Jun 17th 2024

Rare recital : A standing ovation for pianist Maria Joao Pires

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”


A noticeable stir arose in piano circles around Bordeaux recently when Maria Joao Pires scheduled a rare recital in the city’s Auditorium concert hall. One of the greatest living pianists of our time, she has become increasingly absent from the concert stage in the past few years. Her commitment to interests outside of the music world has taken over much of her time and interest.

In Bordeaux she played a modest program of Mozart sonatas and two Debussy pieces. For 90 minutes without intermission, she displayed her famous keyboard touch, her blinding virtuosity and her respect for the score. Gracious bows between numbers showed her appreciation for the audience which, she said, came for the music, not the show.

As she said in our interview (below), “It’s not about me, you know.” She believes we have “more values to protect -- nature and art, life itself “.

We met backstage at the Auditorium on a sunny June

Afternoon. She was relaxed in conversation, with an easy smile and a refreshing frankness about the piano world and about the effects of aging.

A highlight of her teaching  avocation was her U.S. production of her Partitura Workshop at Northwestern University in Chicago and at the Gilmore Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan last year.

Gilmore director Pierre van der Westhuizen recalled for me the impact she made in Kalamazoo. “Ms Pires took us back to the way music should be instructed,” he said. “These pianists almost became as apprentices. (The six participants) spent the whole day together, learning together, socializing together. Ms Pires asked as many questions of them as they of her.”

Ms. Pires also recalled the warmth and enthusiasm she encountered in Chicago and Kalamazoo.

In our interview, she spoke about life at 80. Her playing is hampered, she said, by a case of dystonia but she is not ready to retire. In the fall she heads for Asia, playing in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. She will skip China because she has been blacklisted for playing at a conference that the Dalai Lama attended.

She explained her restricted repertoire by showing me her small hands. She placed her palm against my “piano hands”, which easily engulfed hers. She avoids composers such as the big Russians Rachmanniov and Prokofiev  whose demands on the pianist stretch well beyond the reach of an octave.

In  our wide-ranging discussion, she said she still needs to practice, sometimes for one hour a day, sometimes for five hours. “What shrinks is not only your skills, it’s your repertoire. That’s life,” she said.

Here is an edited transcript of our interview.


Q. At your recent recital in Bordeaux, the audience went wild. You got a standing ovation over your very fine Mozart and Debussy program.

A. It’s not about me, you know. The real ovation should be about the dialogue with the music. We don’t need the ovation because we have more values to protect -- nature and art, life itself.

You have just turned 80 years old. Your fans have been  expecting you to retire for some time. What does your agenda say?

No, I am not ready to retire. I have a couple of concerts coming soon, then I need a vacation, then in the fall I go to the Far East, to Taiwan, Korea, Japan.


Maria Joao Pires

What? Not China, site of the world’s biggest piano craze?

I have played a lot in Japan over my career but I don’t play in China any more because they won’t grant me a visa.

Did they give you a reason?

Yes, at a conference a few years ago l played for the Dalai Lama. To the Chinese leaders, that’s a no-no! But I still have many private students in China working with me online.

In Asia there are large numbers of serious piano students – too many for their local needs. Some of them will become great artists and they will come to the West, won’t they?


Are you concerned about the influx awaiting us?

I’m very concerned . Mainly about the number of people who don’t get the transmission of knowledge from a school or a culture to them, the players.

Your Gilmore workshop in Kalamazoo last year had six students, five of whom were Asians. Is that a sign of the future?

It is. No more comment.

Isn’t piano study a big problem in the USA, with all the electronic games and distractions from music lessons?

The problem is also in Europe. We have lost a lot of quality, in terms of knowledge behind the music. The schools do not make the transmission from the composers to us. We owe that to the composers. And it’s very sad because now we focus on goals and competition, and competition does not go well with art.

You had a life in the competition world, did you not?

Not really. At about age 28 I was obliged to compete because I was chosen by the (Salazar) dictatorship in Portugal and I had to go to the Beethoven Competition in Brussels.

You won that first prize didn’t you?

Yes but I am absolutely not proud at all of that.

Do you have an opinion about competitions?

I have an opinion, a very strong opinion. Competition and art do not go together. Unfortunately young people believe that if they don’t participate in competitions, they cannot earn a living. That’s an illusion, I promise you, it’s a total illusion. A pianist with skills and knowledge can do many other things.

Don’t young pianists from wealthy backgrounds have an easier way forward?

I have nothing against money or rich people. But I have something against how much can this can disturb our view. I see more and more young people being distracted by that idea. Money is replacing everything. It is replacing the clear view over everything. We need more empathy with other people. If we don’t have that empathy we are blind, in terms of consciousness. This is the worst thing that could happen.


Are you still playing regularly?

Yes, but I have a big problem with my right hand dystonia (involuntary muscle contractions in the hands). This is taking too much effort. I also have small hands, so I always have problems. Age just makes it worse. (She presses her open palm against my “piano hands”. I easily envelope hers in mine.)

Ashkenazy also has tiny hands and yet he manages to jump octaves, even tenths.

Tiny is one things. This is another. I have a child’s hands and that’s different from “tiny” hands.

Your repertoire seems tightly controlled, with accent on Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, Debussy.

Even among the French impressionists, I play with great difficulty. It’s not easy. And neither can I do the Russians, Rachmanniov, Prokofiev. But I like to teach pieces that I don’t play.

You have recorded Schumann and Brahms.

Yes, but I play them but in very small amounts.

You have been quoted as blaming Liszt for inventing the modern solo piano format.

No, Liszt was a great composer. How can I blame him? If I cannot play some pieces, it’s my fault, not his.

Over the past twenty years, workshops and teaching are taking you more and more away from the concert stage.

Yes, I have always been interested in the transmission of skills and knowledge. As an adult, I realized that the transmission is cut back. So the transmission of art is not happening any more. I wish we could be stronger in our complaining about what’s going on. We no have a clear view over future generations. How to teach them, how to deal with problems.

How much energy do you have left? How much more stamina is there in you, living in hotels, taking planes and trains throughout Europe and Asia? Doesn’t that wear you down?

Yes, it does, and I was sick really badly for six months and this was a very good lesson for me. My body and spirit were saying “Come on, take care of yourself.” I still have a bit of energy but I rest when I need to rest.


You have said you suffer from stage fright.

I have a lot of stage fright. We have this responsibility, and that can give you a lot of pressure. So you don’t want to go on stage. I prefer if I wake up on a day that I have nothing on  stage, I am happy. And if I don’t have to go into an airplane,   I am happy. It is not a pleasant life. But it is a life that brings  a lot of experience. A vision of the world, and of the people -- how they react to things.

Are you still uncomfortable playing in public?

Yes, but I am comfortable with people who collaborate with me, people who are there to listen to the music. I feel they are friends.

Do you still need to practice?

Yes, I need to practice more and more. Sometimes an hour a day, sometimes five, sometimes nothing. What shrinks is not only your skills, it’s your repertoire. That’s life.

If you could choose, how do you want to be remembered after your time runs  out?

No problem. I have no wish at all. All right, I have one wish. When I die, I don’t want to die stupid or mean.






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