Interviews

PASCAL ROGÉ

Q: Your WeChat profile photo shows you as a little boy in traditional costume. Do you remember your age and the circumstances under which this photo was taken? Can you share with us some early childhood memories: Your first encounter with music and what role music took in your family ‘s life throughout your childhood?

PASCAL ROGÉ:Of course, I remember this picture! I was 9 years old and it was my very first appearance on a stage, but as you can assume from the costume I am wearing, it wasn’t to play the piano ! I was singing in the children’s choir of the most famous French opera, Carmen ! My grandfather, a professional violinist was playing in the orchestra, and Roberto Benzi, with whom I would play as a soloist some years later and became a very close friend, was conducting.

A unique and unforgettable memory, not only the music of Bizet which I already loved but also the magic of the opera world, the costumes, the décor, the acting…but this amazing experience didn’t make me think I could become an opera singer ! for the simple reason that this early age I already knew I wanted to become a concert pianist, and I was about to enter the Paris Conservatory of music. I had started playing the piano at the age of 3 with my mother. As you can now guess I was born in a family where music was the main and only occupation! Apart from a grandfather violinist and a mother pianist and organist, I also had a grandmother who used to improvise at the piano during the historic early time of the silent movies! So before I learned the alphabet I could read a piano score...that could be the reason why even today I find myself more at ease reading a music score than a newspaper!

Playing the piano has always been fun, entertaining, exciting, challenging but never boring and never an obligation, that’s why I have never been able to associate my profession as a « work », on the contrary I feel highly privileged to make a living with my passion and on top of this, the utmost privilege being, of course, to share joy, dreams and hope with audiences.

Q: You grew up in the realm of the great French piano tradition. Your mother, student of Yves Nat, your teacher Lucette Descaves, again pupil of Yves Nat and Marguerite Long, later you were mentored by Nadia Boulanger and also Julius Katchen.In which way did these teachers/ mentors influence you? In which ways did they contribute to you finding your own path as a pianist? I understand your student-mentor relationship with Marguerite Long primarily based on long discussions about music. Do you recall certain episodes of those discussions? What age were you then? How important is it to listen and talk about music from an early age besides solely practicing the instrument?

PASCAL ROGÉ:Indeed I was very fortunate with my teachers, first my mother, my sole and unique teacher for the 6 first years, perhaps the most important years, when you learn all the basics of the instrument, but also when you develop your approach to practicing, discipline and discover the importance of the music in your life. The transition with my official teacher at the Paris conservatory, Lucette Descaves, was very natural since she had been the teacher of my mother and they had a similar approach to teaching.

I would also like to mention the assistant of L. Descaves, Louise Clavius Marius, a less renown name, but a marvelous teacher dedicated to teaching the difficult art of how to practice efficiently and to become aware of the physical and mental problems of a pianist.The most significant and important encounter in my musical life was the one with Julius Katchen when I was 15. I find it amusing to mention that the happy fortune to be introduced to this great pianist, came through the cleaning lady of my parents! The often unexpected twist of fate!Not only a great virtuoso, he was an exceptional man, immensely cultured, not only in music... philosophy, literature, arts in general...I learned a lot about interpretation,  musical conception, and structure. J. Katchen also had the main influence on my career, initiating my first recording for Decca, organized my first recital in Paris, London, New York...

He sadly passed away at the age of 43 in 1969, at his funeral, Nadia Boulanger, whom I had met earlier at the Georges Enesco competition, came to me and said : "you have lost a great master and tutor, if you need any musical advice, just call me, I will always be there for you" and that’s how I had the great privilege to have private lesson with this incredible master teacher... it wasn’t piano lessons, it was much more than that...endless discussion about musical conception and interpretation, priceless memories!

About  Marguerite Long, the favorite interpreter of Fauré, Debussy and Ravel, I only had only 2 short lessons with her, but they are engraved in my memory forever, she was 90, I was 13...but how can you forget her voice saying: ‘’ you know young boy, here Debussy told me..." and what about that comment after I played a few bars of the Debussy Prelude Footstep in the snow, "it is not cold enough"...!

It was a formidable lesson about interpretation, suggesting that you should not only be attentive to dynamics and tempo but open your imagination on what lies beyond the notes and the markings.Another great advice from J. Katchen was: “get away from the piano... read, watch, listen, experience…”I am often asked "what is important to understand French music? “I often answer "read French poetry, walk French countryside, drink French wine !”

Q: You have gained great success in important international competitions and have recently been chairman of the Geneva Piano Competition. How important is it for a pianist to prove oneself in competitions? What changes or new trends have you noticed with respect to international piano competitions over the years up till today?

PASCAL ROGÉ:Having been in my youth a participant and a winner of international piano competitions and now frequently a jury member, I feel entitled to say that I don’t believe in competitions!

Unfortunately, nowadays, they seem to have become a necessary vice! so my advice to the young artists is: do participate, but as fulfilling experience, to be on stage, to enlarge your repertoire, to expose yourself and make encounters...but don’t expect to win!

It is a common fact that most young artists who are having a successful career today, have either not participated, came 3d or 4th prize or were even rejected before the final! The difference I have noticed between my younger years and nowadays is that I often see contestants that have already won several important international piano competitions...and they're still applying for more...?! That sure proves that winning a competition is not a guarantee to have a career!

Q: Your repertoire is vast, however, you feel most at home with and are praised for your interpretation of French repertoire. For the upcoming China Tour, you have prepared three sets of French program with Debussy taking the largest part. What is there to discover in Debussy’s work? Can you share your approach to Debussy with the Chinese audience? 

PASCAL ROGÉ:I was born with french music...my environment, my teachers, my own personal taste, but nevertheless, I followed J. Katchen’s advice: “learn and play everything now, later you will be able to choose what is best for you” that is exactly what I did but always keeping a special relationship with the French repertoire.

I recorded the complete works of Ravel, Debussy, Satie, and Poulenc and I am now convinced that this is "my language". I believe that one can learn many languages, but there will always be a mother tongue, and my mother tongue is definitely French music. I have often been called the Ambassador of French music and I am very proud to assume this role in front of the Chinese audiences,  I am sure they will enjoy this musical imaginary trip to France! Of course, Debussy has an important place in my programs...because he is "Claude de France", the most influential composer from France.

Debussy was a true innovator, he entirely changed the scene of the music history with a burst of new harmonies and modes and colors.   He didn't want to be labeled as an "Impressionist" composer, but he very much was, in the way that his music is very "visual", one could see, and feel, and even smell the moment in time.  On this program, I've included some early works like the 1st  Arabesque, as well as his signature pieces like the Preludes and l'îsle joyeuse, and it will be interesting to see and hear how he progressed as he matured.  I would also like to say a few words about Poulenc, perhaps less famous than Debussy but equally a major figure among French composers.

Poulenc, as is often said, is "a Monk and a Bad Boy". He had a duality about him which appears in most of his work.  He had fun putting pranking jokes in his music, at the same time he could be very moving and emotional, though not in an elaborate way the German Romantic composers were, with maybe just a single harmony, he could conjure certain emotion in the listener.  In one of the programs, I am playing a rarely performed work called Les Soirees de Nazelles.  It was a collection of pieces that were initially meant like a "Music Charades" for his friends at the party.  He would play musical evocation of a person at the party, and people had to guess who it was.   We no longer know who the real characters were in the pieces, but we definitely hear the humor in this work, and at times the "heart on the sleeves" moments.  

Q: Your wife Ami is a pianist too. You frequently perform together. How did this musical love-story come about and what joint projects are planned for the near future?

PASCAL ROGÉ:It all started as a “love at first sight “ at a music festival in Spain! We have premiered several contemporary pieces written for us and have explored extensively the 2 piano 4 hands French repertoire, both on stage and CDs. Our next project is celebrating the 100th anniversary of “Le Groupe des 6” a bunch of young composers reunited around Erik Satie in 1920, to create a new musical language, some of them became famous, Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, some are still to be discovered like Germaine Tailleferre of Georges Auric, and we are hoping to bring some lights on them in the near future with a new CD and some recitals around the world including their music.

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