In search of beauty – Lorenzo Pone’s journey to Naples Opera House / an interview by Girolamo De Simone

Distinguished pianist, composer and journalist Girolamo De Simone, interviews one of the most celebrated Italian pianists. Born in 1991, Lorenzo Pone has been recently awarded the SJSS Award 2019 and, for the second time in his career, the RTP Classical Award. Hailed by critics for his outstanding quality of sound, Lorenzo Pone is experiencing a thriving career, being regarded as one of the best soloists of his generation.

GIROLAMO DE SIMONE: Lorenzo Pone, pianist, composer, concert pianist of international stature and vocation: in a few days you will hold an important concert at San Carlo, you can tell us something about the beginning of your career, about your years of training?

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LORENZO PONE: Well, going far back with the memories, it was my paternal grandfather who started me, at the age of 4, on the piano. My parents listened to music the whole day, my father as a jazz and ancient music enthusiast, my mother a passionate fan of Benedetti Michelangeli. The studies came later: once my father, to punish me for a stunt (I must say that I had made it big), forbade me to play for two weeks. But while he was at work, with the complicity of my grandmother I studied a whole Beethoven sonata, in those very fifteen days! The piano meant everything to me. By entering the Conservatory, I met Francesco Mariani: I owe him everything, I also owe him that since 2011 Paul Badura-Skoda admitted me among his direct students in Vienna. To both of them I owe I received a scholarship from Royal College of Music in London and being admitted to Master’s at Mozarteum in Salzburg, one of the greatest schools in the world, where I found friends, a great teacher as Cordelia Höfer-Teutsch and contacts that changed my life.

GIROLAMO DE SIMONE: You are a well-travelled musician: what’s your relationship with your hometown? I already know that Naples has for you a European light, not only Mediterranean. Where and how did this idea come about?

LORENZO PONE: Naples has been generous to me. It gave me my teacher Francesco Mariani, my family, my friends. Naples welcomed me as a professional in the most prestigious locations, from Associazione Scarlatti to San Carlo: Naples gave me really a lot. It also gave me the right boost: before even enrolling in the Conservatory, I often skipped school and went to the porter’s lodge at San Pietro a Majella, pretending to be a student and so getting the key of an organ or a classroom, where I would stay there improvising for hours. I did the same when after high school I attended, for a short time, a Bachelor’s in Law at the University: I didn’t show up in the courses and, especially on certain rainy and wintery days, I walked from the Uni to the Conservatory. I imagined I were in Paris, in Brussels, fantasizing about the lives of the composers I was fond of: it seemed to me the whole town was immersed into an unreal atmosphere. I would “sneak in” to the organ and spent hours improvising. Then the day arrived: a competition. I told my parents: if I win, the music will be my life. And maybe I won because I wanted it more than anything else in the world: so I started walking through Naples again, this time going directly to the Conservatory and it seemed to me the town enjoyed disguising itself, changing its own identity, evoking other cities in certain corners or on certain days, referring to other places. Big and old cities retain, each one, fragments of the others, small pieces scattered here and there, results of an ancient game of invisible mirrors. So I discovered how Naples loves to dress up, surprise and hide itself.

GIROLAMO DE SIMONE: You then went abroad.

LORENZO PONE: Almost by accident. There was first a short period in Paris, during which I came across a call for a selection: those who passed would have the opportunity to study in Vienna with Badura-Skoda, a living legend. I knew him since Francesco Mariani mentioned him several times. We discussed about this opportunity and Mariani prepared me for the audition: there were 89 pianists from all over the world and Badura-Skoda selected only eight. In that rainy Viennese morning I expected everything, except to be chosen as one of the eight. We started immediately and at the end of the course, Badura-Skoda invited me to be his regular pupil: I would not have dared to hope that much. For me he represents a direct contact with a disappeared world, a golden age of the interpretation, an approach to the piano that has its roots in legend, directly to Beethoven. Then came the time of the first competitions, the first awards, the first concerts and then London, Salzburg and the first real tours: the US, Europe, South America. But I didn’t leave Naples because I was missing something. I would also have left Paris or New York, if I were born there. I wanted to discover the world, to never stand still: movement is the only law.

GIROLAMO DE SIMONE: Can you tell me about the program you’re going to play? Does it follow a tactile logic, a chronological formula or, as I suspect, are the pieces linked by a refined underground sequence?

LORENZO PONE: It is a series of silent tributes to people and places which are important in my life. Once again Francesco Mariani and Paul Badura-Skoda, my teachers, my mentors: they met each other a couple of times. The San Carlo recital is on 6th October, Badura-Skoda’s birthday: I will play for him, for what he gives me, for teaching the freedom of interpretation, a perhaps forgotten way of understanding the piano. And I will play for Mariani. I owe him everything that has happened in my life, to his dedication, to his teaching technique: he is a man who taught me much more than the piano. Then there is the memory of Massimo Parlato, a great medic and musicologist who died last February; we were friends, no one believed in me more than he did: seeing me at San Carlo was his dream. And then there’s San Carlo itself: I entered it first time at the age of 9 and now it welcomes me, a great joy for me. To see my name coupled with those of Maxim Vengerov, Valery Gergiev, Cecilia Bartoli, Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta: what a responsibility! The Superintendent Rosanna Purchia, the Artistic Director Pinamonti, the General Manager Emmanuela Spedialiere were magic in making me feel at home, embraced and welcomed: my gratitude goes to them through the opening piece, taken from the second book of Sonatas by Ludovico Giustini, composed five years after the first one, in 1737, when San Carlo was founded. It is a dreamy and nocturnal music, and it has a Neapolitan sound that I believe opens the way to Debussy Préludes and Chopin famous Nocturnes op. 15. I conclude with Haydn and Beethoven, another tribute to the Vienna of Badura-Skoda and to Cordelia Höfer-Teutsch, my unparalleled teacher at Mozarteum. A special thanks goes to Elisabeth Gutjahr, our Rektorin at Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg: her support and sustain had a crucial role, as she gave me the opportunity to feel consistent and ready for this great event.

GIROLAMO DE SIMONE: What do you think about the music produced nowadays? You are a pianist/composer, which means you expressed yourself giving life to “inner images”, not only through your activity as an interpreter. Are there “the music”, all with identical dignity and value, or “The Music”, autarkic seductive aesthetic queen?

LORENZO PONE: Well, I must confess the image of music as “autarkic seductive aesthetic queen” fascinates me very much! A queen who reigns over a vast, varied kingdom and all yet to be discovered. Personally, I recognize dignity and value to “music”, to all the music that implies and requires an emotive engagement: mind I do not necessarily mean an intellectual commitment, but an emotional commitment. Emotion requires commitment, it implies listening, it forces us to think: when music is not emotionally demanding, it doesn’t excite, it’s just boring. But this includes all languages and all periods: there has always been good and bad music. When I think of music as a territory yet to be discovered, I think of the endless possibilities that today, perhaps today more than ever, musical languages offer us: to collect suggestions and “fragrances” from everything, to make use as an expressive function of the resources brought to light by experimentation, to mix locations, techniques and grammars. Music should always be the evocation of an “elsewhere”.

GIROLAMO DE SIMONE: Future recording projects?

LORENZO PONE: I’m currently working on three ideas. First of all, the production of some of the recordings I realized and will realize again in Lisbon, four days after San Carlo, with the Portuguese national radio. In 2014 and again in 2019 I got the RTP Classical Award, a prize awarded by the Portuguese radio to distinguished young classical pianists. As a result, since 2014 all of my live performances have been broadcasted in 33 countries, and recorded by RTP itself. The recordings are of high audio quality: I’m working on a collection of my best live concerts, which will be distributed next year. With the Vienna Gramola we are concretely working on a recording that is worth of an exceptional instrument, an early 20th century Schweighofer grand. I used it to record the Rachmaninov you can find on YouTube, it has a very special sound: “Viennese” repertoire of course, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven. Last but not least, a new album collecting some of the unpublished works analyzed in an essay I recently published, The icy face of Naples, which explores the Neapolitan panorama of contemporary piano music. And there are the concerts-tours: after winning the London Gateway’s in 2018 and being awarded the SJSS Award 2019, my agency is discussing China, Australia and again the States, where I have been in 2015. For sure next stops after San Carlo and Lisbon, are the Berlin Phiarlmonie, Vienna, again Italy, then Brussels, Portugal and Spain, a place I really love. But honestly the best feeling ever is to be in Naples, to play in the oldest house of concerts in the world, in my hometown, for my own people: that’s the best stop of my trip.

Girolamo De Simone

Naples, 16th September 2019

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