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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 8

Know your strengths and weaknesses - Interview with Jean-Philippe Collard

by Frédéric Trudel / May 10, 2004

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Recherche et transcription: Frédéric Trudel, recherchiste à la Chaîne culturelle de Radio-Canada

Renowned pianist Jean-Philippe Collard will be Françoise Davoine's guest on Radio-Canada's Chaine Culturelle during the third Montreal International Music Competition, which runs from May 30 to June 2, 2004. They will discuss the challenges of this major competition, which features piano this year. In anticipation of the event, here is an interview with Jean-Philippe Collard aired last year on the Radio-concerts program.

JFC: You never know what will happen before going onstage. It's one of music's great miracles, but for musicians it's also a source of tremendous anxiety. On some evenings there's an atmosphere that puts you a little on your guard. The tension can really mount.

Why should you be on your guard when this happens?

Because you don't know how things will go; you're never sure that the composer's original idea will be respected. That's because there are so many details that affect one another: the day of rehearsal, the acoustics of the concert hall, the piano, relations with the conductor, whether the musicians are in a good mood, and finally the arrival of all those people in the audience. You're cooking with a different recipe every evening.

But that's what makes it so lively!

What makes it so lively is also what makes it impossible to turn around and say, "I think it went really well last night!" I think we should drop concert post-mortems. I don't believe in passing judgment on something launched into space at such an emotional height. That's why I feel that fixing a performance on tape or CD is a partly aggressive act.

And yet you've recorded a great number of CDs. Isn't that a paradox?

It's unavoidable. I've done it, like everyone else. CD recordings are a little different from tapes of radio performances. In the latter, there's something missing from the mix: one can't relate to people who aren't there. The microphone intervenes to take your soul, to steal it! When people are actually present, you give them everything, but when the audience is at the other end of that little ball standing in front of the piano, I don't know where they are. I'd much prefer to have them around the piano.

But they can't all be there. Nevertheless they are present, in their way. Isn't that magical?

Well, they should profit from these moments, but they should perhaps also realize that this isn't quite the way they should feel. They should realize that there's a dream, a little star to be grasped. They've got to come to the concert. That's where the music really is! It's in the moment, in the physical presence. To perform my music, I need people to be there, witnessing what's happening.

There's one aspect of your life that I'd like to talk about. It concerns what happened to you physically--something, I think, that altered your approach to the piano to some extent...

It's very simple. I'm left-handed--ambidextrous, actually--but I use my left hand for the main activities of daily life. It was very convenient, because in playing the piano you need to have a more powerful left hand. This gives a solid foundation to the musical architecture, while the right hand sings, performing a far more "caressing" role, so to speak. In my case, there was a fairly marked difference, and as a result my right shoulder began to sag a little. One day, during a meeting with Vladimir Horowitz, he said to me, "Watch out. From time to time, on the pretext that some pianos don't sound very good in the right-hand register, you're going to have to force things. It's clear from the way your shoulders sag that your right hand has trouble in certain repertoires."

A few weeks later I had a recital in Los Angeles under dreadful conditions. I played Rachmaninov's Second Sonata and had to make my right hand work impossibly hard. The next day I couldn't move that hand. It seemed I might have tendonitis, and there was also talk of degeneration of the wrist ligaments. I was very worried. I followed a remedial program and delved into the pathology of injuries resulting from playing a musical instrument.

It's a phenomenon that is perhaps not discussed often enough...

Yes; people tend to be embarrassed when you start talking about it. But it's a very real danger, and easy to understand why, because you're in the habit of making the same movements every day, resulting in what's called a dystonic malfunction. This means that the brain doesn't always transmit the order you give your muscles. Your brain is no longer sure what you want it to make the muscle do, and the muscle rather does what it wants. Bad habits result, and you can't get rid of them. This could have happened to me if I hadn't been warned and if I hadn't had that minor but cautionary attack of tendonitis. I worked at a remedial program for two years, getting my right shoulder back to the height of my left, and now everything is fine. I'm very interested in these new types of disorder because, unfortunately, I often encounter them in my work.

What would your message for musicians be with respect to this problem?

I think what matters is to be happy with the sound you produce. You mustn't demand too much: there comes a time when the mechanical side can go no further. You should be careful, just as you would be in everyday life. You don't climb walls to get into your house, for example. Do things in a way that relates realistically to your energy and your limitations. Why must people try to go faster than nature permits? It's true that life today doesn't predispose us to adopt a serene outlook. All the more reason to sound the alarm and tell young people that they shouldn't exceed their limitations.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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