Marouan Benabdallah, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Zoltán Kodály said that child’s education starts 9 months before birth. It certainly applies to me. My [Hungarian] mother is a music teacher and choir conductor. My [Moroccan] father, a physicist, used to play classical guitar at a very advanced level, so I must have heard music from the very beginning. I grew up in this environment, hearing people singing around me, playing the piano and the guitar. My mother was my first piano teacher. At the age of 13, my parents decided to send me to Budapest to pursue my musical training. I graduated from the Liszt Academy 12 years later.

It has never been a question whether to pursue a career in music (a concept I hate in the context of music as it has a business connotation); it came naturally without any thorough questioning…

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

My first meeting in 2004 with professor Ferenc Rados (the teacher of Schiff, Ranki, Kocsis and many others) was the most influential and most eye-opening encounter in my life, so far. He has such deep understanding of music that I think no one else has. His teaching is not about “play here forte”, “play legato”, “slow down”, and other stupid, superficial instructions that are only valid at that very moment. He is able to bring to light the most inner connections in the music, the relation between notes and their place in time and space. I really feel blessed that I was able to learn from him for several years.

The other very strong influence was Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis for whom I had and still have tremendous admiration and respect. He is for me the embodiment of musical integrity and honesty.

There is one thing in music performance I hate: boredom. Sometimes I listen to so-called masters and I am bored to death. I wonder if the more boring the playing is the greater the player. I don’t know. Obviously, there are many people who like that. I can’t stand that, and I think Zoltán Kocsis was exactly the opposite, he was never boring. Moreover, when, I listen to his recordings, I feel that’s the only way that music should be played, whether it is Rachmaninov, Debussy or Mozart. For many years, I was scared to meet him, he had such a fierce look, but once we got acquainted through Rachmaninov, our common passion, it was very uplifting to have his insights on particular questions and interpretational issues…Unfortunately, he passed away in 2016 and he is dearly missed!!

I had some very interesting musical encounters with Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta and Lorin Maazel, but they didn’t have an immediate impact on my playing and way of thinking the music.

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

Well, there are always challenges. The most important is to find a way to overcome them.

Right now, at this very moment, it is preparing different, mostly new repertoire, concerti to be performed within a short period.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

There are many concerts I am proud of; I don’t like bragging about my achievements…

Perhaps I could mention 2011, which was a very important year with solo recitals and concerto performances at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, the magnificent Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, collaboration with Lorin Maazel, and many others…But I also enjoy performing in unusual places and countries like Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan, India. Once, I gave a recital in the middle of a street downtown Rabat, the capital of Morocco. The piano was placed on the asphalt. People from the surrounding building were listening from their balconies and windows, and people in the street gathered around the piano. It was a huge success. I like this kind of unique settings. It makes it more exciting.

Performing in European and American concert halls could be a little monotonous and boring as everything is smooth and professionally arranged, like the previously mentioned so-called masters whose performances I find boring. No risk-taking, no unexpected turn of events, no excitement…

Perhaps a real source of pride is my Arabæsque Music Project, researching and presenting classical composers from the Arab world, or I would say Arab composers of western classical music, to be more precise. I have, so far, discovered exactly 100 composers from different countries of the region. Actually, I’ve just reached 100 authors about two weeks ago discovering a brilliant British-American composer born to an Algerian mother!! It is a wonderful humanist project bringing to light some unknown composer talents, new repertoire and new flavor to the public. The project is supported by the Royal Moroccan Academy, we have launched a concert series and I am playing this repertoire in more and more venues, like in London, on November 1, at the Africa Center, as part of the African Concert Series curated by Nigerian-Romanian London-based pianist Rebeca Omordia.

In addition to this Arabæsque project, I have an other very exciting project with a phenomenal gipsy band, Louis Sarkozy and his ensemble from Budapest. We try to recreate the musical atmosphere of the restaurants and hostels of Hungary of the nineteenth century where Liszt encountered these gypsy musicians and inspired him to compose his Hungarian rhapsodies.

I have just completed the arrangement for gipsy band and piano of the Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes [commonly known as Hungarian Fantasy], originally composed for orchestra and piano.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Actually, I feel very comfortable with a wide range of repertoire, Bach, Schubert, Haydn, Liszt, but I might have a particular affinity to early twentieth-century music – Debussy, Bartók, Rachmaninov…

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

It mostly depends on where I play. I have the take into account the local audience and also the previous program I had performed there; I never repeat programs.

But, above all, I play music I Iove and enjoy performing. And of course, there is a flow, a dramaturgy to take into account. I am not the kind of person who would play threee Schubert sonatas in one concert… I find it boring and lacking imagination, and mostly selfish. It is very important to think about the public when devising a program. Contrasts are important..

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Once, few years ago, while touring India, I played in a quite remote city a program of minimalist pieces by Hans Otte, Kurtag and Bach. The public was so silent that at some point I was wondering if there was anyone there! Most memorable concert and experience!!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I don’t know… perhaps the number of likes on Facebook!! Haha!! Just kidding!

I am happy to do what I love most, and sharing it with an appreciative public is deeply gratifying.

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

You know, I am only in my thirties so I don’t feel I have any lesson to give…

Perhaps one thing. In September, I attended (in the audience) the final round of an international piano competition and the president of the jury delivered his overall thoughts about the competition saying contestants played too fast, they should play slow…I find it to be one of the dumbest comments I have ever heard. I think young people should be young, play fast, make errors, take risks. I think we learn from our own mistakes. But perhaps, above all, the most important is to be sincere.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Doing what I do, but better!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A terrasse with a view on the Mediterranean, sunshine and Italian food, let’s say bruschetta!!

But before all, good health!!

Renowned Moroccan-Hungarian pianist Marouan Benabdallah has toured as a soloist worldwide. He is one of the foremost representatives of his native Morocco on the international stage and has been touring the world with his programme “Arabesque: Piano Music from the Arab World ” featuring music by composers from Syria, Algeria, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Morocco. He brings his programme for the first time to the UK at The African Concert Series at the Africa Centre on 1 November 2019. Further information and tickets

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