Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music, and who/what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Let’s start with my mother, who encouraged me to listen to classical music. I was taking ballet lessons at age 4 so ballet music was very important to me. I also fell in love with opera and always listened to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. One of my brothers was starting piano lessons and angrily banging on the piano, unable to find Middle C. It made me so frustrated that I showed him the note and played his piece for him – whereupon my mother decided I was the one who should take the lessons.
On scholarships at the Conservatory of Music in Toronto, I studied with one of their greatest teachers, Boris Berlin. Under his tutelage, I played my first concerto with orchestra in public (Haydn). He encouraged me to apply for Juilliard.
Three main teachers at Juilliard had a major impact on my career – and my life. The first, Irwin Freundlich, was wonderful with Beethoven and Prokofiev. I was fortunate to have studied with the legendary Rosina Lhévinne, in the last years of her career, an inspiration both pianistically and personally. Her insistence on memorizing music quickly stood me in good stead for years. She also insisted that being a woman, wife and mother was more important than a career. Without life experience, you have nothing to say musically. She was absolutely right. Her assistant, Jeaneane Dowis, broke down technique to an art form and encouraged my non-musical, intellectual pursuits.
Around age 10-12, I discovered Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, and electronic music. So I was fortunate when, after Juilliard, I studied in Paris at the Sorbonne and in Darmstadt, Germany with Stockhausen and in Berlin with Ligeti; and I met Pierre Boulez and John Cage – both of whom coached me before later performances.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Problems with gender were the greatest challenges that I, like a lot of other women musicians, have faced. When I played big concertos with orchestra like Prokofiev 1, 2 and 3, Bartok and Strauss, while still a teenager, many people thought they were paying me a compliment by saying, “Wow. You play like a man…Great technique”.
Comments on my appearance and concert dresses were always prominent. I cut off all my long blondish hair and dyed it brown. I wore suits and more casual dress. I felt that people should concentrate on the performance not my gender. After a while, thinking things had subsided, I went back to more glamorous clothing, but realized that not much had changed.
Another gender issue that comes up in my teaching and recordings is women composers. As a professor at Toronto’s York University, in my classical or romantic courses I have the class listen to symphonies and other music from the past. When I ask the students who they think wrote it, they often reply that it was Brahms or Schumann, and are surprised to learn the composers were women. I myself have premiered and recorded a number of concertos by women composers, along with many of my 50+ CDs (including three new albums next year) devoted to solo works by women. Diversity is something else I feel strongly about, and I certainly do my best to promote, teach and perform music by any gender or from any country. Music is universal and we all relate to sound and emotion.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Where to start? It’s been a lifetime in music, after all.
Alexina Louie is a highly acclaimed Canadian composer who wrote me a piece called “Star-filled Night”. It debuted in outer space – literally! – with Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean on the Shuttle Columbia. That was extremely exciting and I am honoured to say that it happened again, when MacLean requested music to listen to while orbiting on the Space Shuttle Atlantis in September 2006. For this occasion, the music was “Eclipse”, a concerto for piano and world music ensemble written for me by American/Canadian composer David Mott. The music reflected traditions from China, Africa, Indonesia and India, as well as western contemporary classical and jazz, and I was joined on the recording by an unusual chamber ensemble comprising such instruments as dizi, oud and tabla along with voice and western instruments not normally associated with piano concertos (saxophones, accordion, synthesizer), rounded out with double bass and percussion.
Had I been a little better in physics I would have loved to be an astronaut or astrophysicist. However, it is thrilling to think I played a small part in the space field.
I am also very proud of all the piano concertos I have performed and recorded with the Toronto Symphony, the National Arts Centre Orchestra and other orchestras across Canada, with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra and many others. I am happy to say that many of my 45 performances with orchestra were world premieres of works written for me, and many have featured women composers.
My first husband was the late Québec composer Michel-Georges Brégent. I have recorded several albums of his wonderful music. My second husband was the late Metropolitan Opera baritone Louis Quilico. We gave many concerts together and recorded four albums. He was a joy to work with and accompanying him in opera arias was inspirational for me. Pianists need to listen to the beautiful phrasing and melodic lines that are so natural and flowing when sung.
Then there are my live concerts and seven albums devoted to the iconic composer Ann Southam, with whom I enjoyed a 30-year friendship. The most successful of these is “Glass Houses Revisited”, the all-time best-selling album on the Canadian Music Centre’s Centrediscs label. Ann paid me the biggest compliment when she heard me perform it for her, only a few days before her death in 2010, and wrote, “They’re your pieces, for sure.”
The late Jacques Israelievitch was concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony and we performed together frequently. Our greatest achievement was the Violin and Piano Sonatas of Mozart. We did a daylong marathon concert of the entire set of Sonatas and Variations, recorded them later despite Jacques’ worsening pain from cancer, and performed several at the Chautauqua Festival in upstate New York only weeks before his death. I love Mozart, and this was a heartwarming and emotional journey we made together.
The question of reading the score with stylistic accuracy as well as making creative and imaginative choices on current instruments is very much on my mind, especially for Mozart. In the 20th and 21st centuries, we rely on input from living composers or recorded performances as well as aural history. On many occasions it becomes a solo adventure that helps interpreters become co-creators. In classical music we rely on “performance practices.” It is not our job to duplicate other performances but to ascertain the composers’ intentions, while still maintaining stylistic integrity and instilling the performances with imagination and spontaneity. The reviews we have so far received, from the likes of Gramophone and American Record Guide, attest to the artistic success of our project.
And let’s not forget my latest endeavour – my new album “Sound Visionaries”, featuring live performances I loved – Debussy, Messiaen and the Boulez Sonatas. I was very fortunate to have been coached by Pierre Boulez hours before the concert at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto.
What particular works do you think you perform best?
Everyone says I play contemporary music best, but they usually don’t listen to my Mozart recordings, particularly the Violin and Piano Sonatas, which have received such gratifying reviews.
I think I enjoy performing concertos best. I grew up playing with orchestra, starting with the Haydn concerto at around 10 or 11. At 14 I made my New York debut with a Mozart concerto. As a teenager I performed Richard Strauss Burleske, Prokofiev 1,2,3; Chopin E minor, and Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, among many other concertos.. The total is 45 other concertos so far with the addition in June 2021 of Tan Dun’s “The Fire” piano concerto – a knuckle-cruncher if ever there was one, but a thrilling experience.
Apart from chamber music, which offers a special reward in bonding musically, there is so much solo repertoire I love. For instance, the Brazilian tangos of Ernesto Nazareth, which I recorded on a double album. (I had taken tango and ballroom dance lessons and tango lessons for years and done well in dance competitions.) I love jazz and my second album for Navona, “Retro Americana”, includes pieces by Art Tatum and George Gershwin, boogies, blues and rags by Bill
Wescott, and Frederic Rzewski’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues”. The other works I feel I perform best are by Olivier Messiaen whose harmonies serve as a bridge to a higher plane in the cosmic universe; Bach, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin, of course.
And I would be remiss not to repeat the mention of Ann Southam, whose virtuosic minimal pieces seem to suit me very well. A lot of Southam’s pieces, such as “Glass Houses” and Set Three of “Rivers” are fiendishly difficult etudes with shifting patterns and moods, and dizzying tempi. Any loss of concentration or lack of focus on the performer’s part can derail the performance! Yet, despite the technical difficulties, these pieces are a testament to the composer who always treasured joy at the heart of music. Ann and I shared a love for nature and the environment, which resulted in the double CD album “Pond Life”.
Music for piano and electronics has also been challenging but fun.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I do a lot of visual art. Several of my paintings have been used for my album covers and have been exhibited throughout the years. I find that visualizing forms and structures through art has helped me with new music. I also did a lot of drawings that envisioned opera sets. My book “Opera Illustrated: An Artistic Odyssey” (Captus Press) was how I met my second husband, Louis Quilico, who sang so often with Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, among other opera stars. All three approved my portraits of them and wrote tributes. This was so exciting for me. I use my opera drawings for teaching purposes, linking baroque, classical, romantic and contemporary music with illustrations. I also see colours when I hear or play music, and this facility inspires me to create nuance in touch and lines.
An aside: Visual art and music go hand in hand. Wassily Kandinsky, one of the great 20th century painters, wrote: “Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The hand is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus, it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.” This quotation resonates with my journey through music and art. As a musical interpreter, I have always struggled with the goal of transmitting the ideas of composers rather than using their works as a vehicle for self-expression – even though musical notation has never guaranteed an accurate performance that fulfills all the composers’ desires and creative spirits.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I am usually asked to perform certain works. It could be a world premiere or a festival that wants a certain type of repertoire for its theme that season. I have been fortunate to be able to give yearly recitals at York University, where I am a professor, and to experiment with different ideas each time. The Kindred Spirits Orchestra regularly invites me to play a particular piano concerto that fits its season. So far, with the KSO I have performed the Grieg, a new concerto by Heather Schmidt (a Canadian now living in California), the fourth by another Canadian, André Mathieu (who was known as Québec’s Mozart), and most recently the Tan Dun piano concerto written for Lang Lang. I am waiting for some time off so I can work on repertoire that I would like to record and perform: more Mozart, and more music by neglected composers from all over the world. There are still gems out there to be discovered.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
The Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto is one of my favourite venues for both performing and recording. Koerner Hall, also in Toronto, is a treasure, with some of the best acoustics, and a joy to perform in. When I lived in New York, I loved playing at Alice Tully Hall and Lincoln Center, as well as Merkin Hall and what used to be Carnegie Recital Hall. The National Theater and Concert Hall in Taipei, where I appeared with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, was an amazing hall. I usually judge a venue by the piano and acoustics. There were so many venues which I have forgotten, but I love performing Olivier Messiaen in a church or any other building with similar acoustics. The resonance envelopes you, as I believe the composer intended. Playing in the open-air concert hall in Athens – on the slopes of the Acropolis, as I recall – was absolutely thrilling. Another exceptional place was in New York’s Museum of Modern Art outside space. They used to have an outdoor festival, and playing under the stars to a huge crowd at one of my favourite museums remains unforgettable. Performing in Paris at the many small venues in historical buildings was always magical. I also loved the old Place des Arts in Montreal, especially for the sold-out concert I did there with my husband Louis Quilico and another Metropolitan Opera star, soprano Aprile Millo. The piano was wonderful as were the acoustics, and of course the singers were sublime. Recently, my favourite concert hall is the Chapelle de Bon Pasteur, in Montreal with its incredible Fazioli grand piano. It was effortless to perform a recital of Ann Southam’s “Rivers” for Innovations en concert, and music by my first husband, Michel-Georges Brégent for the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec’s New Music Festival.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
I have faith that classical music will remain as a great inspiration for the future – particularly if you play music you really love and identify with, rather than trying to focus on your “branding” and what you think is the latest trend. I believe that listeners will appreciate the great composers of the past if you perform them with integrity, passion and individuality. In some of my university classes, I teach a wide range of musicians. Many arrive with a desire to become the next hit in gaming/digital music, rock/pop – anything but classical. By the end of the year, I receive countless emails telling me that they really fell in love with Mozart, Bach, Verdi and other classics and will continue to listen and be inspired by them. With COVID I believe that we have been listening more, and there are now so many more YouTube performances. Students and performers can learn from the various interpretations and create their own, and maybe offer more current perspectives on the music. As well, musicians need to become more tech savvy and work as their own managers, in order to promote their art. For this they may also need to develop more business skills.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Most memorable would have to be my New York debut when I was 14, playing the Mozart K488 concerto with orchestra. I had won the concerto competition along with the great pianist Murray Perahia. He played the Beethoven 2nd. There were so many other memorable concerts but this one fostered my love of playing concertos with orchestra which has continued for my entire life.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I feel successful when I can perform for an audience. It is not the number of likes or views that you receive but the satisfaction that comes with a performance where you did the best you could. Music is always in flux. You can’t play exactly the same way each time, so the important thing is to stay in the moment and enjoy the music, even if you think you can do it better next time. We are always striving for perfection, which doesn’t exist. I am all for living in the moment musically. It is part of our journey of sound and emotion.
What advice would you give to young and aspiring musicians?
I think I have already answered that question for the most part:
Music is always in flux. You can’t play exactly the same each time so the important thing is to perform in the moment and enjoy the music, even if you think you can do it better next time. We are always striving for perfection, which doesn’t exist. Living in the moment musically is part of our journey of soundscapes. Above all, don’t contemplate a career in music if you aren’t 100% committed to it. This is not a career for the faint of heart. You must believe in yourself and your love of music.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being an amateur archeologist and studying past civilizations. Of course, the best is spending time with my children, grandchildren and all our dogs, cats and other furry creatures inside and outside the house.
What is your most treasured possession?
My children, grandchildren and dogs. Rosina Lhévinne was right. Without life experience and love, you have nothing to say musically.
What is your present state of mind?
Happy to continue my musical journey.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Ideally, doing the same thing – happy to continue performing and recording, learning exciting repertoire, both new and old, and teaching, continuing to interact with the upcoming generation of composers. And enjoying being in the moment.
Christina Quilico’s album Sound Visionaries, featuring music by Claude Debussy, Olivier Messian and Pierre Boulez, is available now.
Born in Ottawa, Canada, Christina Petrowska Quilico was only 10 in her orchestral debut, playing the Haydn D major concerto with Toronto’s Conservatory Orchestra. She moved to New York when she was 13 to study on scholarship at the Juilliard School and the High School of Performing Arts. At 14, sharing top prize with Murray Perahia in a concerto competition, she played Mozart’s K.488 in New York. The Times hailed her as a “promethean talent” and she continued to give solo and chamber recitals at many of the city’s other venerated recital halls including Carnegie and Merkin halls, garnering superlatives from the city’s critics, who deemed her “an extraordinary talent with phenomenal ability…dazzling virtuosity”, playing Olivier Messiaen “to perfection”. Allen Hughes of the Times exalted her “beautiful clarity” in Liszt’s dazzling La Campanella, an encore to a program of forward-looking 20th century repertoire, noting, “Petrowska is a pianist and musician of refreshingly unconventional taste and ability…a welcome treat.” She appeared in Alice Tully Hall playing Debussy and music by living composers – including her first husband Michel-Georges Brégent (1948-93). In the Times again, Hughes noted that in those years, she “has proved several times over that she is a pianist and musician of more than ordinary attainments.” She took part in the 2018 festival celebrating Frederic Rzewski’s 80th birthday at Brooklyn’s Spectrum, and continues to include American music in her CDs and solo recitals.