Piano star finds freedom in ‘no’ – Tharaud feeling ‘useful’ after tragedy

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Cam, (second from left), with Lady Antebellum performs at the CMA Music Festival at Nissan Stadium, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP)
Cam, (second from left), with Lady Antebellum performs at the CMA Music Festival at Nissan Stadium, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP)

NEW YORK, June 11, (AFP): What makes a great musician? Passion and practice, most would agree. Acclaimed French pianist Alexandre Tharaud would add another vital trait — knowing when to take a break.

Tharaud took a rare step for a top-level classical musician of stepping away from concerts for nearly a year as he devoted himself to Bach’s famously challenging Goldberg Variations.

“It is very important to be able to say no. In this profession you can easily perform constantly. But what would be the point?” Tharaud told AFP on a visit to New York.

Freed from public commitments, Tharaud said he sometimes would spend an entire day mastering one measure of the Goldberg Variations.

He took the sabbatical seven years ago and recently recorded the Goldberg Variations over 10 days — also an unusually long stretch of time for a classical CD.

Still, Tharaud, a 47-year-old who keeps his hair neatly trimmed and is fond of understated sweaters, said he felt a restlessness away from performances and envisioned only shorter breaks in the future.

“A musician has to stop, but when he does stop he goes into a panic,” said Tharaud, who speaks methodically but with a constant energy.

In a related idiosyncrasy, Tharaud by choice does not keep a piano in his Paris home.

“When a piano is right in front of you, it’s heavy, it’s present and it’s calling you. As a pianist, you can’t prevent yourself from heading to the keyboard. So this is one way in which I can find my own balance,” he said.

He instead travels around Paris, asking friends to let him practice on their pianos. Tharaud said that one side benefit is that he is accustomed to adapting to whichever piano he encounters — a skill especially useful for pianists, who unlike other musicians do not travel with their own instruments.

Tharaud, while saying that his natural tendency was to put in long hours, insisted that musicians also needed to experience “normal life.”

“In my mind, that also means going out to buy bread, going to a bar and seeing loved ones,” he said.


It was that desire for normalcy that led Tharaud to maintain previously scheduled concerts after the twin tragedies last year in Paris — the January 7 assault on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and the November 13 coordinated attacks on the Bataclan music club and other targets.

After the November 13 attacks, Tharaud played to a packed audience at the new Philharmonie de Paris, lighting candles on stage in a symbolic but unstated tribute to the dead.

On a near-freezing day, Tharaud took part in France’s mourning ceremony for the dead of November 13. With soprano Natalie Dessay, he performed for the televised global audience “Perlimpinpin” by the late French pop singer Barbara.

Tharaud said that the day achieved a long-sought goal for him as a musician — feeling useful.

He was invited to meet later with relatives of the victims but left quickly, believing he was out of place in his role as a musician.

“This was just a small ointment to put on a painful wound,” he said. “But if I can just ease the pain for a few minutes, then I feel I have been useful.”

Tharaud may be best known to many audiences for playing himself, a piano student of a woman whose health deteriorates, in Michael Haneke’s film “Amour,” which in 2013 won the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

He has returned to a life of constant travel, with stops in June in Asia. Dates earlier this year in the United States included performances with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as an intimate New York concert in a crypt under a Harlem church.

Describing the Goldberg Variations as an “uninterrupted dialogue between the performer and the work,” Tharaud said he often decides which sections to play shortly before each concert.

“This is a work that really lives with the audience and, thanks to them, it rises into greater grandeur with each concert,” he said.

But while he is now identified with the Goldberg Variations, Tharaud said he was not interested in revisiting works of Erik Satie and Jean-Philippe Rameau for which he earlier won renown, hoping instead to explore more works.

“Pianists have a giant repertoire, more than for any other instrumentalists. And life is short.”


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