By Helson Hernández
HAVANA TIMES — Mauricio Vallina, educated between the island and Moscow’s Tchaikovsky, and probably the hottest Cuban concert pianist on the international scene right now, is returning to play in his homeland. “I consider myself above all else a romantic pianist”, he told us in his HT interview.
HT: What can you tell us about your musical beginnings in Havana?
Mauricio Vallina: My early education in Havana began in Guanabacoa where I grew up as a child. Maybe it was all the folkloric, spiritual and musical elements that hung in the air of this enchanted town that influenced much of what I believe to have marked me and my essence as an artist. For me, music is a gateway which takes you to a world full of magic and suggestion, where a message of humanity can always be found. However, my real professional training began much later at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory under the irreplaceable guidance of Roberto Urbay, and the major influence of the late professors Raúl Iglesias and Silvio Rodriguez-Cárdenas.
HT: Do you have anything interesting to say about your generation of Cuban pianists?
MV: I have an excellent relationship with all of my colleagues from my generation, but also with those pianists that came before me and those that are on their way up now. I have a special friendship with the pianist Paloma Manfugàs, who I met when I was 14 years old whilst studying at the Amadeo Roldán.
HT: How did Mauricio, a Cuban pianist, get to Moscow’s Tchaikovsky?
MV: I received a grant to go to Moscow upon finishing my studies at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory and graduating with a Gold Diploma. Since 2003, I’ve been included in the Tchaikovsky’s official list of eminent alumni, which is featured on all of their webpages.
HT: What do you consider to be the most important things that both conservatories contributed to your academic education, between Havana and Moscow?
MV: I believe that the solid education I received in both cities flowed in a continuous line, and as a result, it is the basis which feeds my music with special resources, when referring particularly to the piano’s colors, to the artistic dimension on the musical horizon, to the architecture of shapes, however, at the same time, it was only a preliminary phase in my life. My education was a long process and my subsequent meetings with Zenaida Manfugás and Martha Argerich proved to be pivotal points in my way of thinking, especially in my understanding of musical grammar, technique and what it takes to be a virtuoso. This, combined with my studies at the “Fundación Internacional de Piano del Lago di Cómo”, where I received master classes from great pianists such as Alicia de Larrocha, Fou Tsong and Bashkirov, who were an important catalyst in moving me up to the next level in terms of musical thought and understanding, as an artist and as a pianist.
HT: How long have you been playing outside of Cuba, and where are you living now?
MV: My musical career began in Moscow in 1990, in the former USSR, where I played in different Republics and places, including the North Pole, Murmansk. In the first few years, I took part in many European festivals and I even played a tour in India. I think my real career began in 1998 with my debut at the Tonhalle in Zürich. Excluding Africa, I have played on every continent and in almost every one of Europe’s iconic venues and festivals. I’ve lived in Brussels for 15 years now, and I’m privileged to have one of Cuban Ballet’s top ladies as my neighbor, Menia Martinez.
HT: Returning to Cuba to play, what emotions have been stirred up?
MV: All of my emotions regarding anything to do with Cuba are always particularly intense. You encounter extraordinary audiences all over the world, but it’s very hard for me to find such a warm and generous audience as I do when I go back and play for my fellow Cubans.
HT: Have you had the opportunity to record with important international record labels?
MV: My first commercial CD was released by EMI Classic International and it was recorded in London with the same microphones which the Beatles used, at Abbey Road Studios. The other three albums, playing two pianos with Martha Argerich, were also released by the same record company, and by other channels, different CDs and DVDs of my recital and orchestra concerts have been distributed similarly by other contracts.
HT: In terms of repertoire, what defines you as a concert pianist?
MV: I consider myself, above all else, a romantic pianist, although I am fascinated by the barroque’s polyphonic complexity, classicism’s fresh humor and 20th century nerve. My extensive academic education has allowed me to change my skin in each and every one of these genres. Therefore, my repertoire ranges from harpsichords to today’s compositions, placing a special focus on “A la gran Manera” pianism, and extraordinary pieces which are not normally played that often. At my next concert at the Lugano Festival, I will play the eclectic Variaciones op 25, by E. von Dohnanyi for piano and orchestra.
HT: What is it like for a pianist to make a career for him/herself in Cuba, especially as a concert pianist, in the face of the nationwide popular music phenomenon?
MV: Friedrich Gulda used to say: “Every musician in the world is my friend”. I don’t draw lines within music, which are as artificial as our geographical borders. I love Cuban music, popular and classic, immensely. The problem with classical music all over Latin America comes from the cultural model which we have inherited from Spain, which due to the combination of its strong folkloric roots and the Spanish Kings’ lack of attention, excluding Alfonso X “The Wise”, to the over-protection of classical music for centuries, is still felt even now, and we suffer from the same cultural misunderstanding. The same thing occurs in Spain, even today. It’s a delicate subject, however, a lot of the time it’s the classical musicians’ own fault, who in feeling misunderstood by the medium and in not finding who to interact with, decide to grow alone like only children do, and ultimately they end up planted in a pot. A great tree can only grow from the earth and the only way to do that is, in spite of everything else, to open up your mind.
HT: Tell us about an experience that holds great importance for you.
MV: I have lived many important experiences and encounters in my lifetime… With famous and anonymous people, in palaces and in villages. You never know who is going to be Wisdom’s next messenger-inspirer. My last significant experience has to be when I met with Chucho Valdés. It was an extraordinary, sincere and moving encounter, full of mutual admiration and real humility. It was him who convinced me to prepare a complete recital of Cuba’s classical music, and I officially presented myself at Barcelona’s Jazz Festival in December 2014.
Actually, this will be the second recital that I’m going to play at the Basílica on the 24th June: “Cuba Clásica”. I want it to be a carefully selected and explicitly Cuban recital, in the way I’ve always understood it to be, without a note of Spanish music. Obviously for this reason, carefully thinking about it beforehand, I’m cutting out La Malagueña, Aragón and so many other Spanish pieces from my detailed selection. It is going to be a reverential tribute to the founding fathers of Cuban Dance in the 19st century, and to this world enchanted by beautiful melodies and elegant filigrees. This thorough anthology will include almost every gem from the repertoire of Cuban classical music for piano by Gottshalk, Saumell, Cervantes, Lecuona, topped by a transcription made for Zenaida Manfugás of Cecilia Valdès’ ‘Contradanza’, by G.Roig. I owe all of the interpretative references of our great music to Zenaida Manfugá,and this program forms an intrinsic part of the living memory of this grand legacy which she has passed on to me. “Cuba Clásica” isn’t any other concert program, it’s a very unique message about humanity, beauty and nobility. It’s an authentic depiction of the Cuban soul.
HT: What role has Martha Argerich played in your life?
MV: A lot can be said about the great Martha Argerich, for me she is above all else a great friend. A person with an exceptional mental complexity, and a unique flexibility for concentration-expansion exercises, which every pianist in essence needs. She is a generous, non-conformist, extravagant and eclectic woman. I have grown up by her side since 1999, and I have learnt from her like the Renaissance disciples used to learn and live with their great maestros, receiving timely pointers, travelling with them, watching them all the time and helping them in all of art’s practical aspects. This way of growing as an artist is called “ancestral education,” and it is above any university degree.
Without her protection, her advice and all of the experiences we’ve shared over the years, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. We’ve also played two pianos since 1999, I featured in her film “Conversaciones Nocturnas”, and a lot of our concerts which we played all over the world, have been recorded for Radio, TV, and record labels. Our last recital which we played with two pianos, caused a true uproar, especially our recital at Gewandhaus in Leipzig.