Arnhem, 24 September 2005
Cristina Ortiz is a very temperamental lady at the keyboard, and she is almost as lively during an interview. She is not afraid of challenges; in September 2005, she played the 2nd Piano Concerto by Brahms five times with the Gelders Orkest (The Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra).
The day of the interview, 24 September, she comes from a rehearsal and puts the score of Chôros 11 by Villa Lobos on the table, “It’s so complex.. It’s a huge piece for orchestra with a little part for the piano (smiles). I will play this three times in São Paulo in November and in February 2006, I will make a recording of it”. She shows the score, it was dedicated to Artur Rubinstein. “Do you think he played it? I don’t think so”.
Willem Boone (WB): Was Villa Lobos a good pianist?
Cristina Ortiz (CO): I have no idea, I don’t think so, although he wrote very well for piano. I haven’t heard much about his piano playing, he was a cellist. I made a recording for Intrada France, which has just been released. On this CD, there are works from five Brazilian composers, of which Villa Lobos is best known. I couldn’t enclose everything I wanted. The others are Lorenzo Fernandez, the founder of the Brazilian Conservatoire, who wrote a lot of obligatory pieces. Then there is Mozart Camargo Guarneri (“He had a brother called Donizetti Guarneri”) , who wrote a wonderful collection of Preludes, 50 Ponteios. Alberto Nepomuceno wrote some very sad music, it could be Brahms’s Intermezzi. The fourth composer is Fructuoso Vianna. I met him when I was 12 years old. He dedicated a piece to me, which is very close to Schumann. It’s called Schumanianna. The disc is out now, it’s fantastic. I played these pieces in Hong Kong and the record was selling like hot cakes.
WB: The husband of the famous Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes, Pinto, composed some nice music for piano too, didn’t he?
CO: I never had the chance to look into his music. This recording wasn’t meant to be a real potpourri. It should be an imprint of my favourite five composers.
WB: You also played all of the piano concertos of Villa Lobos..
CO: Yes, that’s correct. Now I will record Chôros 11 for BIS with the Orchestra Sinfonica of State of São Paulo under John Neschling. We will play in a new hall, the Sala São Paulo, which used to be a former train station! It sounds wonderful. I am really looking forward to that.
WB: Will you be playing by heart?
CO: No, I don’t think so, it lasts for 65 minutes!
WB: Compared to that, Brahms’s 2nd Concerto is nothing!
CO (smiles) Chôros means “improvisations”, every few pages, there is a completely different atmosphere. A friend of mine said: “In that piece, there is stuff for six pieces!”. It will be a challenge. You need a lot of rehearsals for it.
WB: Will you also play it in Europe?
CO: I would like to do that. Maybe Ashkenazy would like to look into it, but let’s first learn it....
WB: Is there a chance you can play it in London? Or is too conservative?
CO: Didn’t you know that? In this piece, there should be no egos. That makes it really hard. Villa Lobos is like a mission to me. Often conductors have no time to properly rehearse his piano concertos and I don’t want to play like that. It’s different from Beethoven or Schumann, with their concertos, it wouldn’t “hurt”if you play with little rehearsal time. The trouble with Villa Lobos is that he wrote so much. He was just happy to have it recorded and never went back to his scores. A lot of them remained untouched.
WB: Is this the first time you play Brahms’s 2nd concerto?
CO: No, I did it before, but it is a fantastic chance to play it five times around. It’s like a marathon. I did a performance not long ago with Lawrence Foster and the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Sintra, Portugal, last June, too bad that we did only one concert...
WB: Tonight you will play the concerto in Rotterdam and tomorrow you will play during an afternoon concert in Nijmegen, isn’t it terribly hard to have so little time in between? You hardly have time to recover!
CO: It’s tough, and I just arrived from Hong Kong, could you imagine? It’s all about distributing energy. That’s what Ashkenazy always says. It’s difficult though to save as a performer. This concerto is also about the distribution of the hands, you have to get the top two fingers of the right hand across to make them sing. My hands are quite sore today (She indeed shook hands with her left hand when we met)
WB: Maybe this is a forward question, am I being sexistic when I say that this is not really a concerto for women?
CO: Yes, you are.. but it’s true, there are not many women who have tackled the piece. Even Clara Schumann said to Brahms: “Why are you writing such heavy stuff?”. It’s all about stamina and sheer power. It’s difficult to find a balance. This is even more than the first concerto an orchestral piece. Number one is a real piano concerto.. Especially in the second, you need to have a really good rapport with the chef for the andante. The pace is important. It can get very slow, like last night.
WB: Was it too slow?
CO: Yes, it was. I never had a conductor who was so far away from the piano. I need physical contact.
WB: Did you tell the conductor? (Nikolai Alexeev)
CO: No, he said himself he would be better tonight
WB: Yes, indeed, I noticed after your first entry you looked into the orchestra, almost as if you wanted to conduct yourself. Are you aware of what happens around you?
CO: Yes, totally, I am playing with the others. When I am performing, I am singing what the others are playing. I know exactly what comes out of the orchestra. Playing a concerto is playing chamber music in great scale. But how can I have contact with someone who is so far away? It’s very hard work and the piece is already hard. Music has to live, otherwise it is a recording. I am a performer, there is nothing so exciting as when it works!
WB: Which conductor would be ideal in that respect?
CO: Lawrence Foster.. Ashkenazy too. He is with the player and can do anything on the spot. I remember we once did a Brahms 2nd with very little rehearsal time..
WB: Does it help that he is pianist too?
CO: Yes, although he has to adapt sometimes. He has to erase his own conception from his memory with pieces he has done himself, like the Rachmaninov concertos he has done all his life.. It happens that he asks in rehearsal: “Could you play that again?” just to listen well to what I was doing.
WB: I read in your biography that you also worked with Kyrill Kondrashin. How was he?
CO: He was fabulous. I played 3 concertos with him; Liszt 2nd, Bartok 3rd and the Schumann. When we did the Bartok 3rd, he first wanted me to come to his room and play the entire concerto. He listened to what I was doing. The same happened during the orchestral rehearsal. The contact during the concert performance was unbelievable. He had never done it before. He had the same thorough way of rehearsing with the two other pieces we did together. That is commitment, that is a musician. It is quite a difference with Alexeev, who rehearsed during 20 minutes and then left.
WB: Do you go to concerts yourself to listen to others?
CO: Yes, I do that a lot, I don’t only go to recitals. You learn a lot from it.
WB: What about you as a performer? Are you unpredictable in concerts when you play with an orchestra and is it difficult to keep up with you?
CO: I am not predictable. I have to ask conductors to stay with me, because I don’t know what I am doing on stage. I play from what comes back to me. You also have to play with the acoustics. Amsterdam is my favourite hall, I like space. Nijmegen is very good too, but here (Arnhem) the piano didn’t help. I suffered, as it was out of tune.
WB: I have been to concerts a lot in Arnhem, where I lived when I was young and the pianos were often bad.
CO: It has nothing to do with the piano, it’s the tuner! In the USA, there are living creatures who look after a piano and they are tuning all day long! A piano needs constant looking after and fine tuning, just like a car! They are not only tuning the pitch, as they do in Europe!
WB: But then again, even if they have such good looking after in the USA, colleagues of yours like Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich and Peter Frankl have complained about the bad American Steinways! So what’s the difference if the pianos are still bad?
CO: I hate American Steinways! I never quite made a career in America. I don’t have a technique to show off and play bravoura pieces like the Liszt sonata. Not that I make that many mistakes but I am not there to impress. I make my own music, no amazing pirouettes. But you know, Julius Kätchen used to say: “There are no bad pianos, there are only bad pianists!”.It’s not true, but still, a good technician can save an instrument!
WB: Have you ever considered touring around with your own piano?
CO: I have fantastic pianos at home. 3 years ago, I bought a beautiful one from 1991. I had to put it in a friend’s house until I had space in my own place. I once played on it in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, but apart from that, I don’t go to extremes, I don’t like to have it removed and taken out of the window every time...
WB: Could you adapt to any piano?
CO: No, but sometimes I make the best out of it. Once, I played with Leinsdorf and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on a piano that wasn’t very good. Still, I hadn’t complained about it, but he said: “You need another piano, this one is really rubbish!” and then I ran down to Steinway Hall to choose another one.
Quite unbelievably, an hour flew by, I still had many other questions, but unfortunately, Cristina Ortiz had to go. The day after, I saw her by coincidence at the concert Earl Wild gave at almost 90 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. (She emailed me the next day remembering how touching the concert had been and asking herself whether she’d still be playing at age 90..) She said we should finish the interview one day, either in London or elsewhere. .. Let’s hope we will be able to finish our conversation soon!
© Willem Boone 2005