Irina Botan, pianist & festival director

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

Music has always been an important part of my life. As a little girl I loved to listen to the Radio and sing along. One day I watched a pianist playing on TV and I was immediately hooked. I do not come from a family of musicians, but my father believed it was important for me to have a musical education, so when I was 7 years old I started to have regular piano lessons. A year later I declared to my bemused family that one day I will be a concert pianist, and have never changed my mind since.

What led you to set up the Highgate International Chamber Music Festival (HICMF) with fellow musicians Natalie Klouda and Ashok Klouda?

Natalie and Ashok Klouda have been close friends as well as chamber music partners of mine for a long time. In fact, Natalie and I played together for the first time as children, back in the ’90s when we were both students at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

We all thought about founding a festival and realised that we had a very similar vision of what it should be like, and that together we can make it happen. We shook on it in September 2012 and three months later the festival was born. We had no funding, experience or staff, but we made up for it with a lot of enthusiasm. Luckily the Highgate community embraced the festival and supported it ever since. We are now preparing for its eighth edition that will take place between the 23rd-30th of November 2019. The festival has been growing gradually each year and this November there will be 14 concerts and 30 performers taking part.

This year’s festival features performances from Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Alexander Sitkovetsky, Julian Bliss and Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE. What can audiences expect from their visit to Highgate?

We are very fortunate to welcome artists of the highest calibre to the festival. The audience can expect to hear world-class musicians in combinations not normally heard. There is always a cheerful and festive atmosphere and the concerts take place in relaxed and informal settings, always accompanied by mulled wine and mince pies.

How do you put together the festival programme for HICMF with your fellow Co-Founders?

Each year we choose a festival theme that runs through the entire week. This year we are focusing on Beethoven as we are approaching his 250th anniversary. We try to put together an interesting and varied repertoire for the public that is normally a mix of famous and lesser-known works. For instance, we have given the UK premiere of a recently discovered piano quintet by Enescu that has not been heard for more than 100 years.

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

My main influences have been my teachers – Maria Fotino, Oana Velcovici and later Irina Zaritzkaya and Ronan O’Hora. They are all hugely inspiring pianists whose playing is characterised by modesty and a lack of ego which lets the music speak for itself. They also taught in a liberating way, which encouraged their students to find their own unique voice.

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

One of my greatest challenges came early on, when I was 11 years old. I was preparing a Mozart Concerto in order to play it with the Bucharest Virtuosi live on radio. I knew that this was an important turning point in my life and fortunately I managed to cope with the pressures of being a performer.

A more recent challenge was tackling Enescu’s music for the first time. His music is extremely complex, challenging both intellectually as well as emotionally. Last month I performed two of his trios at the Enescu Festival in Romania, back in my country of origin where he is worshiped and where everyone has a strong opinion about how his music should be played. Expectations at this wonderful event are always high and that was a challenge indeed.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are so many musicians I greatly admire, but if I had to write a short list I would say that I often listen to Dinu Lipatti, David Oistrakh, Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, Martha Argerich, Ivry Gitlis, Elisabeth Leonskaja and why not, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Freddie Mercury.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I will never forget the first time I played at the Wigmore Hall. I remember feeling so inspired on that wonderful stage, soaking in the atmosphere, acoustic and history. All the nerves melted away and all that was left was the pure joy of playing.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

For me success is managing to extract from a piece of music its essence, to understand the composer’s thoughts and ideas and to be able to find a convincing interpretation for the work. If the audience is moved and engaged by the performance, then that is my definition and measure of success. But of course, there is no such thing as absolute success as there is always room for improvement. Being invited to perform is not my driving force but rather a new challenge and opportunity to improve an aspect of my playing.

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

The music profession is becoming increasingly competitive. The standards are very high and unfortunately performing opportunities are becoming fewer and fewer.

I think hard and disciplined work is essential in order to master an instrument, but it is not enough. A young musician today needs to be very versatile in the current climate. One needs to cultivate PR and organisational skills and be open minded about which projects to accept. However, the work should not be limited to the practice room and the office, as being curious about the world and allowing oneself to experience life to fullest is the only way to become a complete artist.

I believe an optimistic outlook and facing the many challenges with excitement can make a huge difference.

What is your most treasured possession?

I have inherited from my teacher, Maria Fotino, an autographed score of Enescu’s third violin and piano sonata that contains a beautiful dedication written to her by the maestro himself. They used to play together and Ms Fotino also premiered some of his works. I am honoured to have received this score that for me represents a piece of history as well as a treasured memory of my much loved and respected teacher.

The Highgate International Chamber Music Festival runs from 25 to 30 November 2019. Further information

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