Feb 15th 2020

"Philippe Bianconi interview: Shifting from one era to another, from one style to another -- that's what I find extraordinarily refreshing"

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”



Career pianist Philippe Bianconi, a former silver medalist in the Van Cliburn competition, has been appointed professor at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and is well positioned to assess trends in European classical music. Two new CDs are ready for launch this year (Brahms piano concertos and Debussy’s “Les Etudes”). In this conversation he describes being “moved to tears” by the high level of playing the young Asians are bringing into the old world of Romantic and Classical piano music. This interview, led by music writer Michael Johnson, took place in the corridors of a Bordeaux hotel as the cleaning staff chased them down the hall with roaring vacuum cleaners. Here is an edited version of their talk.

Philippe Bianconi by the interviewer Michael Johnson, watercolour


(Transcription and translation by Michael Johnson.)

Question. Do you have a “relationship” with your personal piano, as Angela Hewitt had with her Fazioli (her “best friend”) until the movers dropped it and smashed it recently?

Answer. I like my piano a lot. I have a Steinway B at home… it’s a good piano but not exceptional. It’s where I spend most of my time working out my music. But still the Steinway is only a working tool. It’s not the same kind of relationship a violinist or cellist might have with their instrument, since they perform with them on stage.


Q. How are you progressing on the faculty of the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris?

A. It’s a new experience for me and I am very honored to have been invited aboard. It’s a big responsibility, overseeing students for up to three years, preparing them for exams and helping them choose repertoire. And if they fail, it’s very hard on the professor too !  It’s a difficult role but obviously exciting for me.



Q. Now that you are a Cliburn Junior juror. What’s your feeling about the big trends? Twenty out of twenty-four players were of Asiatic origin. Is this the future we are witnessing?

A. I have a significant proportion of Asian students in my class and elsewhere.
How times have changed ! Just thirty or forty years ago we used to say the Asians (mostly Japanese girls at the time) were very disciplined, very strong technically, but lacking in depth and sensitivity – failing to understand Western classical music. Their playing was often described as “cold”. But in recent years we can see proof that those clichés are finished, and nobody disputes this. Their understanding of the music, their sensitivity, their musical intelligence, their flair and their ardent temperament are the equal of the young Western musicians. These Cliburn juniors are as good in their teens as our generation was at 20 or 25.


Q. How are you affected personally, as a professor and a juror, watching the outside world encroach on our Western canon?

A. I am sometimes moved to tears while listening to these young Asian musicians. There is no more East-West barrier. Indeed, today we find in all countries, all cultures, young players who display qualities to become great musicians. And while I do not approve of all aspects of globalization, in the music world we can only rejoice.


Q. Still, it’s disorienting, isn’t it, to imagine the piano world in the U.S. and Europe becoming dominated by Asians?

A. Yes, there are few, very, very few young Americans at this level. The panorama of piano music will in ten or twenty years be largely dominated by Asians.


Q. We hear that 60 million hand-picked Chinese children are studying piano. The director of a major competition challenged that number. “Oh no,” he told me, “it’s only 40 million.” He did not seem bothered at all. Why is it that very little outcry from the West can be heard?

A. In a way, I find this wonderful. What worries me is that the young people in the West don’t care. That’s what is terrible.


Q. How about audiences in the Western world?

A. The American audiences are extremely variable – as are those in Europe, by the way. Some have a wonderfully developed music culture. Others have trouble getting beyond Chopin. But they are all extremely enthusiastic.

Q. What guidelines do you tend to follow?

A. A player owes it to the public to be true to himself and to the composer’s intentions.  He must give life to the music and convince all listeners -- to touch them, to move their emotions and perhaps to allow them to discover that they appreciate certain things they didn’t expect to like.




Q. Let’s talk about your origins in music. You have written that you decided at the age of seven to dedicate yourself to the piano. How could this be true? Your parents were not even musicians.

A. My parents were not musicians but they were great music-lovers. They had a collection of the best piano performances available on vinyl – Wilhelm Kempff, Rubenstein, Lipatti, among others. I was still a baby when I started hearing this music. I remember loving the Tchaikovsky concertos, the Beethoven Fifth, and also the Rachmaninov Second.


Q. What were your first steps toward actually learning the piano?

A. At about age 6, I began contact with a piano teacher who lived in the neighborhood. We had no piano at home, so she drew two octaves on a large sheet of paper, with the names of the notes written in, and I started picking out imaginary melodies. After three weeks of this, my parents acquired a second-hand upright. I can hardly express the happiness I felt when the piano arrived.


Q. You won first at the Cleveland Casadesus and four years later you won the silver medal at the Van Cliburn Competition?

A. Yes.


Q. To back up a few years, eventually you were accepted as a seven-year-old at the Conservatoire de Nice, where three years later you studied with Mme. Delbert-Février. I believe she was “incredibly demanding”. How so?

A. Demanding in every way, but she was a great musician and she gave me a very good foundation. She had studied with Marguerite Long at the conservatoire and with Robert Casadesus.


Q. What fine points did she emphasize in her teaching?

A. When I started working with her at the age of 10, right away she started talking to me about tone, phrasing and interpretation. Until then I had been told to play loudly when the composer marked “forte” and to play softly when the markings called for “piano”, with some crescendos and diminuendos in between. Suddenly this was a new universe for me. Sometimes it was difficult for a ten-year-old to grasp exactly what she wanted. I felt at certain points that I would never succeed. I owe her an enormous amount.


Q. Was she also insistent on sonority?

A. Very much so ! She used to order me to “Sing! Sing!” This singing tone is an ideal we can never quite attain although most of the great pianists have had a passion for song, for the singing tone -- the need to find the beauty of sonority inside the legato.


Q. You seem to have suffered by not attending the Paris Conservatory.

A. In a certain way, yes. But in Nice, I had the good fortune to study with Madame Delbert-Février.  Then upon finishing my studies in Nice, it would have been natural for me to transfer to Paris. But as it happened, I was introduced to Gaby Casadesus, the widow of Robert Casadesus.  She was a great pianist but at that time it was difficult for the wife to be noticed for her own talents. So she was living in the shadow of her husband.


Q. So you studied with this great but under-appreciated pianist?

A. Yes, she took me on as a student and began preparing me for the big international competitions. This is why at the age of 16 or so I was not destined to enroll in a major music school -- Paris, for example.





Q. What did you miss in your education by skipping Paris?

A. In these big institutions one meets and competes with other young musicians in whom one can find inspiration, and friendships that can last a lifetime. One can learn an enormous amount through these contacts, and find many opportunities to develop ensemble playing. Much of my education was accomplished alone.


Q. You sound like you took the wrong road at that age?

A. No, I don’t regret my career path. It was meant to be that way. Maybe I would be a slightly different kind of musician if I had taken a more “normal” path. However, I would not encourage young musicians to do as I did.


Q. What was the big difference between the Nice and Paris conservatories?

A. This was a case of what we call in France the regional conservatories. You would graduate at a perfectly acceptable level but to finish your growth you would need the exposure to one of the great institutions.


Q. “Finish your growth”? In what way?

I felt I needed to study outside the conservatory world, with someone with different horizons. Of course I had studied musicology, ensemble playing, Bach, Beethoven, and others but that was not enough. I was afraid I was going to have to change all I had learned. But I did not find myself in a new world of music. It was more a deepening of my musical life. I needed to broaden my education, and my professors up to that point didn’t have the background to steer me forward. In my new studies the exposure to new ways of understanding music was absolutely passionate for me.


Q. Chronologically, where are we in this story?

A. All this happened between my successes in Cleveland and the Van Cliburn competition. I knew I needed someone to help me work on my repertoire -- someone who came from another place.


Q. You worked with a Russian teacher, Vitaly Margulis. Did that change you completely and take you to “another place”?

A. To tell you the truth, no. I was afraid I might have to change everything, ranging from pianism to musicality. But in fact I did not feel I had landed in an unknown world. No, I felt it was more a deepening. It was a discovery of things that I didn’t know about yet. I was still young and immature. I was surprised that Professor Margulis said my technique did not need much work. He gave me advice and guidance to help me evolve musically and go deeper into an understanding of the music. It was absolutely thrilling. This happened two years before the Cliburn, and I prepared the competition with him.


Q. Where do you stand in the shifting area of contemporary music? I don’t see it in your repertoire.

A. I have worked with living composers from time to time but contemporary music has never been part of my usual repertoire although I have worked directly with the French composer Marc Monnet. And Bruno Mantovani composed a piece that I played recently in Toulouse, at the Jacobins Festival.



Q. You have been involved with the so-called American Conservatory in Fontainebleau. It’s more just a summer camp now, isn’t it?

A. It has always been a summer program – lasting four weeks each summer for the past 25 or 30 years. It almost disappeared for financial reasons but it is back now.


Q. Wasn’t it Nadia Boulanger who gave it the most prestige? Did you work with her? As Philip Glass has written, groups of students would leave her class totally stunned, unable to speak. But her reputation and her aura continued to attract American students to come and work with her.

A. I did not know her, unfortunately, but I think I would have been very afraid of her ! I have known many pianists who studied with her. She had an incredible influence on them but they all said she was extremely demanding – and that term is too mild.


Q. What has been your personal involvement?

A. I have been teaching since 1994, and I was director for four years, 2013 to 2017. I wanted to step down because I don’t really like the role of director. I continue to teach, to contribute certain contacts and my expertise.




Q. You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?

A. Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there.


Q. You are almost 60 years old. How has your repertoire evolved over your long career ?

A. It hasn’t really evolved since my teens but it has developed considerably. I have taken the “seeds” and helped them deepen and broaden. As an adolescent I loved Chopin – not very original, I know – and my interest in him has never flagged. But I have focused more on the late Chopin (after 1840, approximately). At that stage, his language became marvelously fascinating and incredibly ‘modern’.


Q. Do you find that your technique is still as strong as you wish it to be? How much practicing do you need compared to the past?

A. I try to practice five or six hours a day, as I always have, except when I am traveling. It’s essential if one is to maintain a high level of performance.  I think my technique is better today than in my younger years. I have spent my life working on it, analyzing the difficulties and seeking solutions.


Q. What specifics do you work on?

A. At times in my youth, I was insufficiently rigorous in my fingerings. With age, I realized how important it is to find the best fingering – the one that suits me best.


Q. Is age a blessing or a curse in this world of the piano?

A. I find that it is in some ways more difficult to play now than in my youth. Why? Probably because one loses one’s insouciance as one grows older, and this youthful freedom helped overcome obstacles. With age, we gain in lucidity but we add new demands upon ourselves. Paradoxically this makes things more difficult.




Q. Where are the Germans in your musical life?

A. I loved Schumann at an early age and he has become an indispensable part of my range today. I cannot imagine life with Schumann. Schubert and Brahms have also become very important for me. Beethoven too, but less regularly. I always wonder if I am doing him justice !


Q. The more modern composers? Who are they?

A. Debussy and Ravel, of course, and some of the 20th century greats such as Bartok and Messiaen. Finally, the great Russian concertos – Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev. I only mastered them after the age of about 30, and I will continue to program them as long as I have the stamina.

Q. Do you find you have to adapt your programs as you perform in different countries?

A. Frankly I never think about that. With rare exceptions, I play what I want to play regardless of the host country. But when I first played in China, some twelve years ago, I avoided pieces that would be too taxing for the audience. All that has changed, and now there are no such concerns, no such boundaries.




Q.  What objectives do you hope to accomplish in the time you have remaining?

A. To be perfectly honest, I have not set myself specific objectives, for if I failed to meet them, I would have regrets. There are still many works I want to master. I want to explore the most diverse periods possible. Shifting from one era to another, from one style to another – that’s what I find extraordinarily refreshing. I don’t want to concentrate on two or three things and neglect the rest. If that hurts my image, well too bad !


This interview will appear in Michael Johnson's forthcoming book "INTERVIEW: Musicians reveal what they really think of their changing world"


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