Interview with Dr. Rene Lecuona: Reflections from 2020 and Advice for 2021



What projects are you most excited about as a classical musician in 2021?


As I think about this year, I have to divide my life into two categories: pandemic and post-pandemic.


I’ll start by talking about post-pandemic plans. I am slated to teach in Italy at the InterHarmony International Festival this July. This will be the first time I’m on the faculty of the live version of this festival, and I’m very much looking forward to traveling to the beautiful country of Italy.

I’m also hopeful about returning to Colombia and teaching in my own festival, which is called the Piano Festival of the Americas. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will happen in late June or early July. This will be the 6th year for the Piano Festival of the Americas, which is a scholarship festival. This festival is very close to my heart. Many of the students who participate in the festival study at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia.


I’m also looking forward to going back to teaching piano at a correctional facility where I volunteered for several years. It has not been possible to teach there in COVID times, and I cannot wait to go back in the Fall of 2021.


What I’m looking forward to this winter are concerts with my partner and cellist Hannah Holman. We will be performing works by women composers. Right off the bat, we will perform music by Dora Pejacevic, Ethel Smyth, and Henriëtte Bosmans. This is a big project, and we are also applying for a grant to record these pieces. These sonatas are new to Hannah and me, and it is an honor to learn these three late romantic works for cello and piano by truly fabulous women composers.


(above: cellist Hannah Hollman and pianist Dr. Rene Lecuona)


Following up on your important recording project, are there many recordings of these works or are you the first to record them?


We are not the first to record any of these pieces, but they are under-performed and under-recorded. I would like to address this issue: I’ve learned an expression from Dr. Wilson-Kimber in relation to recording women composers and other less known literature, which is “one and done.” In the classical music world, we have 300+ recordings of the Beethoven cello sonatas that we can easily find on YouTube, while composers like Pejacevic, Smyth, and Bosmans might have two or three recordings available online. This is a problem, and the solution is to create and disseminate high-quality interpretations to familiarize other musicians and the music-appreciating public with this music. It’s very important that we don’t shy away from certain works of music simply because there are already one or two recordings available online. We don’t want the works of these powerful composers to be “one and done."


These kinds of projects are important. They create opportunities for collaboration, education, and partnership. For example, during the first few months of the pandemic, I developed a new piano literature course which was titled Piano Music by Women Composers; my doctoral student Minji Kwon and I were researching music and together we discovered the music of the Croatian composer Dora Pejacevic. Now Minji is working on her DMA recording project, which will feature the solo piano music of Dora Pejacevic., while Hannah and I are learning the sonata for cello and piano.


What are some of the most rewarding experiences of your career?


I have to say that one of the highlights of my performing career was when we performed one of my favorite pieces, Faure’s piano quartet in C minor, with Trio 826 in France. These were our 14th and 15th performances of the piece, so we were able to present this glorious work in a very deep and knowledgeable way. The experience was beautiful: we spoke French from the stage, and the audience was extremely appreciative. We had to repeat two movements of the quartet as encores. The hall was packed, and I loved the meeting of two works in which four American women went to France to perform French music. It was lovely to meet people from France before and after the concert.


I think the most rewarding experience for me in teaching has probably been the creation of a summer program Piano Festival of the Americas, which Ana Orduz and I started in 2015. The festival also has this idea of worlds meeting —- bringing pianists from many different cultural backgrounds together. We have had participants from the Philippines, Colombia, Chile, Singapore, China, Canada, and the United States. The participants get to know each other and support each other’s process of deepening their understanding of the language of music. It is exciting and very fun!


What do you enjoy most about being a classical musician?


I think the number one activity for me is teaching. There’s something about two people connecting to a point outside themselves that is so satisfying for me. Most of the lesson time we are focused on the piece at hand, but sometimes we get to move our glance to each other. Through that, I have such a beautiful window into the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual workings of the person in front of me. It’s a great honor to teach.


The second activity which I feel is very important is what I do by myself in the practice room (often feeling in communion with the composer): that is trying to know and understand the music that I’m studying and preparing to perform. I study so that I may create an authentic and meaningful interpretation that I hope will be a blessing to the audience.


 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused considerable damage on many levels, including to the careers of performing artists. Coming out of 2020: What are some of your reflections on the way that the classical music world has adapted to the pandemic?


I have watched with admiration as musicians such as Svetozar Ivanov, Daniel Shapiro, and Nicole Esposito have produced beautiful virtual performances during COVID. I also have enjoyed watching choirs, ballet dancers, and musicians who kept performing and being artistically productive.


To be entirely honest, I wish that I had produced a video of the Chopin preludes. But I did not do that, and this is one of my regrets. This just increases my admiration and gratitude for the artists who were able to keep producing beautiful things during the pandemic.


While I did not participate in the explosion of online performances, I did continue to teach pianists around the country during the pandemic, and I was a guest artist at the International Piano Cafe and on the faculty of InterHarmony International Music Festival, which met virtually. I also continued to practice and cultivate my own artistry, which I hope will show in the next years.



What kind of changes do you predict for the classical music world in 2021? Do you anticipate that classical musicians’ careers will return to ‘normal’ after the vaccine has been adequately distributed? Or do you think some changes will be permanent?


I think we all are looking forward to being together at concerts —- to rub elbows and have catch-up conversations during intermissions. We will want to go out after concerts and have a “cup of tea” together.


But I do think that some options that have become common for us during the pandemic will stay, like distance learning and viewing concerts online. With technology like Zoom and CleanFeed, it’s possible to have meaningful virtual lessons and accessible virtual musical performances. Virtual performances can be more accessible; people who in the past couldn’t have made it out to concerts or lectures can attend virtually. I think that from now on we should have virtual components for all events. Being able to attend concerts and lectures virtually can literally expand home-bound people’s horizons. For example, older audience members often will skip a concert if the weather is bad. I believe and hope that virtual performances will serve our audiences.



(above: Dr. Rene Lecuona and Ghadeer Abaido during the Zoom interview)


How would you define success in the classical music world? What do you think it takes to achieve success in the classical music world in the year 2021?


Flexibility.

I think that artistic expertise (being good at your instrument and having a lot to say when you performing) is the foundation for the professional musician. Artistic expertise will draw audiences, students, and collaborators to you. The young professional’s relationship to music is definitely the foundation for success in the Classical music world.


But it’s perfectly possible to have a beautiful relationship to music and still not be a success in the classical music world now, and I wish I had understood that more profoundly when I was younger.

So what I mean by flexibility is how informed you are about what’s going on in the classical music world, and even in the technological world. It is having a relevant and current skill set, like the ability to use Zoom, YouTube, edit videos, etc. It’s also having the social intelligence and the flexibility to get along with a wide range of people, and having strong communication skills (both talking AND listening). It’s getting along with people who might be different from you, and it’s keeping an open mind and an open heart. These abilities are incredibly helpful for one’s profession and one’s mental health.


As an educator, what are the qualities you observe in students who achieve success in their field?


I’ve been teaching for more than 30 years and the quality that I’ve observed in students who are successful is a commitment to lifelong learning. Even as they are gaining higher and higher accolades, they don’t feel like they have arrived. They take advantage of the resources around them to become better as musicians and as people.


How do you prepare students to achieve success in their field? And how do you prepare them to deal with the challenges? Are any of these challenges particular to the pandemic?


One of the most critical aspects of my job as an educator is to strengthen the student’s relationship to music, but also to create a relationship in which there is a strong level of trust so that we can talk honestly about a wide variety of situations. Some of my students who have gone on to teach at higher education institutes around the world still get in touch to run things by me. I think you can prepare students for success by providing support and by believing in them. But also, it’s important to be a good mentor by example, to keep relatively current and aware and stay open to new ideas, and to cultivate professional opportunities.


I think the biggest challenge during this pandemic is that we are all worried for our health. The risk of getting sick has been a constant, stressful backdrop when I work with students in person; COVID is never far from my mind. Even though it is risky to teach in person, it feels like an important risk to take. There’s still a special connection when we are all in the same room. I have been holding my piano seminars live —- to be spread out in the Recital Hall, listening to each other’s playing, and talking together about the music, was definitely the highlight of my week.


What kind of changes have you noticed in classical music education coming into 2021?


I actually think there will be a huge emphasis on under-represented composers. I have another student who will be doing her DMA recording project on African-American women composers, and it is so exciting to be getting to know new repertoires that were needlessly neglected.

In the piano literature course featuring women composers that I taught last semester, I saw students receiving the music of women composers with such open-heartedness and enthusiasm. This was very heartening to me, and it made class exciting. Other than distance learning and the new world of virtual performances that I mentioned earlier, the emphasis on under-represented composers is a very exciting change in classical music education for me.


What is your dream for classical music?


One of my dreams is to take classical music to parts of the world that have still not been exposed to classical music. Technology is really opening up the world. Since the internet is becoming more pervasive in remote areas, it makes it possible to connect with communities that we were previously unable to. I imagine it would also influence the classical music world to have virtual interactions: it’s a two-way street, and we can learn so much by listening to the music of indigenous communities, by watching their dances, and by observing ways other communities create art.


What is the most memorable advice you have received in your career as a classical musician?


Can it be artistic advice?

One of the things that changed my life was when Mr. György Sebök said “A great musician hears the notes in the inner ear BEFORE they activate the instrument.” This idea of inner hearing completely changed the place from which I make music.


Another piece of wisdom given to me is the idea that music is a language: the notes are like letters, the chords are like words, and the harmonic progression is like a sentence. The deeper your understanding of music as a language, the more authentic your message will be.


What advice do you most often share with your students, colleagues, and friends?


Cultivate a sense of gratitude, and try to spend most of your time on things that you love. Appreciate your best qualities, and do some gentle work on your worst qualities.


How do you manage your work-life balance?


Not well! My life is my work.


On a more serious note, we have dinner together most evenings, even if it is only 20 or 30 minutes. I am better at spending time with family if our son Sebastian is home from college.


What are some of the changes you have had to adapt to as a performing musician coming out of 2020? How have you adapted to these changes?


The pandemic caused a huge loss for most musicians. I was going to go to South America and tour with bassoonist Benjamin Coelho. I was going to make recordings with oboist Courtney Miller and bassist Volkan Orhon. I was going to teach in festivals in Germany and Colombia, and all of that was canceled.


As I mentioned, I myself have not done a lot of virtual performing, but I am looking forward to the group of virtual concerts for audiences in Chile, New York, and Iowa that I will be performing with cellist Hannah Holman this winter and spring.


The pandemic has opened my eyes to the possibilities that technology has created. I am looking forward to being more active about getting performances on YouTube and Facebook. The world seems smaller. For example, I was giving a master class for the InterHarmony Festival at the moment the Derecho hit Iowa. Musicians from all around the world found out about our storm.


Where do you look for inspiration to make music, perform, and teach?


I enjoy reading philosophical and religious texts, I enjoy listening to recordings, and I enjoy attending performances. I used to be somebody who went to a lot of live performances. I have had years when I tried to attend every single piano event in Iowa City. I also try not to limit my listening to piano music. I like taking inspiration and learning from other musicians, and I enjoy listening to other genres, such as opera, which is one of the highest genres for me.


What advice do you have for classical musicians navigating a career in music in 2021?


Plan now for the post-vaccine world! Don’t wait. A lot of festivals are planning to take place in person this summer; get out there again. If all goes well, things should start to open up later this year. Get things rolling now: set up concerts for yourself; plan summer events; and, talk to people about opportunities to perform in the community.


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