English profiles

23 September 2006

Some artists are the same in “real life” as they are on stage. Eliane Rodrigues is an example of this: she speaks with simplicity and has a gift for communication that she also shows at the piano. What is most important to her is to touch the hearts of the audience in the most sincere way...

Willem Boone (WB): I read in your biography that you already played Mozart’s Piano Concerto KV 488 at the age of six, can you remember anything about that?

Eliane Rodrigues (ER): No, my first public concert was with Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major. I took part in a competition and the prize was this performance with orchestra which was broadcast on television. I played Mozart’s KV 488 shortly after, but I can’t remember much of it. I know that I loved to dance as a child, my mother was a ballerina at the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro.

WB: That Mozart concerto is no easy by any means...

ER: What does “easy” mean and what does “difficult” mean? Children easily learn to speak a language and don’t realize that some things can be difficult. You use the words that suit you best. The younger you start, the better. I have been lucky with my teachers: they taught me the right technique.

WB:Even more special in your biography is that you wrote a piano method at a very early age “Eliane in the paradise of keys”. This is very unusual for a child, did you know at the time that you wanted to write a method?

ER: It wasn’t meant as a method. I started composing at a very early age, when I was three years old, but I wasn’t yet able to write down my compositions. A befriended conductor said to my mother that it was a shame that the compositions couldn’t be noted, and so he helped me by giving various exercices, for example compose a piece of music in a certain key or to write pieces with a width of an octave, etc. I played them on the piano and he wrote them down. Later all of them were collected in a method with scales, thirds, etc.

WB: Is it still being used in Brazil?

ER: I think so, but I haven’t played in Brazil for the last ten years. I have been conducting my own music festival in Switzerland, which has taken a lot of time. Besides, I didn’t want to go to Brazil without my children.

WB: We think of Brazil as being the country of the samba (among other things), but what tradition does this country have as far as classical music is concerned?

ER: There is definitely a tradition for piano with some famous artists. Compared to European standards, the situation has been pretty bad for a long time. In Europe, almost every average sized town has opportunities to experience culture, concerts and they often have their own orchestras. Unfortunately the situation is different in Brazil. People are certainly open to classical music and ballet, Brazilians are very open in general. However, art is very expensive in Brazil.

WB: You said it has an important tradition as far as pianists are concerned, but are there that many famous names? I can of course think of a few names, for instance Novaes,Tagliaferro, Freire,Cohen, Ortiz, but compared to Russia or the United States this is modest amount!

ER: No, perhaps you are right, but a few of the names you mentioned are very famous: Freire, Cohen, Ortiz (she also mentions the name of Martha Argerich, however she is native from Argentina). There are not that many famous names that graduate from the Juilliard School either.

WB: Isn’t it a bit of a cliché to claim that South American pianists always have so much temperament?

ER: I believe that every human being has temperament. The Brazilian pianists you just mentioned are very different: Freire is introvert and is different from Argerich, but they form a good duo. Cohen and Ortiz too have their own individual style.

WB: What is specifically South American about your playing?

ER: My temperament is not typically southamerican. I want to experience every emotion to the full, I am always searching for colours and sounds. If I learn a piece, I feel what is inside it and I use colours, but also variations in speed and dynamics to bring out different emotions. I am not against extremes, but I dislike circus like acts that are only used to attract attention. I always want to believe my own choices. By the way, a well written musical composition can be played in many different ways by people with different personalities! 

WB: You often play music by your fellow citizen Heitor Villa Lobos, why is this?

ER: I don’t play his music that often, I don’t want to be labeled as a specialist.

WB: What does his music mean to you?

ER: It has a lot of colours: I recognize my country in his music. In Brazil, nature is very colourful: people sing many popular tunes... When I visited the Lago Maggiore in Italy, I noticed a lot of different green colours!

WB: Is his music pianistic, because that’s what it sounds like!

ER: Yes, it’s well written for the instrument. It’s music with many different rhythms, furthermore the independence of the fingers is important to play his music well. And you have to be relaxed. Everything you are doing has to look easy and go straight to people’s hearts.

WB: Was Villa Lobos a good pianist himself?

ER: He played the cello: I don’t know whether he played the piano. I have never heard that he was a good pianist, but neither was Ravel, whereas he composed really well for piano!

WB: Do you play any music by other Brazilian composers?

ER: Yes, I also play Claudio Santoro, Lorenzo Fernandez and .. Nepomuceno.

WB: Do you often perform in Brazil?

ER: In the beginning, I used to, but when I was 19 years old, I went to Europe (Belgium) and I decided to stay there and got more concerts in Europe.

WB: Would you like to play in your home country again after so many years?

ER: Yes, I would love to, I have been asked many times, but it is difficult to organize these trips.

WB: Do you like living in Europe?

ER: In the beginning, it was very hard, because I didn’t speak the language. I was more open than other people around me and I had the impression that I scared them a little. At the conservatoire (of Antwerp, WB), I had little contacts with fellow students and if it happened, I spoke English or French. After four years, I learnt to speak Dutch.

WB: What are the differences between musical life in Europe and Brazil?

ER: There are many! You can’t compare them, there are many more concerts in Europe! It is really sad that Brazilians don’t have more money and opportunities to go to concerts, especially those people in small villages.

WB: Are there many pianos available in small cities and villages?

ER: That’s difficult to say for such a big country. I lived in Rio de Janeiro and then left for Europe.

WB: In 1983, you won fifth prize in the notorious Queen Elizabeth Competition. Many people who attented the competition disagreed and thought you deserved to win a better prize. What do you think of this decision on reflection?

ER: If I listen to the performance I played in the final round (Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, WB), I think it was a very good performance, but I thought that the Frenchman Pierre Alain Volondat, who won first prize with Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto had a very special charisma. He was a clear winner because of this charisma. As far as our playing is concerned we both fitted into the same category. I can understand that the jury must have thought at the time that I was insufficiently prepared to play to a large audience and that I wasn’t yet ready to start a career. Maybe I  also dressed too plainly and I didn’t have enough stage presence. The good thing is that my fifth prize allowed me to grow in a much more natural way, whereas it must have been especially tough for Volondat, who wasn’t prepared for a world career either (Volondat almost completely disappeared from concert stages, whereas Rodrigues is still performing after 23 years, WB). Things happened the other way around with me: I got concerts and had enough time to grow. That was just a matter of luck. I think it makes a difference which pianist the jury hears at the end, these impressions last the longest!

WB: Concerning your charisma, you come across as a positive, sunny almost innocent (in the positive meaning of the word!) who plays very naturally, almost the way another person breathes. To me you do not seem to be the type of pianist who struggles with music: do you recognize yourself in this description?

ER: Yes, I think it’s true. I find a lot of balance, hope and human warmth in music. For me it’s not a matter of showing how intelligent you are. I try to show that the world has two sides.

WB: Which sides do you mean?

ER: Pain and joy, you have to make an effort to bring out both, but I think working is good for the human spirit, regardless of whether this is at the keyboard or if it’s the job you are doing, if you do nothing, you will end up depressed.

WB: Do you think my description of you being a natural pianist is accurate?

ER: Yes, absolutely!

WB: On the other hand, you also play “difficult” music that requires a certain amount of wisdom and maturity, such as opus 111 by Beethoven or late piano pieces by Brahms. How do you go about playing such works?

ER: The same way, I try to get as near as I can to the composers intentions. Everything should be used to honour the composer in the best possible way; sound, dynamics, use of the pedal until I feel 100% what the composer wanted to express.

WB: How do you know that?

ER: You feel it! What I also find important is the feeling you have before you press the keys. Pianists often to tend to press the keys too hastily, but sometimes you need to play very gently with the keys...

(The dog jumps against the window, Rodrigues says he is “her best friend, he sits next to me when I study and stays until I finish”, I can’t resist saying that he must be a very lucky dog, “I spoilt him”Rodrigues adds).

WB: Something else that strikes me: you look quite fragile and don’t have big hands, yet you play very demanding works like Brahms Second Piano Concerto or Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, where do you get the power from that is needed to play such monsters?

ER (Looks at her hands and stretches them): My hands aren’t that small! Not really... they are elastic.. if I need to, I can play a tenth, I don’t have problems either to play fortissimo. I can prepare a huge forte or play very fast if that’s required. It is important that you know which note you want to bring out. You have to build up a forte or a pianissimo!

WB: But still, the Second Brahms Concerto, that is an enormous tour de force for any pianist, isn’t it?

ER: I don’t know, I don’t think in terms of power, you simply have it! You have to think of what you want to express and you continuously have to renew the energy. Brahms’s Second Concerto is very well written, he has a lot to say. It is like a huge mountain, if you want to climb it, you have to spread your energy and can’t let yourself get exhausted too early while asking yourself: “How can I get to the top?”

WB: Do you have a good memory?

ER: You always have to practice and make an effort until you know a piece. If I study, I immediately hear the harmonies, even in broken octaves, especially in the left hand, but sometimes also in the right hand.

WB: Does that help you to memorize the piece better?

ER: Yes, it does!

WB: What are you thinking of when you play before an audience?

ER: I always think of the message I want to bring across, it is as if I am talking.

WB: But there may be pieces you have played very often, isn’t there a danger that your mind switches off?

ER: The danger is always there, but I never play without feeling. I like to take risks, I’d rather play a note less well than play without expressing anything. By the way, I love to sing for my children and the dog when I am at home!

WB: How does that help you play the piano?

ER: You learn to express your feelings. Conducting also helped me, not only from the keyboard. I have conducted works by Bernstein and Holst and spoken a lot with trumpet players and violinists. I asked them how they played certain things and that taught me more about their instruments. I have also composed orchestral pieces.

WB: Do you have a favourite composer?

ER: That would be unfair towards other composers... I’d be sad to choose only one, there are a few. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are very great composers.. Also Chopin, Brahms, sometimes Liszst, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Ravel, Debussy...

WB: I gather you must have a soft spot for Chopin? You have been playing a Chopin afternoon concert on 26 December in the main hall of De Doelen in Rotterdam, I remember the occasion during one of your concerts when members of the audience wouldn’t stop coughing!

ER: Maybe that is because they are not used to going to concerts, but even they deserve attention. I want to bring something that is nice to them and that makes them say: “That was beautiful, I’d like to hear that again”. You know, in Mozart’s time people also went to the bathroom during the music...

WB: Which pianists do you admire?

ER: Leif Ove Andsnes has done beautiful things, Volodos too sometimes.

WB: And among the older pianists, are there any examples?

ER: Horowitz! I always like to hear what he does when I study something he has played too. He is not the only pianist I listen to: I also like Rachmaninov, Lipatti, Schabel.. With Schabel, I understand what he wanted to convey. He sometimes makes me laugh and I have the impression that he was smiling to himself whilst he played...

WB: And among your direct colleagues, what about someone like Martha Argerich?

ER: She is very interesting and always comes up with new ideas in the pieces she plays. She does beautiful things sometimes. I like to listen to her, because she’s not fake, she’s always been herself.

WB: What do you think of Alicia de Larrocha?

ER: I have never heard her live, but she seems like a very complete pianist to me. An artist should make sure that people feel safe, they listen to someone who makes them enjoy beautiful music and doesn’t cause them pain...

(Rodrigues mentions Horowitz again and enthuses) I heard him twice and he was so funny!

WB: Was he funny or did you find him funny?

ER: He was just funny! The way he entered on stage, he first looked around the corner.. The music was very simple when he played,  there was not one unnecessary movement of his body. He was like a magician with all his cards! Radu Lupu is another very great pianist, he and Horowitz compliment each other!

WB: I have a hard time with Horowitz’s rubato, don’t you think that was excessive?

ER: That doesn’t matter... That’s the way he was born and he could never have played like Lupu, that’s why he was Horowitz. It wouldn’t have worked the other way around either. We are very priviliged to have so many different pianists.

After the interview ended, Rodrigues and I speak off the record about a few things. I tell her that I liked her performance of the Third Chopin Sonata very much, hoping that she will play it on 26 December in Rotterdam during her Chopin recital (Later on, in November, she tells me that she has indeed changed her programme and that she will indeed play this sonata!). I felt very happy when she said to me “You should go on with this, you know a lot about music!”, that’s just about the best encouragement you can receive!