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Intervista con Francesco Consiglio su Pangea.it, 3/2019


Coup de théâtre. I met an ironic pianist. Actually, no: ironic is not enough. Roberto Prosseda possesses a rare, sublime virtue that makes him one of the greatest popularizers of the art of piano playing. And do you know what I mean? An inability. Yes, you heard correctly: an inability to take himself too seriously. This can perhaps be frightening, especially in a world as swamped and unwilling to change as that of so-called serious music. But if you get a chance to attend his lecture-concerts on musical interpretation in which he challenges Teotronic, a robot-pianist, you will realize how fun and instructive teaching classical can be. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and invite you to attend his upcoming performances (M° Prosseda is at the Social Theater in Camogli on April 7). In the meantime, let's put aside our metal limbs and synthetic neurons for a while (if you are curious you can find him here: www.teotronico.it) and enjoy this interview.

In the book The Language of the Spirit, A Brief History of Classical Music, composer and musicologist Jan Swafford, recounts an amusing anecdote that testifies to the dazzling vitality of music in Beethoven's time: a spectator, after hearing the Fifth, had left the hall so excited and agitated that in trying to put on his hat, he could not find his head. This daze in the presence of music of extraordinary and innovative beauty today is very difficult to experience, if not impossible, as if the possibility of discovering new territories of sound and emotion had been exhausted. Is the composers to blame? Of the audience? Or of society as a whole? It is sad to think that music has exhausted its original communicative potential and ability to amaze.

I do not think so, in fact! Today it is entirely possible to experience wonder by listening to or playing a masterpiece by Beethoven or of his time: that is what I try to make happen in my concerts... It is also true that the gaze of many "music professionals" is limited to a few repertoire pieces: performers and organizers often prefer to insist on re-proposing music that is well-known (and perhaps performed in a predictable manner), rather than venturing into outdated repertoires worthy of rediscovery. But this trend, still prevalent, has been my good fortune: just think of the amount of Felix Mendelssohn's compositions still unpublished and unperformed! And there are still so many composers (including Italian ones) waiting for a deserving rediscovery. After all, the adjective "classical": is a bit misleading, because it refers to something crystallized, locked in its fixed form and belonging to the past. Actually, all classical music has also been "contemporary," had its "first performance" and amazed listeners of the time. And even today it is "contemporary" to us, because it speaks to our ears, to our culture. It is also up to us performers to ensure that even today the innovative and revolutionary power of the great masterpieces of the past remains intact and reaches listeners as if it were the first time they heard that piece. Whereas we musicians are often the first ones to want to reintroduce interpretative visions that have already been seen, and to read music not so much by starting from a thorough understanding of the text and its context, but by recycling interpretations of others (from one's own "school of belonging," or one's favorite recording). There is also to be said that the presence of the record and the recordings has had a major influence in the way we interpret and listen to music, and in defining our expectations and references. Today, when a performer tackles a piece, whether he or she records it or plays it in concert, he or she knows that a trace will remain of that interpretation, and that it will be judged and compared with many others. This risks limiting imagination and the willingness to take risks, but, reversing the point of view, it can also be a stimulus to do better and propose different readings than the already known references. Lastly, there is food for thought about the format with which classical music is offered in concert today: before Liszt, no pianist had dared to offer an hour of solo piano music in a row to audiences larger than an aristocratic drawing room. The piano recital, invented precisely by Liszt in 1839, is perhaps not the ideal format today for proposing live music to today's audiences. We must recover a direct communication between performers and audience, give listeners tools to understand the codes of music and thus know how to "hear" it with greater awareness and emotional participation. And perhaps it is precisely those who play and study music who have the opportunity (and, dare I say, the duty) to roll up their sleeves and help listeners (old and new) rejoice in a deeper and more experienced sharing.

There is a big difference between listening to music on an iPod, sitting comfortably on the couch, and going to a concert hall savoring the taste of being surrounded by people who share our same passion. And this difference lies not only in intelligence, culture and the ability to grasp the essence of a music, but also in preferring one type of enjoyment over another. Which one do you prefer?

Music can be enjoyed in many different ways, all of them rewarding in different aspects. Nothing can replace, in my opinion, the totalizing experience of a live concert: for the extemporaneity of the event, the not knowing what will happen a moment later, and for the fact that you are physically in the same place where the music comes to life, where you can tune in to the performers in real time, and become an active part of the concert itself. But there are also the less positive sides of live listening: the possible distractions caused by the neighbor in the chair, acoustics that are not always optimal, the fact that the musicians themselves may not be perfectly comfortable on stage, for whatever reason (and we listeners may also not be ready to hear that kind of music at that exact moment). Listening to recordings is quite another thing: a bit like phoning a friend rather than meeting them in person. But sometimes being in our ideal listening environment, and being able to choose what to listen to, how and when to do it, can put us in a position to perceive the musical content more deeply. If we then talk about studio recordings, these are often very thoughtful interpretations by the musicians, in which there are no accidental variables that could compromise their expressive intentions. On this aspect, on closer inspection, there would be a whole essay to write, however. I will just throw out a few simple questions: are we sure that an artist-approved recording that has been studied in detail is the best way to communicate that interpretive vision to the audience? How much do various sound reproduction filming techniques interfere in faithfully rendering the musical intentions of the performer? If the editing and choice of montage was made by a production manager and not by the musician playing, whose authorship of the recording is it? I believe, I do not know whether rightly or wrongly, that the experience of a listener who is also a performer is different from that of a scholar or a mere enthusiast. For a professional musician, listening to a colleague is always a special experience. Said, not without irony, Arthur Rubinstein, "I don't go to other pianists' concerts: if they play badly, I feel sorry for them; if they play well, I feel sorry for me." It is true, indeed, that we are always very conditioned by our aesthetic positions. When I listen to other musicians, I always try to be a calm listener, not to look at technical details that risk making me lose sight of the music itself. But this is not easy. Often, when discussing with other musicians, I notice how artists of high and equal value and culture can have completely opposite opinions. I myself often discover the value of some interpretations only after repeated listening, reversing my judgments. It is the allure of the subjectivity of listening.

In the collective imagination, classical music has turned into something complicated that only a few experts are able to understand. Those who listen to it boast an unreasonable claim to intellectual superiority and are artfully silent about the fact that classical, while requiring more effort on the part of the listener than other genres, does not just need to be decoded, but listened to and experienced.

I agree entirely, except that those who listen to classical music necessarily boast of a claimed superiority. That depends on the individual, but it is not so for everyone. It is true that in Italy we sometimes talk and write about classical music in an affected or unnecessarily academic way. In recent years, however, this tendency has been greatly reduced, and we are getting closer to the Anglo-Saxon way of talking and writing about music, more frank, direct, without unnecessary frills. This is what in my own small way I try to do with "Music Lessons" on Radio3, and also in the short piano videos I post on Facebook. On the other hand, it is also true that classical music is a complex language, and does not lend itself to oversimplification. This does not detract, however, from the fact that like all art music it is fundamentally an "ordered and structured succession of states of mind" (to quote a successful definition by Krystian Zimerman). So it is important, at some point, to allow oneself to listen freely and unfiltered by intellectual grids that might limit emotional involvement. And this also applies to those who play: in the studio it is essential to delve into every aspect of the work and its context, and to "engineer" the performance in order to have complete dominion over our actions; but at the moment of the live concert all this must be put aside, and allowed to work "in the background": the studio gives way to the "cruising phase," the performer is no longer an engineer planning the performance, but a pilot enjoying the crossing, allowing himself to be amazed by the landscapes he crosses.

On his website (www.robertoprosseda.com) I read that he recorded the complete Mozart Sonatas on a piano tuned with the Vallotti temperament, a system rarely used in the modern piano but very common in Mozart's time. This particular tuning, besides making those recordings unique, made me think that any music should be played as far as possible with the instruments of the time in which it was composed, and any other interpretation is a misrepresentation.

Total "fidelity" to the text, or to a composer's intentions, remains a utopia. Every interpretation, by definition and by human nature, is different from the others. Only a machine is capable of reproducing the exact same reading of the same piece. The quality of an interpretation does not, in my opinion, depend on the outward resemblance to a hypothetical original "model," but on the sincerity and intensity of the content expressed, and its consistency with what the author expressed through the score. Playing exactly and literally what is written on the staff, however, runs the risk of being as far from what to me is a good interpretation. The score is not the absolute reference to be reproduced, but a gateway to expressive content that the composer evokes through the signs of musical language: a reflection (I think of Plato and the Myth of the Cave). A staccato indication, or a slur, a harmonic succession, a shift in register are all signs that refer to something else: and the more precise and varied the interpreter's expressive (and, consequently, emotional) dictionary, the more he or she will be able to offer a convincing and engaging reading. Moreover, the more he or she knows about the cultural contexts of the era and traditions to which the performed music belongs, and its origins, and the baggage of conventions and symbols that refer to it, the more he or she will be able to "immerse" himself or herself in the music and reach out to the listener. As for the original instruments, here again we are talking about a utopia: and then, are we sure that it is worthwhile, if possible, to restore exactly the sounds that Mozart obtained from his piano? Putting the question in other terms, if Mozart came back among us today, would he look for an Anton Walter fortepiano identical to the one he had, or would he rather be fascinated by the potential of a modern piano, or more so by the possibilities of electronics? Impossible to answer for sure. But it is not enough to play on an instrument from Mozart's time to revive the essence of his music. Not least because our ears, our culture, our living habits are quite different from those of the Viennese listeners of the late 18th century. However, it is very stimulating to know what effect Mozart's music had on an instrument of his time, in order to understand the author's expressive intentions and to be able to better "translate" them for the ears of today's listeners. In this regard, tuning can also play an important role: unequivocal tuning creates much more radical differences between one harmony and another, and helps to hear and experience the transitions between tones in a deeper and more differentiated way.

He recently performed together with a robot, TeoTronico, equipped with 53 fingers operated by dynamically driven electromagnets and capable of lowering the keys of any acoustic piano with various dynamic gradations. It was an amusing experiment that left viewers in doubt as to whether the emotional interpretation of the human is better or the infallible but aseptic interpretation of the machine. Since we are likely to be invaded by silicon virtuosos in the near future, I wonder: is a pianist who can master the most difficult fingerings and plays with speed and fluency, just for that reason a good pianist? Or are there other indispensable skills that cannot be defined without resorting to the category of feeling, that spontaneous ability to convey the essence of a piece of music?

The comparison with the robot serves precisely to highlight the differences between a mere literal reproduction of the score and an interpretation. What the robot cannot do (at least in its current state) is to consciously express states of mind through music, and have the audience perceive them: something that is instead a foundational element of the interpretive process. However, there would be a need to clarify what is meant by "moods" (is it just chemical reactions that induce a certain feeling?), and perhaps in the near future robots will be able to evoke them by learning and copying from human interpretations. But it will always be a compromise. Instead, the robot's strong point is the performative aspect: the precision with which it unerringly enacts its "executive design." But, on closer inspection, even human imperfection, the power to make mistakes, is a source of creativity and art. When robots learn to make mistakes, perhaps they will be closer to us. However, being able to move one's hands quickly with utmost precision is a completely useless quality if it is not coupled with a definite expressive and poetic intention. However, today, even in teaching, there is a tendency sometimes to favor the performative aspect (the "how to play") over the interpretive aspect (the "what" to play). A true pianist is first and foremost a musician. The piano, after all, is just an "instrument."

Finally, the most classic and inevitable of questions: plans for the future?

In my computer I have a folder named "projects": it contains over a hundred files! From the recording point of view, two more CDs dedicated to Mendelssohn's Concertos are coming out, and then I would like to continue with Mozart, tackling the rest of his piano production. I am also increasingly interested in didactics, and I am writing a book for young pianists on "how to study," trying to identify a conscious, effective and above all enjoyable method of study. I also like to be involved in music organization, creating opportunities to meet and share ideas, and in this sense my role as artistic coordinator at Cremona Musica International Exhibitions & Festival, is a wonderful opportunity to network the best and most innovative there is in the world of music today. I am now planning a dense series of artistic and cultural events (concerts, exhibitions, workshops, panel discussions, CD and book presentations) that will enrich the program of the next edition of Cremona Musica.

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