The Piano Duo: Carles and Sofia

Interview by Tanya Levy (MGBH)


Four hands. Two people. One career. One family. One life.  
Carles Lama (MGBH) and Sofia Cabruja (MGBH), also known as Carles and Sofia, one of Europe’s most respected piano duos, have managed to build their career without compromising family life.  Their charitable efforts got them an official UNICEF Award, and, in spite of their success, they are very much down to earth and always ready to share what they’ve learned with others.

PPM: What is the story behind you becoming a piano duo? How did you meet and why did you decide to join careers?
Carles Lama (Carles): We first met when I was 14 in a students ‘concert in the Conservatory of our birth town Girona.  I played a Chopin’s Waltz and Sofia came up to me and gave me praises, but we never saw each other again until some years later… Sofia went to play at History of Music’s Class, which I attended as well.  In the middle of Sofia playing (she was playing Debussy’s (OBM) “Les Voiles”) the power went out, but she kept playing despite the darkness.  That impressed me very much.  At the end of the class, I went up to her and complimented her on her performance.  From that moment, we started going to concerts together with other students, to listening to music together…
Sofia Cabruja (Sofia): One day, my teacher, who used to present a student’s recital every year before Christmas vacation, proposed that I play Schumann’s (OBM) Carnaval de Vienne to close the recital.   Also, she came up with the idea of playing -as well- some pieces for four hands with a student of another teacher.  It happened to be Carles.  Of course, despite being colleagues and knowing each other, we never had the idea of playing together before.  We accepted the challenge, and we must admit that from the very beginning it was “magic.”  We are very different in character, as solo pianists we were used to play very different repertoire. However, coming together in one piano something unusual was happening.  From the very beginning, it looked like we were one person.  From that moment on, after some time, we even felt in love and became inseparable in life and in music.

… the power went out, but she kept playing despite the darkness.  That impressed me very much.  At the end of the class, I went up to her and complimented her on her performance.

PPM: Do you remember your first public performance together?
Carles: We will always remember our first public performance together. It was in Girona, our birth town, in the Culture House.  We played Brahms’ Waltzes Op. 39, and it was indeed a very special moment. We will always remember it!  There was such chemistry, such mutual understanding, and such complicity that many people could guess that something really special was born that day. It was the spark of a long-lasting musical and love relationship.

I was six when I went to my parents’ friends’ farm. They had an old piano, and I loved to play it and discover how to play songs on my own.  I was so insisting in playing that old piano that later on my parents brought me to the Conservatory to study seriously.

PPM: When and why did you decide to become a pianist?
Sofia: I was nine years old when I listened to the sound of a piano “live”or the first time.  Prior to that I had listened to it in some recordings, but never live. The impact of the sound and the possibilities of expression of the instrument was so high, that I arrived home saying “I want to become a pianist.” It is not that I decided at that precise moment that I would become a pianist, but from that moment on, it really became my dream to do so.
Carles: I was six when I went to my parents’ friends’ farm. They had an old piano, and I loved to play it and discover how to play songs on my own.  I was so insisting in playing that old piano that later on my parents brought me to the Conservatory to study seriously.  The moment when I realized I wanted to become a pianist was when I listened to my teacher Luiz de Moura Castro play Liszt’s B Minor Sonata.  It made a great impact on me, not only from the technical point of view, but also emotionally.  I felt that I wanted to do the same thing.

PPM: In 2001, you have been honored by UNICEF for your humanitarian effort. Can you, please, tell our readers about it?
Carles:  We have always been committed to social needs.  From a very young age, we’ve been offering benefit concerts to different social institutions.  We have always felt that this was our possible personal contribution to a better world, doing what we know – playing the piano.  One of the institutions, for which we played several benefit concerts during many years, was UNICEF.  And in 2001, they presented us with an honorable distinction.  This was totally unexpected for us, since we did it without awaiting anything in return. We were very honored and touched: we received it from the hands of Her Royal Highness Princess Margarita de Borbón (MGBH).  It is something that we will remember all our lives.  We are very thankful for this recognition.

PPM: Who was your first piano teacher? Where did you study piano afterwards? And what was the process of being initiated into this profession for you like?
Carles: Sofia’s first piano teacher was Rosa Ciurana (MGBH) – the piano teacher at her primary school.  My first teacher was a priest who was teacher at the Conservatory of our birth town – Girona.
We both had several different piano teaches and after finishing the professional studies, we went to Barcelona for obtaining the Superior Diploma, and then to Paris and to United States for a Master’s Degree (Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford, Connecticut.)
We could say that the initiation to this profession was quite organic in our case.  We were both used to play, as much as possible, in student’s recitals. We would always participating in festivals, master classes… as well as accompanying singers or other instrumentalists and performing in public very often.
As soloists and chamber musicians, we had a quite important network of connections that made us start playing professionally and gradually become more and more engaged.

PPM: What was it like to study piano with Nina Svetlanova (MGBH) and Luiz de Moura (MGBH) Castro? Please, tell our readers a little bit about your experiences with them.
Sofia: We can say, no doubt, that both of them were crucial in our student’s times. They were the two professors who made the greatest impact on us.  They have different personalities, but they were both very demanding and strict, which is needed when you are a student.
Nina Svetlanova is a very sweet (and extremely beautiful) woman who pays lot of attention to the sound and the phrasing of the music.  She sings very well and makes you forget that piano is a percussion instrument.  She teaches you how to sing with piano, she teaches you how to produce a nice sound in every note.
Luiz de Moura Castro is a very powerful pianist who has developed a very special technique.  He also pays lots of attention to the sound and singing of the piano.  He has the ability to solve any technical problem one might have in any given passage.  He completely adapts to the student. He understands every student and is able to make him or her play at his or her best. Besides learning the piano, you learn powerful aspects of life from him. And he is a great cook as well!  He taught us many things!

PPM: Besides being pianists, you also give master classes. Please, tell our readers about them.
Carles: We have several kinds of master classes, lectures and talks.  We teach piano solo master classes as well as piano duo or chamber music.  We do not have a specific requirement of level to enter our master classes.  The only thing we look for is for students with passion and interest for music who are willing to learn and are open-minded hard workers.
We normally teach graduate or postgraduate students, but we love working with juniors and kids as well. We enjoy very much giving lectures about four-hands piano playing, about Spanish Music… and we also love to inspire people not only musically speaking, but also in their lives, as we did for instance, in a TEDx talk that we gave in Bolzano in 2016. We think that sharing your own experiences is a very good lesson for the young generation.

 

PPM: What kind of families you grew up in?
Sofia: My father owned a stationery store, and my mother was a housewife.  My father used to play the violin and the saxophone, and my mother used to sing pop music.  Both of them, though, had quit music when they got married and had the first child.  Music, however, was in her background, and I would listen to many LPs of classical music, when I was a child.  I also have an older brother.
Carles: I was the eldest of four siblings.  I have a brother and  two sisters.  My father worked in a bank, and my mother was a housewife just like Sofia’s.  They did not have a musical background, although they loved listening to music.  My mother was very fond of different Catalan and Spanish songwriters, and my father was a lover of “Zarzuela” (the Spanish operetta).  My grandfather loved the opera and had basic notions of piano, but he had to quit studies due to the Civil War in Spain.

My mother was very fond of different Catalan and Spanish songwriters, and my father was a lover of “Zarzuela” (the Spanish operetta).

PPM: Is it realistic to combine a successful career as a pianist with having a family of your own where you have to raise children?
Sofia: We got married 25 years ago, and we have two (beautiful) daughters together – Nora and Míriam (MGBT). We are very close to our families and, in fact, we are very thankful to the grandparents, because they took care of our daughters when they were little, while we were abroad for concerts.  We all live in the same city, very close to one another.
We always had “a number” of maximum concerts per year, especially when the girls were little.  Nowadays this number is 40.  When Nora and Miriam were kids, it was 30. They actually were very happy when their parents were going away for a concert and they would stay with “grandma”. We always tried to be away not for too long; and when we were back, the time we would spent with them was always very precious.

PPM: What are your weekend hobbies?
Sofia: When we do not have a concert, we like to prepare some sandwiches and go to the forest with the girls. We also like to go to the beach (even in winter) to look at the sea.  Sometimes, we simply like to rest and watch a movie or a TV show with Nora and Míriam and relax all together.

PPM: What are some of the most valuable lessons that you learned from your parents?
Carles: We have learned discipline, excellence, perseverance… We’ve learned not to quit despite failures. We’ve learned respect and love…We’ve learned that no matter what you choose to do as a profession, you have to do it with passion, you have to look for excellence, and you have to fight for your goals and dreams.

We have learned discipline, excellence, perseverance… We’ve learned not to quit despite failures. We’ve learned respect and love…We’ve learned that no matter what you choose to do as a profession, you have to do it with passion, you have to look for excellence, and you have to fight for your goals and dreams.

PPM: What is your favorite part about travelling?
Carles: Getting to know new cultures, new food, and new people.  We love trying new recipes, learning customs and traditions of other nations… We love to be able to better understand attitudes or trends.  And we especially like to experience the different ways people understand and enjoy music and behave in concert halls.

PPM: Can you share any stories from your performances?
Carles: After so many years, we have many anecdotes from our concerts… Some of them are funny, some of them are not…We will always remember, for instance, going to Italy to perform Bach’s Concerto in C Minor with the Tokyo String Orchestra.  They were not able arrive on time for the rehearsals two days before the concert and, instead, arrived just one hour before the performance.  Everything was set for the concert, which was in a nice cloister of a monastery, seating 2,000 people.  The TV was ready to record the concert…  The moment we started the rehearsal, we knew that something was very wrong. The sound was absolutely awful… The conductor made us start again, and, again, the first chord was completely off.  He went to the concertino and, to our horror, discovered that they were playing the C MAJOR Concerto!  The conductor as well as ourselves had studied the C Minor, and the orchestra had studied the C Major Concerto!! Fortunately, Sofia had brought the orchestra parts of the concerto, and we could use them for the orchestra.  They had to sight-read, but they were excellent musicians, and everything went smoothly. Thank God!

The moment we started the rehearsal, we knew that something was very wrong. The sound was absolutely awful… The conductor made us start again, and, again, the first chord was completely off.

PPM: How often does each of you perform as a soloist compared to your performances as a duo?
Carles: Nowadays, we only perform as a duo.  It takes all our time and energy.  We have “our number” of concerts per year as a duo, and we do not imagine ourselves performing either as a soloist or with someone else.  Some years ago, we made the decision to devote to and specialize entirely in the four hands, learning lots of new repertoire every year, developing new exclusive projects and commissioning new exclusive repertoires.

PPM: What do you like about being a pianist and what aspects of the nature of a pianist’s career you wish you could change?
Sofia: The piano, to us, has always been the instrument that can “explain” our feelings better. We love making the other happy, we love being able to move people with the sound of the piano, we love communicating emotions and feelings through this powerful instrument. Being a pianist brings you the possibility of changing people’s lives.  In addition, while travelling, you get to know different cultures and people, and it is very enriching. The life of a pianist is anything, but monotonous.
If we could change anything, it would probably be the really early morning flights. We would avoid the jetlag, and appreciate if there was some kind of teleportation that could bring you from one country to another in an instant…

PPM: What affects your repertoire choices?
Sofia: When you are young, you tend to play what you like the most.  As you grow, you change your priorities a bit and you learn to find the balance between what you like, what the presenter wants and what the public wants.

There is one thing clear in our case: we do not like to play the same repertoire and we try not to repeat the same program in many concerts. We need a variety of moods, styles, and composers.

When you are young, you tend to play what you like the most.  As you grow, you change a bit your priorities and you learn to find the balance between what you like, what the presenter wants and what the public wants.

 

PPM: What are your performance plans for the upcoming 2018-19 season?
Carles: We have several tours planned for this upcoming season: Thailand, China, South America, United States, Russia and several concerts in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Czech Republic, Norway, Austria, Turkey…

PPM: Do you have any CD albums coming out this season?
Carles: This season is very important to us, since we have just celebrated our 30th Anniversary of playing together.  One of the things we have prepared is a launch of different CDs that reflect, in a way, those 30 years of playing together.

One of them –  “Goyescas in New York” – is already released.  This CD contains the opera “Goyescas” by Enrique Granados (OBM).  We made this special commission to Catalan composer Abraham Espinosa (MGBH).  Moreover, we were extremely fortunate, because we could premiere the transcription for four hands at Carnegie Hall, the 28th of January 2016, exactly 100 years later of the premiere of the opera at the Metropolitan.

We have a second CD coming out –  Brahms’ Lieder.  This is also exclusive repertoire, a commission we made to the German composer and pianist Christoph Ewers (MGBH).  Lieder have been always very close to our hearts. We fell in love while listening to this musical genre together, and we’ve always wanted to be able to play this music.  Christoph Ewers has made the transcription of our favorite Brahms’ Lieder, and this CD is part of a biggest Lieder project, which will include Schubert (OBM) and Schumann (OBM), as well as Strauss (OBM) and probably some French composers.

And there is another very special CD to be released: the one containing our second version of Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor.  This is the masterwork for piano four hands literature, and we had recorded it longtime ago.  We felt that, as a celebration of our 30th Anniversary, it would be nice to offer a second version of it.

PPM: Would you share a favorite Spanish recipe?
Carles: Sure! This is how you can cook a nice “Tortilla de patatas” (Potato omelet, so called “Spanish Tortilla”).  You need onions (1), potatoes (3) and eggs (6), olive oil and salt.  Peel and chop the onion and the potatoes in dices. Put everything in the pan with the olive oil already a bit hot, add some salt and fry over low heat for 25-30 minutes. Remove it periodically. Drain the fry and put the oil in a container, and reserve it.  Clean the pan with absorbent kitchen paper.  Shell the eggs, place them in a large bowl and beat them.  Add some salt and add the fried potatoes and onion; and mix well.  Put the pan back on the fire, add a splash of the reserved oil and add the mixture.  Remove a little with a wooden spoon and wait to start curdling.  When it’s curd, separate the edges, cover the pan with a plate of larger diameter than the pan and turn it over.  Press it again so that it sets on the other side.  Hope you’ll enjoy!

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