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 bring 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.
While talking about your connection to the music of J. S. Bach you mention that this is your life companion. How did it start?
I think it came naturally to me. From early age J. S. Bach was in my concert repertoire. I started to play in my childhood I remember that it was my first interest. I always was listening to J. S. Bach and little by little I was putting more efforts and doing more research. The more I play and study, the more I understand his music and that‘s why for me this music really is a life companion.
How would you say your understanding has evolved during all those years?
Now I can see the structure of each piece more clearly. Today when I am playing a new piece of J. S. Bach, I study the score and try to form the idea of the piece in my head and then I can start working on the music itself. Now I am also less scared to try new and create different things. I try to communicated through the structure of music and I can feel that way better than in the beginning.
Was there a person or a book that really helped you to understand J. S. Bach‘s music the most?
Yes, I have read many articles and books on his music. Recently I have found a book written by Albert Schweitzer where he elaborates about the work of J. S. Bach as a painter and an artist with a picture. I discovered so many new things and I love to integrate my research in my work.
You also collaborate with scientists and musicologists. How this collaboration changes you?
The collaboration somehow obliges me to formulate more clearly my concepts. It‘s very important to me to really dive deeply into my research. Then I find it very enriching when different parts and people approach the same subject. Then, of course, other people suggests some new directions and sometimes they show me what I haven‘t seen that becomes important. The way that the voices interrelate in J. S. Bach ‘s music is especially interesting in the historical context with people that are working the field. This is something I have to learn in the past together with teachers and other people. It is very enriching to be able to work with several different kinds of people.
Was there any ideas or interpretations of J. S. Bach‘s music that you rejected from theorist?
It‘s difficult to say. I would not talk about people that don‘t play J. S. Bach without trying to deeply understand and interpret music of J. S. Bach. I think then they miss all the fun and the point of his music, in my opinion. But when I work with great interpreters and as they show something interesting to me, I will never reject their work.
You mentioned that now you feel more free in interpreting J. S. Bach‘s music and preparing the programs. How all this freedom came to you?
I think it’s because my ideas are clearer and I have gained a deeper understanding of his music. Now I know the rules and I can completely create and play for pleasure. I think it comes from everything I went through – it allows me to learn from every experience I had in my life. I have more abilities how to find new colors in the sound, how to express the structure of the piece in a new way, etc.
You mentioned that pianist should focus on communicating the music of composer and be faithful to the text. But on the other hand also a pianist has to form and keep their own identity. How do you balance this paradox?
There is a book, Stravinsky’s Lessons of music where he writes: “before being an interpretation the artist has to be executor of music, because he is the link from the composer to the audience”. I feel I have this responsibility to communicate the work of the composer to the audience. And then of course there is my own point of view – as people we all communicate the same things differently. I try to be as close to the text as possible, but there is always a room for the interpretation.
What was the journey of forming your identity as a pianist?
It is a constant process. It was always clear for me that I am a pianist and this profession wasn’t a choice. And it is like breathing for me – something I have to do. If I don’t play, I don’t breathe.
Also now I like to delve deep into the music of each composer I am working on at the moment. With every piece you have to take time and fight all the urgencies. It‘s a constant process of developing thinking and this tendency I see in myself up to today.
There are also a lot of pressures of being a musician today with traveling and social media. How do you stay truthful to, but also participate in the system?
Now I communicate via social media channels only to my community. I still feel I am taken aback from it, but I know that at some point I will have to develop this part of professional life more. It is important to communicate your work with others, but I feel that I have to mature as a musician and as a personality in order to fully give myself to public.
You mentioned that during quarantine for some days you could only play J. S. Bach. I imagine music is really healing you, making you feel better.
I was very worried during the quarantine. At the beginning I couldn’t understand what was happening and I was thinking what will happen if the pandemic would never end? So it was very difficult for me, I couldn’t sleep. Then I would play and my playing really comforts me. Playing J. S. Bach is really difficult, because you have to control so many voices with ten fingers, and also you have pedal. So the process is very physical. Movements come from the body and they help the mind. It made me believe that everything will be okay. Listeners in concerts also have similar reactions – I feel very touched when they say that my music goes right to their soul.
During quarantine a lot of new ways playing and sharing music with technology took place. You are also working with institutions trying to define new form and path to new content. What are you trying to make?
I didn’t have a need to still present music via technology during quarantine. At the time I wanted to be alone for a while, played for myself and that was it. But I am reflecting on this problem and I do collaborate with institutions which use music technologies. I understand that in the world of today it is important to take advantage of technologies, because of its possibilities. Even now we have the possibility to attend concerts being in another place in the world. But when you attend a live concert and listen to music – you fully experience the moment. It is an unique physical experience. Live concerts are important for people.
Do you see technology in music more as a temporary solution or something that will improve the experience?
I wouldn’t say its temporary, but I would say it’s complementary. I am more interested in electronic music, devices that create new sounds and rubles. Technology is interesting in itself, but it gets a new meaning while being complementary to the traditional setting of music performing. For instant there are some pieces that are performed rarely, because they require specific technology and I find it gripping to experience music in such a way.
How do you see your lifestyle as a musician developing come back to normal next year?
I really hope that everything eventually will come back to normal. I need to travel, because it gives me freedom and helps me to stay creative. Sometimes I even get my best creative ideas while being on a plain. This summer all I have is chamber music concerts. It is maybe more relaxing, but it is still a lot of work to prepare them, just a little bit different work. Next year I am planning J. S. Bach concert series, but I want to play more and bring some of my projects on stage, when a new approach to J. S. Bach’s music will be presented to the listeners. It is a pleasure for me to play concerts and I have bright hopes for the next season.
How as a pianist do you approach these contemporary pieces influenced by music of J. S. Bach? Do you stay faithful to classical text or do you search for a new angle that fits to both J. S. Bach and the contemporary composer?
In these situations I usually approach a piece from the point of the composer I try to understand their work and try new things in my interpretation. I am trying to be faithful to the text as much as possible, but I like and pressure the possibility to actually talk to composer and even have a discussion about the piece. Sometimes even the composer is not conscious about the details in his piece, until working with the performer. It is a real complementary process; composer and performer can usually both help each other.
How do you commission contemporary pieces?
For example, now I am commissioning a cycle of pieces, which will go together with J. S. Bach’s Six Partitas. I know the composer very well and I feel close to his music. We have both together discussed J. S. Bach and I believe we have a similar understanding and approach to his music. And I had an idea that I would like to have some complementary repertoire to his Six Partitas piano solo. They could be played as a singular work – a cycle of contemporary pieces, or performed together with the music of J. S. Bach. The main idea I commissioned was to find the language similar to J. S. Bach Partitas. I don’t know, maybe composer understand it differently than I imagine, but I am excited to meet and to hear the result.
You also mentioned that the best ideas comes to mind when you travel. How much do you yourself organize your tours and travels?
I don’t organize the tour myself and I don’t care much which countries I will be visiting. I like mostly the process itself – bags, airports, planes… But I do really care and control what I am going to be playing in tours – It’s important for me to put concert programs myself.
What is the most important for you while creating the concert program?
I want to believe in it and for it to reflect my work. Simply put, it has to make sense as well. I try to communicate through music and pieces that I choose to perform together, shedding a different light on each other. I want audience to hear and experience something new. At the moment I really like playing J. S. Bach and F. Schubert in the same concert. Earlier in Paris I played Janacek sonata b flat and the last Schubert sonata in D major. I chose to put these two pieces together, because Janacek sonata is dark, devastating, hopeless and Schubert sonata has feeling as it rising from the darkness and you can feel the light coming. That’s why dramaturgically these two pieces fits so well in one concert. The Schhubert sonata sounds more vibrant and alive, coming after I feel all the darkness and sadness in the world, while playing Janacek sonata. It gives me energy and helps to communicate with public.
Do you have any concert experience that was really special to you?
I remember every concert and they are all special for me in different ways. I am really lucky to experience something unique during every performance. Usually being on stage, gives me a feeling of being in the right place and the right time. I feel harmony with music and people around me. This connection makes each concert special.
Thank you for your time!