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Goan-origin concert pianist Gavin Martin is scheduled to give a piano duo concert along with his wife Joanne Pearce Martin, on 17 September 2012 at Kala Academy (donation passes are available at Furtados Music in Panjim and Margao).

He agreed to be interviewed about his “homecoming concert” and more.

Welcome back to Goa, Mr. Martin! How does it feel to play once again in your "native land"?

I last played in Goa in the early 80s. I absolutely love playing in India. It is more than being back home. Audiences’ reaction to what they like and dislike is very palpable, and as a solo performer, knowing when you have their attention, and when you are about to lose them, makes you change your playing on the fly.

Tell us a little about your upcoming concert programme. We don’t get duo pianists performing here that often. 

My wife Joanne and I perform regularly as 2-piano team. We have played most of the standard repertoire written for this genre. We also perform on 2 pianos with orchestra, including concertos and works like Carnival of the Animals.

We originally wanted to play a 2-piano recital in Goa, but had to change plans when we found out that 2 pianos were not available. We decided instead to mix it up a bit with some solo pieces in combination with duets. We have not performed much as a 4-hand 1-piano team, though we have spent many hours playing through the duet repertoire in informal settings – so this concert is going to feel a bit like playing in our living room! Four hands on one piano is logistically very challenging, especially when it comes to pedaling, which has to be done by one player. Pedaling for another player is akin to controlling the throttle for a driver while sitting in the passenger seat. There is also the issue of sharing a bench, not to mention having to elbow your way for keyboard real estate!

What is it like, performing with one’s own spouse? Does the line between home and work get blurred too much?

Performing together is a real joy. Putting two capable pianists together does not always make for a good team, as there is something intangible that needs to click. Pianos are essentially percussion instruments (even though we strive to give the illusion they sing), and because of this the two partners need to feel and breathe together to be in sync. Even though Joanne and I have very different playing styles, we have great respect for each other’s views, which is essential for a successful duo. Also, playing together for 30 years has made it a lot easier for us to anticipate each other’s moves! When we work together (we have two pianos at home), it is generally all business, and personal stuff is shut out – just like practicing on one’s own. Though I must say that the ensemble does suffer a bit on those very rare occasions that we have a personal tiff!

In the solo works you & Joanne have on the programme, you have chosen a lot of Rachmaninov, while she has a fair amount of Chopin. Are these your particular "favourite" composers, or was there another reason?

Joanne’s choice of the Chopin Ballade was based on a personal request from my mum, who lives in Goa. She was the main instigator for us playing here. It is one of her favourite tracks on the solo CD that Joanne released a few years ago.

My choice of music was based on what I thought might be appreciated in Goa, along with a sort of personal tribute to one of my teachers, the late Jorge Bolet, a pianist who left a very lasting impression on my playing. He was one of the last of the great Romantic throwbacks from the time of Rachmaninov, Godowsky, and Hoffman. He played a lot of the piano-transcription literature, music which had fallen by the wayside after the 50s.

Transcriptions are more than just arrangements – they are often intricate reworking of songs, orchestral music, violin music, and yes, also existing piano music. They are not performed often, as many "serious" pianists look down on them, and consider them to be "showy". On the contrary, some of them contain some of the most beautiful music written for the instrument.

I’m playing two transcriptions of Rachmaninov, a composer I consider to be the greatest pianist of the last century. Both are based on popular violin pieces, one by Bach, the other by Fritz Kreisler. I’m also playing two poignant transcriptions of Leopold Godowsky.  I’m closing with a virtuoso piece by Schulz-Evler, a forgotten pianist, who had an entry in the Groves dictionary that said " he may be remembered by some elderly concert goers for his Blue Danube transcription".  I hope that I bring to Goa pieces that, while familiar, have never been played in this form here before.

Classical music is having a hard time keeping its listener base throughout the western world today, partly because of the stuffy associations it has held. I am not saying that the great masters are relics, for indeed they are the cornerstones of the art form – but we can never forget that music is essentially entertainment. As a performer, I am always very grateful for audiences turning up for a concert, as there are many other things they could have done with their time. My ultimate aim is to hope they walk away with a feeling that they were touched in some way, and entertained.

Having grown up in India, you will relate to the difficulties our youth here continue to face in their pursuit of western classical music. In your view, are things getting better or worse? Are the youth today in India better off in this respect compared to when you were studying piano here?

I have not lived in India since 1975, and have only been back for short visits. It is hard for me to answer this question, as I have been very much out of touch with the music scene here. I will say this though – the information age and the Internet have changed things in a huge way since I grew up in India in the 60s and 70s. As an example, I had at my disposal a sum total of about 15 classical LPs until I left India, and was able to hear visiting artists about 8 times a year. This was my total exposure to classical music outside piano lessons. With Youtube, and numerous other Internet resources, that has completely changed today. In terms of education with the view to professional career, I don’t know enough to make a valid response.

What should India do to improve the status quo in western classical music? 

This is a tough one. Music institutions in the west are grappling with this issue also, as concert attendance has dwindled in recent years, and in many parts of the world today it is mainly the domain of the white-haired well-heeled crowd. 

Classical music has traditionally always been funded or subsidized by private or state funds.

Many European countries are having a hard time keeping classical music organizations afloat because of recent economic downturns. These organizations also have not traditionally been used to private fund-raising, as taxpayers have generally funded them.

The LA Phil has taken a bold stance of introducing contemporary music to attract younger audiences, a formula that while appearing at odds, actually seems to be working.

We were playing in Venezuela earlier this year, where they are doing amazing things with classical music as a social service, to raise better citizens, and keep kids in the ghettos away from gangs by putting instruments in their hands and having them play in orchestras. El Sistema here has truly brought classical music to the masses.

The question vis-a-vis classical music and India is this: Is there enough will power to want to improve its status? I’m happy to discuss this with you at length when we have some time during our trip.

How can India utilise the resources of overseas musicians with a pre-existing bond with the country (like yourself) in helping build an enduring infrastructure, a solid foundation for the future of classical music?

The infrastructure of classical music in India has changed quite a bit since I last played here in 1985. I understand that there are new orchestras and many more students.

As far as it being enduring, it’s tough to say. Classical music has never been a populist pastime for listeners anywhere in the world, and it will always require the efforts of a few to keep it going.

In a sense, the tradition has been an aural tradition, handed down from generation to generation by practitioners of the art. Technology has changed that somewhat. As a career, music has never been a practical choice for most. In the west, most students who go to music conservatories end up making their living teaching, which creates this cycle of teachers who teach teachers.

The world is truly a global village today, and Indians making their mark overseas elevate India’s role in the Classical music world by default. Those who have illustrious careers serve as inspirations to future generations of Indians.

(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times Goa India on 4 September 2012)

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