Able Hands: Cuban Pianist Karla Martinez

Helson Hernandez

Karla Martinez
Karla Martinez

HAVANA TIMES — Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Karla Martinez, one of the most outstanding young concert pianists in Cuba today. “Cuba has a great piano-playing tradition,” she told me during our conversation.

HT: What would you say are the greatest challenges one faces when setting out to learn an instrument as demanding as the piano?

Karla Martínez: New and greater challenges come up every day from the very moment in which you decide to devote yourself unconditionally to anything, not only the piano. Setting new goals for yourself, and trying to reach them as best you can, is a good challenge. Getting up every day with the eagerness to discover something through your instrument and being true to yourself and the essence of your art, that’s one of the toughest challenges.

HT: Are there other musicians in your family?

KM: Not in my direct family. I do have cousins and uncles in Santiago de Cuba who are musicians, whom I met while I was still studying music. Jose Aquiles and David and Abel Virelles are three who come to mind.

HT: What is the career of a concert piano player like in Cuba today?

KM: It’s also a challenge. Cuba has a great piano-playing tradition. Being an heir of that tradition implies a commitment to doing a good job, always. On the other hand classical concert music isn’t exactly a huge, booming market, many a times it’s something of a romantic endeavor.

My sincere opinion is that you should never give up doing what you want to do, particularly when you are convinced that what you are doing contributes to the cultural education of Cubans. The trick lies in selecting the right pieces, ensuring the quality of the performance, choosing the right concert hall and, always, looking for quality, interesting and attractive projects that can appeal to people with different interests.

Karla Martinez
Karla Martinez

HT: What composers or works do you like?

KM: I like many composers and pieces, many different styles and periods. If I had to mention some piano and chamber music composers, I would say I am particularly attracted by the German romantics, Schumann and Brahms. But I am fascinated just as much by Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and the French impressionists. Generally speaking, I enjoy anything you could call good music, as much for playing as for listening.

HT: You’ve performed next to a considerable number of artists in your brief career as a pianist.

KM: It’s been one of the best schools for me. Interacting on stage with musicians who play different instruments, from different generations, with different styles and, most importantly, different points of view about how music should be performed. It has been crucial to my growth as an artist, not only in terms of the number of pieces you learn how to play or the diversity of sounds you hear, but also as a result of the many interpretations of a given piece you are exposed to. This is something that fascinates me. I’ve learned a lot from everyone I’ve played with, to say nothing of how extraordinary it is to play next to someone with whom you are able to establish good musical chemistry – the feeling when you’re in front of an audience is very special. That’s what chamber music is all about for me.

HT: What’s it like being a professional musician and a music teacher at the same time?

KM: One of the results is that you are left with practically no free time. You don’t have any time left over when you have to prepare for one or more concerts, rehearse with complete dedication (as you have to) and, at the same time, give music classes, prepare your students for exams, graduation concerts and contests and, on top of that, give them lessons for their future lives as musicians, guide them so as to bring the best out of each of them. This requires a lot of patience and persistence.

Being a teacher is something I’ve only begun to do, and I still feel short of deserving that distinction. I admire and respect teachers immensely, perhaps because it runs in the family. I am surrounded by teachers: my mom and two grandmothers are teachers.

Karla Martinez with Barbara Llanes and Susana Venereo
Karla Martinez with Barbara Llanes and Susana Venereo

HT: In addition to awards, what have music competitions offered you?

KM: Before all else, I should mention I am not particularly fond of competitions. I prefer the naturalness and expressiveness of a concert. I do recognize that competitions are important in terms of providing a musician with self-confidence, maturity, preparation for the stage and mastery over a broad, high-level repertoire, and they are particularly useful when you are still studying.

While I was still a student, I participated in different piano competitions held around the country at different levels, such as the Amadeo Roldan competition, the Latin American Piano Contest, Musicalia, Chamber Music and the Chamber Music Competition of the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC). I also participated in Costa Rica’s Maria Clara Cullel piano competition.

HT: What would you do if you weren’t a pianist?

KM: I haven’t really asked myself that question, but I am sure it would be something in the art world, something having to do with the search of sensations, playing with the intangible, the imaginative, the creative, composing. I like voice-related arts, and the work of radio broadcasters has always seemed interesting to me.