Mostly Martha – The Progetto Martha Argerich in Lugano
“It is all of these great people here who ought to be thanked,” Martha says, surrounded by a throng of festival guests as she awaits that evening’s concert performer, “not me; I just show up,” she insists, gesturing some unruly tresses of her signature mane of grey hair into place. That in itself is no small virtue for the enigmatic pianist, notoriously known for changing her mind about her performances on short notice. She nods towards a tensely focused man of slender stature who, in close proximity yet with a respectfully guarded distance, watches her every move attentively from the corner of his eye. A glance exchanged between the two of them barely requires words. Carlo Piccardi, who as consigliere (advisor) is the festival’s other pillar, stands by Martha, the festival’s artistic director, ready to tend to her wishes or to settle any emergencies. Perhaps she wants to join some artists for dinner before heading back to the radio station for her customary late night practice time, or the other way around. Perhaps she would like to avoid the crowds who, mesmerized by their idol’s presence, long for a momentous photo with her, or, perhaps it may be a night when she just feels like accommodating their wishes.(photo of banner of the festival: Ilona Oltuski)
All photos courtesy of Carlo Piccardi – Progetto Martha Argerich (unless specified)
It is a ritual that bears witness to the intimacy of an alliance based on great understanding and admiration, and it perpetually repeats itself during these weeks in June: the time of Lugano’s music festival that carries the name of the legendary pianist and much-adored protégé: Progetto Martha Argerich.
A musicologist and former director of Radio della Svizzera Italiana – Rete Due, Piccardi fell in love with the possibility of bringing chamber music and Martha Argerich to his region and into his life. The original initiative was sparked in 2001 by former EMI recording and TV producer, Jurg Grand, who approached Piccardi: Why should his great friend and pianist extraordinaire Martha have a festival in Buenos Aires (which today is not in existence anymore) and in Beppu, Japan, but not in Europe? It seemed the obvious next step for Martha, a resident of Brussels holding Swiss citizenship who possessed a fascination for all things Italian, to unite with Piccardi and utilize his strong relationships with the Radio and BSI (Banca Svizzeria Italiano – also a current major sponsor of the festival) to plant the seeds of chamber music culture in the Italian-Swiss region, which had heretofore been practically absent. As “Abdul” (Grand’s nickname, coined by Daniel Barenboim) suggested, the festival was inaugurated; he had the vision, Piccardi the perseverance and Martha the compelling persona that brought not only her singular artistry, but her international following of stellar performers, to Lugano.
“Martha is like a river,” says Piccardi in between four very important phone calls he takes apologetically, “when we approached her about the possibility of starting a festival here, she said: “Hmm, yes it is possible, perhaps…” But the first installment in 2002 “was a disaster,” Piccardi recalls. “I was director of the culture and broadcast program of the second channel, but I had no experience whatsoever with programming live concerts. At the end I was with a fever, exhausted, and in despair. It was Martha and Jurg who took complete charge of all programs during the eight consecutive days. Concerts were held in the morning in the church, in the evening at the Radio station, and with 32 artists performing, we had to have rehearsals at night. Today we have a day in between for rehearsals and recordings, but with the number of artists reaching 82, the duration of the festival now is spread out to three weeks, with concerts recorded live or in rehearsal, and many of them broadcasted or streamed live.”
During the festival’s second year, Piccardi was better prepared: “I was more familiar then with the problems of running the production and hosting the artists, but then a disaster happened: Jurg, the festival’s founder suddenly died. Martha was in Buenos Aires at the time and we had to make a fast decision, whether or not to continue, and came to the agreement to at least go through with the already planned out next season,” Piccardi explains.
“Except when it comes to all things piano, Martha is not a systematic thinker,” Piccardi says. ”Her personality is ambivalent: when I ask her something she always remains vague, never definitive…it’s a maybe.” But perhaps it is this ‘out of the box thinking’, behind her “maybe”, aiding her in the constant search for new talent.
Martha constantly discovers new artists while participating in juries at international competitions, or through recommendations from friends whose input she values. “She trusts my judgment as well, and I have suggested some of the young artists who have performed at the festival, but she is very spontaneous and sometimes enthusiastically discovers an artist she likes on YouTube,” says Piccardi, who is mostly in charge of the festival’s programming.
Often it gets very late at night before Piccardi, who patiently waits for Martha to finish her nocturnal preparations for the many programs in which she partakes, takes her home; returning at 3:00am is not at all the exception. “Martha is a night owl,” he says, “she likes to practice sometimes right after a concert, to go over things and to prepare for the next one.” He tells me of her practice routine, taking only short breaks to come up for air or the occasional shared cigarette with one of her musician friends or colleagues. The sensitive artist with mood swings often dreads certain performances. This year, it is the Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1 that she performs with the Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana under Alexander Vedernikov at the Palazzo Dei Congressi that has been making her nervous, even though the benchmark recording of her 1994 performance of that piece under the legendary Claudio Abbado for Deutsche Grammophone proves that she owns it. While Martha’s current state of mind becomes a general theme of interest amongst the festival’s participants and visitors, Piccardi does not seem to engage in such circling conversations or concerns. He rather relies on what has proven to work for Martha, like the comfort she finds staying in an old artists’ house made available to her for the whole month of June by the artist benefit foundation Pro Helvetia. Located in the small town of Carona, the house is filled with an atmosphere, unmoved by time and inspired by the residency of previously hosted artists, and it is conveniently located just steps away from Piccardi’s own house. “Martha is not the kind of person who can stay in a hotel room for a month, she needs that feeling of familiarity, and it is these little things that make all the difference,” Piccardi says. “When we return together to Casa Pantrova in the middle of the night, there is a sort of feeling of belonging, the ease of home,” he says.
Now in its 13th year, the festival has grown into a celebration of chamber music, with programs that center on the piano in combinations with other instruments. Piano duos, trios, quartets, and quintets, even several pianos at a time, provide a sheer infinite variety for daily concerts, during many of which Argerich performs with young musicians and renowned friends and colleagues. “She is so wonderfully encouraging,” says Gabriela Montero, a Venezuelan pianist about Argerich, who was instrumental in the launch of young Montero’s career, having encouraged her to publicly improvise, which greatly contributed to her international success. Photo: Andrej Grilc Gabriela Montero and Ilona Oltuski-GetClassical at the festival
The festival’s tradition of minimal bureaucracy, neither applications nor tedious acceptance procedures persist to this day. Martha embraces great and new talent in this musical incubator, offering first-hand experiences by performing with high-caliber international artists. Another quality of the festival is the great respect for its artists, past and present; violinist, pedagogue, and actor Ivry Gitlis for example, Argerich’s long-time friend who performerd at the festival for many years, while not perfroming any more on stage, continues to share his wisdom during his master classes.
“Martha loves to be surrounded by other artists, sharing some of the burdensome aspects of the stage,” says Piccardy. Often, one sees her laughing with other artists or complaining about the difficulties within a particular score she is working on. Surrounded by her young colleagues, the now 73-year old pianist seems agelessly energetic.
Lately, the decision of some of her colleagues to end their public performance career has made her think about the future as well. “But Martha is not interested in teaching, or likes giving master classes like Maria Joan Pires or Alfred Brendel, who have recently put a halt to their performance careers,” says Piccardi. “Martha needs to play concerts, at least a good amount of them; she can never be without music,” says Piccardi, who seems to know this from a place in his heart that understands her. He adds: “chamber music is like a life elixir for her,” and when one sees her in action, one has to believe him. Her playing remains fantastic no less: her tone is natural, highly imaginative, and brilliant, and it is exciting to watch her pour all of herself into the piano.
Many artists come from near and far to the Progetto to make music together, rehearse, perform, and record, but also to rehash their personal relationships with Martha. Many of these friendships, built during her many years of celebrated performances throughout the world, are defined but not confined by her ability to share the limelight to support her fellow artists and causes close to her heart, making it a family affair of sorts: “Partaking in the festival can really put you on the map,” says Nora Romanoff, one of the young artists who has been attending the festival since age 16. The daughter of Dora Schwarzberg, a famed violinist based in Vienna, Romanoff was asked to jump into the deep end when, in its beginning, the festival was looking for an additional violist. “Can she do it?” Martha asked Schwarzberg about her talented daughter, and after a brief hesitation, Nora, who had no previous experience with playing chamber music, started as the youngest participant of the festival. ( The photo by Andrej Grilc shows Nora during one of her many performances during the festival)
Illustrious cellist Misha Maisky, one of Martha’s regular musical partners and her friend of 40 years, brings his daughter, Lily (piano) and his son, Sasha (violinist), regularily to the festival’s programs, providing them with an education that puts learning by doing first. Another longstanding musical partner of Argerich’s, pianist Lilya Zilberstein, performs with pianist Akane Sakai, a former student of hers, and her two pianist sons, Anton and Daniel Gerzenberg. The connection of lives mutually spend together brings artists like Gidon Kremer, Stephen Kovacevich, and Charles Dutoit to Lugano, and while Martha shares the podium generously, it is she to whom all of these artists pay tribute.
Annie Dutoit, Martha’s middle daughter from her marriage with conductor Charles Dutoit, made her artistic debut at this year’s festival with her adaptation of the role of dramatic narrator and performance of the devil in C.F. Ramuz/Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat. Violist Lyda Chen, Martha’s eldest daughter from her first marriage to conductor Robert Chen, partakes regularly in the festival, often as her mother’s performance partner. (Photo: Annie Dutoit with Carlo Piccardi)
Bloody Daughter, a film produced in 2012 and directed by Stephanie Argerich, Martha’s youngest daughter, was screened at last year’s festival; the screening afforded some private glimpses into the life of the usually evasive pianist, connecting archival footage of the performer with a uniquely personal portrait of the mother, seen through the eyes of the daughter. The title of the film depicts some of the heartrending circumstances that affected Martha’s family life, ranging from her separation from her oldest daughter to the conflicts between a superstar lifestyle and motherhood. Yet, as Stephanie’s father, pianist Stephen Kovacevich, explains in the film, Stephanie’s nickname “bloody daughter” is meant endearingly, and while it reveals many flaws, so is the overall outlook of the film.
(photo from the movie Bloody daughter)
“Martha liked the film. Even though she values her privacy and it must always feel uncanny to be portrayed so personally, the film certainly could not have been made by any other person than the daughter, so close to her,” says Piccardi.
None of the artists leave the festival without saying fare-well to Martha. No matter in what language – she is fluent in Spanish, English, French, Italian and pretty fluent in German as well– the tone is always personal and engaging.
Since the festival’s first year, EMI issued a series of recordings named Martha Argerich & Friends: Live from Lugano, which continued on the Warner Classics label. A 4-CD compilation produced by Deutsche Grammophon titled Martha Argerich: Lugano Concertos, a selection of the first ten years of the festival’s concerto performances with the Orchestra della Svizzeria Italiana, received last year’s ECHO KLASSIK award.
From the beginning, all artists involved were paid equally for each performance, no matter their pedigree. “More concerts translate into more money. But it does not matter if they have a big name or not, every musician does his part,” Piccardi says. “In the beginning of the festival it was really just all about an extended artistic family, as the festival expands, more egos emerge and questions arise, who plays with whom and competitiveness seeps in; it is my role to keep everything according to the originating milieu of open-mindedness, music being in the center of attention, and to create challenging programs that express its artists’ full potential.”
A goal, Martha Argerich and Carlo Piccardi should be able to achieve again in the future.
The 14th Progetto Martha Argerich –Festival is planned to take place in Lugano again in June of 2015.