I Felt He Was Here: An Interview with Pianist Nada on Her Fourth Brahms Recording By Jacqueline Kharouf

 

Pianist Nada—no last name, just her artistic and professional persona—calls herself an interpreter. For her, it is not enough to simply learn a piece and play it, she must step into the heart and mind of the composer. In a way, she embodies the human who wrote the music, or becomes herself a kind of medium through which the composer’s personality becomes realized. She describes it as a feeling process, not a thinking process. All art survives through interpretation. Perhaps all artists are also interpreting each other, performer to composer in a long lineage built of imagining and reimagining.

Pianist Nada was born in Beirut, Lebanon and studied piano at the Paris Conservatory. She survived the Lebanese Civil War, fleeing to the mountains with her family after her mother was killed when a mortar exploded in their home. At first she taught herself the piano, studying Bach inventions and Chopin’s waltzes and polonaises and after seven years with the instrument, she entered the Paris Conservatory at age 17. She was the first Middle-Eastern woman to win first prize in piano and she also earned first prize in chamber music. In 1987, she and her trio studied at the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada. She later studied in the artist diploma program at Indiana University. Currently, Pianist Nada lives in Louisville, Kentucky where she hosts a local radio show, The Classical Hour (WCHQ 100.9FM) and regularly performs in Louisville and elsewhere. I asked her about her current project, her work as an interpreter of Brahms, and a little about her background and performance persona.

 

• I wonder if you could tell me a little about your current project focusing on the solo and concert works of Brahms. This current album, Capriccios & Intermezzos: Nada & Brahms (2018), is a continuation of a series of albums: Nada in Hamburg with Johannes Brahms (2016), Vienna: Brahms & Nada (2107), and Nada Meets Johannes Brahms (2017).

I don’t know that I have much to say other than I got onto this project unexpectedly. I never planned to be a specialist of Brahms, but it just became kind of an inclining. Just only a few years ago did I get into his music and it seemed like it was something I had to do. Absolutely, no question, nothing going around—I had to go and explore all of his music. Honestly, since 2018, it’s only been 5 years that I’ve studied his music, which is not very much. But it seemed like it’s natural, I have to go into it. And it’s become a natural way of expressing myself.

• After focusing on Brahms for four albums, what has been the most unexpected thing you’ve learned about Brahms, either about his style of composition or his life as a groundbreaking artist?

That’s true I had to find out who he was because I wasn’t really a Brahms person at all before. I would say that how strong he is, how incredible of a composer he is. I mean we know that, we know how great he is already but we don’t know him really well. I mean people are afraid of him. He has just such incredible mastery of composition. As a person, I think maybe the unexpected thing is how strong he is, how mentally and physically. We have the wrong idea about him. He was sometimes presented in life as a very heavy man with a beard, behind which he hid himself, but most of his life he was not like that. He started out very fit physically and very strong and very good as a pianist. Excellent pianist. All of those things were kind of blurry and unexpected. I don’t think I’m speaking only for myself. I’m sure anyone else realizing who Brahms is would find out the same things that I’m finding out.

• As you were speaking, I was reminded of a story I heard about Brahms that he was quite romantic and had an unrequited love affair with the wife of a colleague.

Well, there is a lot of talk about the relationship with Clara Schumann. Clara Schumann was a very important person all of his life, but there are also wrong ways of thinking about that affair because there is a lot of mystery about who actually Brahms was. But when I see how mentally strong he was, and I’ve read enough about Schumann and about a lot of stuff that we can kind of know, when you kind of realize through his music how strong he was, there is no way that anything weak may have happened like a love affair. But there were feelings, of course. How can you dismiss that, a young man twenty years old who was thrown into the Schumann life? And Schumann himself was in love with Brahms. Now remember that Schumann the composer had a double side to him. But Brahms the young boy was great and Schumann fell in love with him and of course Brahms became so close to Schumann, the composer. I think already the young Brahms revered Schumann, his mentor. Brahms revered Schumann all his life. And one of the interesting things was that Brahms never dedicated, or never felt like he could dedicate, any of his early pieces to Schumann. Brahms was so right and so mentally strong that this love affair with Clara probably ended or never happened. Clara needed Brahms more that he needed her because he eventually had to go on with his life and almost married another German girl. All his life he fell in love with other women, although it never worked out.

• Why do you think Brahms is still so “unknown to the world,” as you described him in your album notes? Why are people afraid of Brahms?

When I was studying his first piano concerto and performed it two years ago, I came across some great notes about the psychological aspect of how the genesis of the concerto happened. This man was writing things that I kind of knew and felt already. The fact that again, although Brahms is mentally strong, he’s unknown to the world and people are afraid of him because they only see the late aspect of how he was, as in those old pictures. But also his music is kind of like looking at something beautiful, something we know is great, but no one dares really going into it. It is difficult, it’s not easy music. It’s so rich, so complex, at the same time very simple, but it’s an ongoing search for better and better and better. He was like that and honestly, as an interpreter, it’s the same thing. That’s why some of his repertoire has made it into the great repertoire. How many recordings do we have of all his symphonies? Several. That’s because every conductor who comes to approach those symphonies is kind of not happy enough and so has to record them again and again. It’s a little bit like Bach. You never are satisfied with anything because Bach is going to be eternally alive with us. It’s music that is ongoing, timeless music, and I think Brahms has the same quality. It’s going to be ongoing for such a long time that there is so much that you can keep searching into. To make a comparison with the piano repertoire, some of the piano repertoire is very well known by everyone (take, as an example, the third piano sonata). But who has recorded the first or the second that many times? No one. But when you come across Chopin or Beethoven everyone has recorded all of Beethoven’s sonatas so many times, including the first piano sonata. We know all of Beethoven, we’ve heard it so many times. But how many people have heard the first piano sonata or the second by Brahms? Not many. So these are simple examples to show that yes, he’s unknown to the world. I mean, truly, the full persona of Brahms is still not known and the whole of his work is still not known. Because when you talk about the organ music or the choral music, who knows that he ever wrote that? No one. No one knows that he has written some absolutely gorgeous, beautiful choral music, the only choral music that everyone knows is the requiem. Well, but that’s not it. There’s more.

• On the album, your transcription of Brahms’ chorales for organ, No. 7 and No. 3, sound quite modern, almost minimalistic. Why did you want to transcribe Brahms’ organ chorales for the piano?

First of all, it’s not exactly a transcription. I mean, I have no intention to change anything that he wrote. I’m just adapting them to the keyboard because, of course, I’m lacking the pedal of the organ. Now, why? Because number 1, of course I explored all his music so I know everything he wrote, including his organ music. Number 2, I love the organ. If I could have been an organist, I would probably have been an organist myself. Number 3, the chorales seemed the most accessible to play on the piano without extensive work at rearranging them. Because if I take the big fugues he wrote when he was young, that’s a little more complex. And the chorales were pretty easy, pretty accessible. And the last thing about the chorales which was so incredible is that it’s the last of his pieces. The last music he turned to and left us was that piece, the chorale. Instead of writing to the piano as his last testament (like Chopin would have done or I don’t know another composer), instead of turning to the piano or some other instrument, he turned to the organ. He wrote those chorales so I thought that there were enough things for me to include them. They are just so beautiful, so rich. In many ways I think they are really Brahms too. Again, I read some weird stuff saying that Brahms’ organ music doesn’t speak like him. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is really Brahms. You just don’t know him well enough.’

• I wanted to also ask you about the recording itself and your motivation for sounding close to the audience. While listening to the album, I felt as though I was sitting next to you on the piano bench and I truly appreciated that closeness. I’m wondering if limiting the editing of the recording, without reverb or mixing, betrays a bit of vulnerability in your performance.

From the beginning, from the first recording I ever did, I have always been around people who were more inclined for a natural sound. So the first recording I ever did was in a hall on a great, beautiful Steinway and we did not touch the sound of that piano. And everyone loved it. So it was successful. The first recording I did of Brahms got great reviews just because the reviewer said it felt like being so close to the piano, like we were sharing the music together. And I liked that. When I go into the recording studio, editing and mastering now, every one of those engineers is saying, leave the sound as it is, don’t touch it. And I say, ok. So I’m surrounded by people who are a fan of that type of sound.

• Some other CDs I’ve reviewed have a very glossy sound. They sound almost too perfect, almost inhuman.

Very blurred. You don’t feel the touch anymore. When I was in the recording studio recently for this CD, we even explored other newly reviewed CDs and the amount of reverb that was added to every one of those sounds was unbelievable. We could see it on the board and it was like, ‘wow, where is the touch of the pianist?’ It’s blurred. And we went back to Glen Gould’s sound, which still had some reverb but it was one of the least blurred and the closest to a natural sound, which is what I am looking for now. There’s a tendency right now in all recordings, no matter where you are, to just add huge reverb wherever. And I don’t know. I’m not a fan of it. I would say somewhere down the road if I work with another recording company and they want absolutely to add reverb, I’d say sure, but let’s find a limit. Kind of a low limit on it.

• I’m also very curious about your artist name. Is “Nada” a performance name, a persona, or is it, like Brahms, one side of your personality?

I am branding my name right now as Pianist Nada. That is my persona as an interpreter. The simple reason is that my first recording included my last name. My last name is extinct. No one has this last name in the Middle East anymore, where I am from.

By the way, I have a question for you, ‘Kharouf’ is from the Middle East, isn’t it?

Yes, my grandfather was Palestinian. He left his country during World War II and immigrated to the United States.

I kind of thought so, but you see my last name does not have that kind of distinctive Arabic sound to it. It’s extinct really, after my dad there are no more Loutfi. The other thing that I encountered all my life is mispronunciation, misspelling, including lately by the last reviewer despite the fact that I was branding my name as Pianist Nada. They came back and said, ‘Oh, why is she not using her last name?’ And they would misspell my last name. Oh well, that is exactly why, my friend. I am tired of this. Forget that, I’m going to be Pianist Nada. Now, of course, it does have a duality to it because my persona as an artist going out on stage and being the artist that is recording, sharing the music with everyone, is a double persona. Well I’m not only an artist, I’m just a human here talking with you right now. So there is a duality to it. And in some ways, with Brahms there was a duality but it was a very normal duality that we all have. I’m not pushing it saying that he was like Schumann who had a duality he was not able to find a balance in. But in this particular case, Brahms had a duality like everyone else and maybe we haven’t seen well enough that he has a duality like all of us.

• I think we may have read the same review and I was curious to ask you about it, because as I read the review, and the reviewer’s insistence on finding and using your last name, I realized that maybe he had misunderstood your use of a persona. You tend to see more artists in pop music, perhaps, who use only a first name, or create a personality from a name that isn’t their given name.

Very true. It’s more like pop artists and so why not in the music world? Why not reach out and be a little bit more universal? And it’s not unique in the music world because we have a famous violinist, Midori, who only used one name and there have been some other exceptions in the classical world. Maybe not as common, but some.

• You begin your album notes with a question about the nature of Brahms, but really the question could apply to any composer, or any performer. When you perform do you try to think of the composer’s personality or the age at which he wrote the pieces you feature on the album? If so, how does this exercise help inform your playing?

I will tell you something a little more general about my work, about my late work with Brahms and previous even to my work with him. At a certain point in my life, I developed kind of a sort of spiritual connection where with certain composers I am almost able to see or feel their spirit, their personality without even studying them, but knowing their music. Through their music it felt like, ‘I know this person, I really know how they are, how they feel.’ And some of those composers were tangibly almost like present in front of me. I developed that really late in my life. The most acute example I had was with Schubert. I really knew him through the music, I could see it and spiritually speaking, I had a kind of magic experience where I felt he was here. And Brahms came after I developed that and with Brahms it became a constant, ‘I know he is here.’ I feel I know how he is. And maybe specifically with certain pieces, yes, I see through the music, I kind of almost feel through the music, how the composition process went, how the persona is, how the feelings are, what kind of a person he is. I don’t know if that makes sense.

• I think it makes sense when you’re a performer and you have that kind of connection because you’re at that ground level, working with what the composer actually wrote.

Yes, and it’s not a thinking process. You were asking me do I think specifically about the composer. No. It’s more like a feeling, like a spiritual feeling like, this is how it must be. It’s very hard to describe. It’s not about colors, although sometimes I can see faces, I can see things, but all in my inner self.

• I also wanted to ask you a little about your background, especially about living through the Lebanese Civil War and then going on not only to study at the Paris Conservatory, but to earn first prize in piano and in chamber music. How did you come to play piano and was it something that you had always wanted to do?

Well, I’m kind of in the process now of writing down the early, early part of my life. I’m at the stage of early attempts to eventually write a book or a biography. I don’t know what is going to happen. But I’ve been pressed by so many people to write about it. And it seems like the thread of the piano is what is most important. How did I come to play the piano? I don’t know. It seemed like I had to. But no one was a pianist in my family. I was a kid. I asked, I begged for a keyboard. And then I started listening to classical music by chance, just because my dad had old LP recordings of Tchaikovsky and Mozart. I started devouring this. And then I had to have a piano teacher. So I begged my parents for a piano teacher. I had never seen a real piano. And still they got a real piano into the house, that they bought in the flea market. It was a German piano, an upright. And then of course, I begged them for a teacher and then the war erupted. So after about a year and a half of having a teacher and then no teacher, I studied a bit by myself and looked again for a teacher and it became obvious that I had to go somewhere else to pursue piano studies. So I begged my parents to go to the Paris Conservatory because my first teacher had studied there and the only thing she recommended was her teacher who lived there and taught there. And why the United States, also for the same reason. I had met a master in Paris who his only place where he would see students hand on hand was at the University of Bloomington, Indiana and I said I have to go and see him and work with him privately. So I ended up coming here. And for private reasons, just personal reasons, I ended up staying here. But that you can use or not use. I had to go through a divorce and break the life of someone who comes from a county like Lebanon and having no family behind. But my art is my piano. My artistry and my piano has kept me alive until now.

• I think that’s such an incredible, American story, if you don’t mind me saying. I think about my family, escaping a war to try and build a better life. They left to try to build themselves back up. And to do that through music is especially hard. I know it’s not easy.

Music is not the best thing to build a life in America with. But I’m still here. I’m not trying to build my life, only survive.

• You mention in the album notes that “much of this repertoire was written for halls smaller than what we have now,” and indeed you have posted some videos on your website that showcase some of your own performances in smaller halls and venues. As a performer, do you prefer smaller, more intimate concert halls?

Not really. It just happens to be that most of my career, most of my performances when I started living here on a regular basis, were more for intimate audiences. And also because I did a lot of outreach programs. And for outreach programs you create your own hall and your own places because there’s not enough of that here in America. So because most of my performances were in more limited spaces, I have done more of that, but honestly I don’t have a preference for a smaller or larger place. I also perform in larger halls and enjoy it as much if not more sometimes. Now the repertoire of the Romantic Era was in general composed for a smaller hall, indeed. When you go to France, the largest hall we have in Paris, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, holds only a thousand or just barely less than two thousand people. It’s a small hall compared to the standard halls we have in America. When I talk about small halls, I think the music and the pianos for which all of this music was composed were still pretty fragile. By the time Brahms died, yes, we’re starting to look at the second era of the piano where the music is being written for a larger hall, five-hundred to a thousand people. When you go to Hamburg, the largest hall there is like a small version of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Now, in Louisville, Kentucky, the hall that hosts the big concerts here has like three thousand seats. It’s huge. So we have to remember much of the music written for the Romantic Era was not for such huge spaces. Where I grew up listening, where I went to my first concerts, were those halls that held five-hundred people. For recitals, in particular, when you come to play just solo piano music, it’s a small hall, intimate. You still can feel that the stage and the public are very, very much connected. When you go to newly built halls, so much more common in the US, there’s a tendency to lose that connection, that there’s not this intimacy which is so important when you play in a larger hall, for example.

• On your website you list several upcoming performances, including a few in Lebanon next year. Other than preparing for these performances, what are your next or upcoming projects? Do you plan to release more Brahms recordings?

Definitely. I cannot not do it. I have to do it. I don’t know that there’s much to tell you about my upcoming performances. I’m looking for more performances, hopefully more will come up. The next ones coming up are back to Beirut, Lebanon.  I have a few there and the next one next week in Florida.

• Are you going to do more of the Brahms chorales?

My plan right now is to go through all the chorales. Possibly next year, it’s still in the works, we don’t know if it will happen, we will have a digital only release of a CD with just the chorales. Just one release where we will have the 11 chorales on the piano.

Author: JACQUELINE KHAROUF

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