Cristina Ortiz in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My thirty-eighth interview guest is Brazilian concert pianist Cristina Ortiz. We met at her home in West London a couple of weeks ago to discuss her life and career.

Even though Cristina has been resident in Europe for many years, it is the passion, spontaneity and allure so characteristic to her Brazilian cultural heritage, which is central to her music making. Dominating a broad range of solo and concerto repertoire, she now adds the role of chamber musician ever more important in her make-up as a truly complete artist.
She has performed with Antonio Meneses, Boris Belkin, Kurt Nikkanen, Uto Ughi, Dimitri Ashkenazy as well as the Prague Wind Quintet; and besides collaborating with string quartets such as the Chilingirian, the Grainger or the Endellion, Cristina has just recorded the piano quintets of Fauré and Franck with the Fine Arts Quartet for Naxos.
There is no doubting her dedication to divulging Brazilian music, well evidenced in the American premiere of Guarnieri’s “Choro” at Carnegie Hall under Dennis Russell-Davies, or Decca recording of Villa-Lobos’ five Piano Concertos, recording which definitely confirmed her as the main interpreter of his music.
Cristina’s interpretation of a wealth of the most significant piano literature from Beethoven to Bernstein and beyond, has sustained critical acclaim as well as bringing to her public’s attention a number of lesser known works:
1. as in her CDs of pieces by Clara Schumann for Carlton Classics or that of Stenhammar’s 2nd Piano Concerto with the Göthenburg Orchestra under Neeme Järvi for BIS; or
2. as in the world premiere of Lalo Schifrin’s “Concerto of the Americas” in Washington DC and Kyoto; or performances of Erwin Schulhoff’s Piano Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic or the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.
Cristina Ortiz believes teaching is an invaluable source for self-analysis. Using her experience, she inspires young pianists to develop a feeling for colours and to broaden their range of emotions. In giving private tuition or conducting master-classes while on concert-trips throughout the world whenever possible, she dedicates special attention to the use of Pedal: that all-important yet nearly untaught art.
Since the days when invited by her mentor, Rudolf Serkin, she participated in his famous “Music from Marlboro” or when appearing at the “Festival of the Two Worlds” in Spoletto Italy, Cristina knows that an artist can but grow from sharing music with peers. She has recently organized chamber music concerts as well as several workshops for young pianists, with the intention of bringing music to her local friends in the south of France. In 2006, her first “C* O* & Friends Festival’’ there was music for wind instruments and piano, whereas in 2008, her second, that for strings and piano. To the delight of her audiences, an informal jazz-session ended both programs, in lighter fashion.
Ms Ortiz has worked with conductors such as André Previn, Kyril Kondrashin, Zubin Mehta, Neeme Järvi, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maris Jansons, David Zinman and Dennis Russell-Davies among many more and played with orchestras such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, Cleveland or Philadelphia Orchestras, Chicago Symphony, Czech Philharmonic, RPO and Philharmonia to cite but a few.
On the other hand, she especially enjoys directing from the keyboard, be it as in concert with the Prague Chamber Orchestra (at the Rudolfinum or the Musikverein, Vienna); with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, in Ørebro, Sweden; or in the recording studios with the Consort of London, for Collins Classics. Recently the 1st time in Brazil, she delighted the São Paulo public and orchestral partners alike with her relaxed yet visceral approach to music, directing and performing Beethoven’s Concerto # 3 from the keyboard. In her opinion this format of music making is the most complete and satisfying for a soloist, due to total commitment by all musicians on stage.
Cristina Ortiz as a true Ambassador, has started to perform classical music in the various Embassies of Brazil around the world, closely relating to the exclusive audiences by informally announcing what she chooses to play: be it Chopin or Lorenzo Fernandez; Schubert or Fructuoso Vianna; Brahms or Nepomuceno; Debussy or Villa-Lobos: all chosen composers, equally treasured by her.

Here’s  the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

Melanie: Brazilian concert pianist, Cristina Ortiz, won first prize in the 1969 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and she’s played to great claim ever since. I’m so thrilled that she’s joining me for one of my classical conversations here at her home in London. Welcome.

Cristina: Thank you.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you today. I want to start by asking you all about your musical education: how old you were when you started, what was the catalyst, why did you start to play?

Cristina: I think what happened was the moment I could climb up to the piano stool, I got close to the piano and I started experimenting with everything I heard came out, and the sounds. At about 4 years of age, my mother just decided to start me with some teacher because I might have some talent, and that was the beginning of it. I started with a wonderful concert pianist in Rio, and after that I went to the conservatoire kind of thing, and I won many competitions including a scholarship to go to France, in Paris. And there I went to study with Magda Tagliaferro, who was Brazilian born and had her academy in Paris. After that, I won the Cliburn. After winning the Cliburn in ’69, I decided to study with Rudolf Serkin, because I needed a diversification of styles and a little away from the perfume and flair and rhythm of the Tagliaferro school, quite different, the Cliburn in Philadelphia and did two and a half, three years with Serkin, and everything together with chamber music, which is the most important part of music, but then since 40 years now I’ve been living in London. My career was mainly in Europe anyway. I wasn’t very keen on American music. I mean the way that people relate to music, I wasn’t so comfortable. So, I did my studies and then when I could I just came back to Europe. I was in Paris between ’65-69, so I came back. That’s where I am.

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique? Which teacher do you think developed it or who was the most important?

Cristina: I wasn’t technically – For me, technique is just a vehicle. So, it has never been very important. Unlike the Russian school where you have to acquire, and be really and athlete, and develop a power and everything. I was, I suppose rather natural. My hands just whatever, felt right, my fingers or whatever. I never really did technique. I just prepared whatever I was practicing on and the technique would develop. Whichever exercise I needed or technical problems, I had to conquer them by studying the passage and so on. So, I never think of technique as an important side of music.

Of course, you have to have it to get through the repertoire, but for me, the most important side of music is the sound. That’s a technique of the ear, isn’t it? And the projection of sound and so on. The preparation of getting something ready is just the background of making music. So, it’s not that important to me.

Melanie: The Van Cliburn Competition, it must have had a huge impact on your career? How did it change it, or did it not?

Cristina: No, it didn’t really. At that time it wasn’t as important as it is now, with the media and the coverage and everything. Everything is filmed from the word go. I followed Radu Lupu’s prize, and Radu at that time had just come out of Russia and was very. I mean he never changed so much. But he had cancelled, for instance, the European tour. And as a consequence, when it came to me, I had no European tour, because the Cliburn winner had not honored the prize and that kind of thing. So, mine had not such a very important coverage in the world and I suppose that’s why in the end I went to study with Rudolf Serkin to try to get through this German school. I wanted to come back to Europe, and I’ve never really been in the eye of the public.

Melanie: No.

Cristina: Like anybody these days winning a major competition, they immediately-

Melanie: goes mad

Cristina: goes mad for about 5 minutes these days, because there’s so many of us.

Melanie: I was about to say, do you think that’s still an important way to establish a career or do you think it’s not?

Cristina: I think it’s past it. And also, I don’t know if you see the corruption. The way things are just like politics, and the way that you get up there somehow. Not blaming the candidate, but it’s very difficult to judge music. It’s such an incredibly subjective art. And your opinion and mine, if we don’t discuss, there is no middle ground. And people do not like to discuss. People think it leads to a lot of abrasion and all of it. So, the winners coming out of a competition, they never – These days, they come and they go. There’s so many competitions. And then you hear what’s going on behind the scenes, people complaining on the way they were judged or marked and you say yes or no, and you take the higher mark out. It’s gone bonkers. It’s not something that you can say, “This guy is better than that lady.” You know? You can’t say that. It’s just how – If it’s obviously bad, then somebody can’t play the piano. That’s not the case anymore. But, it’s so subjective. It depends on your background. It depends on your makeup and emotional message. I mean, they’re too young when they come to competitions, so they try to show off this technique and pyrotechnics and things like that. My God! It’s scary. And the other side, when you’re trying to really be a kind of turned in to dig deep and try to show what you’re really made of, what is really important to you. It’s not obvious when it comes out. So it’s very difficult to pinpoint and say, “This is very stunning.” Also, the way that I think competitions are judged. There’s no more of this unanimous vote. And that, in the old days, that’s when you made the most important winners. Like Lupu, the people who were voted the best were incredibly talented, special, and with a lot to offer. Of course, you have to grow and experience life before you can really touch people, unless you’re born with this incredible way of touching people. And that for me is the most important technique. You started with it wrong. [Laughter] For me, technique is not necessary. It’s not something that I want to think, “Oh! What a technique!” I mean, everybody should have technique when you play Brahms’ 2nd. Not many people play Brahms’ 2nd. It’s not just having technique. It’s just having the courage to go and play some of the passages that other people just go, “Oh! This is impossible to play. I won’t play this piece.” So, you know. It’s all very subjective, very relative and difficult to decide and talk about what it is that makes a pianist.

Melanie: You’re synonymous with Brazilian, Spanish and Latin American music. Obviously because this is where you come from, but what is it that draws you to this music?

Cristina: Well, funnily enough, it’s just now I’m finding in my old age that I decided to try to pass it on to people. It’s just obviously my makeup, the way I was born. You’re born with a metronome very strong rhythmical diversity and things. So, you have a one-up on other people. I remember playing and having a lesson with an Oriental pianist and he just asked me, “Do you think I’ll ever be able to play these rhythms?” I said, “Well, of course you can play! But you have to go and live first in Brazil for a little bit and try to absorb how people move to beats and the different beats coping with 3 against 4, 5, and 7s. You have to live to be able to, if it doesn’t come naturally. But the flair of it, I mean, with a name like name people think I’m Spanish. There’s no recollection of Spanish blood at all, but Ortiz must have started somewhere in Spain via Portugal, etc. So, that just speaks very much to me, the way I am and also the luminosity and the French music, because I was living in France and Tagliaferro was very, very special at living French music differently from the way that French pianist consider it. I call it the paste. You put the pedal down and you create something that you – It’s just impressionist. No, it’s nothing to do with this, there’s rhythm. There’s light. So this background of course I like to think that Brazilian, Spanish and French music are my forte. But when I was younger, I was always trying to stay away from it. Otherwise I would be labelled. So when I came here I tried to get a larger repertoire, going through, Bach. I’ve never been comfortable performing Bach because I’m too much of a lively person and Bach is just intellect and, of course, beautiful sound, but I was never prepared to just do that. And concentrate on, you know, the shape of music. Now I am, but it’s too late to go to Bach. So from, you know, Mozart onwards and Haydn and so on. I just try to get all of the different styles and be musician, a complete musician, by Beethoven sonatas and all this. Then after Tagliaferro, of course talking about great teachers that I only had Tagliaferro, after Tagliaferro. I went to Philadelphia to study with Rudolf Serkin, a great fantastic musician, at the Curtis Institute. And that’s where I got down to the German side of- You know, do not add one bit of octave. Nothing. I mean, respect the score and the architecture of the work and how to organically get to new tempi and respect the meter, the pace, and the structure of the work. So, you know, I tried to. I’m an Aries and then I tried to balance it with apparently my ascendance is balance. So this is the way I am. I’m all emotion and intuition and whatever the word may be, but, you know, just coming out with naturalness. And then I tried to be rigid and tried to contain some of that so that you go through the channels of classical music and then you relax with French music. With Brazilian music, when you go to play Brazilian music, many, many young people in Brazil – but no, you have to respect. You have to go deeper and find what it is from your roots. I find things that, it’s always there, you know? You bring it forth, bring it out and make sure that it’s out there. Not just be ashamed that it’s rhythmic, it’s a little bit funny, and you have to swing a bit when you play. It’s not theatre, but it’s necessary to add another layer of interest. That’s why now that I want to show that I can play better than many other people, it’s very interesting. It’s sort of a different side of me. And it’s always been there. So people say, “Oh, please play some Brazilian music and some Spanish music,” and so on.

Melanie: Yes!

Cristina: It’s always been very difficult to programme it, because it takes an awful long time. So, usually I would take a second half of that and now I’m coming back to this because people ask for it. I like cycles. I like large structures and I like to play all the Scherzos and Ballades and intertwine them. And I like to play sonatas and I like to play big stuff, you know, cycles. I like to play Brahms 1 and 2 in the same night, if possible. 5 Beethoven concertos. I like cycles, and it’s not so easy to programme it.

Melanie: No, but you also play a lot of less familiar work, contemporary music. How do-

Cristina: Yes. Not contemporary, not really. Not so much. Really, I just like to bring forth, things that needed reviving or deserved to be heard. That’s something I like to do things different like the Stenhammer concertos, which I’d never heard of. I have one friend of mine that finds music and says, “Cristina that’s got your face. You must listen. You must play.” And then I discovered Schulhoff and I played Schulhoff’s Concerto. I was writing yesterday about it. With Larry Foster I will play almost the premiere of the concerto in Prague and that’s where Schulhoff was born, but because of the Germans, you know, he died in a camp. In a concentration camp, his music was forbidden and so now there’s a revival of that. So you hear things and you want to play them, not to be different, but because you really believe in something like that. The last thing I did was, again the same friend said, “You’ve got to hear this,” and it was the Bowen. I just recorded that for Naxos.

So, Bowen, British born, taught at the Royal Academy for 50 years or whatever and not many people – I mean of course now it’s coming out. It’s fantastic music which deserved to be heard. I don’t play anything I don’t like, because I really have to enjoy it. It’s very difficult for me to sit and do something just because – no. Now, for instance, I would love to do his concerto number 4. Nobody does it. I would like to play Bowen’s Concerto No. 4. It’s a fantastic piece of music. You know, what’s the point of always doing the same? Of course, it’s wonderful to go through the 5 Beethoven concertos, but if you can add something and with experience you can add something. You go through different times in your life and cycles and you change. You have happiness. You have sadness. You have everything you cope with. You have all of this, and everything is reflected in the way you make music.

So, experience and life is very necessary for going through emotions and projecting emotions. For me, music is sound and touching people and projecting. None of this: to impress 3000 people. I’m not there to impress. I’m there to touch people. Applauses – It’s very nice to be applauded and play encores but hearing warmth and joy and showing more of your facets of your makeup, and then it’s, “Ok, let’s see. What do you want to hear?” I haven’t played a little Schubert, a little Rachmaninoff, a little Brahms, a little Chopin, and after having given your message. I’m like that. That’s the way I’ve been, and it’s not so easy to keep it up.

Melanie: What’s your most treasured musical memory?

Cristina: Gosh!

Melanie: Too many?

Cristina: No, I don’t know.

I don’t know. I just live through everything I do so intensely. I plan things, and when you expect too much of something, it doesn’t-

Melanie: Yes, yes.

Cristina: I’m not very good at planning, and when it happens I’m just very, very glad when it goes well. And it depends on the feedback, if something is most important, but it’s not so easy. Critics, they hardly exist these days, you know? And sometimes you couldn’t really pay attention to many critics, because they might have a problem at home [Laughter] they go to concerts, they sit there. Everything is negative or they would give you a great review. And so what? And then the managers will say, “Well, we can’t just sell-” And it’s all so difficult, the career for young people. I’m amazed at so many of them. Especially with the opening in China, my God!

Melanie: quite a different perspective-

Cristina: Terrifying how many pianists, mostly athletes, which is more than I look for, but anyway. How they keep it up and they come. I love teaching, and I see them all striving and, “How do I do this?” And they have no idea anymore, many people. The tradition of wonderful teachers to go through the styles, it’s hard. You know, when you have people almost teaching with their phone and…..

Melanie: Yes, I agree. [Laughter]

Cristina: With their internet, the Google, and the Youtube, people copy things. Young people don’t know how to play. They say, “Oh, I just like the way he plays this. Oh, he plays-” They play the way that they hear. They will not sit and open a score from zero and read without going and listening. It’s frightening what’s going on in the world.

I’m a little bit negative about this but it’s difficult. It’s difficult sort of changing times, and it will get a lot worse before it gets better. But it’s frightening how the young people, they know it all. They copy it all. They do not digest. They do not think for themselves. It’s really difficult to sit and talk about sound and, “You cannot do that in Beethoven.” “Why not? I like to.” You can’t do that! You can’t take time here. Or “Oh, I feel like doing it.” This kind of thing because there’s no traditions anymore. So, it’s really difficult! But, I love coaching. I don’t teach, but I love trying to make them aware of sound and trying not to worry too much about the technical side. You have to know your hands, know your potential, to know the keyboard, you know, not seeing the keyboard. Because you have to be able to know where to go and not to miss, and people don’t know how to do things. They don’t know how to use a pedal. Nobody teaches pedal. I’m a crazy person about pedal effects and so on. It’s very difficult to teach it. I don’t know. I’ve always been like that. So, it’s something that I would like to pass on, and I do. “How do you do this?” “they don’t know! But are you reading music? The pedal goes down until magically – take the pedal off.” “Oh!” You have to be able to play without the pedal. You know? I mean I never had a teacher teaching me pedal, but this is very important for me. Pedal is a luxury and only when you take it off will you know what it can add. It’s fascinating. I mean, the middle pedal is my specialty. When I was in Paris I discovered the middle pedal. I said, “What is this?” And then I discovered how to use it and since then I bought my first Steinway, which is a little Steinway, which is now in Paris.

But it didn’t come with a middle pedal at the time, because it wasn’t standard. People didn’t use it, people who don’t know what it is for. So I had it added and started going after it. Because there’s so many effects that you can get from it. It’s something that you can get a different dimension to the sound it creates. Like picking out different – and holding a chord that’s important for the harmony. I mean, you know, it’s just – These guys come and immediately they can’t start doing that because they are going to forget that they have no idea how to play Beethoven and they want to focus on the middle pedal, you know, the use of the middle pedal. You’ve got to live. You’ve got to suffer. You’ve got to get knocked on your head. You’ve got to get bad reviews and have something that makes you say, “I know I can do it.” And competitions, too many of them are not judged fair.

Melanie: No. No.

Cristina: So, and also that wave of going to competitions, people are protected. Now there’s a competition somewhere in my country. You know, because people are scholarship paid. In France, they immediately, they go through the backdoor into the competition, an international competition. They have no level for that, but they take the place of other people who might really deserve it. It’s corruption. Well, I won’t say it’s corruption, but it’s wrong, and there’s all sorts of middle ways of doing things, and poor guys. They just have to survive somehow. They will survive! [Laughter] If they will get what’s important to them. If they find the right way to go about it. Which is difficult.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

Cristina: Everything. It’s my breath. I can’t live without playing the piano. ´

Although I never force it. If I’m tired, I cannot accomplish anything if I’m tired. So, I immediately stop if I’m tired. I’m never tired. Never. I have plenty of energy. Funny enough I just did workshops in my house and so on and I had a concert that I put together. Just to tell you a very funny story, just talking about energy. At the end of one week of playing together, I tried to put together a chamber music concert in 4 days, 3 days and 4 hands and singing and violin playing and – Anyway, at the end- I’m never tired. I don’t sleep. I sleep very badly and so on, but I’m never tired. And I’ve never thought, “Oh, I didn’t sleep 3 hours!” Hours and hours and hours. If I don’t sleep, 3 hours later I’m up if there’s a concert I have to play. Maybe I’m not moving in the right important circle anymore, but this is the way I am. So, at the end of this week, three people who were leaving in the last day, they got together a little card and it said, “And here is for you to get rid of your amazing energy when we’re gone.” And they had bought me a little skipping rope [Laughter] all beautifully shined and so on. Very sweet. So, the energy is very important makeup for the athletes that we are. To have energy, never complain. You’re not jetlagged when you get to the other end of the world and you’re playing in Japan, eight hours or whatever later in the middle of the night and you have to play Prokofiev 3 on the third night, which is the worst for jetlag for me. You have to get out and you have to open the tap and the water must flow. So, it’s really a tough, tough, tough life and how to start, nobody has the right way. So without piano playing, I would be nowhere. Nowhere.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Cristina: Thank you very much.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Emilie says:

    Thanks for this wonderful interview! What an inspiring character 🙂

    1. Thanks so much. Really glad you enjoyed it 🙂

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