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Polo Piatti hopes for second International Composers Festival

HOT columnist Sean O’Shea interviews Polo Piatti, the award winning British-Argentine composer, concert pianist, classical improviser and conductor. Polo lives in Hastings and was artistic director of the UK and Europe’s first International Composers Festival. This successful event was held at St Mary in the Castle at the end of August to very popular acclaim.

Sean talks with Polo about his experience of being a child prodigy, his CD The Tides of Time, his improvisations and his plans for setting up a local orchestra.

Sean O’Shea: You were born in Buenos Aires, left there at an early age and have journeyed all over the world. What was it like being a child prodigy, leaving home so young, and did you ever manage to have much of a childhood?

Polo Piatti: I started piano lessons when I was three years old and went on to giving concerts at a very early age. This meant that I could not have a typical childhood, enjoying my free time or playing games like other children. I remember our neighbour’s children playing outside our house while I had to practise the piano or study music theory. I would look through the window thinking how different my life was compared to theirs. Even during our long summer holidays, my father always used to rent a piano for me and I had to prepare for my music exams while the other children went to play or swim. But the strange thing was that I really didn’t mind it at all. I was neither sad nor lonely, because I had my piano, my music and I truly loved it! Later on, when I started touring South America I really enjoyed all the travelling and staying in nice hotels. What I didn’t like was being recorded live in concerts and, funnily enough, giving interviews. I also remember arriving at all these places that I had never been to before and seeing my photo on posters all over town. I simply couldn’t understand how this was possible! It was all a bit scary yet at the same time exciting. But looking back at it all, it was a great time of discovery for me. In a strange sort of way, I started discovering the world outside my home through music.

Sean O’Shea: My own tradition is Irish folk music, some of which is joyful but much of which is about loss. How do you relate to other musical traditions, and to what extent does the theme of loss or transience feature in your music?

Polo Piatti: I have two different personal sources of tradition: on the one hand South America (my grandmother was a native American Indian) and on the other hand, Italy (my grandfather was born there), two very emotionally rich cultures. Both are a lot about passion and drama and also about melancholy. A strange combination of tango and opera, if you like. And yes, of course, my music is influenced by both.

Sean O’Shea: Your commitment is to restoring melody and emotion to classical music. Have you had any stick for doing this? And are there many current composers who share this view?

Polo Piatti:  Yes, a lot of stick, in fact! This is because most contemporary composers think that you need to write “clever” music instead of music that is pleasing to the ears and widely accessible. I have composed “clever” music in the past, mostly in France and in Germany over 20 years ago, so I know where they are coming from. But nowadays music for me has a different significance and, if you like, mission: music of today in my view needs to be able to touch people’s hearts and emotions and not just be intellectual. Also, I am convinced that most avant-garde composers hide behind the contemporary trend, because they are simply unable to come up with a good melody. And unfortunately it still seems to be much more fashionable to shock people than to please them.

Sean O’Shea: You are perhaps best known for your improvisations. What draws you to playing in this way and what’s the process?

Polo Piatti: Until around 200 years ago it was quite common for classical composers and pianists to improvise live on stage. Friedrich Chopin and mainly Franz Liszt were famous for this practice. Before them Haydn and Bach did the same by performing intricate variations of a given musical theme on stage and ad hoc. Nowadays only jazz musicians dare to improvise but they use dissonant chords, jazz cadences, etc. I do classical improvisations instead and started improvising when I was 8 or 9 years old, mostly for fun and to amuse my piano teachers. But I never truly understood the process leading to it and why I do it. It just comes naturally to me and the process is quite simple: I mainly work with pictures, fixing them in my mind and translating them into organised music. In a way you could say that I compose live on stage.

Sean O’Shea: You are an asset to Hastings; however Hastings doesn’t always appreciate its treasures. Do you feel welcomed here? And why do you live in Hastings?

Polo Piatti: From the very moment I arrived in Hastings around five years ago I felt very much at home and appreciated here. It is a very special and inspirational place for me, full of interesting and welcoming people as well as an incredibly beautiful nature reserve. My wife and I lived many years in London and never made such good friends as the ones we have in Hastings in such a short time. I wish we had moved here earlier!

Hastings orchestra initiative

Sean O’Shea: You are in the process of setting up an orchestra here in Hastings comprising amateur and professional players. What would you like to say to musicians who may be considering joining your orchestra?

Polo Piatti: At the recent International Composers Festival I mentioned how lovely it would be if we had a good local orchestra, made up out of a mixture of professional and amateur musicians. Some people took my comment very seriously and started looking for suitable people. We will soon be meeting for the first time and see if we’ve got enough numbers to form a local orchestra. So, I would just say to local musicians, “Come and join us, it will be great fun!”

Sean O’Shea: You have been commissioned by Musica Sacra to write an All Faiths Oratorio. Can you comment on why they have chosen you, and the significance of this for your career?

Polo Piatti: Yes, I am very honoured to have been commissioned by Musica Sacra to compose the first ever All Faiths Oratorio based on the main world religions. I believe they chose me because they liked my style of music. I’ve just started working on it and the work will involve a full symphonic orchestra, four solo singers, a big mixed choir, a children’s choir and six separate ethnic musical groups representing those religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism. Over 300 people will be involved in performing the oratorio and the plan is to record it and premiere it in 2013.  So in terms of significance it’s major, as it is one of the biggest, most diverse and complex works I have ever been commissioned to write.

Sean O’Shea: You have performed several times and been Composer in Residence at St Mary in the Castle. Given the local council’s difficulty in wholeheartedly supporting this unique venue, do you think your new orchestra will ever get to play there?

Polo Piatti: The local council has been very generous to me in the past, so I am confident they will try their very best to support a second International Composers Festival to take place in Hastings next year, despite the budgetary difficulties. The present budgetary restrictions are a problem for all of us, but I’m sure that everyone knows that investing in high quality music and in great venues like St Mary in the Castle is always an excellent way to promote a town, its businesses and therefore, its people.

Sean O’Shea:  Can you say something about the inspiration for your CD The Tides of Time, which specifically refers to the Sussex countryside and seascapes?

Opportunity for local lyricists

Polo Piatti: When I moved to this area I couldn’t stop getting flashes of music in my head – especially during my long walks on the East Hill and by the sea. I then decided to focus on those inspirations and to relate them to historical facts and past events that happened in the area. All this ultimately resulted in the CD entitled The Tides of Time. I am still amazed at how positively people have reacted to it! I am now getting new inspirations and composing a cycle of very special, neo-romantic love songs. By the by, if you can think of anyone who would be interested in writing lyrics for some of them, please ask them to contact me through my website!

Sean O’Shea: You emphasise that music should be accessible. How do you see the relationship between yourself and your audience?

Polo Piatti: In my personal opinion and at this stage of musical evolution, there is no point whatsoever in composing music that is not accessible. Everything that is not accessible or even esoteric in some way or form is now just self-congratulatory, pretentious, conceited, socially irrelevant and totally useless. Only 50 years ago you were a revolutionary composer if you wrote “clever” music. But now it is the exactly the opposite: you are a revolutionary composer if you write a good tune. If I were unable to connect with my audiences at some point I would stop composing immediately and do something else. What is the point of composing something that nobody likes or feels anything about? We have forgotten that music is there to make people feel and not just think. I do not believe in using music as a self-aggrandizing, vanity tool. All great music is about giving, not taking. It is about trying to enrich others and not your own ego.

Sean O’Shea: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by Hastings Online Times and can I wish you the very best on your coming tour of Japan and with the launch of your second orchestral suite there in November 2012.

 

Those interested in joining Polo’s orchestra initiative should contact Jill Levick on 07703 135053 for full details.

If you are a local lyricist interested in collaborating with Polo in his Love Songs cycle, you can contact him through his website at www.polopiatti.com.

Samples of Polo Piatti’s music are available on his website. His latest CD, The Tides of Time, can be bought at selected outlets in town, including Hastings information centre.

 

Posted 18:28 Friday, Oct 19, 2012 In: SOS

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