An evening with pianist Ramzi Yassa

Yassin Gaber , Tuesday 20 Mar 2012

Egypt's foremost pianist, Ramzi Yassa, discusses his love of Beethoven, the role of the interpreter in music and Cairo's International Music Centre, in this exclusive interview with Ahram Online

Ramzi Yassa
Ramzi Yassa gets a laugh in during Ahram Online's conversation with the pianist at Cafe Riche. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Ramzi Yassa, internationally renowned pianist and artistic director of Cairo's ten-year-old International Music Centre (IMC), represents one of Egypt's greatest artistic exports. In January 1963, Yassa gave his first concert at Cairo's Khedivial Opera House.

Yassa's musical studies at Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory launched his subsequent ascension onto the world stage. Since then, he has toured the great concert halls of Europe, and has recently performed in prominent venues in Asia, South Africa and Turkey.

Earlier this year, he wowed audiences at Cairo's Prince Mohamed Ali Palace in Manial with a selection of Beethoven's sonatas. And this Saturday, he will undertake Rachmaninov's second piano concerto at the Cairo Opera House.

I recently caught up with the artist to discuss everything from his love of Beethoven and the tripartite relationship between composer, performer and audience to his work in Egypt with the IMC.

We had planned to meet a year earlier on 25 January but revolutions apparently wait for no man. When I did finally catch up with him, I had little idea what to expect. Having interacted with musicians for the greater part of my life, I prepared myself for all the possibilities.

I arrived half an hour early to Café Riche, a nostalgic spot in downtown Cairo, where I was immediately greeted by the beaming pianist who had already found us a table. There was no need for unease on my part, as the graceful maestro was one of the warmest and most conversant interviewees one could hope to meet. It is only fair, therefore, that I step aside and let Yassa himself walk you through the exciting conversation we had that evening.

Ahram Online (AO): Is there a particular reason you chose Beethoven's sonatas – "Moonlight," "Les Adieux," "Waldstein" and "Appassionata"? Do these pieces have any specific relevance or meaning to you at this time?

Ramzi Yassa (RY):
Beethoven's sonatas are part of my musical history. They are not just pieces of music; they are in a way Biblical, because they carry in them the essence of all music. Beethoven's sonatas are the greatest of sonatas which doesn't mean that Chopin or Liszt or others haven't composed good pieces. But Beethoven's sonatas have in them that form – an evolution from the first one until the last – in which, no two sonatas use the same language, musical means of expression or style. There is always an evolutionary progression. There isn't one that reiterates that same language as the preceding one. Each sonata has a new approach. Beethoven would try out a new formula. You find that there is always something new in his sonatas. This is why one can't say that he plays Beethoven's sonatas. No it's almost a way of thinking music.

So when one reaches a point when he saw the sonatas at the age of 27, there comes a time when one is eager to give them another reading.

AO: Your career has spanned several decades. Has your practice routine changed? Has it become more strenuous? Have you come to accept yourself more, or are you more critical or less critical of yourself?

No, unfortunately you become more critical with time. The more one demands, the more one becomes critical. With time, one becomes more demanding, because he's heard a lot of things; he's done a lot of things; he's heard others perform. He now wants to perform a piece in this or that way. There is an evolution in one's thinking. A performer wants to better what he or she did before.

Now practising is not for the purpose of the instrument but rather for the purpose of music.

There comes a time when one is working towards performing a technically difficult piece, but then a time comes when you've learnt these more challenging pieces and can play them. Then you discover that the easier pieces are difficult.

The easy piece doesn't necessarily mean it's easy. It could be simple, but that does not equate to easiness, because it also needs a searching and critical eye. It needs the ability to compare and to leave your ability to weigh whether this approach or that approach is better. After all, a performer can think all he wants, but his instinct in the end decides whether this solution or that solution is best.

One cannot say that everything is thought out. No, part of it is instinct.

AO: Does this instinct play into the different voices that compete within a piece? Does it affect how one voice should sound or how another should sound? In what context does instinct come into play, or does it play a part in the overall interpretation of the piece?

No, the interpretation, in a musical performance, goes through the choice of the right tempo, the right volume and crescendo – the degree of it and with what intensity. These are the tools with which you work.

What is interpretation? I choose the tempo and the lighting, which I will place on the themes. You have a house and the décor: a sofa, a bulb, a bed and a bookshelf. Will you put them all in the same place? Or will you organise them in different places in order to contrast this piece against that, and thereby create a certain atmosphere.

The musical form is one of the most important aspects of music, because it will draw the listener into your story. If you tell the listener just the facts, they won't listen, but if you give them a story, they will listen. If the facts are dry, you won't remember them. So what? In this year, this and that happened: so what? But when you turn it into a long story with suspense, drama and so forth, the listener will be drawn into your playing.

But it's not just the action; it is also the energy behind it.The most important aspect of interpretation is the energy.If you play a note with energy, the listener will stop breathing, waiting for the next note. If you don't play the notes with energy, you will lose the listener. After a while, they will begin to think of their computer, their phone and their own issues: how they are getting home; is their a protest or sit-in today? They will drift off. That is the difference between a film that has suspense, where you will find yourself glued to your seat and unable to move and one without such energy.

There is also technique – not in a dry way. Rather, the technique of how to organise a piece's dynamics to ensure flow and continuity.

Interpretation, thought, is not simply emotion. It's not just about wearing your heart on your sleeve – just crying and laughing. No, there are aspects of interpretation that require thinking and research. You've got a score that needs to be read.
You ask me why Beethoven, specifically. Beethoven's score is kind of perfect. If you move anything out of its place, you find the quality diminished: the quality of the phrase or the musical form is broken. Everything has a reason: nothing is there without cause. There is nothing placed in his scores for the sake of decoration or embellishment. Everything feels like it carries the essence of the music or the essence of musical discourse: it has drive.

AO: Do you mean – and I'm drawing on my own musical experience – that with Bach, for instance, alterations imply changing bowings (the number of notes in a slur) or even the tempos and dynamics? I've noticed that different editors or performers approach tempos and dynamics in varying ways.

Bach is different than Beethoven. Bach's notation is pure music. He performed his own works, and he was himself a performer. In his day, all who performed were composers. Beethoven wrote precise directions – small crescendo, presto con brio, con molto espressione etc. Bach didn't write this. Bach would open the tap and music would pour out like water. He didn't give you concise recipes. Beethoven is very precise. When a trill is repeated twice, for instance, he'd specify that the first ends like this and the second differently. Why? Because there was always some reason, some logic. Behind the logic is stirring emotions, but there was always logic. You see how the Beethoven concert began and ended. Notice, the way in which he directed the rising drama. If you went up and then down and then up again, your credibility is gone. If you fail to follow his recipe, as a narrator you're done.

AO: At what point does a musician transition from strictly being an instrument or conduit to an interpreter? Is a musician contributing to the work? Is there a dialogue between composer and interpreter?

The logic of the interpreter is organic. It's not just an accessory. Take another form of art. Picasso painted and people view his work. There is nobody in the middle. Music, however, must be performed. The notes have to pass through an interpreter. You're never handed the notes or told let's go to the Manial Palace, where people will hand out notes for all of us to read. I'm not just saying this because I'm a pianist. There is a tripartite relationship between the composer, the interpreter and the public.

AO: If I may be so bold as to ask, as we're talking about relationships between composers and interpreters, am I right in thinking there was more energy or attack behind each note? I once heard "Moonlight" performed in Vienna, where the pianist's approach was a bit colder and more subtly withdrawn. It was deep emotion held back, whereas this was deep emotion let loose. Is that how you approach the piece?

Let's take Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata". This sonata has been played with many tempos and different approaches. Each approach has its own justification. There are musicians who play the first movement very fast, and this has its own logic, because Beethoven wrote it in cut time not in common time (referring to the time signature of the work). It's a slow tempo yet it's in cut time or alla breve. Some people argue yes, it's written in cut time, but the character of the work is nicer when it is played at a slower tempo (common time). It is interpretation.

AO: But it's almost a turn of phrase, perhaps: the emphasis placed on different notes.

Interpretation in general has two sides. When one listens to something he's heard before, there is always a point of reference – a comparison. Like with a thermometer at the zero level: beneath, it is cold and above, it is warm.

You might have a recording you've listened to for years. That is your point of reference. When you come to listen to someone else play a piece, you might think it is being played fast. Fast in regard to what? What reference point? To you, it seems fast. Once again, unless the composer says this movement must be played within a certain time limit – though even then you can adjust and play this faster and this slower – there is a lot of room for interpretation.

For example, if you want to see what interpretation is, attend a competition. There will be five pianists playing the same piece in one morning and on the same piano. You'll find that the piece is played in five different ways – completely different. One might have his own reasoning and thereby draw you into his narrative.

You can always tell the "right" from the "wrong" by the credibility of what is "right". It is more credibility than anything else. I tell you a story and you believe me. It's not realistic at all; I made it up, but I'm convinced by it and it holds water. This is credibility. Credibility is very important in art.

I remember I was playing for my instructor in Moscow. He told me: "What you are playing here is not justified." He didn't tell me "good" or "bad". He told me it is not justified. He was basically saying, "You are telling me something and you aren't giving it a musical reason. You are doing something here that doesn't take us anywhere. You enter into a crescendo neither coming from an important note nor heading to an important one. So what is the point of this crescendo?" As if I told you "Look, look!", but there is nothing to look at, nothing at all. The whole thing is that you have to feel the music, and you have to try to communicate it. But why this and why not that? You have to have your own arguments and be convinced by them.

AO: Let's transition, if we may, to the state of music today. Where are today's new compositions? In cinema, many successful and lauded film composers, who have composed for Hitchcock or recent films such as the Lord of the Rings, draw on very Wagnerian and Romantic era themes.

Composers in Beethoven's age were highly sought after. Perhaps now, film composers are the closest we have.  There seems to be a changing dynamic.

RY: It's true that Beethoven and other composers were highly in demand in court circles; they were commissioned to write symphonies and would dedicate pieces to countess so and so. However, they did this to feed themselves. The very best of Beethoven's works were given to people, who perhaps didn't understand music but had money and understood that his compositions were well liked by people.

Another point is that in Beethoven's day, his fifth symphony drew crowds that could be counted at most in the thousands, now it draws audiences in the hundreds of millions. So, one can't say that music is regressing. Rather music has reached, perhaps, an apogee in its development that makes it difficult for a composer today to write music that is accessible and not too complicated. I mean, to compose something valuable that isn't a reiteration of Brahms, Beethoven or Rachmaninov.

In regard to music and cinema, composers today, at times, feel the need to include something with their compositions that makes it easier for the listener. Cinema, for example, makes listening easier. Let's say someone produced a film and included a piece by Schoenberg in a very artistic way, the music will be accepted, because people aren't going to the cinema to listen to classical music. They've gone to watch a film, and the music corresponds to the actions on screen.

When you look at Europe, where this music originates, it's as if the formula has been a bit exhausted. In the past thirty, forty years there wasn't enough attention to allow for the fostering of a musical generation. What's more, Europe after World War II became a consumerist society, where everything became about purchasing a commodity. There is no doubt that this consumerism reflected on high art. People became accustomed to the easy life to listen to easy music and to spend money with ease. You don't develop the spirituality that is present in music. You're more a consumer than a human being: spending your entire life earning and spending money.

AO: Your work in music extends beyond your performances on stage. As artistic director of the International Music Centre (IMC), you've had direct experience in trying to deliver classical music to a modern audience.

It's been ten years since the founding of the IMC. What are its major achievements?

I think the main achievement was to create a venue for chamber music. There wasn't a venue dedicated to chamber music. I was convinced this was missing in Egypt.

When someone comes to experience music and sits at a distance of two metres from the pianist, this is an experience you can't get in a larger venue. The feeling and the communication between performer and listener in a salon is more intimate and more appropriate. When this type of music was originally composed, it was played in these settings more so than in a setting like Carnegie Hall.

Beethoven did not perform in concert halls that could seat 4,000 spectators. His pieces were composed to be played in these settings, but this doesn’t mean that when you perform them in Carnegie Hall they don't work. Nevertheless, they were born in these smaller halls, and when you return to perform them for people in smaller venues, you bring them a bit closer to the essence of music. Especially, if your audience does not necessarily have the experience that allows one to dissociate the music from the venue: the hall, the instrument and so forth. There is no doubt that when one listens to music in the Manial Palace or Manasterly (Palace on Cairo's Rhoda Island), the experience is different.

The achievement is that we were able to invite big names, which have played in the largest concert halls in the world, to perform varying repertoires in these intimate settings. The various genres of music brought here were very good, quality-wise. Some played the qanun, others the nay (traditional stringed instruments): it wasn't exclusively classical. The main criterion was the quality of the music. Our audiences always supported these concerts: we always had good attendance. The project I feel was successful.

Another goal was to present young talents: we did so. Many musicians, who have later gone onto the international stage, have passed through this project. However, one of our main achievements was that we were able to create an audience, albeit they already existed, but one that follows us.

AO: How can artists and cultural organisers in Egypt draw more crowds to classical concerts? How can they break the perception that classical music is for a certain social niche?

It's possible and I've put an idea forward, but logistically, it would require some money and will for it to be executed. For instance, if you take the Beethoven concert I held, why couldn't it also have been made into a matinee on Friday or Saturday? It could also have been held in the Palace but exclusively for youth. It would be the same concert but exclusively for students. I mean you've already formed the infrastructure that organises concerts, sets the programme and books the location.

You would send word of the concert to schools or universities that might like to take part, and ask them if they would like to bring 25 interested students or the entire school. There are definitely schools that will show interest.

If today you hold concerts for students, when they grow up, they will be the ones who attend the Opera and their children will likely play music, study piano and singing and so forth. This is done in countries all around the world. I was in China a few months ago and there were children attending the concert: kids, 12- and 14-years-old etc. At the concert I held in Beijing, there was an advertisement that was posted online with a very funny tag line. It said children under 120 cm are not allowed entrance.

When you do things like this, you will automatically, after a small period, have an audience. It starts like this, you play music for children and when the children perform, their parents come to listen and when their parents come to listen their colleagues come as well.

So going back to Egypt's general political atmosphere, my opinion is that audience attendance must become a priority. In my opinion, it is currently not a priority and I'm not throwing the blame on anyone. But I'm telling you that when I drafted up the IMC project ten years ago, I wrote in the proposal that targeting audiences is one of the main priorities.

AO: Do you think Egypt's current political atmosphere will affect culture and cultural projects?

Intellectually, I feel artists and composers have always produced under very difficult circumstances. Many composers wrote music when they couldn't find enough to eat, like we can. Beethoven composed when he was completely deaf. Can you imagine the irony of someone writing music when he can't even hear it, someone who is dying for something he will never see. Just like the protesters who died for something they will never see.

Perhaps even those living will not see the outcome, but you have to believe. You must believe in what you do. The first thing you teach someone learning to play an instrument is that you have to hear the note before it's played: to imagine it more or less, not physically hear it. When you imagine a soft approach, for instance, you find that you've made the right gesture.
But, if you open the musical score and immediately begin playing and then see what comes out, then no, it will be too late to go back and change anything. I believe in this philosophy with regard to everything. You have to see things before they happen, and then, try to enforce the ideas. This is how successful inventors create. It starts with imagination. They never said these are good or not good circumstances.

I think the future of Egypt's music scene – including the IMC – depends on those creating the scene. The support of the country definitely counts, but the determination to do a good job counts more, because if you are not determined, then the cause is lost even if people come to support you. You have to be determined. You have to have the will, the determination and the energy to do good work. People must have a vision for what they want to achieve and the desire to defend their cause no matter what the circumstances are or the political direction is at that time.


Ramzi Yassa will perform Rachmaninov Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mina Zikri on Saturday 24 March at 8pm, at the Cairo Opera House.

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