José Menor, Pianist & Composer

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

When I was young, I watched a movie about Chopin, called ‘A Song to Remember’. In one scene, Chopin is in a shop, trying a piano, and then Liszt comes in. Liszt plays Chopin’s music – crazily, with complete abandon. I thought that was hilarious. I always liked music when I was little. My parents said that I used to watch conductors on television. I’d sit transfixed, conducting along! Just before I was seven, my father took me to have piano lessons. The teacher was old, and I was in a class of beginners. But gradually, I found that I was much faster than the other pupils, and I could pick things up by ear. I had started reading through scores by myself – including the Moonlight Sonata, and all the Chopin Waltzes and Polonaises (especially the one I’d heard in that film!). One day, the piano tuner came to my home, and after she had finished the tuning, she asked me to play. I played the Grand Poloniaise by Chopin. She was amazed. She returned that evening with her husband (a choral conductor), who gave me some aural tests. They decided that they’d take me to an accompanist who had worked with Victoria de los Ángeles. He said that I needed to study at an international conservatoire. So he put me in touch with teachers who could help – Maria Jesus Crespo and Luiz de Moura Castro. In one exam, I covered three years of the conservatoire curriculum, and got into Barcelona Superior Conservatoire, which I attended, alongside my mainstream schooling, until I was 18.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My first main teacher, Maria Jesus Crespo, has been a huge influence on my piano-playing. Claude Frank was too, for his breadth as a musician – his reputation was built on his interpretation of the canonic repertoire, but it didn’t really matter what you brought him – he could really draw out your personality in your playing. I’d also mention the inspirational teaching of Kevin Kenner, Cristina Ortiz, Peter Frankl and Yonty Solomon. But I have always been curious about music for myself too. I used to compose all the time (as I studied that too, as well as conducting, alongside my piano studies) and I investigated all kinds of ideas – I didn’t stick to piano music. I drew inspiration from everybody around me (and still do!). Especially, I listen to all sorts of music – from Varèse to jazz to flamenco. Actually, the Catalan composer Joan Guinjoan has been crucial to my music-making. I recorded his complete piano music, and have since noticed that his ideas have influenced my playing of other composers’ work. My own compositions also refer to his ideas. I think I even became a better pianist of classical repertoire after working on Guinjoan’s music, because I could apply a different, more precise approach to it.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I often feel lost! I have so many different musical interests, it can be hard to find a direction to commit to. I know where I’m going, but I frequently come across people who feel the need to label me, and I don’t seem to fit any of their labels. Actually, I hate labels. I think I tend to be very motivated by what I believe in – more so than from requirements imposed by others. This comes to the fore when I consider something unfair. For example, Concierto Fantastico by Isaac Albeniz really should be part of the standard concerto repertoire, and yet is not. In the anniversary years for Albeniz (2009-10), I ‘rescued’ that piece – giving the first performance in the UK, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and further performances all over South America and Europe. Not only did I love the music, but I felt it was important to share it, because it was wrong that it had been so neglected.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my two CDs of Joan Guinjoan’s complete piano music. For performances – lots! Recently I played a programme of Beethoven sonatas at a festival in Granada. The performance was held in a venue which was staged half-outdoors. The last piece in the concert was Opus 111. I started playing it just as the moon was coming up. Amazingly, the nearby birdsong stopped at a specific moment – at the very end of the first movement where there is a sort of ‘requiem’ – a diminuendo – so that the second movement started in complete hush. It was an absolutely magical atmosphere, and an incredible feeling.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

At this moment? Goyescas by Enrique Granados! I have really enjoyed playing Cinq Etudes D’Art by Hèctor Parra, recently, too.

What has inspired you to play ‘Goyescas’ at St John’s Smith Square on 2 November 2016?

I feel a special connection with Granados’ music. It somehow allows me to express myself freely. Enrique Granados (1867-1916) is of course such an important composer, and his Goyescas is a pinnacle of the Spanish keyboard repertoire. Yet Goyescas is not performed much on the international circuit, which is a shame. My international tour playing the Goyescas cycle throughout 2016-17 commemorates both this undervalued work, and this great composer. People often say that Granados’ work wasn’t very innovative, and that Granados was just an improviser who didn’t pay much attention to form. But Goyescas simply doesn’t fit those generalisations. It has an overarching and detailed structure; a very personal harmonic language (there isn’t even a key signature in the whole cycle!); and is based upon a far-reaching cyclical concept. I am approaching it from a composer’s perpsective, and am re-evaluating it from the manuscripts and piano rolls. In actual fact, Granados was so impressed by Goya’s paintings that Goyescas took him his whole lifetime to develop; it’s a culmination of all his works. Actually it isn’t just about the music. It’s also because of my friendship with the Granados family, which has motivatied me to explore his piano and chamber output. In fact, his great grand-daughter, Bárbara, will be introducing my performance at St John’s Smith Square, and that is a great honour

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I wish I could plan my repertoire from season to season!

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in, and why?

I don’t tend to prioritise one venue above another, but I enjoy playing at the Wigmore Hall (where I opened the Ginastera Festival in 2006). The big hall at the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona is also very special – with a sculpture of Beethoven looking down on you!

Favourite pieces to play and to listen to?

I love playing Soler and Scarlatti. They are so pure and direct in their expression, and Baroque sonatas are great fun to play. Somehow I connect with this music immediately: I can see what to do with it and it gives me a sense of freedom – I can have fun with it. As for listening, at the moment I’m enjoying Steve Reich and Ligeti, especially his Piano Etudes – they’re fascinating. Flamenco music, too – particuarly flamenco jazz – for example the pianist Chano Dominguez. But really, there’s no limit to what I like to listen to.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Impossible to mention them all, but here are a few that come to mind:

Dead: Alicia de Larrocha, Vladimir Horowitz and Claude Frank

Alive: Martha Argerich, Gabriela Montero and Sergei Babayan. Basically, anyone who tends not to have a fixed interpretation of their music. I love to hear spontaneity.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I can think of at least two! In March 2016 I played at Carnegie Hall. It was the culmination of a challenging preparation process, involved last-minute administrative work, institutional problems with the advertising, and all this on top of a very busy schedule – and then on the concert day, there didn’t seem to be a suitable piano stool in the building! My limited practice time was constantly interrupted with visits from television crews. But then at last, amazingly, the performance went extremely well, to a full hall, and I really enjoyed it.

Messiaen’s music is also close to my heart. In June 2015, at the Progetto Martha Argerich Festival, I stepped in at the last minute for a performance of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen (for two pianos) – to be shared between several pianists. One pianist had cancelled, and I was given his music at 2am the night before the concert, and only because my friend Giulio Potenza put me forward for it (he knew I work very quickly, and that I had just come from the Schwetzinger SWR Festspiele, where I played the challenging music of Hèctor Parra). So there I was, in the middle of the night, practising Messiaen, drinking espressos one after another, and fielding astonished visits from Martha Argerich herself, the festival director, my friend Gabriele Baldocci – all looking at me as if I were an alien! I played with the pianist Daniel Rivera. The performance actually went really well, and was such an amazing experience. I’d still jump at the chance to perform the music of this wonderful composer.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas to impart to aspiring musicians?

Try to be yourself. Do what you believe in. Stick to what you’re interested in. Be creative, not competitive. Don’t define youreslf by the dictates of competitions, the market or teachers. Try to find your voice to communicate what you feel. I’m still trying to do this too!

What do you enjoy doing most?

At the moment? Composing ‘Fragments for Clare’ (a set of miniatures for my wonderful girlfriend)! I I love everything to do with graphic notation – the aesthetic poetry to be found in equations (I say this as a musician not as a mathematician), and the visual impact of graphic scores. That’s one of the features that I’m applying in ‘Fragments for Clare’. Basically, I enjoy making music, in whatever form it takes.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the death of the great Spanish composer Enrique Granados, the internationally acclaimed pianist José Menor embarks upon a unique multi-media project inspired by Granados’ greatest muse, the painter Francisco de Goya. Described as “the great ambassador of Spanish music” (Melomano) and selected to be Resident Pianist of the offical Granados Centenary Commission, Menor performs the complete Goyescas, including UK premieres of rare pieces related to the Suite, accompanied by a visual projection of Goya’s artworks. The performance forms part of Menor’s Granados’ 100 Years Tour, launched to critical acclaim in New York’s Carnegie Hall in March 2016, and which has included the ‘Meet in Beijing’ Arts Festival in China, and the Martha Argerich Festival in Switzerland. Menor’s Goyescas CD will be released on the IBS Classical Label in 2017.

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