The French pianist Philippe Entremont was born in 1934 in Rheims, France, to two musicians, and found fame early, entering the Paris Conservatoire at 12 and winning first prizes in solfège, chamber music and piano performance by the time he was 15.
He made his American debut in 1953, and has enjoyed a career as one of the world’s leading pianists, with numerous recordings and concerts all over the world. He added conducting to his activities in 1967, and has been director of the New Orleans and Denver symphonies, and the Vienna, Israel and Netherlands chamber orchestras. He founded the Santo Domingo Festival in 1997 in the Dominican Republic, and in December led his first concert as director of the Boca Raton Symphonia.
Last February, he sat down with Greg Stepanich of Palm Beach ArtsPaper at the Boca Raton Resort and Club for lunch and a long, wide-ranging conversation. Among the things they discussed was the recent performance of Souvenirs, written for Entremont in 2009 by American composer Richard Danielpour. Illness prevented him from conducting it in two appearances at the Kravis Center, but he led it last month at the Roberts Theatre in Boca Raton to open his first concert with the Symphonia.
Because it was a lunch, the interview was less formal than most such interviews are, and that is reflected in the following text. Many of the references in the conversation refer to events from the 2009-10 season. Questions have been edited for length and clarity; answers have been excerpted in some cases.
They began by talking about their mutual admiration for the Fourth Symphony of Gustav Mahler:
Entremont: It is not too long, and it is absolutely gorgeous from the first note to the last.
Stepanich: It has that all that mastery of orchestration that Mahler has….
Entremont: Exceptional. It has all that clarity. It has two big climaxes, no more. (Laughs) But they are good! The quality is there. I must say that I have done it, too, with the Orchestra of Europe just two months ago. Magnificent.
You know who put Mahler on the map? It was Bernstein. He really put Mahler on the map in spite of all the exaggeration. (Laughs)
Stepanich: Have you ever heard those last Tchaikovsky recordings of Bernstein?
Stepanich: In the Pathetique [Symphony], it’s molto largo … (sings the opening bars to demonstrate)
Entremont: (Sings along) And the world stops!
Stepanich: It’s way too much.
Entremont: That’s OK. I don’t care. When you hear such drive, and inspiring stuff – I love mistakes.[A waitress comes to take drink orders. Stepanich talks about his digital recorder, a Sony ICD-SX68 that he prizes above all things.]
Entremont: I need one. I am in the process – maybe – to do a book.
Stepanich: A memoir?
Entremont: Not on me, because I hate biography. But I am pushed to do a biography. But I much prefer to talk about 60 years of music, of the people I have known.
Stepanich: You’ve known everybody.
Entremont: I’ve known everybody. Absolutely everybody.
Stepanich: Would you write it with someone or do it yourself?
Entremont: No, no, no. I will use somebody, but I have to do the writing anyway. Because I’m certainly going to be doing that with someone who doesn’t know too much about it.
Stepanich: … Let me ask you about how you came to the Boca Symphonia.
Entremont: This is an old story, a friendship story. I know [Boca Symphonia Executive Director] Marshall Turkin – the first time I met him was in 1955. That was a long time ago. And I’ve always liked Marshall. We have always been good friends, because he is a fabulously nice guy. He knows what he is talking about. There is no fluff. He was a very good manager, and he knows music extremely well.
We have always been friends, and he approached me, without caution (laughs). And I don’t want a directorship – no way. A big orchestra – I don’t like it. And I’m doing a lot, maybe too much for my age, but this is why I am still young in character.
I never canceled anything but the two concerts in Palm Beach, as you know. I was sick, I had bronchitis. I could fly: that’s it. But I conducted a concert two days later, when I was in Washington.
Stepanich: Mr. Danielpour did all right, conducting his piece [Souvenirs].
Entremont: It’s a nice piece! In Vienna, it went very well, because it was the anniversaire, it was the occasion. But in Germany, where I collaborated with the German Philharmonie, out of the blue, like that –
Stepanich: They didn’t like it?
Entremont: They loved it. They said to me: “We play so much crap (laughs), and finally to play something that is well-written!” He writes very well. A brilliant orchestrator, and it’s a good piece. I like it.
Stepanich: He’s not afraid to write a melody.
Entremont: Why not?
Stepanich: For years, it wasn’t done.
Entremont: He started as a very avant-garde composer and switched. He’s writing a piano concerto now that I won’t play – it will be a young pianist. And we hope to do the premiere in Vienna in June 2011 … I’ll conduct.
Stepanich: …How many concerts will you be doing with the Boca Symphonia?
Entremont: They will do five concerts, I will do three. Maybe one year I’ll do four. I’ll do three because I manage that to fit with what I have to do in America.
You know I have the symphony in Santo Domingo, which is next door. It’s very convenient for me to stop there before and after. It works very well. And they have very good musicians in that orchestra. That’s a good orchestra. And we are committed to making it better. There’s always room for improvement. But there, we have the material to do something very good.
Stepanich: … Are you planning anything special for the Boca Symphonia? Will you conduct from the piano?
Entremont: I’ll do two. I’ll do one [alone], and then we are going to do the Beethoven Triple [Concerto].
Stepanich: I love that piece.
Entremont: You are the first critic to like the damn piece. That piece is so maligned. I don’t understand it. It’s the most beautiful slow movement I know. It’s a gorgeous piece.
It’s very difficult for the cello, heh?
Stepanich: [Talks about a recent performance of the work at the Palm Beach Symphony] I have a couple recordings of it, but I hadn’t heard it live in a while.
Entremont: I have a fantastic cellist for that, because I have recorded it with him, and this is my cellist in Vienna [Christophe Pantillon, principal cellist of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra]. And he plays that concerto so well. And the violin was not very difficult for my concertmaster [Ludwig Mueller]. And I covered the piano.
I’ll start my tenure with the Danielpour piece. His maman lives here, you know.
Stepanich: He told me he tries to come down once a year for a visit.
Entremont: I start with that, the D minor Mozart [Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466], and the Beethoven Four[th Symphony]. The second concert I do is an all-Spanish evening [Feb. 20]. And [with] all the pieces on that program, I have done a world premiere.
Sortileges, by [Xavier] Montsalvatge, a suite from the Goyescas of Granados, orchestrated by [Catalan pianist and composer] Albert Guinovart: Beautiful orchestration. I give the premiere, and after the intermission, the Triana of Albeniz with a new orchestration because I think the original one is horrible, but this one is nice. I give the premiere, and then the El Amor Brujo of de Falla. I think that makes a nice Spanish program.
And a short program – I start with the Sextet from [the opera] Capriccio, by [Richard] Strauss, which I have recorded. Then the Triple, and in the second part the [Chamber] Symphony, Op. 73a, of Shostakovich, orchestrated by [Rudolf] Barshai for wind and strings. It’s a beautiful piece. Very, very nice.
Stepanich: Sound like good programs.
Entremont: It’s good. I am interested, and the place is nice. Not bad to be here for the winter. And I know some of the musicians in the orchestra very well.
…They are very lucky, because I have an assistant. This is [Spanish pianist and conductor] Ramon Tebar.
Stepanich: He’s a good conductor. I saw him do the Bizet Symphony in C…
Entremont: He has a big success with the opera, and with me in Santo Domingo. He came last year and did marvelously well a Wagner program, and he’s doing Carmen this year.
Stepanich: He just did Lucia with Florida Grand Opera.
Entremont: He’s a very good opera conductor.
Stepanich: He’s got a long career ahead of him … I saw him at the ICPA [International Certificate for Piano Artists festival at Palm Beach Atlantic University] doing master classes.
Entremont: We do that at the ICPA. I’m very happy with that. They are nice kids. [Referring to ICPA contestant Gen Tomoru of Japan, who had just soloed in the Jenamy Concerto, No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, with the Palm Beach Symphony:] You know, that was the first time he played a Mozart concerto. Never played a Mozart piece before.
Stepanich: He did a nice job.
Entremont: When I told him we are going to play a concerto by Mozart, he said, “I can’t.” I told him: “You have to try.” And I was amazed.[The waitress arrives to tell us about the specials, and the conversation turns to the concert hall, the DeSantis Family Chapel, where the concert had taken place.]
Stepanich: I’d like to hear a series of Mozart concerti in that hall.
Entremont: I’d like to play there. But not the Rachmaninov Three!
Stepanich: Or the Brahms One.
Entremont: It’s not for that place. You know, there is no hall [here] except for Kravis.
Stepanich: Lynn University in Boca is going to open its new hall in March [2010, which they did].
Entremont: I can’t wait. I’ve heard very good things about it. I want the orchestra to play there.
… Stepanich: Your parents were musicians. Your father was an opera conductor and your mother a pianist.
Entremont: Yes. She was primarily a teacher. We had our days. It is very difficult to work with your mother.
The first time I played with orchestra, it was in Germany, in Ludwigshafen, and I played the Grieg. That was the first concerto. It was very famous at the time; the Grieg concerto was played all the time. And I played that, and my mother came with me.
I was not yet 16, and she came [backstage] after the concert, and said “Oh, my darling.” And I told her: “You liked the concert? I am glad, because this is your last.” She looked at me [with surprise], and the next time she went to one of my concerts was 25 years later.
Not when I played in Paris, because she was a Parisienne. But outside of Paris, the first time was 25 years later, when she came to New York.
Stepanich: You must have been studying through the war.
Entremont: I started late. I was 8, so that would have been 1942. And it was very difficult at the beginning, ’40, ’41 … My parents made me do something absolutely dreadful: two years of solfège. I didn’t like it: No! But [after that] I was so agile at solfège, it was incredible. I could read it very fast, a different key at every note.
But that helped me immensely. I was capable of playing a Beethoven sonata after five months.
Stepanich: It must have been tough to study music during the war.
Entremont: Yes. I had a teacher in Paris from whom I learned everything. I remember I went to Paris, I was in Rheims, taking that dreadful train. It made the trip from Rheims to Paris, it was 130 kilometers, in eight hours. And there were two huge bombings. Yes, I had a bad war.
Stepanich: Did you study with Marguerite Long at the Conservatoire?
Entremont: No, she was not there anymore. I met Marguerite for the first time when I was 10 years old. Then I entered the Paris Conservatory when I was 12. And I lost three years, because it wasn’t to my liking at all … I hated my teacher [Jean Doyen], who was a fabulous pianist. We were not getting along at all.
I got my prize: I don’t know how, because the piece that was chosen as the main work for the prize was Mazeppa, by Liszt. That was the only piece I learned that year! (Laughs) But compare it to the people, who, when they got their first prize, they stopped practicing. Me, I start practicing after.
…I have never been to the Conservatoire since, the old one or the new one. Jean Doyen died [in 1982], and he left a note that said: I want Philippe to be my successor. That was very nice. By that time, we were very good friends. But I said no. I said no because it’s not honest, never to be there.
Stepanich: It must have been wonderful to study with Long because of her relationship with Ravel. She premiered the G major Concerto.
Entremont: Always, if you did anything with it, she would say: “You’re not going to play that concerto. It’s my concerto!” Nice!
She played the premiere. And contrary to what we think, she was a very good pianist. It was just reissued, a four-CD set of all the recordings of Marguerite. Marvelous playing. The way she plays Fauré, it is not the salon musician that we think.
Stepanich: Did Long tell you any stories about Ravel?
Entremont: No. She kept it to herself. I don’t think she had that great a relationship with him. Ravel wasn’t easy to know, he wasn’t seen much. He was very secretive. I know one of the pieces of Le Tombeau de Couperin was dedicated to her husband, who was killed in the First World War.
…One thing is, nobody knows how to teach Ravel well, nor Debussy. It’s foreign to most of the best teachers.
Stepanich: What are they missing?
Entremont: Everything. I am killing myself to say that in French music, you have to do only one thing: Do what is written. And it’s true. It’s so well-explained. Of course, you must do something of your own. But you have a frame that is very well-defined.
Stepanich: What was the most useful lesson Long gave you?
Entremont: The importance of the left hand. And after that, I was pretty much on my own. I said, “I am going to make mistakes, but they are going to be mine.” You have to find your way yourself.
…Stepanich: Do you have a practice routine at the piano?
Entremont: I have a very strong disease. It’s called laziness. (Laughs) My mind works all the time. But I have periods of intense practicing.
When I play every morning, I play Le Gibet by Ravel, just to keep it in my memory. It’s a horrible piece to memorize. (Sings to demonstrate) Every morning I play it. (Laughs) It’s a morbid way to start the day! And then if I am doing good, I play Ondine [both pieces are from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit]. I do Ondine very well now.[They discuss the vagaries of the musical season and the difficulties attendant on running an arts organization.]
Entremont: I hope to do something good here. I think the environment is right. I will try to make this orchestra well-known. One thing is certain: We need economic support. It’s not a good time, but at the same time, people are not that poor. People are making money a lot.
..I gave a speech for the ICPA at the Governors Club, and I gave them the business. It was like ice in the room. (Laughs) But they have to be reminded: It’s a duty. And I told them: You know, this is not for me. It’s for the young kids.