On the Top of a Mountain, Looking in the Same Direction – An Interview with Arnaldo Cohen and Qin Li-Wei | The Flying Inkpot
Last in Singapore a decade ago for the Singapore International Piano Festival and to play with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), Brazilian-born pianist Arnaldo Cohen returns this month for a series of chamber and orchestral concerts jointly presented by Altenburg Arts and Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM). In honour of Brahms’ 125th death anniversary, Cohen will perform some of the composer’s best-loved works – including his Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major with longtime acquaintance, cellist Qin Li-Wei.
Aileen Tang chats with them to find out what the music of Brahms means to them and why, to Cohen, chamber music is like standing on top of a mountain.
The Flying Inkpot: Welcome back to Singapore! You were here in 2011 and 2012 for the Singapore International Piano Festival and to play with the SSO. What are your impressions of Singapore?
Arnaldo Cohen: Singapore, to me, is about technology – advanced technology. It is a very important point in the globe, which can link several parts of the world like a bridge. Another aspect for me that has always been very interesting is the kind of discipline you can see in your society. Because, you know, we will have to have a kind of a longer conversation. I think the best part about Singapore for me are the friends I have here, like Lionel (Lionel Choi, Director of Altenburg Arts), and they’ll know all the food. The interest in the arts here – even with the pandemic and all the difficulties – is extraordinary. I was amazed by this invitation to go to Singapore. It means something is happening – not just what you see is happening, but what is behind the wheel for all that to happen.
TFI: Li-Wei, I heard that you and Arnaldo Cohen go back quite a while!
Qin Li-Wei: We go back a long way! At the end of my studies at Royal Northern College of Music, he was already teaching and when I started teaching there, I think we also overlapped slightly. And also, the pianist in my piano trio used to study with him so we actually had a couple of lessons with him. So yeah, so we’ve known each other for a long time.
TFI: So it must be extra special this time that Arnaldo’s coming back to Singapore and the two of you are going to be performing Brahms Cello Sonata together.
Qin: Absolutely! When I actually saw Lionel’s post (of Cohen coming to Singapore) – thanks to social media – a couple of months ago, I was asking Lionel to hook us up for a meal or just to see him. We were just talking and Lionel said, why don’t you guys play something together?
Well, I thought that’s a fantastic idea because for me personally, Cohen is really a fantastic, great musician! I suggested Schubert (Ed: Arpeggione) initially because I was touring Australia with the Schubert. But Cohen came back and said he wanted to do Brahms (Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major). And I thought you know what? This is an even better choice because it really showcases both artists equally and it’s very balanced as a work. It’s one of my favorite works because it’s been with me since my teens. Every couple of seasons I will programme it in my recitals and I haven’t programmed it for a couple years now. So it’s time to play it again and who better to play it with than Arnaldo Cohen!
Cohen: I’ve always been very interested in talent. And without any doubt, Qin Li-Wei is a great talent! And he has proved that when he won [the Silver Medal] at the Tchaikovsky (11th Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1998). I think young people are the future, so we have to give them our support as much as we can, for them to do the same in the future. I think it’s like moto perpetuo! So it’s a great pleasure to play with Qin Li-Wei.
TFI: I’m really looking forward to hearing the two of you play together.
Cohen: You know, I was a violinist so I was a string player. When I was 20 years old, I was doing three majors at University. I was doing Piano, Violin and Engineering. So one year before I graduated, I decided to give up Engineering in order to follow the path of music. I auditioned and was a professional violinist with the Rio de Janeiro Opera House orchestra, where I played for four years so that I could make a living. Then I was lucky enough to win a First Prize in Italy (1972 Busoni International Piano Competition), and after that, piano became my only direction.
TFI: So, Arnaldo, does having that intimate knowledge of the stringed instrument give you a more insightful understanding when you play chamber music with a string quartet or even the upcoming Cello Sonata?
Cohen: For sure. I even have to be very careful because I give a lot of suggestions for fingering or bowing! When I played with members of Amadeus Quartet (Cohen was a member of the Amadeus Piano Trio for 5 years), the violinist used to joke with me and say that I am the only pianist who could teach him a better fingering and tell him that he’s playing out of tune!
TFI: This time in Singapore, you’re going to be playing with one of Singapore’s string quartets – the T’ang Quartet – for the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor. So what is your approach to working with new friends – as colleagues and fellow musicians?
Cohen: Like dogs who use their instincts and sense of smell, I use my ears to “smell” what the chemistry is like. When you play chamber music, it is not about you. The group has to have one heart, one soul, one vision, one message. When you play with talented and competent musicians, there is no right or wrong. I have an image of how even when we differ in some areas, it’s like we are on top of a mountain where perhaps I’m facing north and they’re facing east or west or even south. But we are on top of the same mountain and what we are each seeing is true. The important thing is when you’re playing, you adjust and you are convinced by one another’s ideas in a completely natural way. So everybody is on top of the mountain and two of you may be looking to one side, but suddenly during the rehearsal, in a kind of a magical way, everybody ends by looking in the same direction. That is the idea.
TFI: I love that analogy! I’ve not heard it before and I really like it.
Cohen: I just invented it!
TFI: Has the pandemic been, as some would say, a time of revival for chamber music?
Qin: Chamber music is really about collaboration – even before COVID. I do have my own group, but often because [one of them] lives in Berlin, I live here and our violist lives in Munich, it’s still very much like a project-based ensemble. So the rehearsal times are somewhat limited, but because we are all experienced, we can have two or three rehearsals and we’re on stage.
But to actually work with local artists – especially because we can’t travel all over the world now – musicians are given an opportunity to have more time and more rehearsal space, more interaction and more time to understand the work with your colleagues in the same city. And that’s perfect. People actually do live a slower life now and chamber music needs that. For concertos, one could argue that you could just go there for a couple of rehearsals and you can get away with it because we’re all professionals and [with] cello concertos or violin concertos – unless it’s very obscure – the majority of the time, it’s not the orchestra’s first time playing it. But because the chamber repertoire is so enormous, there are times we play something for the first time and it really deserves more attention, more time and more space.
So in some ways, the pandemic helps us to reflect and to appreciate. Before the beginning of 2020, I was constantly on the road – every week or every two weeks, I’d definitely be at the airport again. But then the last two years, I’ve basically been staying put. Things have started to pick up again – I’ve been to Australia twice and I’m going to Japan next month. I want the whole health situation to go back [to pre-COVID] but at the same time, I do treasure what these two years have brought me. The Bach project, the Beethoven project – these things need a lot of time for preparation and for thinking, and the pandemic gave me that option.
Cohen: Well, I’ve just played one concert since the pandemic and before that, I had not played in public for two years. I played a recital here in the States and I must confess I felt like a freshman going for an exam – I was so nervous!
TFI: Audiences here are getting a full course meal in Brahms’ music over 4 days – cello sonata, piano quintet and piano concerto! Can you both share with us your personal take on Brahms? How does his music resonate with you personally?
Qin: 20 years ago, I was talking to the cellist Wang Jian and we decided to try to connect food and music together. He said to me, you know, Mozart’s music is like Japanese food – it’s very organized and it’s not in big portions but it’s very exquisite. And he thinks that Mahler is like Korean food – it’s big and direct and all that. And Brahms is like Chinese food because it’s so rich and the variety is immense – it’s enormously satisfying.
In this Cello Sonata, there are these wonderful, gloriously romantic melodies that come through every now and then, and it’s magical. In some people’s eyes, the last movement is almost too quirky but I think it brings out a different side of Brahms. It has a tremendous finale – the contrasts and the contour of the phrases are simply sensational.
Cohen: Brahms reinvented the piano in many aspects – the way he uses the full extent of the keyboard and the technique. The Brahmsian technique is not the Lisztian technique – it’s not to show off and have fun. Everything Brahms wrote had depth. When he wrote the 1st Piano Concerto, he was 21 years old. He was like someone who was born already old – old in terms of understanding the human soul. When you think about a 21-year-old boy writing that second movement – It’s a miracle.
TFI: Have you had any particularly memorable experiences of performing this Piano Concerto?
Cohen: Yes, I had one experience which moved me very much. A week or two after my father passed away, I had to play this in my town, Rio de Janeiro. I almost canceled the concert but then I decided to play for my father. That concert was one of the times I was more emotionally in touch with the music, almost without thinking. Sometimes there is so much emotional involvement with the piece that I do not pay attention to what I have to do, but only to what I want to say.
Tickets for Brahms 125 with Arnaldo Cohen are available from SISTIC
The Chamber Music Concerts
Thu & Fri 24-25 Mar 2022
SOTA Concert Hall
Arnaldo Cohen, Piano
Qin Li-Wei*, Cello
*Qin Li-Wei and T’ang Quartet appear courtesy of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music
Brahms – Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34
Brahms – Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99
The Orchestral Concerts
Sat & Sun 26-27 Mar 2022
SOTA Concert Hall
Lien Boon Hua, Conductor
Arnaldo Cohen, Piano
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 “Scottish”
Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
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