06 May 2021
Pianist Nada made history when she became the first woman from the Middle East to earn first prize in piano performance at the Paris Conservatory. Below she talks about her recent Brahms release, which completes her recordings of Brahms’ works for solo piano. The album, Johannes Brahms Parts I, II, and III (2019), includes 3 CDs and 30 individual tracks. She also talks about her efforts for music outreach, as well as a little about her background and how she found her calling to play the music of Brahms.
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You’ve recorded all of Brahms’ solo works for piano – and transcribed his organ works for solo piano – over 5 albums. Not to be too reductive of Brahms, but what has been the most interesting, or most quintessentially “Brahmsian” quality or idea that runs through all of these solo works?
It’s a little bit personal, ‘why Brahms?’. I don’t know, but the challenge of playing Brahms is real and I think a lot of pianists are shy of it because it is very difficult music to understand and convey. I think that would be the main characteristic of what it takes to achieve the whole thing: get into his universe and then you have to stand up to the challenge of playing it, and naturally transmitting the emotional message. I see Brahms in his music—I feel who and how he was. But then there is of course the technical challenge, the symphonic proportions of his music, the layers of writing. It’s such rich music that no matter how many times you read through it, you always uncover something new, you always evolve. It’s the type of music you can never get tired of – that’s what is so challenging about it.
Brahms, on many points, reminds me of Bach because Brahms has those layers of incredible richness – not only contrapuntal, but the way it is written, and the way the phrases somehow interact in between the music. This is romantic music. The emotions that run through the music of Bach are not as complex as those that run through the music of Brahms. The music of Brahms is infinite in seeking its message.
The piano music is not as well served as the symphonies. The chamber music has been played and recorded a lot more, but the piano solo repertoire for some reason is not. Why? Because a lot of it is technically difficult and challenging. Brahms was a great pianist (and people tend to forget that). When I discovered all of this only seven years ago, I thought oh my gosh, who is this?
But I relished the challenge. I’ve always been best when there is a challenging situation, maybe because of my childhood in the [Lebanese Civil] war, I don’t know. But I always challenge myself in music. I learned a lot on my own… I was always looking for big challenges, so here we go. Brahms is the challenge of my life.
"The challenge of playing Brahms is real and I think a lot of pianists are shy of it because it is very difficult music to understand and convey." - Pianist Nada
How did you know that you were ready for Brahms?
That I knew I was ready for it? Probably not. That I knew that this was coming to me? Absolutely not. I work through my life through challenges very well. Why? Because probably that’s who I am, in many ways, and because our life is who we are. Even though I was living in a country with war, this piano thing was following me everywhere. It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my soul, apparently. As you grow up, you keep following these inner directions inside of you and that’s what happened to me. Without this inner direction, I would not have survived everything I have survived in my life. And it’s a long story of incredible miracles that happened that I survived. I will not shy away from the crazy stuff I’ve been involved in when I write my life story. I can give you a few examples.
My time in the United States has been one of the roughest that anyone can have in their life. I’ve had accidents that no pianist wants to have. I’ve broken arms. I broke two wrists. I also had emotional accidents. I had a very bad divorce. I’ve also had life accidents because my life has been a struggle after the divorce. I am an immigrant with no family support at all and yet I am in one of the most expensive professions in the world. Everything was against me as I was trying to keep playing the piano and honestly, Jacqueline, there are some moments where I thought I would never play the piano.
For example, when I had no piano and I had to make a living, I was a flight attendant. I was thinking I would be doing that for the next ten years of my life just to be able to survive and maybe, in ten years, just maybe I’d be able to get a piano and start playing again. At that point in my life there was no piano, and yet I hung on to it. Even as a flight attendant, I would stop in a hotel if there was a piano and I would try to play a little bit on it. And then something within me decided that being a flight attendant was not for me. I left my job and then suddenly I was back teaching the piano and having a piano at home.
So, there was this karma, this thing that was uncontrollable – but what was in my control was that there was always inside me. I had to do music. Eventually I was in a position where I could play again. I was rebuilding my technique because I had been through a lot. I had also been through disease – I’m a cancer survivor on top of everything. I’m still here.
My life has been a challenge and playing the piano in my life has been a challenge. I always want to improve myself. I guess I never had a chance like many other pianists to be in such an environment that I could improve myself continuously. But when the time came, I eagerly started to learn everything I possibly could. I created my own little radio series where I started learning repertoire and played a different concert every month with new repertoire. A lot of the repertoire I played on the series I only played only once because of this eagerness to learn and to challenge myself. I did a lot of Liszt and Chopin because I was celebrating the centennials of their births. I kept improving myself through this challenge.
Learning the work of a composer so completely must be a bit like having Brahms as a teacher. What have you learned from Brahms that you might not have otherwise learned or understood about the piano?
Many pianists may not have considered the piano music of Brahms as being one of the most difficult. Even for someone that doesn’t know his music well, if you try play his Op 118, one of his last, it’s a difficult piece but maybe not as difficult as his other music.
From an emotional point of view, playing his music is…it’s still a challenge. It will remain a challenge forever. Mozart came easily to me, but why play Mozart now? I find it satisfying to play the music of Brahms: it’s rich, it’s wonderful, it feels pianistically good to unload everything I have learned about the piano in his music. Everything I have ever learnt about the piano, I find in his music. So, it’s more complete than any other music, for that reason. Brahms is like a complete image of everything I have learned about the piano.
This is precisely why Brahms is probably perceived as being so difficult. His music requires a holistic knowledge of the piano and pianistic techniques.
Playing Beethoven well will not teach you how to play Brahms. Although, never play Brahms like Beethoven because they have nothing in common. People in general confuse the two and play Brahms with a similar approach as Beethoven. Of course, they are related by history, but people make the mistake often to play Brahms like Beethoven. But Brahms is romantic; Beethoven was not yet there. It’s very different.
And Brahms has many more layers than Beethoven. You have to play naturally and freely. People are afraid to play his music freely. So yes, really his music is like a big resumé of all that I have learned about the piano.
Can you talk about the sound people associate with Brahms? People think he requires this large sound, all the time, constantly, because he was such a big, imposing figure.
Well, he did create big sound for the piano in his Hungarian Dance renditions, but also right from the beginning, his first three piano sonatas… they are huge and demand so much energy. He created the symphonic sound of the piano really early on, but do you know how tiny he was? When you read the accounts of Schumann and his friends, you realize that Brahms was not tall, and was never fat when he was young (although later turned into the huge man of his Vienna years). He was really fit, he was more like an athlete – running stairs, doing incredible hair-raising tricks on the stairs for the children of the Schumanns. He would ride his bike in Germany. He was a romantic, a completely crazy romantic. When he was young, people did not see this aspect of him. You have to get them to see this through his music; to understand that you have to have a big sound, not because he was a big man but because this is who he was inside. He was big, he was strong, he was huge inside – it’s his soul that was so big.
He was an extremely passionate man from his childhood – in falling in love with Clara [Schumann], projecting this huge love on her for so many years and, on top of it, being in so much of control of it. That is amazing, that is a sign of huge strength. He was younger than her. It wasn’t a good idea to be with her because he saw how much love there was between her and [Robert] Schumann on the deathbed, and then he cut it off. He stopped –I mean, now we would need psychoanalysis to be going through all this on our own – but he did it on his own, by himself, and by creating this incredibly charged music that we have from him. The first piano concerto is all about that – it’s all about the struggle that he was going through.
To me, when I look through his music, I see this amazing strength, this amazing power, this amazing drive that he had inside that led him to create what he left us. That to me is a huge part of who he was.
Brahms also did variations on themes by Paganini, Bach, Handel, and Hungarian dances/folk music, among others. Do you think Brahms is better when working from his own original themes and music or when he is playing with variations on themes or stretching the concepts and ideas of other source material?
I don’t think either is better than the other. To answer the question more simply, it strikes me that when the theme is something that they can work on, they can then make it their own. So, whether it’s another composer’s theme or whether it’s their own, if they come up with a theme that they want to create a piece with and suddenly they decide ‘oh no! That’s going to be better as a variation’, it doesn’t matter. To me the skills of creating variations are not related to where the theme is coming from—if it comes from the composer himself or if he took it from someone else.
When I look at Brahms, for example, one of the most beautiful set of variations ever written is the one that he wrote under Op 21 No 1, which is on one of his own themes. However, I also love the Op 9 which was written on the Schumann theme.
And the Paganini variations are incredible but they are so demanding, they are so crazy, they are some of the most difficult pieces ever written for the piano.
The variations on Handel – it’s not his theme and it’s an amazing piece. And now look at the symphonies; the last symphony is one of the most incredible works ever written for orchestra.
It’s incomparable. To me, it doesn’t make a difference.
I was listening to your recording of the organ chorales and I thought that they almost seemed meditative, almost minimalist (in a Brahmsian sense) – all while exhibiting that strength and fortitude that you have mentioned that you feel from Brahms. I think the flip side of strength is not weakness but vulnerability – which I think I hear more in your performance of Brahms.
Is there a place to draw a line between the vulnerability you bring to your performance and the vulnerability that exists in Brahms’s music? Or as a performer, does that distinction not even matter?
Yes, Brahms is very strong but he is really vulnerable, like every one of us. You can hear it in some of his pieces and probably at most in the chorales. The chorale was the last work he wrote and was composed for the organ. The organ was some kind of early childhood dream for him, and he did even dream of becoming a concert organist. At the time, he was projecting this huge love onto Clara, and he wanted to go with her on tours. He would have thought, if I am a concert organist, then I can go with her on these tours. There is so much that the organ meant for him. I have been attracted to the organ also. When I arrived in Paris, I wanted to play the organ and I was sitting down at any organ I could and trying to play Bach by myself.
The last 5 chorales at least were written probably when he was already sick, not knowing he was sick. He died of liver (or pancreatic) cancer. But when he was writing the chorales he must have sensed this question: Where am I going? Is this the end? And then there was the death of Clara. All of this probably caused a lot of vulnerability in him. He must have known somewhere deeply in him that this was the end for him.
He does show it in the chorales, I believe, because of the choice of the text he selected. All the text he selected is about afterlife, question marks, …they are beautiful but not religious. Only a few of those talk about Jesus or anything religion-related, but mainly they talk about passing away in peace, trials that will ease, gladness everlasting: Jesus quickly come, my eternal home, oh world I must leave. They are all about something he knew inside. For example, No 5: Grant me a healthy body and that in my body, there will remain an inviolate full and a healthy conscience.
The chorales are full of questions. What did we do in life that is meaningful or not meaningful? He also had questions about his music – What is my music worth? Will it stay? Will it not stay? Where is music going?
Yes, I definitely think from all the repertoire, the chorales are probably where he shows most of his vulnerability with his lieders, which are not very well-known, particularly the last lieders where he talks about death. They are very dark. The lieders and other choral works, like the motets, are clues to his heart. For example, in the motet Op 74 for choir that asks why, “Warum,” we hear the questions and vulnerability of the human behind the music.
Your chorale album is an incredible feat of recording! This 3-CD album was recorded over seven days. How do you prepare for these long recording sessions?
I got myself ready to do it in a week, but we couldn’t do it in a week, originally. We had to divide it in different locations and on different pianos. It’s quite demanding. I just prepared myself for 2-3 months in advance with the music all day long; living with the music, planning in my head and listening to myself inside my head and in front of my piano. I did everything I could, leading into the process itself. I didn’t perform much of this music, which is kind of, a bit interesting. I don’t know why it happened to be a year where things were much quieter. I had less concerts too.
Every one of those albums took a different type of approach and preparation. For the first album a couple of years ago, I performed the music a couple of times before I came in the studio and I was just electrified. I recorded the first album in one day. I didn’t sleep over night, but I still recorded. But I couldn’t do that with this three-CD set. That’s a lot of music to be recorded in one day! I don’t like to spend too much time. Whatever I have to do, I like to be super efficient. The sonata for example only took one take – I didn’t play it twice. Some other pieces I play more than once.
I try to mentalise and be inside; truly emotionally far in advance. When I come in the studio, I just let the music come through me and play through it. Of course, it’s not perfect right away, I’m not a machine and far from that I’m also a pianist who’s struggled in my life with a lot of things. I’m a pianist who wants to play music and communicate the messages I seek because music is a language, the messages I feel. I believe I am on this earth to be a communication tool for those who are gone. In the recording studio, I sit on the piano and the sound becomes one with the composer, with myself and with the piano.
"Brahms is very strong but he is really vulnerable, like every one of us." - Pianist Nada
We’ve touched on some of your life and biography, but I think I’d like to ask more about your relationships with your family, if you are willing. In 2016, you gave a concert in tribute to your mother, marking the 30th anniversary of her death. May I ask about your mother and how she understood your calling to study the piano?
I was in France when she died. I was already at the conservatory, and I had already won the first prize of the Paris Conservatory. She had travelled to be with me in France when I was presented with my competition prize. But I would go back [home] for every vacation. Every Lebanese immigrant student at that time, during the war, we all went back for every vacation—we would be spending it with family.
The last time I saw her was with my boyfriend. I had a boyfriend at the time in France, a wonderful, young violinist. We were very attached to each other and we went together to Lebanon for Christmas and that was the last time I saw her. She was killed in her home, in her bed actually. On Holy Thursday (the day before Good Friday before Easter), she was killed on that day.
It was a little tragic the way I learned about it because – of course it was extremely tragic the way she was killed – I never made peace with her death because no one told me of the details until 10 years later. My dad and my brother were under so much shock they could not speak about her for years. They never spoke about her. My brother, who is still alive, cannot speak about my mom, still. So, I had to learn from other people – 10 years later – exactly what happened.
So, that night was extremely quiet in the neighborhood we were living in. My mother was actually making calls to her sisters, to other family, to tell them to be careful because the bombing was starting in their neighborhood (where the other family lived). And the last person she hung up with was my cousin, one of my cousins, the one who told me this story. Then the next thing we know a bomb exploded in her bedroom and she was gone.
My last communication with her was on the phone. [Myself and my boyfriend] had formed a trio – our first concert included the Brahms first piano trio (referenced on my website for memorial) and a French trio by Ernest Chausson, and we were preparing this. Usually on Easter vacation I would have been with my mom, on her bed, watching TV. I probably may have been killed with her because I was supposed to arrive the Thursday morning. Beirut was closed at the time; it was not a good time to arrive but people were still traveling to Beirut. We had to take the boat. I would have been arriving by boat from Cyprus that morning. Tuesday night, the week of Easter, I called my mom from my apartment in Paris with my boyfriend. I said, “Mom, we’re really not ready for our concert. It’s supposed to happen in 2 weeks. I think I will skip, I will not come.” And I skipped, I did not fly the next day as I was supposed to, to Beirut.
On Friday morning, I was at home in my apartment practising my music. My boyfriend was a violinist in the Opera of Paris so he had gone to his rehearsal. I was waiting for him to come home around 1 or 2 o’clock. I was preparing my little lunch and suddenly he arrived with his mom and I thought that’s weird, why is his mon here? And that’s how I learned.
I never had a complete closure of it until 10 years later. When I found out on that Friday… I cannot explain to you… I could not speak for a few days, my boyfriend took care of me. But in any case, what I learned was that my father was coming to France for 3 weeks, but he was sent by his friends to escape a little bit, and they would take care of all the remaining things that were there. The funeral had already happened, it was something that happened very quickly.
But when he came [to France], he spent the 3 weeks with me and my boyfriend. He never spoke one word about her. The only thing he told me when he arrived was, “Ok, she’s not here any more. We have to go on.” That’s it.
[My parents supported music music] to a certain degree. But were they really helping me with it? I would say not much, because they were both not musicians. My parents were not like that, they were more kind of let go, like, “if she wants to do the piano, yeah sure why not, we won’t stop her.” And that was the attitude. Did my mom or my dad really like classical music? They liked it, but were they a great fan of it? Probably not.
My dad had a very tiny collection of LPs and that’s actually how I got introduced myself to classical music, which I had never heard before. I was like a kid, 3 or 4 years old, when I heard my first classical music because I ended up picking the Tchaikovsky violin concerto from my dad’s collection. That’s pretty much my introduction to it.
My mom was the same. She loved Chopin. So, if I was to play Chopin, she would like to listen to it and I will always remember how much she loved the first piano concerto by Chopin. Every time I play it now, I remember her. But more than that, I would say they were supportive. Whether I was to do piano or mathematics or do anything else, they would have been the same way – present, but not overly helping me. I was still left on my own to make my own decisions; ‘this is what I want to do’, and then I do it.
I had to push my parents to let me do it. I go back to my years in Lebanon…we didn’t have a piano at home. I had never seen a piano. But when I started playing on those little keyboards that are given for kids, I would not stop. I had never seen a piano and I was begging them for a piano. It’s like I had seen this instrument before, but I had never seen one in real life. I sat down on it and they could not get me up from it. I would play by ear, I didn’t know what to do.
So I begged for a piano teacher, I begged. A year went by, and finally I had a piano teacher. When the war erupted in Lebanon (I was still in Lebanon with them), I begged them to go to the Paris Conservatory. Because my first piano teacher had been educated in Paris, she didn’t go to the Paris Conservatory, but it was my dream to go there because she had told me about it.
I have been the instigator of this drive in me towards playing the piano.
Why did you decide to move to the United States?
It was a stroke of luck. A few things brought me to the United States. Part of it was private in my life, I came to a point that my relationship with my boyfriend ended. We had concerts yes, but it wasn’t really a focus for my life there and I was still looking at improving myself. Years before I had decided finally to come to the United States, I met this great master who was located at Indiana University, one of the really great masters at the time. So, I decided to give it a chance.
I lost my mom and [my boyfriend] lost his dad in the same year. We decided too many bad things had happened, so why not split and see what happened in life? And that was the occasion for me to take a new turn. Why not go to the US and work with this master? Did I plan to stay in the US for a long time? No, I was only planning to stay one year, I had to keep my apartment in France and I was planning to go back, but something else happened in the US. I met someone over the summer, just at the turning point where I was staying 3 more months for some special courses in the summer at IU and I was going to go back to France. And suddenly something else changes. I met someone who became my husband. So, I decided, I’ll stay and work longer with this master at IU, and the rest is history.
American divorce broke my life and I never recovered.
Tell me about your nonprofit work.
At a certain point with our work, my husband and I did a lot of outreach together. We created a non-for-profit. That’s how I started performing in America. Most of my performing here, even now, is about outreach; creating new audiences, educating people about music. When I was married, I didn’t realise how needed [this work was] in this country. People don’t know music here. And so it’s created this new passion of education – and he was into this very much. We moved to Louisville because Louisville became a better place for him to build this organization as he already had connections there. As a plus, we were not far from Bloomington if we needed to go there, so it was a good, convenient place. In Louisville we had more opportunities. I created a piano series that was part of the organization first.
Now, I want to share my love of Brahms music with more people. played for so many audiences and sometimes I get this amazing comment where someone tells me that ‘oh I didn’t know Brahms was so beautiful, can I buy your CD?’ I’m like, oh yes! I made it as an artist! It’s one of the most fulfilling comments from an audience member. That’s when you feel like you’ve done your job, you’ve done what you’re supposed to be doing. You’ve created a new love into this person who’s now going to know more music and know more music about Brahms.
You took 2020 off to work on writing your biography. Was this already planned before the pandemic or was it more by necessity? How has the writing been going?
You know why I am writing my memoir? Because so many people have pushed me through the years just by hearing me talk about my life. They said, you have to write about it. It’s special. It’s the struggle of going through all of this and yet, you’re amazingly accomplishing everything you’re doing. It’s amazing.
And I thought well, ok I will do what I can. I wrote throughout my life, little bits here and there, but I’m not a writer. Lately I’ve been forcing myself to just go through that.
Did the music help you? It seems like after all you went through with hearing about your mom’s death and trying to process it, music really gave you a focus or at least an outlet for learning how to move on with your life.
Did music help me? Of course, it’s me! Without music, I would probably be either dead or mentally ill, or unstable and not me. But yes, there’s absolutely no question. For some, maybe it’s more of an unconscious place, but for me hopefully it has come to a conscious place where music is me, so I am.
Find out more about Pianist Nada here.
This article was written by Jacqueline Kharouf, who earned an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written classical music reviews and interviews for Fanfare Magazine, as well as book reviews for Cleaver Magazine and Colorado Review.