Remember the good old days when we could travel freely? This is from mid-February 2020, not so long ago, but it seems like a forgotten era.
My trusty cabbie had advised an early start to the airport. “Konn tori Purtugal-chyan ieta aiz!” he said with some exasperation, anticipating delays en route.
While most of Goa was going ga-ga over the visit of the Portuguese President here, (with even our beloved CM abandoning his customary hostility to the country he loves to hate, perhaps even more so than everyone’s whipping-boy Pakistan! Thank heavens the President tested negative for COVID-19 too), I travelled to Mumbai to listen to a veritable Portuguese icon who had slipped into India without any cerimônia: Maria João Pires.
Politicians come and go like so many viral epidemics, but Pires is a living legend, certainly the greatest classical musician to emerge from Portugal in our time, perhaps ever in her nation’s history.
I was privileged to hear her several times during my decade in the UK. Two memorable concerts that still stand out are her appearances at the BBC Proms festival, first in August 1998, barely a month after I arrived in London, when she played Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Claudio Abbado; and a year later Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G major with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Myung-Whun Chung.
In 2014, when I got wind of her maiden visit to India for two performances at the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) Mumbai, I immediately brought it to the notice of the then-Director of Fundação Oriente, Eduardo Kol de Carvalho, and suggested we try our best to organise her recital in Goa. A lengthy correspondence with her agent sadly didn’t yield fruit. A pity, as her performance fee, while steep (and understandably so for an artist of her calibre) was far less than, say, a Bollywood star would charge (and sponsors here would readily cough up) for merely an appearance. A lost opportunity for Goa.
I went to Mumbai to hear her play Mozart Piano Concerto no. 9 (‘Jeunehomme’) K. 271 with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) under the direction of her good friend and musical partner Augustin Dumay in September 2014.
Another reason I made the trip was that I had heard of Belgais. In 1999, Pires founded the Centro de Belgais for the Study of the Arts, near Castelo Branco, an institution devoted to the teaching and dissemination of music among children, especially disadvantage and abused children. I had heard also of the many obstacles she faced. I wanted to talk to her about Child’s Play and seek her advice.
In a 2007 interview to the Telegraph, “Why I turned my back on my homeland”, Pires spoke of being “crucified” by her country’s press, and of how the resistance, hostility and slander she faced began to affect her health, influencing her decision to move to Brazil, leaving Belgais in the care of a friend. But she then embarked on a comparable scheme in socially difficult areas of Brazil, aimed at involving children in choral singing and giving them hope and a sense of pride that they might not otherwise acquire. In 2017, Pires moved back to Belgais where I’m sure she must have some involvement in the work there, although she vowed to “learn from mistakes” and not take on too much all by herself.
Pires greeted me warmly backstage in the green room after her 2014 concert. We spoke for quite some time, until the throng of autograph-seekers could no longer be kept at bay. She stressed the importance of choral singing for children, of learning how to “be silent, to listen, to pay attention”, the sense of the collective, the “we” instead of “I” when making music, and in life in general.
She repeated to me what she’s said several times before in interviews, how much she dislikes being in the limelight, how “unnatural” it is. In a 2010 interview to the London Evening Standard, she had said “I don’t enjoy being on stage — I never have — but it’s one thing not to enjoy it, another not to cope with it.”
That might seem like a bizarre admission from one of the world’s greatest concert pianists alive, for whom the concert stage has been ‘home’ for close to seven decades now, given that her first public recital took place at the age of five, in Portugal. But I think it isn’t at all paradoxical. She just is much more comfortable making music with others (the “we” instead of “I”) in cosier settings for smaller audiences. It is no coincidence that the composers she has recorded, performed most often and obviously loves very much (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Franck, Debussy) pre-date the age of the mammoth concert hall that seat hundreds, sometimes thousands, instead of a much more modest, intimate circle. In a sense, Pires belongs to a different era.
As at her last visit, Pires was the box-office draw again in February 2020, with not an empty seat in NCPA’s 1109-capacity Jamshed Bhabha auditorium. But when she emerged to tumultuous applause after the interval to play Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in C minor, opus 37 with the SOI, again led by Dumay, she seemed almost embarrassed by the fuss.
There is nothing flashy about the concert persona of Maria João Pires, quite the opposite. Her dress sense is understated, practical, with sober colours as if to encourage the listener to focus not on her but the music.
Many observers point to the influence of Buddhist thought in her approach to music; her grandfather was a practicing Buddhist, and she studied Buddhism seriously in her forties, but doesn’t like the ‘Buddhist’ label. “Before anything, I’m a human being,” Pires stated disarmingly in a 2012 interview.
The sleeve note to her Beethoven album (featuring this same concerto with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding on the Onyx label) contains an essay by her in which she speaks of “music’s essential power to bring out a primal simplicity, which is present deep inside each one of us, waiting to respond when summoned”.
Pires readily admits that she prefers the recording studio to the concert hall, but it is this same “primal simplicity” that she strove to awaken in each one of us that happy evening.
This time round, I didn’t attempt to meet her again backstage. Her parting shot to me in 2014, when I sought her advice on Child’s Play, was to “never give up, come what may!” It is advice I have taken to heart.
(An edited version of this article was published on 27 May 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)