Maria João Pires believes the audience ‘gives you as much as you give them’

Acclaimed Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires believes that music-making is a two-way process.

“The mentality of the soloist giving and the public receiving is all wrong,” said Pires, ahead of her Symphony Center Presents recital May 28. “The public gives you as much as you give them, to create this relationship, this flowing energy that we are together.”

Now 78, Pires doesn’t tour as frequently and last performed here more than a decade ago. For her SCP Piano recital, she will offer music by Beethoven and Schumann. She spoke recently to Experience CSO about recitals, audiences and making other kinds of art besides music. Here is a condensed version of the talk.

How did you decide on this combination of Beethoven and Schumann works for this program?

It’s not a thinking process. It’s feeling the connections and stories about them. I don’t play much Schumann because my hands aren’t big enough, so I have fewer repertoire choices. But between the two Beethoven sonatas, putting something soft in the middle makes a nice space.

When you’re presenting a solo recital, does that demand more from you than chamber music or a concerto?

A recital can be more demanding in terms of energy, and you’re on your own. Whatever happens, you’re doing it. All my life, I thought recitals were stressful. But I discovered something very late, when I was already old: You can share the music with the public, the same way as you do with other musicians. They’re not onstage, but they’re communicating. Their listening is something very important and very active. Listening isn’t easy. As a musician onstage, you can communicate this to people, and then you don’t feel so alone. The mentality of the soloist giving and the public receiving is all wrong. The public gives you as much as you give them, to create this relationship, this flowing energy that we are together.

That’s very interesting. What changed to make you realize that?

You get older, you observe many things. You observe yourself, to find reasons why you do things, why do you do this work and have such a difficult life? And as we age, we find many more answers.

But every audience is different. Is there a way that you can help an audience get to that point?

I don’t believe in outside signs of an audience. If they’re coughing, or clapping between movements, that is not a sign of a bad audience. The soloist is the center of attention and has the responsibility of creating a link with that audience, and when you create that, all audiences are good. They left home, they bought a ticket, they have the wish for something, and this is something you have to create with them.

What about your summer festival in Portugal?

All my life, I saw artistic directors choosing programs, choosing people, and I wanted to create something that makes sense to me. I had a special dream, with an image, music and stage, a story that is told with music. Opera is a complex form of art, and it becomes the most expensive, but you can adapt. Staging is something I don’t do myself, but I can work with other artists. We did projects where we had many forms of art at the same time.

What did you perform?

King Arthur by Henry Purcell. We did it in the barn on my property. I made the clothes myself, and a friend adapted it for piano, and it was beautiful. Without any money, you can still stage things for local audiences, people who never go to a concert. We should always dream things. It doesn’t have to be two or three thousand people and everything costing a fortune. We can create new forms of touching the public.

Is the festival ongoing?

I never developed it enough. I dream in the future about not playing concerts or traveling and creating more of those moments where people feel a story told with music.

What other perspectives did it offer?

I think it let you hear music as part of your life. I think musicians today learn less and less. I don’t like that we’re teaching young people to compete and to promote themselves. Those two things go together — and they make them forget the reason they started to study music. That first wish, as a child, is like a memory that should stay there. It doesn’t matter if you become a musician or not, it’s a connection to your own deep nature and not the outside world and culture and what people tell you. If you’re not connected to that, you will lose yourself, and you won’t find happiness.

Maria João Pires becomes first woman to win Gimbel Prize

Just days before her May 28 recital, Maria João Pires received the $50,000 Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance, awarded by the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University.

“I am touched to have been chosen as the first female recipient of the Jean Gimbel Lane Prize,” she said. “I am very much looking forward to meeting the students of the Bienen School of Music and working together. Thank you for this honor.”

Established in 2005, the biennial Jean Gimbel Lane Prize honors pianists of the highest levels of national and international recognition. Previous winners include Richard Goode (2006), Stephen Hough (2008), Yefim Bronfman (2010), Murray Perahia (2012), Garrick Ohlsson (2014), Emanuel Ax (2016), Marc-André Hamelin (2018) and Sir András Schiff (2021).

In addition to the cash award, the prize consists of a public recital and two residencies at the Bienen School of Music. During her first residency in April 2024, Pires will engage with students and faculty in question-and-answer sessions, chamber music coachings, lecture demonstrations and workshops. She will present a public recital as part of the Skyline Piano Artist Series on April 12, 2024. Pires’s second residency will occur during the 2024-25 academic year.