INTERVIEW: Mind and soul: An evening with internationally acclaimed pianist Wael Farouk

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 28 May 2016

Following his two concerts in Cairo, Wael Farouk, renowned Egyptian pianist talks about encounters with Rachmaninoff, life journey in music as his greatest passion, and future plans

Wael Farouk
Wael Farouk in solo recital at the Cairo Opera House, 16 May 2016 (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

Egypt’s classical music scene has been a cradle for many young talents who go on to make their names across the world. They take their first musical steps at the Cairo Conservatory or through a variety of workshops or academic courses provided in Egypt. The most gifted ones often continue their education outside the country, performing on the most renowned stages to the acclaim of peers, critics and audiences. Establishing such thriving careers, they often settle outside Egypt, visiting their homeland more or less regularly, performing at the Cairo Opera House or other halls in Cairo and Alexandria.

The Pianist

One such musician is Wael Farouk, the internationally renowned pianist.

Farouk was born in Cairo in 1981, and graduated from the Cairo Conservatory. Having solicited many accolades in Egypt – receiving, among the other things, the Youngest Egyptian Talent Prize (given by the former First Lady Susan Mubarak), at 13 – and making his orchestral debut, at 19, with Egypt’s premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Patrick Fournillier in 2000, Farouk continued his education in the USA. He began as a Fulbright Fellow studying at the Catholic University of America in Washington, moved on to receive a number of certificates and finally earned a doctorate (DMA) from the Rutgers University in New Jersey (2015).

Since 2003, Farouk has lived in the USA, where he started a family. He performs prolifically across five continents at the most prestigious halls – the White Hall in St. Petersburg, the Carnegie Hall in New York and Schumann’s house in Leipzig – and is on the faculty of the Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Among his commitments, he still makes time to visit and perform in Egypt.

His most recent concert took place on 14 May when he performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hisham Gabr, followed by a solo recital that also focused on Rachmaninoff, on 16 May.

Today, for the Egyptian audience it is a privilege to listen to the homegrown talent, admire his musicality and skill which first developed in Egypt and then deepened abroad. Though he often performs with the Caro Symphony Orchestra, this was the first solo recital in 10 years at the Cairo Opera's Main Hall.

Farouk’s remarkable talent and hard work is described in dozens of articles written about him. Some look into his biography, others are concert reviews. The biographical stepping stones point to his particular interest in a small piano his parents brought him as a form of therapy when he was three years old, and an immediate passion he developed towards the instrument. At the age of five he could already play simple tunes at the Cairo cathedral, where the late Pope Shenouda III gave weekly meetings.

His the enrolment in the Cairo Conservatory too had its own unique story.

“My family has always been extremely supportive even though they had nothing to do with the music world. My parents would follow my talent in the best way they could, though naturally, especially at the beginning, they were not always aware how it all functioned,” Farouk explains.

He recalls how his father wanted him to join the renowned conductor Selim Sahab’s children’s choir. Taken by young Wael’s pianistic skill, Sahab asked the father to enrol him in the Cairo Conservatory instead and gave him an appointment the following day. But, at the time, to Farouk’s parents the name of the Cairo Conservatory meant no more than “one of those fancy schools”, and the father thought Sahab’s suggestion was intended to drive his son away from the choir. They did not show up at the appointment. Yet Sahab took the initiative and filled in the application for the boy, calling the father quite cross and insisted that Wael should proceed with the exams and a professional education.

And this is how it all began...

“I was very lucky,” Farouk continues. “My family didn’t interfere, didn’t expect anything to happen. They saw it as something I was passionate about and supported me as best as they could.”

He recalls the long time he used to spend at the piano, often practicing for over 10 or more hours a day. As he practiced during the summer heat, his parents would place the only fan they had at home in his room, “the smallest sacrifice among many big ones they were making”.

During the school year, Farouk spent most days at the conservatory and most evenings practicing in his room.

“My family almost didn’t see me. But they knew I was happy. I believe that music did something to them too. My mother would enjoy listening to music even if she could not explain what it was that made her emotional. Still, music spoke to her.”

As Farouk entered the fascinating if extremely challenging, even daunting professional music world, his passion never abandoned him, and he found in the obstacles a motivation and turned each opportunity to an immediate progress. Though he graduated with high scores from the Cairo Conservatory, he was turned away by the same institution “due to his hand size”. Having small hands yet a big mind, he went on to conquer the world, however, taking it one step at a time.

He studied and performed with many renowned conductors and orchestras. As his biography reveals, “in 2014, he was given the honour of playing on Tchaikovsky’s piano – the first pianist to do so since Vladimir Horowitz”.

Today Farouk has a large repertoire of solo compositions, chamber music and concertos. In 2013, he released Russian Portraits, his debut solo recording album, which David Dubal, the acclaimed American pianist and member of the faculty at the Julliard School summed up as follows: “Here is piano playing that brings the chills to the flesh, performed with a rare virtuoso technique.” Farouk’s Cairo recital on 16 May included a number of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes which are, among other works, featured at the same CD.

Wael Farouk CD
(Photo: a double CD with pianist Wael Farouk)

Today, in articles by international critics, Farouk’s name is accompanied by superlatives. Throughout his already very rich career, many journalists have applauded Farouk’s ability to overcome the challenges, which include his small hands, believed to be an apparent obstacle to playing some elements of the pianistic repertoire, an argument that has nevertheless been refuted by several specialists who point to the technical detours such artists spontaneously implement.

On the other hand however, numerous and renowned critics and teachers have been impressed by Farouk’s talent, technical proficiency, deep understanding of music and unique interpretation. La Tribune Le Progres in France praised his ”technical virtuosity and expression,” his performance at Carnegie Hall in 2013 was described as “tremendous music making” while another reviewer talks about his ability to “live and breathe the music with the poetry of a born artist”. Daniel Epstein, a music scholar, says in one YouTube video, “Wael has a sense of drama and a sense of sound in his playing which I think is quite special and different.” He goes on to explain how Farouk and the piano become one, “a very rare quality to be achieved [by a pianist].”

We could go on enumerating Farouk’s successes and the deeply flattering statements made about him in prestigious papers. But it is The New York Concert Review’s description of Farouk’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 as coming from a “formidable and magnificent pianist” that touches on a unique relation he has built with this particular work and with Rachmaninoff in general.

An Odyssey with Rachmaninoff

“The first time I ever heard Rachmaninoff was when I was 13 [in 1994]. My Russian teacher in Cairo, the late Vsevolod Demidov, whose class I joined redirected by Samir Aziz, gave me a tape and told me, ‘You should listen to those pieces.’ It had Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major on one side and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor on the other side. When I listened to Rachmaninoff, I thought it was not real; I felt as if I was flying. Though I could tell it was insanely difficult for me at that age, the next day I went to my professor and told him I had to play it. Of course he just laughed at my naivety,” Farouk recalls.

But six years later, in 2000, he did play the concerto, with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Patrick Fournillier, giving the Egypt’s premiere of this monumental work, the first in a number of premieres he was yet give international masterpieces in his home country.

Farouk goes on to express his special relation with Rachmaninoff, whose compositions we could hear during his most recent concerts – with the orchestra and a recital – at the Cairo Opera House.

On 14 May he embraced the composer’s youth by playing his Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor. Farouk extracted from the work its innocent freshness while walking us through a non-uniform palette of texture and phrases. Though the Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 is probably Rachmaninoff best loved by the audiences, the maturity and complexity of Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 is “monumental”, as Farouk puts it. He then adds that “the first concerto has a lot of its own values and a unique charm.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff (L) and Ivanovka, an estate in Russia and the composer's summer residence

Though not hailed as Rachmaninoff’s best work, let’s not forget that it was Opus 1, the first version of which was born in the idyll of the 18-year-old pianist’s Ivanovka in the Russian countryside.

Helped by irrefutable technical proficiency, and as he moved through the poignantly extrovert first movement Farouk toyed with Rachmaninoff’s quasi-juvenile need to overwhelm the listener. Without forcing himself over the composer, but rather walking hand in hand with him, Farouk demonstrated his profound musicianship, especially underscored in the work’s cadenza. He then poured a lot of warmth into the thoughtful and lyrical Andante Cantabile where Rachmaninoff begins to shape his unique voice through captivating melodies and sincere orchestration, before closing with the bright third movement.

Farouk underlines his affinity with this concerto, “Though it carries many changes of moods, the transitions make perfect sense, they are not abrupt and do not make you feel uncomfortable.”

Farouk then mentions the second concerto, which is much more accessible to the audience, before delving into the monumental third concerto. “I believe that great contributions to music come from great personalities and Rachmaninoff was one such personality. I admire his music and not only his piano works, but also his choral and chamber compositions. He is always very honest about his emotions, a fact for which he was often criticised, but his music was about beauty and honesty. In his works you can hear how he felt about his country, religion, family.”

While Rachmaninoff had to leave his country, the deep longing for his homeland speaks through many of his compositions. Farouk points to dozens of composers who moved outside their home country. However, in Rachmaninoff, just like Chopin, he finds a quality that is particularly poignant: the composer’s strongly rooted family values and longings emerging from this concept.

“It is rare for a composer to have such strong family ties – look at Beethoven’s difficult character as the other end of the spectrum in this sense. For Rachmaninoff, Russia was that grandness of aristocracy in its best sense. When I went to Russia in 2004, I understood why their composers write this music. Everything is grand. The chandelier is not just a chandelier, it is the grand chandelier. Those people lived in heritage and history and had pride in their country. Rachmaninoff had a very hard time leaving all that and tried to recreate Ivanovka in his Villa Senar in Switzerland.”

Farouk’s encounter with Rachmaninoff extended into the solo recital performed on 16 May. In it, he focused on the preludes alongside the composer’s other short compositions. The first prelude, performed in the second half of the evening, was in G Major (Op. 32, No. 5), the daughter of Farouk’s favourite. He smiles, showing a video recorded on his mobile phone in which an adorable year-and-a-half-old Nabiela dances to the prelude played by her father.

“I look at the preludes as I do at Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas for instance. They have to go together in structure or mood,” he explains. As such the lyrical G Major was followed by a restless C Minor (Op. 23, No 7) and then Rachmaninoff’s own favourite, darker in character, inspired by a painting by Arnold Böcklin – which he nicknamed “The Return/TheHomecoming” – in B Minor (Op. 32, No 10). It was then contrasted with light texture of the B Major (Op. 32, No. 11), unusual for Rachmaninoff.

The emotional journey with Rachmaninoff continued, leading to other works such as the Rachmaninoff-Richardson Vocalise (Op. 24, No. 14) in which Farouk’s brilliant technique helped him to oscillate between strong passion and a sense of memories, sadness and desolation. He then moved onto the masterfully performed Bach-Rachmaninoff Gavotte from E Major Partita for Violin which is only seemingly simple yet takes a lot of skill to play in as clean a manner as Farouk did while tasting each note, clearly conversing with Bach. The programme closed with an emotional game on Kreisler-Rachmaninoff’s Liebeslied (Love’s Sorrow) and Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy).

Wael Farouk
Pianist Wael Farouk in one of his concerts with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra (Photo: still from Wael Farouk's YouTube channel)

Mind and soul

The music seems to be passing through Farouk’s mind and body, embodying the pianist’s knowledge and skill, but only once it is shaped into profound and meaningful sounds and phrases does it emerge confidently, reaching to the listener. In this musical experience, Farouk’s pianistic eloquence and elasticity do not deceive the audience for one vibration of a musical second.

Farouk is too conscientious a pianist to go on stage without his unshakable virtuosity being an indispensable component of the performance. He displays a profound understanding of the composer, music and culture in a broad sense. His deep sensitivity and projected confidence does not come from a vacuum. It is embedded in passion, dedication, endless practice and research in music and culture.

Farouk reveals how he pays a lot of attention to reading what is beyond the score. He teaches his students that beyond the technicalities, the style and beyond the ability to perform in front of the audience (which is different to playing at home, as he says), one needs to get as close as possible to the composer.

“I tell my students that they should play one piece [by a given composer] really well but at the same time they should know all the rest of the compositions of the same composer. At the same time, the performer has to read about the composer, his life, the historical context, his letters, etc. It’s like medicine, in a sense, you have to study the whole body to understand a part of it,” he explains.

Understanding the composer also includes looking into the whole cultural background, the literature, customs and art that surrounded him. “For instance, knowing Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Chekov feeds into playing the Russian composers. I encourage my students to read a lot: not only those literary works which have directly inspired the composers but also the much greater cultural reservoir that literature represents. Along the same lines, I don’t think anyone should specialise. You can perform one style or one period, but you will still need to know what came before and after, you still need to do a lot of homework.”

He also reflects on how the pianist’s personal experiences affect the performance or interpretation of the given work.

“Music is very elastic. I can hear some people play certain works each time the same way. I think this approach deprives their performance of a personal element,” Farouk explains, giving an example of his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 in early 2015.

“Our daughter was born on 7 January, my mother passed away on the 11th of the same month. I played on 24 January. I’m sure that if I played that concerto 4-5 months earlier, it would have sounded completely different. Music is alive, so are we, we respond to it. The beauty of music is that it lives much longer than the composer.”

Wael Farouk
Wael Farouk (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

Farouk hopes to transfer his experience onto his students, yet he does not find this task as straightforward as one would imagine. He works on technicalities, inviting students to explore the methodologies captured in works from different epochs: Chopin’s little teaching book, which he never finished, master classes written down by a Liszt student, Carl Czerny’s notes about being taught by Beethoven, etc.

But immediately he pronounces the shocking truth: “I don’t think anyone can teach anyone anything. You just show the students the ways and let them play… A teacher is like a good parent, you give your student what you know, encourage them and help them to become independent. Even if they study for five, 10, 15 years, at the end of the day, each musician stands alone, and in this he is his own best teacher. You know best how you perform and why you do it this or that way, why it works or doesn’t. As such, it is important to continue developing incessantly and to remain humble. This is the kind of respect we should have for our profession.”

Success as 10 percent talent and 90 percent hard work

Today, in his mid-30s Farouk is an accomplished pianist with a whole life in front of him and many opportunities still to come. He has already reached a high point and he understands that sustaining this position or climbing higher needs a constant effort and dedication. A big fighter in his own right, he quotes the statement, often attributed to Beethoven, which states that success is made up of 10 percent talent and 90 percent hard work.

Though Farouk’s talent is evident since his very early childhood and has helped to be where he is today, he does not talk about talent much. As if to give a living example of what he advocates to his students, his humbleness is astounding. He seems more at ease when talking about the responsibility that a pianist has to himself. This responsibility involves hard work and hours of study. Maybe Farouk no longer practices in front of a piano for 10 or 14 hours a day, but he still spends a lot time daily at the keyboard and intensifies his practice before the concert. He also reveals how he continues studying even when away from the piano, memorising or analysing the score.

“Music is a tough job. You really need to be a monk in a way. I think that everyone dedicated to work – art, painting, writing, music – becomes this kind of monk. It’s not about being obsessed but simply committed and dedicated. You are the most honest critic of your work. Beyond hours of practice, one needs to train the mind and be ready to play under any circumstances, one needs to be prepared for different surroundings – for example, a difficult rehearsal, an uncomfortable instrument, an audience that might have problems, etc. While each artist is very sensitive inside, on the outside outside he or she needs to be as strong as an elephant. This is to protect oneself.”

And while the life of a monk is not a bed of roses for the musician himself, it is no easier for the musician’s family either. Farouk repeatedly stresses the great support he received from his parents and teachers and the love and understanding given to him by his wife of nine years, Amy.

Yet, despite all his success and recognition, Farouk remains a typical, self-critical artist. When asked if he is satisfied with his performances, or at least most of them, he swiftly replies, “No, I’m not. I think you should not be too easy on yourself. It is not good for the musical conscience.”

Away from the concert halls, Farouk records dozens of works in his repertoire, often repeating the same composition more than once. Not only do they represent a testimony to his range as a performer, they are also lessons in his progress, a document to go back to, revise and develop. At the present time Farouk is preparing to perform the complete keyboard works of Brahms, “including chamber music, which represents an important piano literature”. And by 2020 he plans to have performed the complete keyboard works of J.S. Bach as well.

Definitely we will still hear a lot from Farouk, whether in Egypt or internationally. It is a pleasure and a privilege to follow on his achievements. 

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly (addtional editing: 30 May)

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