Amsterdam, 15 September 2010
“I like an honest audience”, says Hannes Minnaar when I tell him that I will go to a concert in Amsterdam where Maurizio Pollini should have played (He cancelled his concert and was replaced by Till Felner). His reaction referred to a recital of Pollini in Amsterdam during which he was booed by a dissatisfied listener.
With this comment, Hannes Minnaar sets the tone of the interview, a pianist who is not only modest, but also one who is down to earth.
WB: Again, congratulations with your victory during the last Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels! I normally do not feel national pride when, for instance, our football team wins, but this time I felt proud! Do you realize in retrospect how unique your third prize was and still is?
HM: Yes, I do realize this, but of course things are relative: two years ago, I participated in the Geneva Competition and won the second prize (that year, no first prize was awarded, WB). The same happened to the aforementioned Pollini. At that time I fully realized that I had achieved something unique. The second time something similar happens to you, it is a bit less special. But Brussels is closer by and has an ever bigger reputation. The organization manages to generate much media attention, therefore the overall impact was bigger.
WB: Did you expect to come third?.
HM: No, it seemed almost impossible to beat such massive competition coming from such successful traditions. On the other hand, I knew after Geneva that even unexpected things can happen and I did not want to exclude anything beforehand. It felt a bit like a gamble to register for Brussels, so shortly after Geneva and I could have ruined the limited reputation I had established (during the latter competition). You only have to play one wrong note and you can be kicked out, although it does not mean you are a bad pianist when that happens.
WB: Were there moments during the competition when you thought: “Now I am doing really well, I could be a potential winner?”
HM: No, of course certain things went ok (reasonably well), but the feeling of “I am doing really well” is rare when you are a perfectionist.
WB: Are you?
WB: And how are you doing now? Are you being approached by people who had not contacted you before?
HM: Yes, I have received a lot of attention in the Netherlands, although certain people thought I could have achieved more. The competition certainly paid off and the end is not near. My name is getting better known and I have the feeling that something good is in store for me. A few things have changed, e.g I have an agent now. Before Brussels, contacts with CD labels and orchestras were not within reach and to make contact with the management of an orchestra you need an agent.
WB: Do they select concerts for you?
HM: Not yet, but since there are agents involved, I can concentrate on the “manual work”. The first week after Brussels, I hardly had time for anything because of all the requests for interviews.
WB: What was your motivation to participate in Brussels, was it the feeling “now or never”?
HM: To a certain extent, it did play a role. I graduated last year and decided at that time not to pursue my studies. I wanted to make my own plans and a competition was the big stick in order to set clear goals for myself, otherwise you easily forget important deadlines or do not find time to study new compositions. Furthermore, I am 25 now and I would have been 29 by the time of the next competition which is two years too old, so this was indeed my last chance!
WB: Are you satisfied when you look back on the whole experience?
HM: How can I be not positive about the result?
WB: I meant “satisfied” about the phenomenon “competition”, about which you hear a lot of negative comments?
HM: There is a lot of suspicion about competitions, for instance, stories about political games in Brussels. That may have happened in the past, but I can hardly imagine that people still decide that “X or Y should win”. I had only one teacher, Jan Wijn, if there is one teacher who does not take part in the competition mafia or who does not use his elbows, it is him! That could not have been the reason to award me the third prize. I have never had the idea that I am the most reliable pianist, so they must have chosen me for another reason.
WB: What could have been the reason then?
HM: You should ask them..
WB: Did you get to read the jury reports afterwards?
HM: I have not read any reports, but one of the members told me that he would have bought a ticket for one of my concerts, but not for many of the other competitors.
WB: Who was that?
HM: Tamas Vasary, I think the jury selects according to the criterion “Do I find him or her interesting enough to listen to another time?”.
WB: How difficult was the work you were assigned to perform?
HM: There were two of them: first of all in the semi final. We received it mid-March, approximately 1,5 months before the start of the competition. I received the second work for the final round one week before I had to play it. It was the product of a competition contest, written by a Korean composer, ………
WB: Does an required work that you do not know cause even more stress than you normally have?
HM: Yes, it does. The amount of repertoire for this competition was, of course, considerable. Fortunately, you have time between the rounds. The first round, I played on a Wednesday evening and the results would be announced on Saturday. One would think that it gives you three days to practise more. However, for the second round, the jury could choose from two different programmes and this was announced only one day before the performance. This means that you studied one of the two programmes for nothing. That was only half of the second round, the other half consisted of a Mozart concerto with an orchestra. It was a completely new concerto for me, the concertos I had studied were not the ones we were asked to play. You had to be very focused to pay attention to several aspects at the same time. Every time you thought you had everything under control, it appeared you had forgotten something. The required work for the semi-finals was one of the things I could not find time for and for which I had to work very hard at the last moment. The results of the second round were announced on the day I had to play my Mozart concerto. In the meantime, I had no time to work on the programme for the finals. And, at the time you arrived at the chapel, you were assigned another work on top of that for the finals, which you had to study within a week. In short: the whole schedule was so tight that I was constantly stressed, because it was a bit too much.
WB: To come back to the second assigned work, was it a difficult piece?
HM: Technically speaking it was ok, but it was very complex to play together with the orchestra. The orchestral part was more difficult than that of the piano, so I had to depend on the conductor.
WB: Marin Alsop…
HM: Yes, that is correct. You were obliged to play from the score, but that did not make sense because it was so complicated that you often had to look at the conductor. As a result of that I still played it by heart!
WB: Is it true that you played for the first time with an orchestra during this competition? Isn’t it a huge risk to do so during such a difficult competition?
HM: Of course, I had played with an orchestra before, but it was the first time I did the 5th Saint Seans Concerto. That might explain the misunderstanding that arose in previous interviews.
WB: You have received a lot of praise for your choice as this concerto had not been played since the 50s. It was indeed refreshing to hear something else than Tschaikofsky First Concerto, Prokofiev Second Concerto or Rachmaninov Third Concerto. Why did you decide to play the Saint Seans concerto?
HM: First of all, because I find it a beautiful piece, I already thought so when I first lent the score from the library of the conservatoire. For this competition it seemed a good occasion to study this concerto, I thought: “If I am lucky, I can play with an orchestra”. In the meantime, I have played it eight times, after the finals there were seven laureate concerts, I have the feeling that it really suits me!
WB: It is not an easy piece..
HM: No, but nothing is really easy and I was running out of time to study a piano concerto.
WB: Do you know who last played it in Brussels?
HM: No, but it should be possible to find out. It was in 1952 or 1953 I believe. I happen to know, because I read a book by Willem Andriessen. He was a member of the jury and described his experiences.
WB: A delicate question: nowadays it seems that you can only win this competition with Prokofiev Second or Rachmaninov Third. Would you, if put under pressure have played such concertos or are they, as they say, “not your thing”?
HM: I have not played a lot of Prokofiev, but Rachmaninov is definitely my thing, I am very fond of his music. For my final exam, I played his First Piano Sonata that was written in D-minor, the same key as the Third Concerto. I also love The Bells and the symphonies. I would have loved to study the Third Concerto. Last year, I was very busy with my exam and with a lot of concerts. This did not leave me a whole lot of time to study new concerts, but “Rach Third” would not have scared me off! However, it is a concerto that is very much part of the collective memory: every member of the jury knows it or plays it and has an opinion about it, therefore it might have been an advantage that not every member of the jury has performed Saint Seans Fifth Concerto. I had the feeling that I would stand out with this choice.
WB: Another delicate question: what did you think of the first prize winner?
HM: I did not hear everyone play. He played last and I remember hearing him on the car radio when my host family drove me to the presentation of the awards at the Paleis der Schone Kunsten. He played Prokofiev Second Concerto and he gripped me right from the beginning, it was clear even on the car radio..
WB: What distinguishes you from the first prize winner?
HM: It is not up to me to judge! I only heard part of his final concert. Later on, I heard him perform Brahms’s Second Concerto during the laureate’s concert and that was also excellent. If you ask me, I think all laureates have a right to exist as a pianist. I am glad I was not asked to rank them.
WB: How unreal is it to win such a prize?
HM: It was a special moment! You are not allowed to listen to the radio when you are living in isolation (the week before the finals). I had noticed though that there were a lot of differences in interpretation between the second prize winner and myself. When his name was announced, I expected to come eleventh
WB: The jury obviously appreciated different interpretations?
HM: They did indeed!
WB: You also played Ravel’s Miroirs, do you like playing French music?
HM: I like a lot of styles, but yes, I am fond of French music.
WB: I saw that you will perform Chausson’s Concerto for piano, violin and string quartet shortly?
HM: That is a wonderful piece, but it is very difficult to play, it is sometimes almost unfrench, it is even darker than Franck’s music. It is definitely a difficult job for a pianist. Other than that, I like Saint Seans and especially Fauré, but Brahms and Rachmaninov are also close to my heart. I would have loved to do Rachmaninov’s First Sonata during the competition, but it is too long unfortunately, you were not allowed more than 35 minutes for the solo repertoire.
WB: How important is it for you to learn new repertoire?
HM: I have been scheduled for more concerts for the next season, most of the planning has been finalized now. I especially want to focus on learning new concertos, because there are not many of them in my repertoire yet.
WB: How fast can you learn a new concerto?
HM: It depends on the piece itself.
WB: For instance, how fast can you study a Beethoven concerto?
HM: It depends on which one of the five we are talking about: there is quite a difference between the Second and Fourth Concertos!
WB: I would like to ask you a completely different question: I saw a film on Youtube the other day, in which pianist Jorge Bolet was interviewed. By then, he was around 70 years old and he told us that a performer (in his case a pianist) often knows a piece better than the composer himself. After all, a composer goes on to write different compositions after he has written a piano sonata, e.g. an opera or a symphony, whereas an artist studies his entire life on that particular sonata. Bolet did not think his assessment was pretentious, what do you think of this?
HM: Interesting, I have not heard of a pianist who ventilated his opinion in a similar way. I value the notes themselves and I do not approve of artists who impose ideas that are not there. You must not pretend to be interesting or go against a composition. On the other hand, I do not mind pianists who allow themselves liberties like Cortot, while remaining faithful to the character of the composition. There is room for interpretation. Bolet had his own interpretation, but did not “sin” against the composition. Tamas Vasary said something similar in Brussels: a composer gets his ideas from somewhere, but sometimes you feel as a performer that there are things in the score that should not have been there. It is the kind of gut feeling that is more important than being 100% faithful towards the score.
WB: I can remember that you participated in Menahem Pressler’s master class at the Concertgebouw one year ago!
HM: Pressler is of small stature, but otherwise he is an enormous personality with invaluable experience! He knows how to convey things. Maybe that has to do with his age: he has been through so many experiences. If he sits down at the keyboard and plays three notes, you hear his entire life time experience.
WB: Isn’t it your own ideal to have felt every note as deeply as well?
HM: It may sound stupid, but I have! That is why I did not want to pursue my studies after six years; I wanted to follow my own path.
WB: But were you not eager to study more with Pressler?
HM: Yes, we had another lesson that was as inspiring as the first one. He always knows exactly what he wants to achieve.
WB: How difficult is it to do what someone asks you to do on the spot, whilst playing before an audience?
HM: You can only try to do what someone asks you to do and mostly it works. It is much more difficult to play things in a musical way! I often feel ill at ease during master classes: you are in an dependant position and the teacher is “always” right. As a participant, you can hardly defend yourself. I have to admit that I found some of these public master classes inspiring. However it is a fact that things often work better the second time than the first time. That also happens when you are rehearse and during a master class, it is the teacher who gets the credits for this.
WB: When did you know you wanted to become a pianist?
HM: Right from the moment I heard music, I loved it. You become aware that you want to pursue a career in music. In my case it happened when I was 13 years old. At that age, I started to take private lessons with Marien van Nieuwkerken and I had to work hard. It was not always easy and once, when things were not gong smoothly, he said: “You want to become a pianist, don’t you?”. I had never thought of it, but it was the first time that I became aware of this and he was right. I did not know anybody at the time who was a pianist and I did not know what the profession was like.
WB: You do know now, so what are you current thoughts about the job: is it what you expected it to be?
HM: I do not have any clear defined ideas about this. What I find disappointing about the job is how often you are busy to sell yourself!
WB: How well do you succeed?
HM: The attention I have got was not due to PR, but to my playing! I notice that people expect more from you and I am not good at these things. You need to have a good network and you need to say the right things to the right people at the right moment. They can be of a lot of help, more importantly: you cannot achieve anything without these conditions.
WB: In an interview in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad you said that your faith in God helps you, in what way?
HM: I liked the way the journalist expressed these things. Otherwise, it is difficult to describe faith in words; maybe it will become easier when I am as old as Menahem Pressler (laughs). Theology shares common ground with music, e.g the way you interpret the “text”.
WB: Do you mean that one should not always take biblical texts literally either?
HM: You should take a score seriously; it is not the same as taking it literally. Most important is to grasp the essence, but the notes are what you should hold on to, so you should not be messy with the score.
WB: Who are your favourites?
HM: Pianists or composers? The latter would be easier..
WB: Go ahead with the composers!
HM: Bach comes first, then, although not necessarily in this particular order, Brahms, Ravel, Fauré, Rachmaninov and the works for keyboard by Sweelinck.
WB: And who are your favourite pianists?
HM: I find it difficult to say, but I’d definitely want to mention Cortot, Kempff and Edwin Fischer. Furtermore, Zimerman and Brendel in Mozart concertos, Paul Lewis is fantastic in Beethoven sonatas, Gilels too. I would have loved to hear Richter live.
WB: Finally, how do you see your future?
HM: That is the most difficult question of this conversation! There will be a lot of concerts and nobody knows how things will go exactly. I look forward to playing more piano concertos and there are plans to record a CD