Feb 27th 2024

Olga Jegunova interview: ‘Letting music do its magic’

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

Latvian-born pianist Olga Jegunova was uneasy about the big issues of the day – wars, climate change, anxiety, aggression – and decided to create an album to bring some calm back into modern life. She writes in her booklet for the CD “Slow”(Prima Classic, Prima029) “I invite you to SLOW down and allow music to do its magic.”

Her selection of introspective pieces begins with familiar airs of Liszt, Bach, Satie, and Pärt, but with some delightful surprises, namely Giya Kancheli’s “King Lear”. She then swings into contemporary works, some of which she commissioned for this CD. The contrasts are stylistically diverse but not jolting.

Olga’s sensitivity as an artist is as evident in her choice of repertoire as in her delicate interpretations. In this clip, she performs 

Pēteris Vask's White Scenery (Bālta ainava) at Salle Cortot, Paris:

“Russian traditions are so important to me” she said in our interview. Yet she has not tackled Russian repertoire yet. “I need to be ready, to be mature enough and skilled enough,” she said. “Furthermore, I don’t really have the identity” because of her interational training and now her lifestyle, first settling with her family in London and now living in the south of France.

Beginning her studies in her native Latvia, she earned a master’s degree at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg, then studied at the Royal School of Music in London and the British Royal Northern Colllege of Music. Following an intense program of training, she launched the charity Open Music Foundation, which aims to support talented music students of any age and ability. Today she describes herself as both a concert pianist and an organizer of educational projects and  philanthropic work.

In a long telephone interview, she explained the origins of her new CD and her own growth as an artist.

 

Question. Do you come from a musical family?

Answer. There was a lot of music in my family beginning from childhood. My mother had a career as a professional pianist and later became one of the best piano teachers in Latvia. My grandfather was an amateur musician.

Q. How did your mother influence you?

A. She combined games and piano playing and I didn’t see where she was going with this. In the end, I realized she had seriously trapped me into piano (laughs). Now with my own two children, I try the same approach but it’s quite difficult to be in entertainment mode when you have to deal with serious matters like rhythm and dynamics.

olga 3
Olga Jegunova, photo by Tatjana Vlasova

Q. Your new album “Slow” seems well-conceived for this time in history – dealing with all the turbulence surrounding us. I believe you are the first pianist to look at the world and say “Stop”.

A. I did not set out to be first, but it’s true, with this music I invite people to slow down, breathe out, contemplate, and simply be more present in the moment.

Q. What was your thinking behind these twelve related pieces?

A. It was a very intuitive decision. I had so many questions in mind. Are we doing the right thing? Are we making the right decisions? Are the decisions born out of compassion, love or narcissistic selfishness and anger? My album may not be so much a statement as a question mark.

Q. Some pianophiles say the CD could be useful for meditation, therapy or even healing.

A. Indeed, that is the kind of feedback I am getting. But this music doesn’t belong to me any more, therefore I cannot label it with any purpose. It has taken on a life of its own. I can’t say how it affects the life of other people. Will it be therapeutic or will it have another effect? Time will tell.

Q. You open your CD with a short piece from Giya Kancheli’s “King Lear”. What attracted you?

A. I met Kancheli in London and found him preoccupied with the chaos in the world. We talked about war, humanity and the mission of music. He was suffering, and I felt his pain. And when I heard his “King Lear” piano composition, I heard a moment of love, of sunshine and hope.

Q. Did you build your SLOW album on Kancheli’s thoughts, his attitude?

A. It’s possible. But he was very pessimistic, very concerned about the political and social situations. Being the mother of two young children, being an artist, I simply cannot afford to see the world through this dark prism. I cultivate a discipline of happiness. It's very important not to dive into darkness, into pessimism.

Q. Are you the kind of pianist whose interpretations are intuitive, or do you mark up every measure and analyze every phrase to death?

A. It is both. The very first impression of a piece, the very first acquaintance with the music, is rather intuitive, then the work begins. I weigh every phrase, every nuance, every rubato until the composition becomes part of me. Once the structure is built, the text read and analyzed, I allow the intuition to help me shape the interpretation. So it is very much a three-part approach: intuition, analysis and intuition again.

Q. Are you still working with a teacher?

A. Not on this project. This is the first time ever I have not relied on anyone else. It is done by me, apart from the music and composers. It was difficult; it took courage, to trust my own judgement while not afraid to be judged.  Finally I am very happy I did it on my own. It’s like a live performance. No editing. You can hear small sounds in the background, even the pedal movements, breathing, my presence.

Q. You are very controlled at the keyboard. You do not throw yourself around, wag your head or bounce on the piano bench. You do not wear miniskirts or seven-inch heels.

A. I could, but then my focus of attention would shift slightly. And that’s not the purpose of my work. If you are hinting at Yuja Wang, don’t expect criticism. I celebrate her talent, her courage. She can do whatever she wants. Let’s not look too much at the packaging, let’s look inside. Remember Antoine de Saint Exupéry, who said, “It is only with the heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” I would only add that the essential can also be heard in the music.

Q. Do you work closely with any living composers? Luca Tieppo dedicated his Meditations to you. Did you commission that piece and work with him to get into finished form?

A. Yes. The last piece on the CD, A Salty Breeze Over the Reeds by Raphael Lucas, is also a commission for the CD. I am already working on a new album and will be collaborating with more living composers. I find it so interesting to see how they work and how they “hear” our world.

Q. Where did your Brian Field connection come from?

A. The Field piece near the end was also a commission. The American composer Brian Field reached out and encouraged me to play his second movement of his piano cycle Three Passions of the tortured planet, called Glaciers. The name speaks for itself. We talked about climate change.

Q. You show no sign of exploiting your Russian heritage. Have you completely Anglicized yourself?

A. What do you mean by Russian heritage?

Q. There are many attempts to define our differences but generally we in the West seem to want to separate the Russian School as a different sound -- bigger, louder.

A. I completely disagree. It’s such a misconception of the Russian School and Russian music. I am incredibly proud to be a representative of this so-called Russian school. Of course when I was growing up in Latvia I was exposed to Russian teachers. I went to Moscow for master classes and many Russian teachers came to Latvia. Russian traditions in classical music are so important to me.

Q. What about the important names of Russian pianists over the past 150 years?

A. If you listen to recordings by Yudina, by Sofronitzky and  Gilels, you will see the finesse, the delicacy of the sound, the voicing, the structure, the phrasing are so important. And respect for the text of the composer, of course. This is what I call the Russian School. “Loud and fast” is not about the nationality. It must be related to certain personal insecurities.

Q. What stops you from including Russian composers in your repertoire?

A. I feel I am not yet ready to record Russian music but I certainly will come to it one day. I need to find a space within me to resonate. I need to be ready, to be mature enough and skilled enough. Furthermore, I don’t really have the identity. I have lived and worked in Latvia, in Germany, in England, in France. I don’t really know who I am. I still need to find my repertoire, my composers – myself, really.

 

END

 


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