up the piano? VB: Because my father used the violin all the time (laughing).
JD: I guess it’s a good enough reason. VB: I told you, he was there for 33 years. As the matter of fact, we never recognized him when he came home.
JD: You did become a concert pianist, as you’ve said. And played for how many years? VB: Until now (laughing)… Oh, concert? Oh, I don’t know.
JD: You were a child prodigy… VB: I was a child prodigy. Yes. I am not that any longer.
JD: I see. It must be something of a handicap to be a child prodigy. VB: Yes, particularly when you aren’t any more. It has its advantages, of course. But it also has its disadvantages. The advantages are that you are featured, but you do not accept it while that happens, because you don’t know the difference. It’s only afterwards, when you are not featured any more, it becomes more difficult. But I changed from… in other words, when I was going to make my own life and support myself, I had pupils, I was supposed to be a very good teacher.
If somebody does something terribly serious, then it is hilariously funny.
JD: Absolutely straight, too (smiling). VB: Oh, yes. You see, the funny thing about humor is that it is very serious. The only thing that is funny is when it’s not humorous, because then it becomes funny, you see. Humor itself is not funny. It is the seriousness that makes humor. I mean, a very serious situation: one of the standard things – a person falls on the banana peel, for instance. That is darn serious, isn’t it? But you can’t help laughing if you see it on the stage if somebody does it. If somebody does something terribly serious, then it is hilariously funny. In order words, if I come in on the stage, and I am going to play the beginning of Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and I am sitting on a bench – a piano bench. Normally a pianist sits on a porcelain bench or a stool that can elevate him. Now, I ‘ve seen this happen, and I am doing it myself. I don’t do it any more, because I hurt my arm doing it, but I used to do it. Now, this pianist came in and sat on a polished wooden bench. He was used to the leather bench that would not make him scoot. And he did the first chords of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto – boom, boom, boom – and he slid right off the bench. Now, this is serious! But when I do it – ha, ha, ha – it’s hilariously funny. But it was done, actually.
JD: Well, I doubt the people laughed when he did it. VB: Oh, no, they were shocked, of course. But when I do it, I don’t think they are shocked.
… there is not situation that can be serious enough not to have a glimpse of humor in it.
JD: It’s partly what you expect, isn’t it? VB: … But you see, you have to do it …. Don’t we have a lot of things with people with silk hats and funerals and in vaudeville… the funeral attendance, you know? The sketches… The more serious it is, the more humor there is to be found in it. Death in itself is, of course, not particularly funny, but there is not situation that can be serious enough not to have a glimpse of humor in it. Because I consider humor to be between the… I am not prepared to say these things, so I am stuttering a little bit, but it’s quite an interesting subject – a man’s inefficiency. No man is perfect. Can we agree with that?
JD: Absolutely. VB: The difference between where we stop imperfection is where humor sets in. In other words, if some man, some person is 70% perfect, 90-92% perfect, the gap in-between is where hilarity begins.
JD: I wanted to take you back to Copenhagen. I wonder when the hilarity set with you. VB: When I was born.
JD: Of course, but there was some point in your career, and different stories are written. You winked at some ladies in the front row at the audience doing a serious concert or something. Now, I suspect these stories were apocryphal, but there was a point when you switched from serious music to serious music with humor, there wasn’t? What was the gap? VB: No, I didn’t switch. It happened very slowly. You know just like you build a road or you build a highway. Anything we do, nothing is suddenly.
JD: It didn’t happen in one day. VB: It couldn’t. Of course, it couldn’t. But I think it is a matter of chemistry. I think I was created like anybody else but with a musical ability and a sense of humor, which is a chemistry of which I consist, partly.
JD: That came with the equipment. VB: That came with the equipment, yes. (smiling). That’s what happened. And these two things are finally got together you know and become…
JD: … and you became the leading comedian in Denmark. VB: Well, when you ask me “Who is your favorite composer?” I will not do that. Or if you ask me “Who is your favorite actor?” I will never tell you that. Because I might hurt somebody who is just as favorite, therefore, I cannot answer that question.
JD: I am sorry, I didn’t put it as a question. VB: I know. But I could give you an answer to it even if it wasn’t a question.
JD: I see. But in your comedy in Denmark, I am told, I read that you did make fun of the Nazis, which were a threat at that point to Denmark, to all of Europe. VB: What may I refer to what I have said before – the more serious the situation, the more it calls for humor and the more it hits. The more there is to it. Humor is a medium. You cannot create humor. Humor is a medium, with which you can create situations. Humor is to the humorist what a brush is to the painter, and what a pen is to the poet or the composer. You create with humor. Now, depending, of course, upon the degree of artistry there is in the humor as it depends upon the degree of artistry there is in a composer or in a painter, they can be better or they can be less good… but humor can devastate. I think it’s been used many times in politics – Winston Churchill (OBM), Roosevelt (OBM). You can avoid wars, you can create wars, all depending how it’s being used and with what strength and with what intention, you see…
I remember, for instance, my father was being buried. My father was 62 when I was born. He actually jumped a generation. He should have waited, but I guess he couldn’t (smiling). He lived to be 85, and my mother was very much in love with him. And at the funeral I stood and held my mother’s arm. Some colleagues from the Royal Orchestra were carrying the casket. They had played some quartets of Tchaikovsky. And my mother was, of course, completely gone. Some of the colleagues of my father were standing next to the casket. And some of them looked terribly funny. There was a little fellow – an oboist – who had his silk hat on that was much too small – a little fat man. There was a terribly tall man who played the bassoon who had a hat that was much too big for him; and it went way down on his head. And that sight was so hilarious. And I said to my mother, “If father could open his eyes and see this, he would have died laughing anyway.” And my mother started laughing.
JD: Was your father a man who really enjoyed humor? VB: Oh, yes. He was very witty. And you talked about the Nazis. You cannot fight a situation like that with words. You must have more than just words, because you can’t do it scientifically. You have to have something that goes deeper than words. And that is, I think, humor. Humor is one of the things that can create things in a man or in a woman, in a person, like nothing else. It’s like tickling somebody. I remember once in Denmark we had a problem – we had a tax issue… They wouldn’t accept a regular 10% tax for my performances when I finally went to the stage and did theatrical performances, because they said it was variety or something like that. Concerts were 10%. If I played concerts, they were 10%, but if it were theatrical things like I do now, it would be 20%. And I went to court with it, and I insisted that all I did was exactly the same thing: when I played piano, I would touch some muscles in you or some feelings in you that would make you either cry or feel good or feel bad or resent it. And when I talked, I would do the same thing, but probably activate other muscles or other things in your body. And why should one be 20% and the other should be only 10%, which I thought was unfair? And I won the case. I had to pay 20% for both (laughing). No, I won the case, of course.
JD: The Nazi invasion of Denmark was what brought you to America, drove you to America, I suppose. But you did make your choice to come to New York. You’ve referred to it as the day you were born. VB: The day I was re-born. Yes.
JD: Why did you choose America? VB: I didn’t, but the ship went here, and I didn’t have influence (laughing). As a matter of fact, if I did have influence, I would still come to America for two reasons. Where else could you go at that time? And that was the country, to which I had my tickets. And I was fortunate, of course.
JD: I see. But earning a living here was a bit difficult at the beginning, wasn’t it? VB: It is always a difficult thing. It was impossible because I couldn’t speak the language, and nobody knew me.
And he said, “What do you do?” I said, as well as I could say, “Well, I play the piano.”
JD: As a performer this would be difficult unless you would play the piano, of course. VB: Yes, but where? You don’t go around just playing the piano. You have to know somebody. I remember somebody told me to go down to Florida to Palm Beach maybe to get involved with some of the big balls and parties there, you know, I could entertain and play, but, of course, I wouldn’t talk – I couldn’t say a word. And they sent me to a local agent. And he said, “What do you do?” I said, as well as I could say, “Well, I play the piano.” And he was going to get me a job at one of the big festivals. He said, “What do you play? I said, “I play the piano.” He said, “If somebody said, for instance, “Play the Blue Danube, what would you do?” I said, “I would play the Blue Danube, of course.” And he said, “Ok, let me hear it.” And I said, “Ok, do you have some music?” And he brought me some music, and I played it upside down. And then I turned the page around and I said, “I am sorry,” and I did it the regular way. He threw me out of the office.
JD: He did? Didn’t appreciate it. VB: No. He said, “You can’t even read music.” (laughing)
JD: Your first break came at Bing Crosby, I gather. VB: Yes.
JD: Did you really chauffer a family out West to get out West? VB: Yes. It was some friends of mine who had a daughter who was going to get married in San Francisco and would like to have a car out there. And that was my chance to come to the West Coast, where Hollywood, of course, loomed. And having made movies, I thought, when I get out there… just wait till I get out there. I am still waiting.
JD: You only made one movie, as the matter of fact. VB: Yes, that wasn’t a movie. That was a catastrophe.
JD: It was. VB: That was called “Higher and Higher.” I played Sir Victor Fitzroy Victor, an English nobleman. I could hardly speak English.
JD: How did you learn to speak English? VB: I didn’t (laughing).
JD: It’s been a real asset, hasn’t it? VB: Yes. I am still trying.
JD: I asked that as I am sure you know because the research material on you indicates that when you went to movies when you first landed in New York. Is that so? VB: Yes, I went to 42nd street where, I think, for 50 cents one could see three movies, and you could sit there for 24 hours if you wanted to. And I sat sometimes for almost 24 hours, because it repeated, and I could see the action with the words, and I would memorize the words and say them with the actors. And nobody would be disturbed, because there would be hardly anybody else in the theater. And that was… I don’t think I learned to actually speak English, but it helped a lot.
JD: You must have learned a lot of other things as well. VB: I sure did.
JD: Were they useful? VB: Well, I tried some. For instance, once I would pass a pretty girl on the street, and I said, “Hi, Babe!” She must have seen the same movie, because she said, “Scram bum!” or something like that.
It’s a great satisfaction to know that somebody wants more of whatever you have to offer.
JD: I’ve heard that you are a perfectionist. That you really only feel well when you know that you’ve done extremely well, and you get depressed when you don’t feel that you’ve done your best. Is that so? VB: No, it is not exactly so. I don’t see it’s a matter of feeling that you have done your best because, once you do that then there is nothing left over. There should be something left over. That doesn’t mean that you would try to do what the situation calls for, but I think that if one has done one’s best, one has finished somehow, you know. It might be a little deep. I have never been completely satisfied with anything I have done, in spite of the fact that I have been encouraged. For instance, I have never improvised to the extent where I have said to myself, “This was marvelous.” But I have said, “This was nice, but had I only done such and such, it would have been…” You know, I always have that little thing left over. And I also have a feeling, for instance, a very gratifying feeling, when I finish the performance, and some of the people come afterwards or later they say, “I wish you had played some more…” or “I wish it had lasted longer.” It’s a great satisfaction to know that somebody wants more of whatever you have to offer. And granted that some people would probably say, “We didn’t want any of it,” but that’s their own fault – you shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
But it is like driving an automobile. I can drive 140 miles. Good to know, but you don’t drive 140 miles. You have that excess, you have a little extra. And it’s good to know that you could possibly do a little better next time. Or there is something that could always be improved. I am very sensitive with letters, for instance. I often take much too much time to write a good letter. I am very fond of good letters. Because I think that the way we express ourselves in a letter mirrors ourselves, many things that, otherwise, don’t come to the fore. But in a letter, many people contradict themselves, actually. You know what they mean. For instance, like the letter from a lady who said to me she had such a marvelous time at the show and that she hadn’t laughed so hard since her husband died. Now, of course, we know….
I am very critical, particularly with myself, but I forgive easily.
JD: But you know what she meant… VB: Of course, I know what she meant. And that was very sweet…
JD: But saying precisely what you do means a great satisfaction. VB: Exactly. And when I read the letter all over again, and I finally sign it, I say, “This I could have said a little better.” In other words, I am very critical, particularly with myself, but I forgive easily.
JD: Thank you very much, Mr. Borge.
Interview Transcribed and Adapted for Publication by Alex Davydovich (MGBH)