Interview: The piano

An interview with Ana Mirabela Dina

Photo credit to Ms. Dina’s son Leandro
This week, we have our third installment in our interview series, and one I am very excited about. The piano is really the crux of my interest in classical music, and while I spend a lot of time listening to Mahler symphonies and Sibelius and whatever else, the piano is where it all started, and coming off an 80-minute symphony, there’s something pure and refreshing about a piano sonata or nocturne. 
I did away with the “The Ensemble” prefix this week because the piano is a self-sufficient and wonderfully capable solo instrument. Today, we’re talking with Ms. Ana Mirabela Dina, who studied at the Cologne Conservatory of Music, and has performed and competed internationally, including 1st Prize at the “Martha Argerich International Piano Competition” in Buenos Aires in 1999. 
Ms. Dina, 

I am so thrilled to have you with us for this month’s interview. I am very excited to be able to pick your brain about a few questions today. It’s really an honor. I watched one of your master classes and loved it, so I am very happy to hear your thoughts. Let’s get started!

1. Was piano always your primary instrument? Did you ever consider another instrument? What is your first memory of the piano? What helped you to get where you are now in your career?

Yes, piano was my first and only instrument. Long before I was born, my mother who is a violinist and Chamber Music teacher, wished to have a child playing piano, and since I was her first born child … I think I just inherited her passion in a very natural way. So she found a good piano teacher and I started taking lessons when I was 4. I remember that I rather enjoyed the first lesson and couldn’t wait to see my teacher again ! In Romania, my native Country, you have Instrument lessons  twice a week and I think this is a very good system, especially when you start learning a new instrument. 
It is very difficult to answer to your last question… I don’t know what helped me to get where I am now – was it perseverance, interest, luck and a lot of work? I think it was all together and maybe more. 
2. What era or style of music do you gravitate toward? I have seen videos of you on YouTube playing everything from Mozart to Bartok. What do you love? What speaks to you? Is there a composer you particularly enjoy? Is there one you particularly don’t? 
I feel home playing Brahms, he is my composer, his music touches me and makes me suffer and happy. I love playing Haydn and Shostakovich, I have a special feeling with Ravel and I love

French music (Poulenc, Satie, Milhaud) . I sometimes have the feeling Chopin doesn’t really like me… I love his music, but it is doesn’t always belong to my way of expression. I respect Beethoven’s genius and love his transcendental 4th Piano Concerto… Right now, it is one of my favourite concertos together with Ravel G Major, Shostakovich 2nd concerto and ever since (!) Brahms B flat Major.

3. As a professional pianist, what does your practice consist of? I took piano lessons for a few years and most of my homework was scales and basic drills along with some of the most basic Burgmüller etudes. After reaching a certain level, what approach do you take to your practice? 
I never practiced scales,  I never liked them… I think they can be useful for some pianists, I rather prefer to work on the pieces. With my students I sometimes work on scales but more often etudes (good old Czerny still does a great job). For me the work on the piece remains to be the best way, starting with the difficult places.
4. I saw your collaboration with the world-famous Martha Argerich. What was it like to work with her? She has expressed that she does not like to perform alone, saying that she feels lonely on stage, and thus prefers trios or concertos, etc. What/how do you most enjoy performing? 
Playing with Martha was a fantastic experience. We played Tchaikowsky’s Nutcracker Suite at the Festival in Lugano and recorded it too. You must know that rehearsing with Martha is something very special: we never started to rehearse before 2 o’clock in the morning. It was fun and hard work together – on the EMI CD you can hear our live performance with some (few) corrections. 
About the preference of performing together with other musicians, I feel just like Martha. Earlier in my live I used to play lots of recitals, but now I prefer to have friends around me on the stage, playing chamber music, 4-hands piano recitals and orchestra concerts.
5. Is there a particular piano you are fond of? Something like 90% of concert halls throughout the world use a Steinway D, but Franz Liszt once said that he preferred Bechstein and Bösendorfer pianos. Do you have a particular preference for anything? Fazioli also comes to mind as a newcomer to the scene. 
I love the sound of a good Steinway… but I have also a secret love for old Bechstein pianos. Bösendorfer is not my favourite mark, but it depends on the instruments. Fazioli I don’t know so well, so I couldn’t tell.
6. Are there any pieces that always present problems for you, or that are always difficult? I watched an interview with the great Stephen Hough, who talked about the difficulty or unnaturalness (I forgot exactly how he put it) of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto(s?). While composers like Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, etc. were very accomplished pianists and very familiar with the mechanics of the piano, Hough suggests that Tchaikovsky’s writing is awkward and not comfortable for the hands. What’s hardest for you?
Chopin I think… his particular technique. When I was young, I was very surprised to realize that Liszt’s very virtuosic pieces actually felt very comfortable for a normal pianist hand. I played Tchaikowsky’s 1. Piano Concerto when I was 14 and I didn’t think it was particularly difficult – of course, you have the 3 octave places you have to practice at the beginning, but I couldn’t feel “unnatural” with it. With the 2nd Chopin Concerto I had more difficulties… Rachmaninoff always felt very natural too, but some places of some Beethoven sonatas were very hard to manage. Anyway I think the most difficult piece I’ve ever played was Bartok’s Dance Suite. But I felt very good playing his 3rd Piano Concerto!
7. Tell us about a few of your favorite pieces (or just one) for the piano and why you love it so much. I always enjoy hearing about musical insights and sentiments toward a piece. 
I think I may have answered to this question before – my favourite piano Piece is the 2nd Brahms Concerto. It sounds like a Cathedral to me, like a very complex piano symphony with this wonderful slow movement who touches me deeply every time I listen to or play it. It is an old love story between us and I think it will stay forever.
8. Is a pianist always adding to their repertoire, or only refining and perfecting their current pieces? I think of people like Garrick Ohlsson or Idil Biret, who each apparently have more than 70 piano concerti in their repertoire. Are you always learning new pieces or is there a point where you focus on what you already know?
Well, I don’t know what other pianists do, but I love to learn new pieces that I want to play and in the meanwhile to get a deeper understanding of the music I already played before. It is not easy to find the balance between the two actions, but I try to do my best. 
9. When you get an invitation to perform or have an event coming up, how much time do you need to spend ‘brushing up’ on a piece? Are they always performance-ready? If it’s one you haven’t performed recently, how much time do you need to put into it to get it ready for performance?
It depends on the piece. It is a big difference between playing a Rachmaninoff Concerto or an early Beethoven Concerto, and it depends of how often I played the piece before. But generally not more than 3-4 weeks. 
10. How much rehearsal time do you generally have as guest soloist with an ensemble/conductor before you perform together? What are the challenges or things you guys address in that limited time? 
They are usually 2 rehearsals with an orchestra before each concert, sometimes only one. I prefer to rehears more in order to create a deeper harmony with the conductor and the orchestra, so I sometimes require for a third rehearsal. But in general you have 2 rehearsals. 
11. Many pianists in the past have become very well-known conductors or maintain careers as both. In the modern day, I think of Eschenbach, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, among many others. Is that something inherent to pianists? Would you ever be interested in conducting? 
Sincerely, I don’t think I am interested in being a conductor. I respect very much the work conductors do, I think it is very interesting and hard and I  generally love to interact with conductors, even so I think this is not meant for me. But I also learned the meaning of saying “Never say never”
12. I have watched a master class you taught on Chopin’s fourth ballade, which is absolutely one of my favorite pieces in the repertoire. If I could practice and perfect any one piece, that would be it. I am years away from being able to play even the easiest of large-scale pieces, so the advice you gave to your student isn’t really applicable to me, but it was still so insightful and interesting to hear. How do you prepare for a master class?  
Generally I don’t prepare for master classes. There is a lot of intuitive in my teaching on master classes, especially when I teach a piece I never played – it was the case with the 4th Chopin Ballade. Sometimes also happens to teach a piece I never heard before, and I sometimes get some nervous, at least at the beginning. Most of the time I just start telling what I think about the performance of that piece I didn’t really know before and the ideas of interpretation arrive by themselves. In my opinion, you have all written down in the score, all you have to do is just know how to read it… I basically try to help younger pianists to learn how to read behind all the notes by themselves.
13. What goes through your head before you walk out on stage? As a pianist, the focus is almost always on you. Whether it’s a solo performance or accompaniment, much less a concerto, there’s not much room to hide. Are you always nervous, or does that ever subside at some point in your career? 
Sometimes I am very nervous. It always depends on what I am playing and where. The most nervous I am when I play home, in my native city in Romania – everybody there knows me from my childhood and I see myself there again as the 10 years-old girl I was when I made my debut on the Stage of the Philharmonic of Craiova! I remember at that time I wasn’t really nervous before going on stage, maybe because of the sweet unconsciousness of the young age; the older you get, the more you realize what your human limits are and lose some of this naivety, by getting maturity and consciousness.
14. For most people (aside from professional musicians), music is a hobby, a passion, a getaway from work and the real world. When music IS your work and your real world, how does it change your relationship with it? Since it is your life, what are your hobbies, your getaways from your professional career?
My principal “hobby” is spending time with my two boys, playing games with them, watching movies and just talking. I also like to go for long walks in the woods where I often find inspiration for my music and I listen all kind of music other than classical (Tango, Jazz, Bossa Nova, Flamenco). Since 3 years I started to play tennis and I love it! 

15. What makes up a day in the life of a concert pianist? Aside from practicing, what do your daily responsibilities consist of in a professional sense? What is your favorite part of your job?
Certainly not the practising! The last few years I started to teach more and play less concerts. Teaching became more and more my principal activity and I like to share some of my personal experience with the young musicians. Also to answer to your question, I think my favourite part of my job is sharing the joy of music and I cannot put limits between the joy of rehearsing and playing chamber music, the exchanges of ideas with my students while teaching or the precious moments when I feel I could establish a harmonious dialogue with an orchestra while playing my favourites piano concertos.
Thanks so much for your thoughts, Ms. Dina! I really appreciate hearing what you have to say about music and your love of the craft and sharing it with others!
As usual, a very enjoyable and educational discussion. I feel like I need to be having these ‘conversations’ on overstuffed leather sofas with a nice bottle of wine or something. If anyone is interested in coming to visit Taipei and would like to do that, I’m definitely available for a chat about music over a bottle of wine!
I’m not sure who in my list of in-progress musicians will show up for our next interview (in a month-ish), but I’m looking forward to all of them. Stay tuned!

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