Jean-Baptiste Mueller, pianist & composer

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?

Ever since I can remember, listening to music has mesmerised me to the core of my soul and it was clear to me since early childhood, that I wanted to learn an instrument. so when I was 6 years old, I made the decision that it was to be the piano. My mother was playing a bit so there allready was an instrument in the house.

When I was fourteen and accepted early at the Basel conservatory, I had a great teacher, who won the Geneva competition, so he knew what he was talking about. His name was Peter Efler.I definitely learned all the important basics and made rapid development. I remember well the wonderful classes with Tadeusc Kerner in New York, and the masterclasses with Igor Lazko and Sergei Senkov where great too.

But there was one woman who marked me like no other. But let’s start from the beginning.

Later on and already having won prizes in international competitions, I felt that something was missing. My doubts started when I was around 20. The inspiration left me from time to time and I was deeply concerned. I felt that I didn’t have enough knowledge to conciously create that atmosphere I wanted, and even questions of how far can an interpreter go with a given piece where tormenting me. Looking in many countries, I found this wonderful woman in Paris, called Christine Paraschos. She had all the answers and to me she was like a Sherlock Holmes of music. She made me play just a single note in the beginning, then two and trained my ear to what sound actually does in space.

It was tough in the beginning and it took me a while to cope with the fact, that I was not able to produce a legato, a REAL connected legato just in any given situation without the so-called “natural intuition” or inspiration. But yes a breakthrough took place eventualy. She told me all the secrets of piano tecnique and composer based knowledge. No more questions. Wonderful ! It just changed my whole life, not just my playing. Joy was there again. I am eternaly greatful for her teachings.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

Certainly my participation in the Busoni International Competition. In the first and second stage, I was completely innocent and just having fun, performing for a wonderful italian audience. Up to the third stage I didn’t even have a concert dress, I never packed one, and so I played in funky street clothing with a hippie gilet full of little mirrors.

Then I started to realize all that competitiveness and the media got very on top of me and it felt strange. I definitely lost my innocence there…also a fight in the jury broke out about whether to kick me out or give me a prize. I finally got a 5th prize, and met the impresario of Vladimir Horowitz, Thomas Frost, who wrote me an amazing recomendation letter.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I guess that would be one of the concerts in the old Philharmony of St. Petersburg, the one with Saulius Sondeckis and the Camerata St. Petersburg where we were performing a Mozart concerto.

If you are able to capture a Russian audience, it means a lot. And if you can feel how the orchestra gets really inspired by your playing, there is nothing more beautiful. I can confirm that it felt a bit like a love affair to me, and I really enjyed it.

Of course my performance at the age of 15 with the second Beethoven concerto in the big Basel Casino is unforgettable as well. I remember playing every note as if my life would depend on it.

Which particular works do you perform best?

I would say that all the romantic composers really are a match with my personality. I enjoy Beethoven and Bach enourmously.

What do you do offstage that provides inspiration on stage?

I focus my mind as much as possible. My goal is to achieve a maximum of single pointed attention. Then I try to ground myself to the earth through my feet. Also I tend to melt away as a person and try to have a larger view of me, meaning that my mind tries to let go of the narrow identification of me as just peronality traits. In short terms, I try to blend in to something bigger than me.

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

These choices are clearly done from my heart. And only then I start using my head to design the recital, the dramaturgie of it. As I compose a lot too, I always include my work in concerts now. My latest passion is improvisation. If I feel ready by the end of this year, I will start to combine my compositions with improvisations during a concert. Right now this is the most exiting project I can think of. A long lingering wish of mine that I have never done, finally gets born.

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

My favourite places are those, where art in general has an important place in society.

Countries where the artist and his work are of high value to people, like France, Italy, Russia. I have seen the difference of an audience’s reaction and it does matter to an artist !

When it comes to concert halls, of course the old philharmony of St. Petersburg, the wonderful Basel Casino with its great acustic, but I am in general happy, when there is a communion between the audience and me and the public can express it. That is the most important to me.

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

That is an important question ! I always say, that if a child has contact early in life to classical music through their parents, that’s the best. The connection is made, the barrier broken.

So I tell parents that it is not important whether they themselves play an instrument, but if they make them listen to classical music and maybe go to a concert once in a while, they do them a great favour. Also science has shown that a child that is learning an instrument has a much wider brain developpment and better social skills.

It is so much harder to create that bridge to classical music later on in life.

What is your most memorable concert experience ?

There are many, but let me start with a funny one! During a concert in Mexico City, there was a big thunderstorm outside and, during my recital, suddenly all the lights went out in the Auditorio Blas Galindo. I continued to play in pitch black, the adrenaline shot up, and luckily I didn’t fall off my horse, so to speak. After a short while, the generator solved the problem and the lights came back on.

In Denmark I once played an afternoon concert in a smaller place with windows in the concert hall. I looked up in the blue sky and the beatiful white light of the sun was inspiring me tremendously and I tried to let that flow into my music. When I finished playing, almost every single person in the hall had tears in their eyes. A rare experience that I will never ever forget.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success for me is to be able to capture an audience, to be able to achieve mastery in your technical skills so that they serve the respective piece of music best. And, of course, that people want to hear you because of the very specific and personal way you are expressing yourself with your instrument.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians ?

My personal experience has shown me that it is crucial to gain as much knowledge as you can about the fundamental building blocks of the very unique language of each composer.

In order to know exactly how far you can go with an interpretation, you need to be sure that you respect and have understood the main ingredients of the composer and the piece you want to present. So be curious and go beyond the curtain ! There is so much to discover.

Of course, also the physical aspect of the many technical questions need to be adressed, and there, in my opinion, one stands out. Legato playing seems to be a basic and a given, but how many of us know all the secrets of a real legato? I haven’t found so many teachers that are able to show you the necessary ingredients that unmistakenly make you an expert in producing a perfect legato under all circumstances. The audience reacts to a sudden disconnection in the energy flow and it is always unpleasant, whether they conciously realise it or not. Christine Paraschos sayd to me : when you hold the hand of an elderly lady to help her over the street, and then suddenly let go of it, it is not very nice. At first I thought that she exagerates, but now I know better. So as an aspiring artist, look for help. Try to get all the answers you need to be autonomous in the end.

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

I would like to have the complete freedom to improvise out of the moment in concerts and reaching the same level of mastery than in my interpretations.

Swiss Pianist Jean-Baptiste Mueller grew up in Basel, Switzerland. He made his first public appearance at age 10 playing one of Wolfgang Amadues Mozart’s Piano Concertos. The completion of his Teaching- and Solo-Diplomas with Peter Efler at the Conservatory of Basel were followed by Master courses in Vienna, Paris, Geneva and New York with Adam Harasiewics, Tadeusz Kerner, Alexis Weissenberg, Sergei Senkov, Semion Balshem, Igor Lazko, Craig Goodman und Christine Paraschos.

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