Interview with Jonathan Fournel: Through music we can say things without words that “we are too shy” to speak
French pianist Jonathan Fournel walked away with first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition last year and now is bringing out his first CD. After playing the Brahms piano concerto No. 2 with emotional involvement and technical perfection in the competition, he is indulging his first love, more Brahms. His new CD leads with the concerto No. 3, and adds the Brahms Handel Variations, all played with the verve of a young artist who is on the rise and knows it.
A thoughtful musician, he says in his interview below that he has found a special language through his playing. “In music it is possible to say so many things, even things that we couldn’t say directly to someone with words because maybe we are too shy, or it is too personal.”
Now just 27 years old, he recalls that he entered the Strasbourg Conservatory in 2001, in the class of Stéphane Seban, and in private lessons with Patricia Pagny. He moved up quickly to the Musikhochschule in Saabrucken, adding private coaching by Gisèle Magnan whom he describes today as his mentor.
He credits her with teaching him to combine music and stories. She also helped him prepare for the competition. “She made me discover the power of music to share musical stories and emotions.” In his practice sessions and in performance, he imagines stories as a way of expressing “ what we want through all those notes”-- as a sort of universal language.
Jonathan’s studies proceeded rapidly in the institutions of eastern France, landing at the Conservatoire
National Supérieur de Paris, where he earned Master’s degrees in performance and accompaniment. Rounding out his training, In 2016 he received more guidance from established pianists Louie Lortie and Avo Kouyoumdjian.
His long-term plan includes possible professional training in orchestral conducting so that he won’t stand on the podium and merely wave his arms. “That is a feeling I don’t ever want to have,” he laughs.
Performing for the judges with no apparent stress, he recalls how strange it seemed to have no audience due to covid restrictions. He says his phone rang frequently with offers for engagements. Finally he hired a manager.
In this YouTube clip, he plays the Brahms second in the finals. Music-lovers have showed their appreciation in their comments. One says, “What mastery. What sensitivity. A beautiful storyteller.” Another seems at a loss for words: “Wow. Just wow.”
Here is the performance that won him first prize.
Jonathan generously agreed to respond in English to my questions in a long interview that started by telephone and finished with follow-up questions by email.
(Editing and transcription by Michael Johnson.)
How did it feel to end up first prize winner at the Queen Elisabeth?
When I got into the finals my first thought was that I would be happy to finish in first, second or third place. As it worked out, it was beyond my expectations. Now so many phone calls are coming in with offers to perform. Winning was a very intense moment in my life.
In practical terms, what does it mean to be the winner?
A lot of things are moving in my life day by day. At the beginning I didn’t even have a manager but my teachers helped me along. Now the phone is ringing and offers for concerts keep arriving. (His new manager is now Romain Blondel of Paris.)
Was the Competition worth the hours and days, months and years of preparation?
It could not have ended any better, I think. But the preparation was hard. The first step was being accepted. (Jonathan was also accepted this year at the Cliburn Competition and at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, but he opted to stay with the Queen Elisabeth Competition.) To be ready, I chose to play pieces I already knew before.
Wasn’t the practicing robotic and repetitive?
The competition was postponed a year so all the competitors benefitted from the extra practice time. But yes, I was practicing things over and over until I was becoming crazy. But in the end it was a very positive experience for me.
What does music actually mean to you now that you are more established? Is music taking over your life?
Music is a part of me, music is the universal language. I have adopted it to express what I want to say. In music it is possible to say so many things, even things that we couldn’t say directly to someone with words because maybe we are too shy, or it is too personal.
Your new CD is a turning point. Why is it so important to you?
It is all Brahms. I really wanted to do it this way. It is very important to me because it is my first solo CD. I’ve been spending a lot of my time working on Brahms, especially the Brahms Paganini Variations and the Handel Variations. I almost grew up with them.
Your repertoire seems limited to Classical and Romantic works. Are you reluctant to challenge your audience with more audacity?
I admire this repertoire and always loved to look after new composers from any time. I have discovered a great many of them – composers and their pieces. I hope to be lucky enough to play a lot of them.
In what direction is your repertoire evolving today? Do you try to stay open-minded?
I focus first on Brahms and Chopin but maybe it will be very different in five years. I don’t know. I am just trying to share something that I am trying to say. I find Brahms’s music to be magical, the way he makes the piano sound like an orchestra.
Which living composers have you played? Do you collaborate during the composition process?
I never collaborated with a composer to write a piece, but I have played the works of Pierre Alain Braye Weppe, Nicolas Bacri, and Guillaume Connesson.
Do you come from a musical family, as so many pianists do?
Yes, my father was a teacher in music theory and analysis. He was an organist and professor at the Strasbourg Conservatory. That’s where I first became familiar with classical repertoire.
He is retired now, and still playing the organ?
No, he dropped it completely to pursue his dream to work as a carpenter and furniture builder.
And your mother?
She was our housekeeper, not involved in the music world but she had a strong musical ear.
Still, would you say you grew up in a musical household?
In a way, yes. We didn’t play music at home but we had a large collection of CDs, ranging from classical music, (organ, piano, orchestral) and even some jazz and movie music.
When did you take to the piano?
At age seven I started piano lessons.
Did your father notice your special talent?
No, the first to notice something was a friend of his, another organist. But I was much more interested in playing the trombone. In fact my father believed I would never succeed at the piano and told me I should give it up. (Laughs)
What was the turning point?
Later, while continuing my lessons, my teacher finally encouraged me to stay with the piano. She had sensed something that changed her mind.
Do you recall your first public performance?
Yes, I was 10 years old and played in the local church, the St. Pierre and Paul. I played some Chopin, some Beethoven and even some Liszt. It was a very intense experience.
Your refined style – very mature for such a young man – swayed the judges and the virtual audience. Some noticed that you sing silently while you play.
When I am “singing”, I’m just saying the names of the notes. All of them are important and I don’t want to miss what they could be saying.
Did you already have a favorite pianist, a kind of model?
Yes, he was Georgy Cziffra, the great Hungarian phenomenon. I was – and still am –a really big fan. I listened to all his recordings over and over. Thanks to him, I discovered so much repertoire. There were so many of his pieces I wanted to play. I tried the Liszt sonata and Hungarian dances the way Cziffra did them. But so much of his repertoire was too difficult for me at first.
Don’t you find Cziffra has lost his star quality today? (He died in 1994.) Some say he was more a circus act than a finished musician.
It’s true, you hear that sometimes. He was always kind of apart from other pianists. This disappoints me.
What teachers influenced you most and helped create the talent you now display?
Certainly Gisèle Magnan -- I owe her a lot. Also Robert Leonardy.
Your repertoire today seems quite wide. Where do you feel most at home?
The Classic and Romantic periods – Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Chopin, especially the Nocturnes.
How do you handle the challenges of musical memory?
I try know a piece well so I can feel more free when I play it. As for the learning process, I learn it little by little, not all at once. There is too much information for the brain to keep it intact otherwise. I try to leave it alone for a few months, and the piece gets better when I return to it.
Do you have a personal learning technique?
Yes, I try to imagine that the music tells a story. I imagine the characters and what they look like and how they are feeling. All this takes a lot of time.
Some pianists have told me they visualize the printed score, and play directly from it. Do you visualize the notes this way?
No, I want to be able to do whatever I like with the music. I think “seeing” the score while performing would be very disturbing.
So you go beyond the printed page to interpret?
That’s right. Notes are not the most important thing, in a way. You have to be able to do something with them.
Will you be conducting some day?
That has been my dream for a very long time. It was my plan to study conducting. When I have time, I would love to go to Finland to study. It’s still something in my head.
Is this your career plan?
I don’t know. I am not done, you know. I am just starting! (Laughs) Now it’s more complicated because I have a lot of things to do first.
To become a conductor, can’t you just step up to the podium and set the tempo? Or are too many ex-pianists up there who just wave their arms and hope nobody will notice?
That’s a feeling I don’t ever want to have! (Laughs) Something that I don’t want to do, just wave my arms. Conducting requires training.
Have you tried composing?
I was never that interested in composing. I like to interpret more than writing.
Will you compete in more competitions?
No. I don’t know if I could do it again. Anyway, I am not a competition guy. If I decided to compete, I would do it to get more engagements, but now I have achieved this goal. So no, I don’t have to do it again.
Will your career take you to the United States, South America and Asia? Are you talking of possibilities there?
Yes, that’s in the plan for the next few years.
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