Quite Beautiful Things: An Interview with David Greilsammer

David Greilsammer
Baroque Conversations
Sony Classical

David Greilsammer is making a name for himself in a very competetive field. Classical piansts, as many as there are, need to work within the confines of their instrument’s repetoire to stand out from the crowd. Even with some of the world’s greatest music at their disposal, you have to agree that it’s a challenge to make yourself out as an individualist when it’s just you and a piano. Greilsammer has figured out a few ways to get around this.

Born in Jerusalem and educated at both the Rubin Conservatory and Julliard, David Greilsammer broadsided the classical music world by performing all of Mozart’s piano sonatas in one day, releasing a critically acclaimed album by the same of Fantasie_Fantasme that juggled works by Bach, Brahms, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Cage, Mozart, and Janáček, and clinching the directoral position of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra all by the age of 32. Greilsammer’s latest album, Baroque Conversations, carries on his mission of blending ye old standbys with more recent works, some of them even commissioned for the project. One glance at the back of the CD and you may be convinced that Greilsammer just threw his setlist up in the air and played the pieces in whatever order they landed. But just one listen to Baroque Conversations suggests something deeper, a method to this “mess.” In this realm, Feldman and Rameau don’t sound out of place alongside one another. The selection is carefully sequenced and all tracks are divvied into chapters, giving an abstract impression of where the music is headed.

David Greilsammer is only too pleased with the initial reaction to Baroque Conversations. Remaining ever subjective, music means different things to different people. And as long as people feel a twitch of something in the music, no matter how very different it may be from the last commenter, Greilsammer feels that he’s done his job. He remains a busy man, splitting his time between Paris and Geneva, fulfilling performance engagements with the orchestra throughout the season while recording solo piano for Sony Classical. David Greilsammer took 45 minutes out of his day to give PopMatters an inside glance into his thought process behind Baroque Conversations. We also discussed conducting the orchestra, his latest series of recitals combining the music of Alessandro Scarlatti and John Cage, and how children absorb fine art. A common thread through these discussions was Greilsammer’s belief that classical musicians should not stay within their mental boxes. If David Greilsammer would have done that, we would not have one of this year’s better releases.

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Baroque Conversations has some very disparate styles in it. Can you elaborate on how that came about?

For a few years now I’ve been really working on this idea of bringing together different worlds — or maybe more accurately trying to create encounters or bridges between worlds that possibly were not supposed to meet at first. But if you, the performer, the artist, make them meet and come together then all sorts of very interesting and unexpected and quite beautiful things can happen that were not planned. When they do happen you realize how much those very distant worlds have in common. But if you, the artist, don’t make it happen — that magic encounter — then it will never happen, which is what I’ve been saying for the last few years. It’s up to us, the artists, to make these things happen. If we keep on playing classical, mainstream recitals — we can do that as well — but if we just keep on doing that, then we can’t bring forward all sorts of new ideas. So for the last few years I’ve been working on that theme of bringing together distant worlds and building bridges between them. Once you decide you want to do that, you have to make sure that your project is very, very well structured, very coherent, it can’t just be all sorts of ideas.

The idea is to make these worlds speak to one another, face each other. Something needs to happen, so you really need build that in a very careful way. For this particular recording, it took quite a long time — maybe a year — to decide what would be the pieces, what bridges, what will be the structure of the recording. In this case it has four chapters. And obviously the thing that could make it come together in this recording was that it would be two very distinct and really different worlds; one is the baroque and the other one is contemporary. But it needed to be a well-structured idea. So there are those four chapters and in each chapter you have one contemporary work which is surrounded by two baroque works. This is how it was built.

So if a different performer were to sit down and play the same pieces, it would come out differently?

I would hope so. This kind of recording does not aim to bring any kind of truth. Obviously the performer and the performance needs to be good, but I don’t try to bring any truth. This is a very subjective kind of project in which I want to bring forth certain ideas, beliefs and convictions that these worlds should meet and it’s up to us to have them meet. But if another performer were to play those pieces, I would hope that he or she would bring a completely different approach to them. And by the way, this is what I more and more deeply believe in. I don’t think we should, as artists, be recreating things that have already begun in the past. We can take the beautiful music we have from the past from those great composers and interpret them today, but we need to make sure that we are doing something new with these pieces and that each performer can bring sort of a new tone or a new idea [to them]. Something new new needs to happen. Again, if classical music stays the same with when each performer tries to play in the same way as some great old master on old recordings, nothing is going to move. I would hope different performers would play all these pieces very differently.

What were some of the biggest surprises from putting together this program of music?

Sometimes musics that you think are terribly different and have nothing in common suddenly realize what they actually have in common. And it’s not about key or tonality or harmonics, this is not about that. I think it’s something much bigger and more profound. It’s really about that captured moment of when the pieces meet. A lot of it has to do with triggering the imagination of the listener. Not everything is in the hands of the performer. For instance, coming out of the last chapter of this recording, the [Helmut] Lachenmann, Cradle music (“Wiegenmusik”) and suddenly you go to beautiful, dreamy music by [Jan Pieterszoon] Sweelinck, a Dutch composer from the baroque [period], a piece called “My Young Life Is at an End” [“Mein junges Leben Hat ein End”]. Obviously there are so many things here, like the tenderness and the intimacy those two pieces have in common and how they can dialogue. But I really do think that on top of these bridges and connections, it will speak to me in one way but because these pieces are so far apart, then somebody else who listens will have a completely different experience. That’s part of the subjectiveness of this project. I want it to be subjective, I don’t want it to be telling any kind of truth. I want this to be kind of a mind-triggering proposal, both emotional and intellectual that in a way forces us to listen to some pieces differently.

I also think that, many times, we tend to think that composers from nowadays, [that] there’s so much in their music that comes from the past. But I always tend to say if we could play the music from the past, after having experienced music from the present, it’s so much more interesting than taking any new composer today and saying “oh, well, I can hear the influences of Bach, I can hear the influences of Mozart.” That’s much less interesting than to play music from the past within your ears and in your mind and all the lessons one could learn from the present. And this is why I like to say, let’s let Mozart and Bach belong to 2012. Let’s not try to make 2012 belong to the past, it’s really about making the past come to the present and not be opposite themselves. I think those bridges and those connections, like the one I mentioned and many others. For instance, I think it’s in the second chapter when you have that [François Couperin] and then the [Matan Porat original] “Whaam!” piece, and with both pieces you realize there’s this swing, kind of jazz feeling and you realize how much these baroque composers sometimes had that groove in them! It’s quite amazing to realize that and I hope this kind of bridge can help when trying to think of these old masters and old composers maybe in a more swinging, grooving way.

So if I’ve got you right, you went into this thinking that old baroque pieces and modern pieces had a lot in common, and it turns out that they had even more in common than you initially thought.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

How has the reaction been from the classical music community?

I think there’s been a fair amount of wondering “what is this all about?” It’s kind of surprising to some people, maybe even shocking. But I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised, especially in the U.S. to see the really beautiful and fantastic reactions. Not only am I happy because the reviews have been quite amazing and I’m obviously proud of this project — it’s an original project, it’s something I created from scratch; it’s not like somebody told me “oh, you should play the last three Beethoven sonatas” and I just went into the studio. This required heavy thinking for many, many months. What I was especially pleased about, in terms of the reaction, especially from the press, was that in various reviews you had one person saying “when it goes from the Couperin to the contemporary piece “Whaam!”, this is what it evoked, this is what I thought of, this is what I felt, this is how the pieces dialogue, this is what inspired me.” And somebody else talked about the same exact connections and thought about something completely different that I myself might not have thought of. And I thought, isn’t that what art is all about? Letting your imagination just be free and having completely different ideas meet and converse? And that’s the title of this recording, it’s all about conversation.

So when different ideas meet, there is no truth. And this is exactly what I was hoping for the recording. Obviously I was hoping that people would enjoy the playing, and that’s always an important part of it, I was happy that so many people felt an intimate and personal connection to these conversations. There were people that [said] “oh, the third chapter, I really the connection, this speaks to me in a particular way.” For somebody else it was the first chapter with the [Jean-Philippe] Rameau going into the Morton Feldman and the quietness of the Feldman. This is what really made me happy about this kind of artistic statement. What we should focus on is creating innovative projects and making this classical world — which sometimes is linked or obsessed with the past — [and] making sure that it moves towards the future and not stay in its museum; having people watch it and nothing happens. I was really pleased about the reactions.

There are novelists that say that description should start with the writer and end with the reader.

Yeah, I could not agree more.

So if some people out there didn’t really understand Baroque Conversations, it probably doesn’t bother you at the moment.

No, I wouldn’t say that. I do think that it’s the kind of recording that, perhaps for some people, a first listening might be strange or complex, especially for people in the classical music business who have been believing that our mission is to keep the same old kind of piano recitals-form of having a Bach fugue and a big classical piano sonata, and then after intermission end with a big romantic piece. I can understand how for some people who have been training all their life to a certain format of piano recital, this is quite strange. At the piano, we’re taught so much to adore and love the big, big monuments, the big Beethoven piano sonatas, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, the Schumann cycle, Rachmaninoff. On this album, on top of everything, you have only short pieces. In the piano world this is quite strange because you’re taught to admire these big monuments that last 25, 30, 40 minutes. In a way, this negates that whole concept of monumental piano music. It only brings miniatures, trying to have very short pieces and bring some sort of artistic statement with short pieces. I would say that I totally understand why for some people it is shocking or strange project, but I would hope that after a few listens, maybe letting the imagination go wild and maybe forget about the classical piano recital and its normal, usual form, maybe something can happen.

And this is not the first time you’ve done something like this. In other recitals, you’ve combined John Cage and Alessandro Scarlatti.

Yeah, this has been another project that hasn’t been recorded but I’ve been touring with it. This is, in a way, more radical because there are only two composers that are 250 years apart and I alternate; I play one song by Scarlatti then one by Cage, one by Scarlatti then one by Cage. I have two pianos on stage and one is prepared piano for the prepared piano sonata by John Cage and the normal piano for the Scarlatti. Just one stool between the two pianos, just one sonata by one composer and then the other composer. It lasts one hour, no intermission, no break. In a way it’s very radical because you have those two worlds really kind of tied together and it brings forward all sorts of things. It’s also a conversation in a way but it’s after years of playing Scarlatti sonatas and also Cage pieces, realizing how much they have in common. It’s very obvious to me how much they have in common and with this other recital I wanted to let this dialog be apparent. For many people it would seem completely outrageous that John Cage and [laughs] Scarlatti — contemporary American and baroque Italian would have anything in common. But it’s absolutely incredible, once it happens, to see how much they have in common. Even in the harmonies, you would never believe that.

Is there a technique you had to develop mentally speaking? On one piano you are playing an old baroque piece, then you whip around and play a prepared piano 20th century piece. Is there some kind of complex gear-shifting going on in your brain that has to take place?

It’s kind of two things at the same time. You do need need to be a bit schizophrenic [laughs], but on the other hand you kind of wish that actually your brain is going to be the same whether its modern or old because this is really kind of the core of this belief; that we should play the music from the past and the music from the present with the same seriousness and with the same passion. We should not play music from today any different from music from the past. So do need to have a very special focus. When you play Scarlatti, it should really be the most beautiful interpretation that you can bring forward. You need to focus on that interpretation. But then you don’t want to have two separate worlds and leave them separate. You really want them to meet somewhere in the middle. Yeah, it is complex. But it’s so challenging and so exciting to do these kinds of programs. It makes you want to do even more, actually.

Are there plans to record that particular program?

Possibly. Possibly. [laughs]

You have performed all of the Mozart sonatas in one day. I think that’s 18 or 19 works, depending on which scholar you talk to.

It’s 18 and the 19th is a fantasy which you would play also with these sonatas.

If that were me, I’d be tempted to think “oh, let’s just get this done” and I would want to rush through the last half or last third of the whole thing. Did you have to pace yourself, as one does when running a marathon?

In a way, yeah. It was quite an incredible experience because you really do feel like one of those marathon runners. Like you were saying, you know that it’s going to get harder and harder with the day and you need to pace yourself, you need to keep energy. You want to give it all in the first minute, but you have to find a way to give it all but to keep some of your energy and your emotional energy to the end so that you don’t finish the day with nothing left. It was one of the most exhilarating projects I’ve ever done, for sure. And actually, this coming season, the one that starts right now, I’m doing the complete 27 Mozart concertos. Not in one day [laughs] but one season in Geneva, playing and conducting, all 27 concertos. That’s very exciting too. That’s actually quite a huge marathon because that means one concert every month, one concert with three concertos over nine months. So it’s quite powerful and I’m very happy about it.

How long have you been with the Geneva Chamber Group?

This is going to be the third season.

You do conducting as well. When it comes to this and solo piano, does one excite you more?

That depends on the engagements and the concerts that are coming up. It really depends on what’s the work to be done. The marriage between the two is just very important to have the two in my life. I really need to have the piano world next to me, but the orchestra world is very important to build and create projects in a group — in a large group, in a kind of community. The tendenc of the piano world is to be alone in your world — you’re in your dreamy world and you do all these projects and concerts and you kind of forget a little bit that there’s, out there, so many other things. To be in contact with an orchestra, with all these instruments, I feel it’s a very important part of my life. It gives me so much of the strength I need, even when I go back to the piano, to think about all these instruments. Now that I sit at my piano, how would I play this? I have the oboe in my ear, I have the clarinet in my ear, I have the cello in my ear. It’s really important not just to be focused on your piano world and on the piano sound. These two world are very important right now.

Is there a particular composer or era that you enjoy conducting above others?

I don’t think so. Obviously I’m very much into Mozart’s music whether it’s piano or conducting or both. Actually I do a lot of piano and conducting with the Mozart concertos. I really enjoy conducting contemporary music. It’s just so much fun. It’s never easy but it develops your mind and brings you to all sorts of very far, distant worlds. I actually love baroque music, to conduct baroque music. There’s so many composers from the baroque [period] that are never or rarely ever performed. It’s great, obviously there are composers you can not play on the piano because they had not written anything for the piano and it’s great that you can actually go and perform with an orchestra — some great baroque masterpieces.

What music did you hear growing up? Did your parents expose you to much modern music

We had a lot of arts and culture in the house. With my parents, it was always very important that we get a lot of art, literature, theater, went to museums and all that. But I have to say I never got a contemporary education. It was more kind of a “classical” [one]. The love of contemporary art really kind of came late, little by little. I’m absolutely in love with contemporary art an contemporary music, but I think this affection for contemporary art comes from a very deep, strong belief that we need to make sure that art lives, that it’s there. It should be part of what we do and of our lives. We can’t ignore it. We have to have it around us. We can’t just be doing Mozart and Bach. It’s the same for all arts. We can’t just be doing Shakespeare and we just can’t be going to see Monet, we have to see what’s going on around us, in the world of the arts. That’s a strong belief and this is also why I’m involved so much in contemporary arts projects. This is also why I, in the last years, been doing a lot of collaborations with dance, dancers, choreographers, theater, a lot of that. It comes from the same belief that we can’t just be locked up in our room playing piano or the violin or whatever. We have to open our eyes to what’s going on.

One thing I wanted to ask about was your “new musical projects for children.” What is your angle there?

It’s very interesting because children, in a lot of cases, are much more open to new things than adults. Adults are already used to certain sounds and to what society has been telling them what is good music and bad music. A lot of experiments and a lot of research has shown that in many cases and in many societies, children are much more open to contemporary art and especially in contemporary music than their parents and their grandparents. I do think there’s a lot to it, it’s definitely true. When I try to create those projects for kids, I don’t try to make it easy. What’s most important is the way they’re going to be presented. That’s really where it’s going to come down to. You can’t just play music and expect people to understand it, whether they’re adults or children. But if you present it in the right way, if you believe they have a fresh mind — and they’re just curious — I think there’s so much you can do with kids and bringing challenging forms of art and challenging music and contemporary music. I never try to say “I’m going to have a project with kids, I’m just going to play for them easy music, easy listening and hopefully that’s how they’re going to like classical music.” I really don’t think that’s the right way. I think that with the right kind of presentation, with the right kind of themes, the right kind of discourse, you can really make kids be interested in modern things. I think that’s fascinating, actually.