Pianist Iveta Calite: I want people to hear Ravel, not me

From the mother’s side Lithuanian and from the father’s side Latvian pianist Iveta Calite is known as a devoted chamber musician. She had finished her chamber music studies in Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris Alfred Cortot and the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Her performances took place in such festivals as Stockholm Piano Festival, Aurora Music Festival, “Young Latvian chamber musicians-Saulkrasti” and “Svensk musikvår”. Right after quarantine at the end of summer, she is planning a trip to Lithuania to perform an all Ravel program in Paliesiaus Estate on the 15th of August. In the interview, the pianist speaks on her inner calmness of the quarantine, memories from studies, and her fascination with Ravel‘s music.

You lead a busy lifestyle as a concerting pianist. The quarantine must have really changed your everyday life. What are you focusing on during the lockdown? Maybe there is a repertoire you are working on?

My life became relatively calm and finally, I could use this break to reflect on the things I had done and achieved during the last years. This was also the first year of moving back to Riga after 10 years abroad. It was a very busy year and a much-needed rest. Honestly, I was a bit unmotivated at first but then I turned to read the books I had never had time for, was looking through my sheet music, and just sight-reading whatever there was, continuing the work with Ravel’s music and enjoying the suddenly slow life everyone was forced upon.

You will be playing the program of only M. Ravel’s pieces. What do you value and like in Ravel’s music? What distinguishes this composer for you?

The beauty of his sound and the perfection of writing in his pieces. It is an intuitive love for his musical language. Ravel is not telling a direct story, he is showing you the pictures so you can tell the story yourself. When I perform his music – I really want people to hear Ravel, not me. It is a tough job to succeed in but so gratifying, especially if after the concerts you get to hear compliments like: ‘oh, I didn’t know Ravel is such an amazing composer’ or ‘his music brought me to another world’. Those are the kindest words.

I have visited his home in France. The house itself is so tiny and beautiful. All so detailed in both the interior and the objects in there, very tidy. Just like his music. He was a perfectionist and maybe it resonates with my own perfectionism. I even had the chance to play some of his music on his own instrument. It was a magical experience.

I could see a connection with Ravel‘s music. How did you discover Ravel and how did you develop this program?

Before starting on Ravel, I played some Debussy pieces which I loved a lot. I must have been 16 back then. The first two pieces by Ravel were Jeux d’eau and Oiseaux tristes. The Sad birds (Oiseaux tristes) is my signature pieces since then, that is Ravel’s music in a nutshell. Then I remember playing first movement of his G major concert. Since then it had been my dream to perform it with an orchestra.

I was looking forward to play a lot of french music in Paris. It didn’t really happen though because there was so much other repertoire to master but I did play a lot of Debussy and Ravel while studying in Stockholm where I also got the chance to perform Ravel’s concerto and develop my french repertoire. I have a natural ability to produce a beautiful tone that fits Ravel and Debussy really well. In Stockholm we had some concerts with only Debussy’s music which lead me to an idea of ‘Only Ravel’ program.

You mentioned that you have a signature piece “Sad birds” by Ravel.  How did you discover it, why is it special to you?

My teacher just gave me the piece so I really didn’t have any choice. At first it was just another short piece that I played a lot. You could play it anywhere and to anyone – it’s short, easy to understand, and very beautiful. Now I see it as a perfectly shaped miniature that has all Ravels magic in it. 

Would you say impressionism is your favorite?

Yes, I also like impressionism in the arts. The most charming, of course, are the harmonies – so soothing to listen to. While playing I like to create an atmosphere and colors of sound are really important for my programs. I also attune some colors to certain harmonies; I see colors when I play.

How do you decide which pieces go together in concert programs?

I listen to a lot of performances and when I hear something that resonates with me I look it up. Sometimes the idea just appears in my head. I usually put one piece in the central part of the program and build around it thinking of contrasts, the style, maybe an interesting musical story. It could also be just Latvian, French or Swedish music program.

What is most important for you while playing in the ensemble?

Flexibility. I had situations that made me wonder, why people play together. I had one such experience in Paris. I was playing with an ensemble and they switched the pianist. I was put to another group and had to learn new repertoire quickly. When I asked my partners to play slower in order to really get things  together, they said that they have already done that with the other pianist. This was so absurd. Flexibility in any situation is a must.

I’ve heard that in Latvia the concert program has to have a concept, more so than in Lithuania. Maybe you have also felt that?

I have noticed this as well because when I write concert projects for Latvian concert halls, I usually have to write a lot about the idea of the concert – why I choose this space and this composer. Certain concert organisers require it. And usually, a Latvian composer is a must in every concert. In a way, it helps the Latvian music scene to evolve.

How did you understand your profession when you were a child? How does it change?

I used to sing before I started the piano. it was my choice to go to music school. There were moments where I lost my enthusiasm and wanted to do something else. However piano won the battle. After the death of my teacher, it was a very difficult time but with the help of my first piano teacher and my parents, I got through it. Since then I was more or less stable with my choice of profession. The more I play concerts, teach, and go to masterclasses, the more I learn. It’s always interesting to try new things. For me, my profession is a never-ending journey.

You mentioned a change after the death of your teacher. What impact today this Latvian teacher has to you?

She was an inspiration herself – always striving for the best. Our lessons were always interesting, I still remember a few very important tricks in order to learn the repertoire faster. Sometimes in certain pieces she would let her older students to teach the youngest ones. I will always be thankful to her for her guidence. Without her, I would probably not go to Paris competition and study there later on.

You studied in different countries – Latvia, Sweden, and France. Maybe there were other differences that you noticed?

When I moved to Paris, I had to change everything – my technique, pedaling, and phrasing. It felt like I didn‘t even know how to play the piano at first. Articulation and subtle pedaling were the two most important things for me. In Latvia and in Sweden there is a lack of focus on those things. In Sweden, I also have been doing research on my teachers’ backgrounds. The interesting part was that my teacher from Paris came to be all the way back to the school of F. Liszt, and my Swedish teacher came all the way to Chopin.

Since one of your teachers come from Chopin’s and other – from the Liszt’s side, could you feel anything that would resemble these differences?

Both of them are really different in their palying and teaching but I would have never guessed their background. Nowadays the schools are mixing so it is really difficult to tell if there is a specific national school anymore.

You also mentioned that in Paris you had to learn a new style of piano playing. How do you recall this experience?

The first word that comes to mind is frustration. Everything you know suddenly is worth nothing. So it was emotionally difficult. It took me two years, a lot of time. But without that, I wouldn’t be the pianist I am today. My technique evolved, I hear and understand music differently. Now when I teach kids in Riga, I see how they have been taught. I don‘t want to push too much, because I know how hard it is to change what they have learned in Latvia. It’s not easy.

When you play, do you notice which elements do you take from Paris school, which ones from Stockholm, etc.?

There are certain things I know I learned from certain teachers. it is a combination, it comes together as one. And essentially both schools teach the same things, only with a different approach.

You have studied at Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris Alfred Cortot and Royal Colledge of Music in Stockholm. What did you learn from your teachers? Maybe they have shared some wisdom which is guiding you even today?

I have a funny story about my surname on this matter. Usually, in French it is pronounced Kalit, rarely Kalite. My French teacher Jean-Marc Luisada was so amused by the similarity of my surname to the word qualite (Quality in French), that he always introduced me to others pronouncing it Kalite – Iveta Quality. Sometimes I was asked which version is the right one, to what I used to answer “neither”. In this way, quality in everything I do was the first thing I truly learned abroad, especially in France. My three years in Paris were filled with cultural experiences – Jean-Marc used to take us to top restaurants, we were watching great cinema, meeting interesting people and, of course, learning a lot about how to be a better musician, not only a good pianist. All this culturally rich life defined me from a young age. I moved to France right after graduating from music school in Riga. I was very shy and insecure then, even naive. I went through a lot of transformation both personally and as a musician. I had to change my technique, phrasing, pedaling, and even thinking. Those were one of the hardest but definitely some of the most beautiful years I had.

After I moved to Stockholm – life changed a lot again. I had a lot of time to practice, to process all the knowledge I had gained in Paris. There was very little socializing in the beginning because Swedish people are more reserved than some other nationalities but they are quite confident in themselves. With the help of my Swedish teacher Stefan Bojsten, I learned to overcome my insecurities and become a confident artist. He was so accepting that it brought out a lot of my natural characteristics – like temperament and passion. I remember one particular chamber music lesson where we were playing Shostakovich’s piano quintet and I was so restless and eager to play and learn as intensive as ever but the pace was too calm. It made me upset and angry that I couldn’t use the time of the lesson as productively as I wanted. So at the end of the lesson, I rushed from the piano, asked abruptly if the lesson was over, and slammed the door after leaving the room. In a few minutes, my chamber music friends went out of the room quite amused and I asked them if Stefan was angry at me – they answered, no, he wasn’t, instead he said: “Oh, Iveta and her Latvian temperament”. That was half true as I am half Latvian and half Lithuanian (from my mother’s side).

Now you also work as a piano teacher. How does educating influenced your piano playing?

Teaching others has taught me patience – I have a lot of patience for others but unfortunately not as much patience for myself but I am getting better at it which of course is absolutely necessary for practicing. I have become more structured in my own practice sessions. It actually goes both ways – the better I play myself, the more demanding and innovative are my lessons.

Is there any school or teacher that you still want to learn from?

Paul Roberts – a concert pianist, lecturer and writer. He specializes in French music and has written three books – one on Ravel, two on Debussy, and I think the one that is coming out in the future is about Liszt. He has an amazing knowledge of the repertoire and style. His lectures and masterclasses on the composers and their music have inspired me on so many levels.

How do you approach new pieces and form an interpretation of having these different schools?

My goal is not to interpret the pieces personally, but to play as good as I can, so it doesn‘t sound vulgar or out of style. I think style is one of the things I strive for.  Also, through hard work – the more you practice, the more you get better at it. I always read a lot about the composer, piece, and the time period in which the piece was written. I listen to the music he has written at the same time, looking for similarities. I don‘t try to make it personal, but I think everyone in a way plays personally.

What is most important for you while performing with other musicians?

Of course, I like to be friends first with my chamber music partners, but that is not always possible. I like playing with people who put their all in the music. It is really important to be flexible – both on stage and in life. Once I had a trio concert in Uppsala together with two amazing musicians. We had only two rehearsals because everyone was so busy and I was already living in Riga. The program was very demanding, including a modern trio in four movements. A crazy piece for a perfectionist because it is impossible to play all the notes written due to a very fast tempo. Before getting on the train to the concert place my tooth suddenly broke into half. I was really upset as I was very hungry and couldn’t eat anything for 5 hours before the concert. The violinist was so kind and brought me all kinds of liquid food so I wouldn’t faint because the program was really big. During the rehearsal, I realized I am losing focus and we decided to just play two movements of the big trio and go for the rest of the program as planned. The funniest part was the kind page-turner, who was either turning the pages too early or too late for the trio and I ended up playing some parts from memory and improvising. My partners noticed that and were very flexible and cooperative. They wrote a very nice review of the concert in the local newspaper.  Of course, it is life and all kinds of things happen before or during the concerts, but flexible and reliable partners in chamber music are gold!

You play chamber music in different ensembles, teach, and play solo recitals. How do you balance all of your activities?

It is quite difficult. I had a couple of years where I was teaching and practicing for concerts seven days a week nonstop, having concerts almost every week. That was really hard, so I cut some teaching. My priority is chamber music and solo performances. Sometimes there are so many chamber music concerts that I really need more time for solo practicing. Last year I was learning the new repertoire very fast – sometimes in weeks. But now it’s been more flexible. My school is very understanding when I need to go away for a week or two to practice or play concerts.

Your daily schedule is intense and there is a lot of traveling. How do you handle it?

Now I am working in Riga and play a lot of concerts in Sweden, so there’s been some traveling. I try not to have concerts every single week. I go away for a week and then I am back to Riga for three weeks to work. I try not to overload my schedule and do only things that I really want to do. Play concerts that I find important for me and my career. When you choose yourself, it is easier to find the time.

How do you motivate yourself to practice? What inspires you daily?

Sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes it’s easy. I think I work best when I have a lot to do and little time. Then I know the exact things I have to achieve at this time. Thus the result is quicker. When I have a lot more time, I read more, listen to music, and get inspired by other things.

Do you have any rituals in your daily life, when you just practice in your studio?

I used to have rituals before playing in the concert, but I got rid of them on purpose. It happened because I was suffering when thinking “if I wouldn’t do the rituals, the concert will go bad”. Therefore now I choose not to have rituals. Before my practice sessions, I use something I call a “survival kit” –  water, coffee and chocolate These three things always help.

Do you feel like you had to give up certain things in your life for music?

I don’t think I had to give up things for music because I never had an actual idea of doing something else, at least after leaving Riga to study abroad. I do have a dream of becoming a police investigator. I guess it’s never too late for that, isn’t it?

How do you connect with the audience, when you play at the concert?

For me, it is all about the moment when you feel the energy of the audience when you overcome the anxiety and feel the audience respond to you. This is a very subtle thing. So I try to practice at home as if I was in a hall even without the feedback, without the energy of the audience coming back. I am inviting people to be the audience in my working space to make me anxious. But anxiety is a natural thing for many musicians, you just can’t let it go too far so it would not disturb your playing.

Are you critical of your performance at the concerts?

I am a perfectionist so it’s really hard to not be critical. I became easier towards myself through the years. Whatever you do, you are still human. It’s not that something bad will happen if you make a mistake, so you have to forgive yourself. Even though I am working on myself and it gets better, I am very critical.

The concerting experience for you seems nerve-wracking – you feel anxiety and criticism. What makes it worth it?

The moment itself. The energy when playing beautiful music. And the after taste, when after the concert you feel like you gave something nice to the universe. Music does make the world better. That makes it worth it.

Do you have any memorable experiences from the concerts?

I have a story. It was a time when I was preparing to play Ravel concerto in G with the orchestra. One of my favorite musicians is Janine Jansen and it was her husband Daniel Blendulf, who was conducting the concert. She was my idol and my friends would say that I look a little like her.  I really hoped that she will not come to the concert, because that would make me really nervous during the premiere. I was preparing in the artist room and ten minutes before the beginning of the concert I came out. At the same time, the conductor came out of his room, and with him was his wife – Janine! She was very nice and she wished us a good concert. And then the conductor turned to me and said: “you know, you will be playing an encore. Do you have something prepared?” Of course, I didn’t because it was not common to play encores in these concerts. I had ten minutes to play through the Ravel’s “Sad birds” in the nearby hall and I hadn’t touched that piece for months!  It was definitely a nerve-wracking experience, but in the end it was a lovely concert. The energy was heightened, it was a full house, so many great people sat in the audience, my friends in the orchestra. It was a special feeling seeing Janine Jansen in the audience. It was a beautiful concert!

Did you have any spiritual experiences on stage?

One of the most personal experiences happened during a piano competition in France, a couple of years before I moved to live there. It was a few days after my piano teacher in Riga suddenly passed away. We were on the stage and preparing to start the four-hand piece and I wanted to have a last look at the audience and saw my teacher sitting there, remote from everyone else. It gave me a lot of strength to see her there because I couldn’t attend her funeral on the same day. Of course, it should have been my imagination, but I have never felt such special energy before or after that experience. We were awarded Grand Prix at that competition so it was a bittersweet feeling. The trip was also the turning point of my life since then I fell in love with Paris and decided to study there.

How did things change in the quarantine? What have you learned from this experience?

I have been talking with some friends that are musicians and some of them find it really difficult to not play in public. For me it is different – I find it healing really. I was a little upset at the beginning because there were great concert opportunities coming up. Now I am just enjoying the time. I took a short break from practicing because last year was very intense and now I am focusing on reading and playing new music repertoire.

How do you plan for your next season?

Most of the concerts are postponed to the next year with the same repertoire and there are few new concerts with quintet and solo. Now in summer, the school is over, so I have time to sit down and plan. Besides the Ravel program, I am thinking about the program with pieces of lesser-known French composers.

I would say it will be more stressful than the prior seasons. The schedule is filling up quite quickly with postponed and new concerts. Concerts in Sweden and Germany with lots of different programs.

Do you have any tricks or rituals that help you to go through this busy schedule?

I am still working on that. Starting early and not waiting until the last moment. It doesn’t always happen – concerts come up at the last moment. But if I have time, I start early, do research, and just sit with the piece.

Are there any personal future projects that excite you the most?

I am really looking forward to my ‘Only Ravel’ recital in Paliesius Manor in August. It is a wonderful and welcoming place with amazing acoustics. Next year in March I will have a Germany debut with the same program and a lot of chamber music projects with great musicians. I am on my way to mastering all of Ravel’s piano works and looking forward to recording them in a year or two. It would be my first CD and I was dreaming about this recording for a few years now.

Thank you for the conversation!

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