Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
There was always music in my home when I was a boy. Both of my parents were very good pianists. I experienced the miracle of music early in life. I began studying violin for six months and switched to the piano, as it seemed more natural to me.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My father would play Beethoven sonatas and Chopin etudes, as well as Ernesto Lecuona’s piano works. The first recital I attended at age 8 was by the great American pianist Byron Janis. He was 35 years old at the time and it had a very profound effect on me. From that day on I knew I wanted to be a pianist.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I was preparing for the 1977 Cliburn contest and got the repertoire together a year before. I was a jogger and one day I took a tumble and injured my right hand. It took four years before I could play again with both hands. During this period I learned the 22 paraphrases on the Chopin Etudes for the left hand by Godowsky. And all of the standard works written for the left hand, as well as some rarely played works, such as the Gypsie Baron Waltz Metamorphoses of Strauss-Godowsky. I was fortunate that my hand injury was not at the piano and I could recuperate with time.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Some time later, after the hand injury and the recovery, I decided that I would try to make a documentary about the history of this music and the many beautiful works written for the left hand alone – The Art of the Left Hand: A Brief History of Left Hand Piano Music. I was very flattered that Cliburn winner Jon Nakamatsu said: “ This is a highly informative and enjoyable film that sheds light on an unjustly neglected body of repertoire. Great for musicians and non-musicians alike.” And Clavier Magazine called it, “An important film.”
As Leopold Godowsky is the central figure of my film The Art of the Left Hand, and because I had studied so much of the body of his works, in addition to the left hand pieces, I decided to make a second documentary on Godowsky’s life and music. This film is called The Buddha of the Piano: Leopold Godowsky. Godowsky specialists Carlo Grante and Marc-Andre Hamelin have given the film high praise, and so has the legendary pianist Byron Janis, who said: “Many bravos to Antonio Iturrioz for giving us this wonderfully informative and much needed documentary on one of our under appreciated and greatest musicians, Leopold Godowsky. It allows us to again remember the legendary life and career of this brilliantly unique pianist, composer and arranger, and his immeasurably important contributions to the world of music.”
Both documentaries are one-of-a-kind and have been shown on national public television in the U.S. It is very gratifying that The Buddha of the Piano was shown 125 times in 2015.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I feel I am at my best in the Romantic and Post-Romantic repertoire. I play the complete works of Robert Schumann, a composer who is very close to my heart. Among the pieces that I adore playing are the Fantasie Opus 17, Davidsbundler Opus 6, and Kinderscenen Opus 15. Of Chopin, the Polonaise Fantasie Opus 61, of Liszt, his arrangement of Bellini’s Norma, and of Godowsky, The Artist’s Life Symphonic Metamorphoses, and my arrangement of Gottschalk’s Night in the Tropics, which I mention below. And I love playing all of the Rachmaninoff Concertos and Rhapsody.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I always try to include a work by Bach whether an original or transcription and work of Schumann. And two or three pieces for the left hand. Then the special piece for that season that I have not yet recorded.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The Edinburgh Society of Musicians is one of my most favourite venues, because of the history and intimacy of the hall, the beautiful Steinways, and the warm reception I have experienced. For me, there is a magical vibration to playing there. I first met the late Harry Winstanley in Edinburgh, a fine musician and scholar, and a Godowsky specialist, when he invited me to play there, after he saw my film, “The Buddha of the Piano.”
Who are your favourite musicians?
Composers: Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Godowsky.
Pianists: I have many that I admire, but if I have to choose, Arrau, Janis, Hamelin, Weissenberg, Grante. As you can see, they are all very different from each other.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
When I played the World Premiere of Gottshalk’s Symphony Romantique, both movements, transcribed for solo piano in San Francisco in January 2013. And I played the European Premiere of this work in Italy that same year. I transcribed the second movement, Fiesta Criolla, for solo piano, as it had never been done before. The first movement had already been transcribed for piano. Both of these experiences are among my most memorable concerts. This event was the catalyst for my newest project Gottschalk and Cuba. (please see last paragraph of this survey.)
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
This is such a profound and difficult question to answer. One of my main ideas is to always remind the pianist that we are the servants of the composer’s compositions. It is not about us; it is about the music. We are like mediums between the spiritual and physical world. Cultivate technique for the purpose of serving the music and be very careful not to use virtuosity as a means to an end. Virtuosity if not used with judgment destroys itself by destroying the music.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
God knows where I will be ten years from now, but if my faculties remain healthy I would like to continue to play and make musical documentaries about important subjects. One of the things that would give me great joy is to see that Leopold Godowsky is no longer known only by pianists. I hope that the website New International Godowsky Society continues to grow, as a result of Godowsky’s greatness.
Antonio Iturrioz’s CD Gottschalk and Cuba is available now on the Steinway & Sons label. The album includes a world premiere recording of “A Night in the Tropics, Symphony Romantique” for which he transcribed the second movement, Fiesta Criolla, for one piano.