French pianist Helene Papadopoulos stands out complex, restless, and highly sensitive approach to music. She seeks deep insight into playing the piano, always looking for new knowledge and sources of inspiration. Her unconventional musical projects, original concert programs, detailed and scrupulous interpretations of traditional and contemporary repertoire brings healing and change for her listeners. The musician’s life companion – the music of J. S. Bach – inspires her to cooperate with other contemporary composers in order to develop new musical languages based on the great baroque composer. In the interview, pianist discusses the meaning music brings to her everyday life, helping with stress this year has brought on everybody.
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?
The quarantine has changed my everyday life because I stopped travels and contact with the public. I cannot say it has changed me as a musician, but it certainly has confirmed my beliefs that art can help shedding light on the world. I have read a lot, in particular books by Camus and each day his words « if the world were clear art would not exist » resonate in my head. During the first part of the lockdown when the situation looked very dark, I could only play Bach. Only his music would absorb all my faculties and give me peace while I would study. I learned the toccatas. I found in them all I desperately needed in life at that moment: an order in an unstructured structure to rely on, and simultaneously endless freedom and inventiveness, infinite beauty and humanity. I would start each day studying them two hours before sunrise, and I think only this helped me bearing the weight of concern of the situation.
What do you think is the future of piano playing?
I don’t think I’m in a position to answer this question. However, what I do as a pianist is meant to redefine each day the same idea of piano playing. I try to invent new ways to connect music performance and creation in a unique blend.
There is a tendency to open the archives and look for a virtual alternative for the cultural life. How do you think this enrich how people experience music?
It is clear that after Covid the world will not be the same. I believe that it is time indeed to find new ways for the classical concert and that, maybe, these ways should include new technologies. However, I believe that the “epiphany” that a person experiences when he or she physically attend an event is impossible to achieve from distance. I am actually now working with several institutions that deal with music and technologies (such as IRCAM in Paris and CNMAT in Berkeley) to define new paths for the concert of the future.
How could you describe your lifestyle as a musician? What elements of it challenge you the most?
I believe that, compared to years ago, the world now requires several skills to be a musician. It is necessary, of course, to be gifted and capable with your instrument. But you are asked to be able to travel a lot, to communicate your ideas on social media, to have a critical listening on our time. The most challenging difficulty is to keep your own identity in a world made of a lot of different stimuli.
I’ve read about your focus on the detail and subtleties in music compositions. What subtleties do you usually care about the most while interpreting the piece?
I think that role of the artist is to communicate the music of the composer. As such it is his or her responsibility to try to be as faithful as possible to the text, and also to gain knowledge of style and performance practice to deliver an interpretation which reflects the intent of the composer. Then once this is settled, there is room for interpretation, for creativity, for revealing the viewpoint that the artist has developed with his or her own background, experience and personality.
How did you become interested in the music in J. S. Bach? Does your understanding of his compositions changes with time?
I have been interested in the music of JS Bach since always. First I was touched by the beauty of this music. Then with time I started becoming more and more fascinated by his genius sense of form, his inventiveness, his freedom of mind, his unlimited humanity. I like playing Bach’s music the most, because, more than any other music, it engages all my faculties, intellectually, emotionally, physically. Yes, my understanding of his compositions changes with time because I seek each day deeper into his music, and I discover each day new facets and new ways of playing and realizing his music.
How your approach of baroque repertoire does differ to when you play pieces of classicism, romanticism and later periods?
There is no difference in the way I approach conceptually a piece. But I use different playing techniques for different composers. For instance in some Schubert passages, to bring out some melodies, I convey some weight on the keys from the shoulder in a way that I would not use for Bach music. For Bach music, I have to use special fingerings because of the structural demands of the music, in order to be able to control and play together several voices that are simultaneously each independent but interrelated.
In what way the studies of harpsichord had enriched you as a musician?
Studying the harpsichord has enriched me in several ways. In particular it has opened me to a repertoire that is different from the piano’s repertoire. In the conservatory of Strasbourg, beside transmitting me the love for this instrument, my teacher Aline Zylberach also raised my awareness for all aspects that are important for interpretation, such as articulation, phrasing or touch. Of course playing the harpsichord also helps me in the understanding of Bach’s music. The technical possibilities of the harpsichord and the piano are different. As such the means to realize the inner structure are different, and playing or listening the same piece on a harpsichord and the piano helps me discovering new facets of the music.
How do you find meaning in the sound of the interpretation of the piece? How do you make an interpretation of a piece personal?
The interpretation of a piece comes from a combination of several things. First from the study of music itself, by studying its structure, its harmonic layout etc. Then from scholarship knowledge of the style (for instance phrasing articulation or ornaments) and performance practices. I feel lucky to live in a time where we have unlimited access to various resources such as recordings, films, books etc. Listening to performances of great piano masters, such as Vladimir Horowitz or Rosalyn Tureck is profoundly inspiring. It often brings light into aspects of the music that I didn’t see myself or that I didn’t understand in the same way, and it may enrich or change my viewpoint. And of course all the other things that I learn or experience in life come into my playing, even very common experiences. During lockdown I took the habit to walk one hour each day in a forest with high trees, and I was stroked by the play of the ray of light in the leaves. I found that I was having the same feelings given by changes in sonority and colors when I play.
What moments have defined you as a pianist you are today?
The pianist I am today is the sum of all my experiences in life. Each book I read, each encounter I make, each concert I give defines me as a pianist. I strongly believe that a long path is made of small steps.
How do you use your other cultural experiences – literature, theater, etc. – in your professional life? How do you come up with ideas for new programs, repertoire and concerts?
Yes for me music and culture at large are profoundly interconnected. I was fortunate enough that my father – who is a mathematician – would bring me with him during his travels and would let me spend entire days in the most sumptuous museums, looking at paintings, the play of light, colors and texture that I find in a similar way in music. Besides music, my teacher Jean-Marc Luisada, among many other things, unveiled for me the wonderful world of cinema ,in which I find inexhaustible sources of inspiration for my playing. I have in mind countless examples of films that we watched with his class and that resonate in my work. Recently, while studying a passage of the Toccata BWV910, I realized that I had made a connection between the complex interconnection of the lines and the sharp virtuosity of the Max Ophüls film « La Ronde ». All this contributes to give me ideas for new repertoires and programs.
How did you decide to publish a commented edition of Leonhard Euler’s complete works on music theory? What was the thought process behind this project?
This was a very interesting project. I met a group of people of very different background (musicologists, mathematicians, historians) who all had a specific interest in Euler’s theory of music, which had never been published as a whole before. We worked together and prepared a commented edition merging all our different viewpoints. With this project, I was even more convinced that creativity and understanding of the world is fostered by connections between different fields and the confrontation of different viewpoints that will enrich each other.
Why do you choose the complex baroque pieces of J. S. Bach? How could you explain the experience of preparing and performing such music? What’s unique about it?
Somehow I don’t feel I chose to play the music of J.S. Bach. I simply needed to. I played for the first time in public the Goldberg Variations – which is the last part of the Clavier-Übung – in 2015. But the study and the playing of Bach music is a lifetime work. What has developed through time is my understanding of Bach music. By enlarging my repertoire, I can make interconnections between pieces and unveil some subtleties that would otherwise remain hidden to me. I also devote more and more time to historical, musicological and performance practice of Bach’s music. And I constantly try to understand how it relates to the music of today. All this contributes to my playing of this music. Of course when I play, the audience has no idea of this background work, and I myself don’t consciously think to all this. I just play and it is the music itself that speaks.
You also cooperate for other contemporary composers with aim to develop new musical languages based on the music of J. S. Bach. Did you witness any modern approaches to the music of J. S. Bach these days? How do you value it?
Since several years I have been collaborating with several composers to find connections between the state-of-the-art of music from the past and the state-of-theart of the music of today. I strongly believe that musical values transcend time and, as such, there are conceptual connections between the music of the past and the music of the future. Specifically, I believe Bach’s music is one of the deepest examples of such values. This is the reason for which I’m working in creating “Bach mirror” music with contemporary composers of great talent.
You have toured and performed in different countries. Did you noticed any major differences in different cultures on how they organize concerts, rehearse?
I’d like to connect this question to one of my previous answer. The “epiphany” that a person has while participating in concert is a product of the real context. I have played in many countries indeed, and each time the event was unique and special. Different cultures give different bias in the organization of a concert: sometimes all is smooth and perfectly organized and sometimes is more “rough” but more alive. Each time, however, is an epiphany for me.
You have collaborated with such musicians as Sergueï Matltcev, Jean-Jacques Dünki, Charles Rosen, etc. Was there a collaboration that stood out to you? How and why?
I had the chance to meet many people who enriched my life as a musician. Their impact on my life was not only music. I met Charles Rosen at the age of 18. He told me that while completing his PhD in French literature at Princeton University, he read the entire Balzac Comédie humaine. On my side, I had only read a quarter of the work. I was so impressed by the importance it had for him that the year after I read the complete work too. Having read all the books of the Comédie humaine, I was able to make interconnections between them, and new facets of the work were revealed to me. I keep traces of this world in my everyday life and in my work: when possible I seek to enrich the study and the understanding of a piece of a composer with other pieces of his composition.
What are you trying to affect, influence the listeners?
I don’t believe I need to “influence” the listeners. My role is to bring life to a musical text written on paper. The music itself will deliver all the messages. I play pieces that have a meaning to me. I construct programs that reflect my way of thinking. It happened to me that I had to play one day for an « uneducated » audience, and the concert organizer would ask me to play the Goldberg Variations without repeats because he thought it wold be too long for the public. I refused and played for almost one hour and a half without pause. The audience remained silent all the time and I felt stronger than ever that we were on a journey together. At the end, when the aria came back I felt tears on my cheek. The audience doesn’t needs to be influenced. The audience feels music.
How your daily practice does look like? Do you have any rituals as a musician?
My personal daily practice is a combination of several things that include piano playing, scores study, books reading and writing. Having a routine helps me keeping creative. I usually wake up before dawn and play or study my scores. The last part of the day is almost always dedicated to cafes, theatre, cinema and mingling with other people. Yes I do have rituals as a musician. One of them is that I always eat pasta with pesto before giving a concert!
Were you ever discouraged? How did it affect your creativity?
I remember being worried, I remember being frustrated, for instance when not being able to realize something I have in mind, but I don’t remember being discouraged. I think this comes from my mother who is the strongest person I know and who taught me to always try to see a positive side in adversity.
How much of your own life is reflected in your work?
My work reflects my life: my way of thinking and my way of creating come from all I have learned, all I have experienced.
Do you feel like you had to give up certain things in your life for music?
No, I don’t feel like I had to give up certain things in my life for music. I feel grateful that I have music in my life. Music is for me an answer to life and this is the most rewarding prize for me. I value each day of my life as a pianist.
Could you describe your state of mind when you are playing?
It is difficult for me to describe my state of mind when playing. I think that a feeling that keeps constant through each performance is a heightened sense of feeling alive.
What kind of impact do you want to have to the listener?
When I play, I communicate the music to the audience in a way that is related to my perception of the world. I hope that my playing can help the listener to see something he or she hadn’t seen or thought about before, that can help him or her to understand or feel life. If I manage to bring even the smallest ray of light, then I consider my work is worth.
Thank you for the conversation!