The twenty second interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Venezuelan pianist Clara Rodriguez and I was delighted to chat to her earlier in the week at Steinway Hall in London.
Clara is one of the most distinguished of the present generation of international artists and has often been described as an Ambassador of her homeland music. Her programmes have consistently contrasted traditional classical music with the output of South American composers.
Since coming to London at the age of 16, to study at the Royal College of Music with Phyllis Sellick, she has performed extensively as a soloist at Southbank Centre, Wigmore Hall, Barbican Centre, St John’s Smith Square and Saint Martin-In-The-Fields as well as touring in Europe, India, Egypt, North Africa and South America.
She has commissioned and premièred many works including Federico Ruiz’s Second Piano Concerto which she recorded with the Orquesta Municipal de Caracas. Clara Rodriguez founded and directed the San Martin Music Festival of Caracas from 1993 to 1997.
She has recorded and produced CDs of works by Frédéric Chopin, Moisés Moleiro, Federico Ruiz, Teresa Carreño, and Ernesto Lecuona. Her latest productions are Venezuela for the Nimbus label and El Cuarteto y Clara Rodriguez en vivo– Caracas. They are consistently played on BBC Radio 3 and networks worldwide.
Clara Rodriguez teaches the piano at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music.
Clara in action;
And for those who prefer to read interviews, the transcript;
Venezuelan concert pianist Clara Rodriguez plays solo and chamber concerts all around the world. She’s renowned for her interpretations of South American music and she’s professor of piano at Royal College of Music, Junior Department here in London. So, I’m delighted to welcome her today for classical conversation here at Steinway Hall. Welcome!
Clara: Thank you, Melanie. It’s lovely to see you again.
Melanie: It’s lovely to be talking to you.
Clara: And yes! I still remember playing for your book launch.
Melanie: Yes my book launch, it was wonderful wasn’t it? It was such fun.
Clara: It was just very nice.
Melanie: I want to start by asking, what about your musical education? What age were you when you started? And what was the catalyst? And whether you come from musical family?
Clara: Right. My father was a writer but my mother had learnt music when she was young. And she kept in touch with her piano teacher who was a very well-known composer from Venezuela, Moisés Moleiro.
Clara: Right here who I played the Joropo a few times.
Melanie: Yes. Yes.
Clara: And she introduced me to music and took me to music school because in Venezuela you go into your normal day school and afternoon you go to music school or to different activities. So, yeah, music was around but there aren’t any musicians in my family. So I really loved music school, the atmosphere was great. Being in touch with fantastic musicians and really really, you know, friendly people. It was great. So, I think that’s, you know, what drew me to music.
Melanie: So, which teachers then do you think were most crucially in your performance as a pianist?
Clara: Well, from the beginning I had Guiomar Narvaez, a Venezuelan concert pianist. She studied in Venezuela and also in Vienna. And she was very strict didn’t give me, you know, too many compliments or something like that. You get used to that sort of thing with … you know, never needed that, actually. It was actually embarrassing if someone said that something was good. So, that was very good and in terms of music conservatories in Venezuela, you follow a programme. A little bit late the Associated Board exams, yeah, except that they are more academic, in a way. You have to present a number of Czerny studies a year or Hanon’s studies a year.
Melanie: That’s interesting.
Clara: Bach inventions or, you know, 2 parts, 3 parts inventions that no one’s seems to play anymore, you know, and so on and so forth, you know, English Suites, French Suites, Preludes and Fugues So, that’s the basic….
Melanie: That was my next question, how did you develop your technique but you obviously played a lot of Czerny’s and Hanon’s?
Clara: And Bach…..the Mozart sonatas, of course. You know, all the classical sonatas, you’re … maybe might not playing at a very very high standard, I don’t know, but I cannot remember now. But you certainly have to learn the whole sonata, not just one movement. And you have to about 3 sonatas a year, plus Impressionists works, Contemporary, and Venezuelan and Modern American music. In July, the teacher is to give me this list of works you have to do because at least one concerto, you know, César Franck Variations. So …
Melanie: Quite a lot to get through … ?
Clara: Yeah. You have to get through a lot of music …
Clara: And 3 exams per year.
Melanie: Then you came over to studying here in UK.
Clara: Yes! It was fantastic. There was an invitation to audition for new … I’m sure remember them, the two directors of college at that time …
Clara: Michael Gough Matthews and Barbara Wassard went over to Venezuela and well, I took part in these auditions. You had to play some pieces, Scales, Sight-reading, Aural, you know, harmony and all that and we were given a scholarship to come to Royal College. That was really very very nice.
Melanie: Yes and you studied with Phyllis Sellick?
Clara: Exactly! So, Barbara Wassard when she heard me and Michael Gold Matthews thought, “Oh, she’s a good one for Phyllis Sellick.” And I’m so grateful to them for having thought of that.
Melanie: Yes. I can imagine.
Clara: So, then a few months later, I was in London and it was fantastic, beautiful experience and then I was really made welcome in this country. There was a lot of warmth …
Melanie: That’s good.
Clara: from the people I meet here. And I was really when looked after … but, you know, perfectly. So, that’s why I’m still here.
Melanie: Yes, of course. Did you take part in a lot of competitions as a young pianist? And, more crucially, do you still feel that very important for young pianist today? It’s quite a debate now I think, whether if it’s a good way of establishing yourself?
Clara: I’m afraid I didn’t take part in too many competitions. It wasn’t in my culture, or ego, or, you know, for me, I just … the most important was to be able to play a piece of music really well. So, if it took me a long time it didn’t matter. So, I wasn’t in that frame of mind but, you know, I know people whose careers just took off from winning major competitions. I don’t think I was made for that, you know. I wish I had been. So, I admire it a lot, people that knew what they wanted and went for that. Nowadays, I can see young people very ambitious, young people, excellent talents and a brighter way of getting somewhere, I suppose, I don’t know, if it still works like that.
Melanie: I think for some people probably.
Melanie: I think the argument is that there’s so many competitions these days it’s hard to know which are.
Clara: Of course.
Melanie: I suppose which will be the most helpful I guess.
Clara: I know and opportunities are very few. So, the most important thing for me, and that’s the programme. And the most important thing is personality, musical personality. Someone has the technique but also has inherent … who knows what to say, what to, you know, what to do. I think the worst thing and something I don’t like is ego, you know, ego going through … when the ego is more important than the music, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t know if people, the public and the general public realizes that. Probably they do. It’s difficult, but if you are an artist, you look for depth and you want to approach music through history, in a way, and because what we do is very much related to history and we’re lucky to have so much to go back to and …
Clara: so many recordings to listen to old recordings. And also there’s a freedom of repertoire now that is fantastic because I organized a festival in Caracas in August this year. And I invited a few brilliant pianists and many of them played pieces that I had never heard before. Many composed some pieces and they’re very good pieces. So, for me, that’s really amazing and important and we will, you know, pick-up the attention of the public.
Melanie: Yes. Which composers do you love to play?
Clara: Well, I love I would say, all composers.
Melanie: But you made special study of South American music.
Melanie: You’re renowned for that. That’s partly your heritage, but what really attracts you to that style? It’s quite different I think from the mainstream.
Clara: Yes. True. A few things to pushed me towards that style, as I said, when I was young I couldn’t stand that music. I didn’t like the music folk music of any kind. I didn’t like salsa, I don’t, you know, I just got the giggles when I heard something I didn’t like, but … because I was very much into Bach, Debussy, Mozart, Beethoven. Those were, and Schubert, those were my … that was my life, you know, and …
Melanie: So what changed then?
Clara: … everything outside that … Then, actually when I started thinking I’d like to make a recording, the record company at that time sort of said to me “Look, you should record these pieces we’ve heard you do, Venezuelan pieces.” And that’s what I did. That’s why I recorded Moisés Moleiro who was my Mum’s piano teacher.
Melanie: That’s interesting, yes.
Clara: And that was my first CD and I loved doing that. Also, even though classical musicians tend to enjoy very much playing their Venezuelan music, folk music. And you hear the most fantastic versions of folk music or songs played by classically-trained people. I mean, a few examples like, you know, the leader of the Paris orchestra right now, is a Venezuelan violinist, Alexis Cardenas. And he plays Venezuelan music beautifully, popular Venezuelan music …
Clara: a little bit of jazz in it … The thing is that folk music from Venezuela is very difficult to play. You know all these off-the-beat.
Melanie: I can imagine, yes.
Clara: Rhythms and Hemiolas and so, and it’s very fast. It’s either very very fast or waltz style, but always very interesting and very rich and extremely happy. You will just feel great just by listening to Venezuelan music. So, you know, when I started approaching, getting close to that music through these ideas of making recordings. Because I think the English are very welcoming, very warm, as I’ve said, but also they are very good at making you understand something about your own country. You know, it’s not as probably in the States or something where everywhere has to become Americanized …
Clara: You know …
Clara: Here, it’s different. So, I think I was encouraged.
Melanie: Because you established an ensemble too of playing Latin American music.
Clara: Yes, that was a lot of fun.
Melanie: So, what kind of repertoire and where do you play?
Clara: Well, I’ve done that here in, you know, in the Purcell Room or Bolivar Hall, different halls here and but even so, I’ve done quite a lot of concerts with different musicians especially with this ensemble called El Quartetto, and it’s four very well established classically-trained musicians of … you know, Choir conductor, Flutist, Double-Bass player, and Guitarist, and one of them actually, was one of the founders of Aircam in Paris, contemporary music.
Clara: So nothing to do with the Venezuelan music that we play together but it’s just that something that, they’re so fantastic, these guys. They’ve been playing together for over 30 years. So, it was great that they adopted me to play.
Melanie: I see.
Clara: It’s chamber music but Venezuelan music with the piano. And here, I’ve created, as you said, this ensemble with a flute player as well, who lives in Germany. It’s difficult to get them together because the Mandolin player lives in Paris, the Double-Bass player lives in Spain, and the Percussionist lives here, like me. So, we get together and we do more Latin-American music, I mean some Venezuelan music, but we have also included music from Haiti, Columbia, Cuba, Brazil, lots of Argentinean Tangos, and so it’s very very fulfilling and it’s fun.
Melanie: Yes, I can imagine.
Clara: And for me, I call it the syncopation school, they teach me to keep in rhythm, it’s a very good school and you never stop learning, you know, and you have to just try to keep going and keep up.
Melanie: Do you have particular practice regime?
Clara: At the moment, I would say it’s more like sleep routine, I haven’t done much recently but it depends on the work and unfortunately life takes you away from the piano quite a lot sometimes.
Clara: When you have family and so on and …
Melanie: And you’re busy teaching as well.
Clara: Yes, I teach. I do some teaching, yes, but when I have concerts I just, you know, prepare hard for the concerts. I like to look at different repertoire all the time and people send me lots of compositions, new compositions. So, I look at them and if I’m hooked I play them and I like to play new things, you know, I don’t like to play all the same pieces. So, I take risks.
Melanie: Important. Which venues have you love to play in? What are your favourites.
Clara: Oh, God. Anything, anybody that has a lovely piano.
Clara: And a lovely audience, you know, is fine, it’s great.
Melanie: So, what you were exciting on to the future or what have you got coming up?
Clara: Well, I’ve got some concerts outside London coming up and actually I should be working on some recordings, new recordings. I’m playing at St. Martin-in-the-fields in January. I played there last year as well.
Melanie: Is that Venezuelan Music or is that more mixed programme?
Clara: Appassionata, sonatas, Bach as well, I haven’t played Bach actually, for a long time in public, so I’m doing that.
Melanie: That will be interesting.
Clara: Yes. Yeah, organizing some festivals and things, so …
Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?
Clara: Yes. The piano is life. It’s funny because, you might see an object that is lifeless you know, but when you really think about it, you know the way it’s made, it’s very natural. It’s wooden.
Clara: Wood, felt, you know, well, sometimes a little bit of ivory.
Melanie: Yes, sometimes.
Clara: So, and metal. So it comes from the earth it’s earthy, and it’s … when you get the harmonics sounding its air, isn’t it?
Clara: So, it’s life from that point of view, but from psychological point of view, the piano is a kind of tunnel you go in and you explore sentiments and feelings and experiences that only through the piano you can reach. So, it’s vital.
Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today, Clara.
Clara: Thank you.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.