Playing it like it is

Croatian classical pianist Ivo Pogorelich is a goodwill ambassador on and off stage.

ivo pogorelich 311 (photo credit: .)
ivo pogorelich 311
(photo credit: .)
Ivo Pogorelich has never been known to do things by halves. When the celebrated Croatian classical pianist, who will give four concerts here between March 15 and 19, burst onto the international scene at the age of only 22, it was naturally in exceptional circumstances.
It was toward the end of a 10-year stint in Moscow, where he had studied music at the Central Music School and then the Moscow Conservatory. This included four years of tuition with Georgian teacher Aliza Kezeradze, whom he married in 1980, the 16-year age difference notwithstanding.
In the same year, he entered the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw and was eliminated in the third round. The furor surrounding the decision was so great that one of the judges famously proclaimed him a “genius” and resigned from the jury in protest.
Less emotionally sturdy budding artists would, no doubt, have immediately made an appointment with a career adviser and found a different means of keeping body and soul in the same place. But nothing could have been further from Pogorelich’s mind at the time.
“I had lived in Moscow, under the communist regime, for many years by then,” says the 51-year-old in a telephone interview from Switzerland. “We knew, months before the competition, that the Communist Party had already decided to give first place in the competition to a Vietnamese pianist [Dang Thai Son]. So I was not surprised.”
Wasn’t he even slightly frustrated with the fixing?
“Look, I was already married with a child,” he says. “I just got on with things.”
In fact, says Pogorelich, the media fanfare that accompanied his failure in the competition was the best thing that could have happened to him: “I got so much out of that. I got more out of that competition, in terms of my career, than any winner has ever done.”
And he has the track record to prove it. Prior to the Warsaw debacle, Pogorelich won the Casagrande Competition in Terni, Italy, in 1978 and the Montreal International Music Competition in 1980. A year later he gave his debut recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and he made his first appearance in London. Since then, he has played numerous solo recitals worldwide and has performed with most of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic.
On the face of it, Pogorelich seemed to have had everything going for him from the start. He was a supremely gifted young pianist – with looks to match – and although it is arguably going a bit far to say that he courted trouble, he certainly never flinched at a fight or shied away from controversy. He was frequently the subject of an eclectic range of media interest, not all of which focused on his musicianship.
“I started a little older than Mozart. I had attributes that provoked jealousy. People said I was good-looking and rich. I waited for the day when people stopped talking about my looks, my talent and my money,” he says in a typically forthright manner. “Now I am over 50, they say I am ‘well-preserved.’”
Judging by recent pictures, Pogorelich is indeed “well-preserved.” Generally his robust health is more a matter of sweat than good genes. As a child, he suffered from chronic rheumatic fever, and later hepatitis. Rather than accept any long-term disability, he took on a demanding regime of exercise – originally devised in the 1920s to keep Russian ballet dancers trim – which he maintains to this day, and takes long walks on a daily basis.
One might think Pogorelich doesn’t care too much for the media, or for gossip about the non-musical sides of his life. Wrong.
“I am a champion of publicity,” he declares. “If people are jealous, that’s their problem. Jealousy is very potent. The only way to get rid of jealous people is to let them burst with their own jealousy.”
It certainly didn’t stop Pogorelich’s career from developing in double-quick time. He began recording for Deutsche Grammophon, and in 1982 he became one of the music label’s exclusive artists. Over the years, he has covered an extensive oeuvre and made laudable recordings of works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Liszt, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Scarlatti, Scriabin, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. It is, perhaps, his interpretations of the last’s compositions with which he is most readily identified.
WATCHING POGORELICH’S performance in the 1980 Chopin competition, it is easy to understand why the juror stormed out of the proceedings. The youngster produced a peerless rendition of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3, mixing audacious, blistering keyboard attacks with gossamer mellifluous passages. In the hindsight of three decades, the mix somewhat encapsulates the artist and the man.
As one might expect, Pogorelich has a clear-cut opinion about the romantic Polish composer – though, despite his mastery of Chopin’s works,  that opinion is not exactly starry-eyed admiration.
“Everyone is touched by his music, but in the end, he was frail and vain. I was disappointed when I read his letters,” he says. “He went to England and met Queen Victoria, and he later said that she had a condescending smile. It made me sick when I read that.”
Pogorelich believes that Chopin’s view of life also had a detrimental effect on his artistic output: “He made bad choices in life. He would have left us with more treasures had he been better as a person.”
Among his other attributes, Pogorelich appears to be something of an Anglophile. He lived in England for 20 years and developed a strong bond with the British.
“Queen Elizabeth fascinates me,” he says. “She is never sick and she is always dutiful. I wonder whether her citizens realize how lucky they are to have her as their queen.”
Pogorelich is a great believer of putting his money squarely where his mouth is: “Picasso, for instance, produced works of great genius, and people wondered where he got his inspiration. He’d tell them he put in eight or nine hours of hard work before the inspiration came to him. I didn’t get where I am today just by chance. I have always worked hard. When I was at music school, I got a few pennies with which I somehow had to get three meals a day. People ask me about my money. People today want instant success – they are not interested in how you got to that success.”
WHILE SOME may add epithets like “provocative” or “brash” to his genius tag, Pogorelich has been showing the world a different, softer facet of his personality for over 20 years. After making his initial mark on the global stage, Pogorelich was a regular visitor to the world’s great concert halls, garnering rave reviews and kudos by the bucketful. However, in 1996 Pogorelich’s wife died, and for a number of years, his concert performances were few and far between. Instead, he devoted more of his time to investing in the musicians of the future, through a foundation he had set up in 1986 in Croatia. Three years after that, he established an annual music festival – in his own name – in Bad Wörishofen, Germany. The aim of the festival is to support promising young musicians by giving them the opportunity to perform in tandem with renowned artists.
In 1993, he founded the International Solo Piano Competition, in conjunction with the Ambassador Foundation, in Pasadena, California. Like its German counterpart, this event was established to help young musicians develop their careers, with the competition winner receiving a substantial cash prize. Pogorelich’s humanitarian efforts did not go unnoticed by the UN: He has been an official United Nations ambassador of goodwill since 1988.
Having been born in Belgrade, then part of Yugoslavia, to a Croatian mother and Serbian father, Pogorelich was naturally sensitive to the horrors that took place as the former Yugoslav republic broke up and a bloody war ensued in early 1990s. In 1994, he set up a foundation in Sarajevo, the capital of former Yugoslav republic Bosnia and Herzegovina, to raise money to build a hospital and to provide medical support for the city’s people. He has also given numerous charity concerts to raise money for treatment of, and research into, serious ailments such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.
Although Pogorelich maintains a more sporadic concert schedule these days, his artistry is still highly appreciated. Following his recital at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival, one critic noted that the pianist conveyed a sense of being “intensely self-absorbed” – adding, however, that “this approach also ensured there were no barriers between us, the music and his interpretations.” The reviewer also called Pogorelich’s rendition of Chopin’s Sonata No 3 “pure poetry, unsentimental and glorious.” He evidently still has what it takes to produce virtuoso performances and charm his audiences.
Pogorelich attributes some of what he does to his multicultural origins: “My mother was Serbian, from the realms of the Ottoman Empire, and my father came from a country that was dominated by empires – the Greeks, the Romans, and later the Austro-Hungarian empire and also the Italians. I was fortunate to hear different languages when I was a child. That adds a cultural richness to what I do.”
So where does Pogorelich really feel at home?
“I lived in Moscow for 10 years and in London for 20 years,” he says.“My wife was descended from a Roman imperial family, and I have a housein Istanbul, where East meets West. It’s all part of the same world.”
Pogorelich will appear at Tel Aviv’sMann Auditorium (March 15), the Jerusalem Theater (March 16), theAuditorium in Haifa (March 18) and Heichal Hatarbut in Beersheba (March19).