Dorothy Khadem-Missagh, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was born into a musical family and have been surrounded by music my entire life. Some might think this is a head start into a musical profession, and of course I benefited from having such a natural introduction to music, but it also entails higher expectations and judgements from people on the outside. I soon discovered my love for the piano, possibly because I was surrounded by violinists. I was never pressured to become a musician, but rather encouraged to make my own choices. At the age of six I was accepted to the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, where I was lucky to learn from very experienced teachers in an inspiring but also demanding environment. Growing up I had the privilege to be guided by great teachers and mentors – the most important thing I learned from them was balancing two seemingly conflicting tendencies: always questioning your artistic expression to keep on learning but at the same time maintaining confidence in order to give convincing performances. Chamber music is another very important aspect of my life – performing with fellow musicians – immersing yourself into music together, finding one pulse, one breath which unites individuals into a higher purpose is a very fulfilling experience.

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

Personally, one of my greatest challenges was at the Intl. Beethoven Competition Bonn. It was a great experience but at the same time very challenging for a reason I have never shared publicly before. My mother was terminally ill and I had been trying to spend as much time as possible with her and caring for her. However, she was always putting me first and wanted to see me succeed, so she encouraged me not to miss this opportunity and to take part in the competition. Once I arrived in Bonn, I was excited and looked forward to performing. I felt a huge weight on my shoulders but also a special strength at the same time, even though I caught a cold and developed a slight fever, to top it off. It was the first time in my life to experience such pressure, as I was constantly worrying about my mother’s health, but had to stay focused on my performances and the extensive repertoire which was required for the competition. In hindsight this experience was a confirmation in its own right in many ways, not only because I was awarded different prizes but especially because I learned a lot about myself and being able to trust my mind and body even under the most difficult circumstances. Also, it was one of the hardest decisions I had to make, choosing between my own career and spending the little time that my mother still had left with her.

Another valuable experience, which posed a challenge to me, was the launch of my festival “Beethoven Frühling”. It was supposed to take place for the first time in the Beethoven jubilee year 2020. The festival’s aim is to contribute in such a way that classical music in all its diversity and richness could be presented to established and new audiences in special venues connected to Beethoven. While planning and organizing the festival, my team and I had to overcome many obstacles – the biggest of all being the unexpected rise of the pandemic. Our planned concerts were among the first events being affected by the restrictive measures against Covid-19. Faced with the possibility of having to cancel the first edition of the festival like many other long-standing organizers around us did, I decided to take on a new approach. It was a decision to live up to our own expectations of being innovative and overcoming challenges. At the time, Austria was in its first nation-wide lockdown with no perspective on how the developments would turn out. Together with my team, I went in a completely new direction and dove right into the adventure of realizing the first edition of the festival as an online streaming festival, exploring new approaches on this artistic format. In the end, our determination to realize the vision of the festival paid off and every obstacle turned out to lead to an even better outcome. The first Beethoven Frühling festival took place over the course of eight weeks and attracted an overall reach of half a million people all over the world, creating hope for musicians as well as audiences at a time of great uncertainty.

Another noteworthy musical challenge was more of a sportive kind and happened to me during the pandemic. I was called up four days before a concert and asked if I would be willing to jump in for a colleague who could not travel due to the Covid-19 restrictions. The concert was part of a series in which the orchestra performed all Mozart piano concertos, so it was not possible to choose the programme. I was asked to play Mozart’s KV 491 piano concerto – a piece I knew and loved but had never played or studied at the time. On top of that the concert was supposed to be live-recorded for streaming, which added to the pressure. I immediately tried to clear my schedule as much as possible but only had the evenings and nights available for practice. I had to use the scores for every rehearsal and played by heart in the concert for the first time. Somehow, I love this rush of adrenalin and judging from the big success, I seem to perform even better under pressure. It was an exciting challenge.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

It is always difficult to look back on your own recordings. Especially since I do not see them as the end of a development…. As long as life goes on so does the musical journey. Therefore, recordings can only be seen as a time-specific document. Nevertheless, I am very happy about the most recent recording ‘Auftakt’ of music by Brahms, Gál and Beethoven together with my wonderful trio-colleagues from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, first violinist Ekaterina Frolova and principal solo cellist Peter Somodari with whom I formed the piano trio – Trio Vision.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I think that is for others to decide! Coming from Austria, I feel naturally connected to the music of the Viennese Classics but I always keep an open mind. The music of Ludwig van Beethoven has played a big role since childhood. At the moment, the music of Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms is very dear to me. In my experience, to perform something convincingly, it is important to follow your heart when choosing repertoire. Music and every individual’s musical reception is so complex that the more we try to understand it, the more questions arise. That’s the magic of music and of the arts in general. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand and explore, but if someone listens to my performance with no prior connection to classical music, I believe he/she is neither a worse listener, nor is he/she unjustified in forming an opinion. One could say it is sometimes an even bigger challenge to inspire new audiences.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I love Haydn’s view of music as a universal language and I believe it is a channel to connect people from all backgrounds. The biggest inspiration for my performances is this feeling of connectedness, which I experience when travelling, playing any kind of team-sports or spending a nice evening with friends. Even though being a pianist can be a lonely profession sometimes, playing solo repertoire is still something that connects you to other people, because just sharing emotions through music is enough to bring people together. The social part of chamber music is one of the reasons why I enjoy it so much though – working on something together and creating that moment where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

While music is like nourishment for my soul, I also care a lot for good food – especially since dining together is a wonderful social experience and I love to have friends over for a dinner party.

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

Coming from Vienna I am privileged to perform regularly in the world-famous halls there of course, but I also love special venues, either where classical music is not commonly played or even venues that are not normally used for concerts at all. With my festival “Beethoven Frühling” we have started doing concerts at a wonderful castle where Beethoven spent a considerable amount of time visiting his brother. There have not been any concerts at this place for at least over 100 years and it has just been renovated and modernized by a new owner.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?

The pace of life seems to be getting faster and attention spans shorter. The huge crowds of people who have never been to a classical concert can be seen either as a missed opportunity or as potential. In order to attract them, I think the field of classical music must become more relatable. To be blunt: it has been aimed at wealthy, academically educated and elderly people for a long time. New ideas have been tried out during the last years, but to attract younger audiences, the industry has to become younger – not only in terms of musicians but also in terms of decision-makers. I have had many amazing experiences when friends of mine who didn’t have any connection to classical music came to my concerts and were absolutely stunned about what they had been missing. That was also my inspiration for founding my festival “Beethoven Frühling” – if you want to get young people’s attention, you must be able to relate to them.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In 2011 I gave my debut as a soloist in the golden hall of the Musikverein Vienna. During that year I was touring with a great ensemble of young Viennese musicians in Japan and China and the concert in Vienna was the final concert of the tour. It was an amazing experience as we had been performing together in numerous concerts at that time, so I was really just enjoying presenting the music on that renowned stage in my hometown.

A few years ago I was playing a chamber music programme together with some good friends and amazing musicians. It was a very demanding repertoire both for the musicians as well as the audience – we performed Brahms’ piano quartet and Medtner’s piano quintet. I had invited a few of my friends, some of whom had no prior connection to classical music and had never been to a concert. I was somehow nervous if this programme would be suitable as an introduction into classical concerts for them, as the music is very demanding. After the concert, to my big surprise, they were all very enthusiastic and started to attend concerts regularly since then. To me it was a confirmation that there is a huge untapped potential in all these young and open-minded people who just need a little personal connection or support in order to set foot in the wonderful world of (classical) music.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

It would be very easy to judge success based on famous names and impressive numbers – e.g. what concerts someone plays with whom and where or based on sales of albums. That’s being done a lot in every industry and of course it’s not easy to ignore these things. But I am convinced that it should not be these factors that indicate success for a musician, so I keep reminding myself of a different concept: the biggest success for me is when I manage to create artistic moments that have a lasting impact and make even the smallest of differences. Music and the arts have to touch hearts and can induce all the feelings from life, from sorrow and anger to hope and joy. I hope to give my audience these moments with my music but when it starts to give someone a new perspective, an inspiration, or a feeling of content, that’s the ultimate goal of an artist, in my view.

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

I think it is very important to learn to enjoy and improve the process, like making music and not only focusing on the superficial presentation of oneself. Practising should lead to developing technical abilities and gaining insight and knowledge about the piece in order to form a convincing interpretation. Focusing on certain goals along the way will help the process, but it always important to keep in mind that the process is an ongoing one, where developing one’s ideas, abilities and one’s musical character is a never-ending story. Parallel to developing musical ideas and expression, it is very important to also keep in touch with the outside world. Classical music is already a niche and practising is very often a lonely task, but as a musician your performance is a way of communication. Therefore, I think every musician benefits a lot from cultivating both musical and non-musical forms of communication.

Another very important characteristic is to keep an open and agile mind. It’s often depicted as a flaw to change your mind on something, but I believe that it would be valuable to encourage each other to reflect and deduct from experiences.

Last but not least, I think we should learn some things from history. For hundreds of years there have been many composers and musicians and many may even have been forgotten. Examples like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and others stand out not only because they were musical geniuses but also because they did more than just replicating what was already there. Today, classical music has become an industry where replicating something and trying to sell it as somehow individual is very common. We hear the same works by the same composers played by the same musicians over and over again, which is not to say that this doesn’t have its own value but at least since the outbreak of the pandemic, venues, agencies and labels are struggling and, in the end, musicians are suffering from this too. I think it would be good to explore a little more, develop new formats and ideas, dig out forgotten music and composers and give more attention to contemporary music. The first steps in that direction have to come from individual musicians. I hope that we as musicians can actively reclaim the world of music and not just be part of an ‘industry’.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

If I knew that, I’d fear that I’m already dead, but there are some things that I consider coming close to perfect happiness and they always include some kind of social interaction – like that special moment of silence between a musician and an audience after a touching piece of music; when you intuitively follow each other’s musical movements with a chamber music partner or even just that socially acceptable silence during a meaningful conversation.

What is your most treasured possession?

I try to be detached from material belongings as much as I can but if I had to choose one thing that I wouldn’t want to lose, it would be my Bösendorfer grand piano which I had since I was a child.

What is your present state of mind?

I’m grateful for the past and present and excited for the future.

Dorothy Khadem-Missagh’s new CD ‘Auftakt’, recorded with her trio, Trio Vision (violinist, Ekaterina Frolova and cellist, Peter Somodari) is available now. The album is released in cooperation with Ms Khadem-Missagh’s own Beethoven Spring Music Festival.  It was recorded in July/Aug 2020 in the studios of the ORF Radio Kulturhaus, Vienna.

Dorothy Khadem-Missagh leads a promising and aspiring musical career. The young Austrian pianist has been awarded multiple prizes at the International Beethoven Competition Bonn, where the renowned jury unanimously chose to give her the “Beethoven-Haus” prize and the chamber music prize.

From an early age, she has been invited to perform at prestigious international concert venues. In 2011 she gave her debut at the Golden Hall of Musikverein Vienna; her debut at the Vienna Konzerthaus followed shortly thereafter.

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