The pianist Yulianna Avdeeva is the first woman in 45 years, after Martha Argerich, to win the Fryderyk Chopin Competition 2010 in Warsaw, an event organized only every five years. Two weeks after winning the First Prize, the 25-year old Russian gave a breath-taking two-and-half hour performance of an all Chopin programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.
Avdeeva talks with 200% on being the first women in 45 years to win the Competition, Chopin’s genius, how to perceive and understand composers’ intentions, and her total immersion in the music whilst she performs.
200%: There has been a lot of publicity about the fact that you are the first women in 45 years to win the Fryderyk Chopin Competition – does that mean something special to you?
Yulianna Avdeeva: The moment that you’re on stage, you are a musician and a musician, for me, has no gender. Being male or female is not an issue for me. I just feel very honoured to win this Prize and it’s very special to me.
200%: Can you describe how you prepared yourself for the Competition? Did you have a teacher with whom you practiced intensively?
Yulianna Avdeeva: In 2008, I graduated from the Zurich University of the Arts and then I attended the International Piano Academy Lake Como in Italy. Once a month you have different master classes with different musicians. Thus, you don’t have one sole teacher, which is very interesting to me as you have [insight] to many musical styles, many different influences and, therefore, you take what feels that works for you. All this knowledge was, therefore, inside of me that helped me prepare for the Competition.
Of course, I also practiced, every day, intensely and seriously, at the piano: for me, though, as music is also connected with other arts, it is very important to know what’s happening in these other arts. Thus, I visit exhibitions and read, especially literature about the times and history of Chopin. I’m interested to know to where did he travel, which people he admired, etc – which enables me to understand more about Chopin’s view on the world. I try to absorb this knowledge into the music and, in some way, it contributes to my performances. It was also good to be in Warsaw, where the Competition was organised, to see where Chopin had lived, where he has been to in the city and to visit the Chopin museum.
200%: In the same way that an actor learns lines “by heart”, for the Chopin Competition the Repertoire must be played from memory – was that difficult to master?
Yulianna Avdeeva: When you play a piece on stage, by heart, you have to be very well prepared and every note has to be understood. When I’m practicing a piece, there comes a moment I know the piece so well, that I don’t need to see the score in front of my eyes – I can play it with my eyes closed. Actually I never think about these things – playing a piece by heart is something I take for granted when I’m performing.
200%: Your success didn’t come overnight – you worked very hard for it. Are there specific examples of sacrifices, which you could describe, that you have made in your career, to be where you are now? What did you gave up?
Yulianna Avdeeva: Well, I wouldn’t say I had to give up things for music. Music is my life and I carry it inside of me, but to be able to play music, you have to understand music and you have to understand the composer’s intentions or his view on the world. Every composer has his global view on the world, which is expressed in his music. To be able to understand the composer’s view you have to possess life experience yourself. You have to understand life, how people think and feel, and what are collective life experiences to which people can relate. To be able to understand this, I dedicate a lot of time, even my life to this.
200%: Could you tell me what you think is Chopin’s genius?
Yulianna Avdeeva: Chopin is a very different composer compared to other composers as he combines so many things. On the one hand his music is very clearly, classically structured, on the other hand his music has an improvisational character that you somehow have to ‘read’ when you perform the pieces. Also, when you play Chopin’s music you have to be very honest and pure as he is a very truthful composer with a lot of integrity.
200%: Because of the improvisational character in Chopin’s music do you believe that’s the reason why his music lives on?
Yulianna Avdeeva: Yes. I have played Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 many times, but the interesting aspect is that you’re never tired of it as the music allows you to search for new ideas; and I try to dig deeper into the music to understand what Chopin wanted to express in the music. What is important for me is that I find the time to develop and be deeper inside the music, as I believe that a musician should never think, “I have played this particular piece now a thousand times and now it’s good.”
200%: For the Competition the organisers recommended participants refer to the Urtext of the National Edition of the Works of Fryderyk Chopin by Professor Jan Ekier. Do you consider that these are the closest to how Chopin thought his music should be played, as they are based wholly on Chopin’s hand-written manuscripts?
Yulianna Avdeeva: The first moment I opened Jan Ekier’s Edition of the Works of Chopin it was a real inspiration. For me, this Edition represents a pure and insightful view into Chopin’s work. Whilst I started to learn Chopin’s music by different Editions – as there are so many great musicians who actually did think about Chopin’s music and gave their vision on his work – it was also difficult to find out what were really Chopin’s intentions and what were his real ideas.
After I saw Ekier’s Edition it opened a new world for me because, in my view, it’s very truthful. I know it took Ekier many years to find all of Chopin’s original hand written manuscripts, and, therefore, his Edition contains so many details. In each piece, at each note, you see the remarks made by Chopin. It gave me an incredible new interest in the pieces when I compare it with other Editions, as you understand the essence of what Chopin wanted to convey with his music. I was very excited about it, and it gave me new inspiration to perform his music.
200%: When you play, you totally immerse yourself into the composition. Your body crawls almost into the piano, you throw your head backwards in the sky, the mimic on your face is incredibly expressive, you even sometimes breath heavily. Could you describe what is occurring in your body and what you feel when you play? Do you step out of yourself?
Yulianna Avdeeva: When I play, I wouldn’t say I lose control, but I don’t realize what I’m doing. When you perform music you are so inside of the music you try to express all these feelings, which belong to the piece that you’re performing. When you walk on stage it’s a very special feeling. In a way you are out of this real world when you’re on stage and when you are playing. It feels like you have no body actually: you’re in your mind, a feeling that is hard to describe. What I can say with certainty is that “I step into another world”.
200%: How to touch the keys of the piano – soft, gentle or hard and firm – is that difficult to master in Chopin’s music?
Yulianna Avdeeva: Everything is written down in the Editions. When you start learning the piece your fingers automatically try to follow what is written in this work: what also matters is whether you’re playing in a hall or in a dining room. When you play Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in a dining room it’s very different when you play the piece in a hall with two thousand people. To understand how to touch the keys – it happens automatically in my mind. Also, you have to think about the acoustics: when you’re playing in a big hall I have to envision my sound to the hall’s perspective as if I would be sitting in the public auditorium.
200%: Why is the piano your instrument?
Yulianna Avdeeva: The piano is such a rich instrument as it has so many colours and dynamics. It gives you so many possibilities to play, so many different pieces and different repertoires. I couldn’t imagine playing another instrument, even though I like the violin and the cello. The versatility, the possibilities of the piano, is endless to me.
200%: Where do you think you can grow or improve yourself as a classical musician?
Yulianna Avdeeva: What I really need to do now is to continue my development. I have to concentrate on working on the piano and digging deeper inside of the composers’ intent. It’s important, but also difficult, to understand how the music should be played: this is not only for Chopin music but also for so many other composers. I have to read more about their music, mature as a person, and gain life experiences. I also hope I have the opportunity to work with current musicians in this world from whom I can learn, as they will lead me into new directions.
I hope I will continue to develop – this is my desire.