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Interview with Pianist and Conductor Jean Bernard Pommier
I know you already had links with the Romanian musical life ...
Yes, indeed. I was invited several times by the Philharmonic in Bucharest, by Cristian Mandeal, and I had the pleasure to collaborate with this Romanian team, but I also had the chance to be - in Romania - the soloist of an abroad orchestra: it was the Philharmonic of Belgium. I played, but I also conducted several times in Romania in the recent years.
To what extent do you find correct the attribution of the child prodigy title in what concerns you?
If we describe the child prodigies by starting to study an instrument at an early age, at about four, by the fact that at seven years old they already have their first concert, that their entire existence as a child is governed by music without interruption - then you can talk about me in such terms. But it was a possibility that I slipped on the slippery slope of exploitation of such a situation (because during childhood it does not happen infrequently), but I was lucky to have some parents who have watched carefully to avoid such perspective. They were particularly concerned that I was educated in an environment suitable for the shaping of a teenager so that he can reach adulthood without…major problems!
Music was a family legacy…
Indeed. My father was a professional organist and my mother - a musician too (but without practicing this activity). They gave our whole family a musical soul that I also inherited (being the eighth child).
You had the chance to shape yourself in the context of different piano schools ...
Yes. It must be said that the first piano touch received in my hometown - at Beziers - was a Russian one. It was after the Second World War, when enough people - and many Russians in particular - were forced to take refuge in southern France. It happened to the female pianist who has clearly marked the entire musical community of the region, of the city, because before she was a raefugee she had an outstanding concert career. She was originally from Kharkov, she was friends with Horovitz, her concert career successes were renowned, which made her to be very appreciated in France. She taught piano lessons and I was among those who benefited from her musical school value, with a particularity: she had a decisive role in my path toward music, although my father had noticed some signs that made him start and then continue to teach me music lessons. When I went to this teacher, she convinced him that I was talented, that it was appropriate to remain in this area and I studied with her three hours daily for seven years. I was a great investment of hers from four to eleven years old, a period which allowed me to evolve very quickly in order to be admitted at the Superior Conservatory of Music in Paris, where I entered in a class of a maestro also born in Beziers - in the same city as me: Yves Nat, a pianist who influenced an entire generation. When Yves Nat died, the class was taken by a disciple of his - Pierre Santana - a great teacher! Later I met Eugene Istomin, in America. But my career had the chance to start early by winning contests at Berlin, at Moscow, then some competitions in France - there were the '50s or so, the '60s - and so I was given the opportunity to already experience a varied repertoire, to be already a soloist within an orchestra.
In several interviews you mentioned that you had the chance to know some of your IDOLS.
For pianists in my generation there were three very important role-models; being young, being contemporary with some outstanding piano figures, I had the opportunity to know such outstanding personalities, not only by their musical status, but as people. I knew quite well Sviatoslav Richter, Arturo Benedetti Michelangelli and Rudolf Serkin. I think I'm not the only one considering this when I say that there are three very special personalities, with a decisive role in reading piano repertoire by the poignancy of their options and their instrumental mastery that influenced an entire generation, as it was my case.
Did you find these personalities also among musicians with whom you have played chamber music?
I was very spoiled in the chamber domain. Since I was very young - I was about twenty years old - I was accepted inside a wonderful circle of friends. Since childhood I met Pablo Casals and I played for him, I happened - after fifteen years when I met again in New York - to find gathered around him a circle of great musicians such as Eugene Istomin and Alexander Steiner, who guided me and helped me a lot. With them and due to them I had the chance to play more chamber music in the company of artists like Pinkhas Zukermann, Itzhak Perlmann, Guarneri Quartet, Leonard Rose - with whom I also recorded, Jeremy Laredo, other great quartets of the time .. . Most of these artists lived in America at New York and I had the feeling that in that period of life when you basically engulf the music I was very much helped to open my eyes by this exercise of chamber music. In addition, I think that in that time and this experience opened my path to conducting the orchestra, toward which even then I headed my activities. Playing chamber music is also an excellent practice for the overall vision of a full score.
I think every musician does not necessarily have the conscious desire to conduct but he still has that aspiration to communicate his vision to others. As for me it was a pretty clear direction because Eugène Bigot - a great orchestra maestro whom I met towards the end of his life - he insisted I head to conducting, studying scores for the orchestra - he said - he had detected in me those features that would make me more effective at the conductor's desk. In this area I dare to say that I was guided by two great personalities, whom I had the chance to know pretty well (I worked with them) and who were famous at that time: Herbert von Karajan and Sergiu Celibidache. They were the persons who gave me confidence in my ability to practice music in this manner. Even though it is not necessarily needed to gain somebody's blessing, is it still necessary to learn a lot, and you learn when you have some talent to enhance that knowledge. It is not enough to have a musical talent, but you must manage to develop it as much as possible.
When you approach different facets of musical interpretation it is very important to clearly establish the coordinates of these complementary aspects. As for me I always gave priority to playing piano than to conducting.
Translated by Iulia Florescu and Alexandra Ilie
MTTLC, Bucharest University