The V International Festival of Classical Music Odessa Classics started on June 1. The organizers have prepared an engrossing and saturated program for the anniversary. The festival opened with the performance of Cyprien Katsaris, a Cypriot pianist from France. On the day of the concert, we managed to talk to the musician about the role and responsibility of an artist nowadays, forgotten music and also we found out how it is like to be – “a world citizen”.

I met this lady on the plane – the professor of Hebraic studies from Paris. She was bringing 26 people from France to Odesa today. By some misunderstanding, they all were thinking that tonight there will be a concert of Roby Lakatos in Philharmonic theatre which they were going to attend. After figuring out that the concert is tomorrow, she decided to bring them all tonight to The Opera House to see my performance. I just wanted to tell that I’m bringing 26 people from France to the opening of your festival!

Great! But what about you? What did you know about Odesa before coming?

In the 60s and 70s while people from all around the world were buying records or attending concerts of such great musicians as David Oistrakh or Emil Gilels. Then it turned out they were born in this beautiful city. I can assure you that Odesa became world-famous due to these great musicians. At that time, I was a little boy and always wondered – where does this strange name come from? It reminds me of the name of the piece one Greek musician composed. Since then, the name of your city forever remains in my mind.

And what did you know about the modern history of Odesa, its modern musicians?

Nothing when I was young. Later I became more curious about music and discovered the name of Ukrainian composer Sergei Bortkiewicz. I found out that he left his home after the Bolsheviks revolution and since then his name was forgotten and forbidden in the Soviet Union. I was absolutely amazed by the quality of his music. It has this very powerful Slavic soul.

These words usually used for describing the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chopin etc. I believe that Bortkiewicz could be more recognizable in the world if his name hadn’t been forgotten here. So I started a research of his music and eventually made a “Best of..” collection. When I showed an ‘Elegies’ piece to my good friend, a great Japanese pianist who lives in Paris, she fell in love with it and played it many times thereafter. For me, Ukrainian music has its very typical Slavic soul that touches you deeply. I remember it was impossible to find tickets when the Red Army choir performed in Paris a long time ago. People love this kind of music and songs in these countries. It’s just something so deep and so warm that takes you to another spiritual world.

Did you know anything about Odesa Classics Festival?

I know that this is quite a young festival, it’s only five years now. And Oleksii Botvinov is doing just a fantastic job! Selection, combination and variety of the program are quite unusual. It brings together an audience with different taste. We always say that music is the universal language and it unites people – it’s true. Since we are artists and musicians, it is very important to realize this huge responsibility in this crazy world and on this crazy planet.

Especially after the invention of the nuclear bomb. Before that, we fought with swords or guns, but for 70 years already we are under the Damocles sword. One crazy guy can ruin everything. And if we can contribute through art and music, show people the Beauty with a capital B, if we can make them feel better, make them forget their daily worries and upsets within 1 hour and 30 minutes, go higher spiritually altogether – then something right will be accomplished.

I’m always thinking about such an important factor as communication. It’s a universal solvent. Great American philosopher Ron Hubbard once said that art is the highest level of communication. It’s the word that summarizes the quality of communication.

Just in the same way as a doctor can relieve the pain with an injection, an artist can bring relief by performing a good job.

You know, I prefer to listen to someone who makes mistakes but who is doing his best to communicate through his music. I heard Gilels in Paris played Chopin’s Sonata n.3 and made mistakes on every third bar. But still something was happening and people were amazed.

Do you remember the moment when you fell in love with classical music?

My parents emigrated from Cyprus to French Cameroon in Africa in order to start their business. When I was 3 and a half they bought a piano for my elder sister. I was attracted by that instrument like a magnet. I knew since then I to be a pianist.

So-called classical music is not something that is a part of imagined and dependent on time fashion. It is totally immortal like any great creation of Humanity. Creator of Faust Opera was once asked, “Do you believe there’s something like small or great music?”. “No I only believe there’s a good and bad one,” he answered.

I personally am very attracted to folk music, especially Slavic and Latin American.

But classical music will never die. When someone tells me he doesn’t know anything about classical music I tell that he doesn’t have to know it. You either feel it or not.

I have no favourite composer. When I play someone’s music I truly think he’s the greatest. When I play Bortkiewicz I feel sad that he’s not as recognized as Rachmaninoff.

I remember recording three Mozarts – a famous one, his father and his son – Franz Xaver. I’m sure that if he didn’t have the name of his father he would be much more recognized. There are a lot of interesting facts in his musical biography. For example, he was one of those who invented the genre ‘Melancholic Polonaise’. His piece reminded me of Chopin’s Polonaise, but the funny thing is that Mozart’s son had composed this music long before Chopin. Same with Schubert. He might have had some spiritual connection with them before they even started composing! So when people say that Bortkiewicz reminds them of Rachmaninoff a lot it’s important to remember that he had his own strong personal style and colour.

Mozart is like an angel for me. He is a maximum of purity, innocence, Truth, with a capital T. Beethoven is like a revolution, more reacting to injustice within society. His music is often marked with accents. And then suddenly he becomes very quiet, uniting. Each composer has his own characteristics but the common denominator is an incredibly high quality of their creativity. And this will never die.

I know that you have your own label named Piano 21. How do you see its mission and goals?

It’s called Piano 21 because I created it at the beginning of the 21st century in January 2001. I didn’t have a goal to make money. In fact, I knew in advance that I was to lose a lot of money.

My purpose was to be totally independent in the selection of pieces I wanted to record and to combine great repertoire with unknown and neglected music. That’s why I released whole Bortkiewicz CD as well as a collection of Mexican romantic piano music. I wanted to get free from big labels that always wanted to record some particular kind of music.

Right now I am preparing a new crazy project – five CD’s with Beethoven’s music, combining original famous pieces with very rare ones. Hope to release it before Christmas.

How do you find them? Do you have some kind of investigation team looking for records?

I am a detective! I always visit numerous antique shops in Paris, I also go to libraries all over Europe. You always can find something interesting.

What is the main thing you try to teach when you give master-classes? Besides technical skills.

But technical skills are also important! My last professor was one of the greatest female pianists. She had a great career in Eastern Europe in the mid 50s. She used to tell me that a worker has to do the job before the artist can express himself or herself. Some technical issues can be solved quite easily by showing the student exactly how to work with them.

You said that you came from Cyprus. Childhood was spent in Cameroon and then France. How do these three different personalities live together? Do you express them in your music?

I feel totally a world citizen. And while you’ve been asking this question I understood something which I didn’t think before of – playing music from many different places on Earth is making you feel even more a world citizen. I had a concert in Shenzhen during the Belt and Road Festival. For the first time then I included music from 25 countries to the program. Now I think this show contributed to the world too. There was also a concert in Shanghai in 2005. Right before the concert I learned one Chinese piano piece and performed it later to the audience.

Please, could you name the most important values that a world citizen should have?

Oh, it’s very simple! The main values for being a citizen of the world are:

1) Respect to the differences. No matter they are political, racial, religious or philosophical;

2) Respect to traditions and values of the place you are going to;

3) Tolerance and lack of effort to impose your own views.

Later during the performance, Cyprien Katsaris impressed the audience with his encore. He played (rushnyk – the national symbol of Ukraine – ED.) ‘Rushnyk Song’ by Platon Maiboroda which he had heard in choir performance flying to Ukraine. The pianist liked the melody so much that he asked the chorister for the lyrics to learn the composition and to finish the festival opening concert with it.

Interview by Sasha Naselenko

Photo by Sasha Naselenko

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