Interview in El Asombrario & Co. Signed: Silvia Melero.
She came across the piano as a child and since then she has overcome an obstacle course to become a pianist. Born in Soria, she soon moved to Catalonia and currently lives in between Madrid and Tarragona. María Parra is a concert pianist and performer of classical repertoire, but also a composer, director of the Bouquet Festival and honorary senator in Tarragona. She has taught Spanish music masterclasses in Spain and in Germany and played in several European countries. We chatted with her about her work, the difficulties of her career, the importance of fighting for dreams, her references of female pianists and the ability of music to care for the soul of those who listen to it. This weekend she performs in Madrid as part of the ‘Summer Classics’ program.
Are these summer heats also an influence when you play piano?
Yes, it affects it so much! It is wood, therefore humidity or heat causes it to contract or dilate, and for this reason the tuning suffers, because the strings are very tight between the iron pivots; we will explain it like that more or less, but the support is wood. There are great detune dramas in times of abrupt temperature change. I really like to play it in September, with the return to school, it is a time that I love, it is no longer so hot, there is still light and your fingers still do not stiffen with the cold (which also influences to play all right).
We are before a very alive being, then…
Yes, totally, and he has his soul. All instruments really have their soul.
Your love affair with the piano started at a very young age. How was it?
Through various phases. First when I was very young, almost a baby, I grew up listening to classical music because my father was an artist and he played it all day. He, who came from rural areas, from La Mancha, and had no cultural references, only the countryside, discovered that he had a talent for painting and at 17 asked to go to Valencia to study. In his discovery of the world and consistent with his artist drive, he wanted to soak up everything and discovered music, painting, literature… He devoured everything. When he met my mother, they grew in that desire to cultivate and when I was born the background music was already there. Since I was little I liked to dance, hum…
What colors shape those early musical memories you have?
They are made up of many pieces, Beethoven, Brahms, Vivaldi, Mozart, piano concertos… All of this predisposed me. First at six years old I started learning dance, I was good at it.
And then something happened in a mysterious room at your grandmother’s house…
(Laughs). Yes, at age seven, one summer at my grandmother’s house I looked through a door lock and saw in a closed room a huge wooden instrument with two chandeliers and asked her to please let me in. We were 15 cousins and she didn’t want to let me in because then everyone would have to come in. But I insisted so much that she opened the door for me. That was a sacred feeling to me. I remember the smell of humidity, dust, old, wood… I felt it like an altar at that moment, I was overwhelmed. I opened the lid and saw a piano with chipped keys, it was one of the ancients with ebony and ivory keys; nowadays the keys are no longer covered in ivory because it is an aberration, but it used to be common back then. I was learning songs by ear, I played with a finger, I made up others, the hours went by quickly. At the end of the summer I told my mother that I wanted to learn to play the piano and she signed me up for the conservatory.
You even had a teacher who fell asleep while teaching…
I have to admit that my beginnings with the piano were disastrous, anyone would have given up. I had a teacher who was in retirement and, as he was bored at home, he asked to come back and be allowed to teach (without charge) the little ones, those who just started to learn piano. I would leave the school and go to class, and this man with the drowsiness of the siesta would nod and what he did was to put on a clock like one of those in the kitchen so that after 20 minutes it would wake him up while we played. I learned through infused science. (Laughs). It was like that for four courses. When I passed grade, by court, I hit myself there.
Does the question of technique weigh heavily?
These are arts with a lot of discipline, a lot of rigor. You must have the technique to make the music flow and make it sound like something organic, like breathing or speaking. For that you need a very thorough work substrate, because you can even injure yourself, it is something very physical. At that age I had no idea about all this, I went to class year after year and just played. What happened is that in that exam, when I was suspended, a teacher said that I had a lot of musicality and asked me who I was studying with. I had the feeling of wasting time during those years. I noticed that I didn’t fit: if music was my refuge, everything then fell apart. It took me a lot to regain self-esteem and credibility. That teacher started teaching me, but there were another four very hard years.
How important is the role of those who teach when motivating or demotivating…
There are many people who throw in the towel along the way. I left the conservatory saying “I’m never coming back here”. Sunk in misery, my mother, who was a teacher, told me that at her school they had put a battery, an electric piano; I started going, I met people who played jazz, another style, I was already 16 years old, I felt liberated and then I went to Barcelona to study.
And how does Paris comes across your path?
Finally years later, at the age of 26, I found a teacher who was the one who made me recover everything lost, but was teaching in Paris. So I went from Tarragona to Paris to teach with her, and that’s how it went for three years. And I followed my training very freely. Until one day an academic tribunal applauded and I graduated with honors. It was one of the happiest days of my life, the road was not easy.
In fact, one of the pieces that you have composed is dedicated to Paris… And another to Paco de Lucía.
Composing my own pieces, improvising, makes me tinker with music and has made me gain confidence. To me they are like little magic pieces. The one for Paris was a forced tribute to the city of light. It is called Il pleut sur Paris for so many rainy afternoons there but in a happy mood because I was there to learn, because it was the place where I became aware that I could be a real pianist. I took the train in Barcelona, spent the day there, went to class, walked and returned. And with that other composition of flamenco (Miradas al Sur) I have a very special story, because that night, when I finished the piece, I dreamed of Paco de Lucía, it had never happened to me, and the next day I saw on the news that he had died. It was very shocking to me. So obviously that piece is dedicated to him. When I was little he was part of my background music at home.
Who are the female pianists that are referential for you?
My first reference is Clara Schumann; I was born the same day as her and also my sister is named Clara after her. She was the wife of Robert Schumann, one of the great composers of German romanticism, but she was the greatest interpreter. Her father, very severe, it is true that he encouraged her and promoted her career as a concert artist after seeing her talent, but when she married, the history took her out of the way and her husband shone. She took care of the eight children they had, and when Robert dies she resumes her career and begins to shine. She is one of the great pianists that humanity has given. Also a great composer, although she did not give importance to her compositions. Other references for me are Martha Argerich, to whom I composed a tango, and Alicia de Larrocha. And more recently, Yuja Wang. And I would like to mention a pianist with great feminine sensitivity, like Nelson Freire, a great humanist.
You also experienced the difficulty of being a pianist and raising two daughters, right?
To combine giving impulse to my professional project and raising my two daughters has also been a difficult journey. I never quit the piano during parenting, but I didn’t have the support I expected. I did a master of Spanish music with Alicia de Larrocha, it was something wonderful. I separated from the father of my daughters, I made my journey, the blindfold fell when I became aware of the macho world in which we are (in the familiar, the professional, at all levels). Today my daughters are older and I have tried to instill in them that they trust their abilities, that they follow their desire with strength, that they believe in themselves.
Is classical music a very competitive world?
As in everything, the more you climb, the more obstacles you find. Believing in yourself is the final thing. To know that I will do better next time, but measure myself, not by others. I think trying to do your best is the drive that keeps you alive. That has no limit, it sticks until you die. I recognize myself as demanding, but I do not want to see it as a permanent dissatisfaction but as something that beats within me so that no day is in vain, that every day has a meaning.
Are you very disciplined in your day to day?
No! (Laughs). I’m very chaotic. If there is something that I have conquered it is my freedom and that is already there, I flow with life. I would love to say that I am very organized, but I am not. I have learned that you cannot put life in a cage and put keys on it or structure everything as you want. In the end, life takes you wherever it wants. The reality is that my day, whatever I do, revolves around the piano, but that doesn’t just mean playing, as you might think. I generate my own work. It has cost me so much to be free that in the end, whatever it is, when I go to bed I have a clear conscience. There is no turning back.
What happens in your being when you sit down to play?
To play I need a state of mind like that moment when I was a child and I entered that room, a state of going towards the sacred. When I’m in chaos, I lie down for a moment, calm down, empty my head and then, sleepwalking, I reach the piano, I abstract myself, I go into something else and I don’t want to know anything else. Playing has its physical side, of chipping stone. The piano is a continuous lie detector. When we play pieces of others, the work is clockwork, precision Swiss watch. You must have complete control of your fingers, but you cannot just do it as mechanic, physical or mental work. There must be a sonorous air with an emotional speech, that is what it is about. The strength and power of music is to excite the listener. When we dehumanize ourselves it is because we are lacking in sensitivity and emotion. Caring for the sound is caring for the soul of others. There is a lot of respect between what I do and the audience. What you play you filter by your being, your experiences, your person and what you distill you give to others. What we all want, whatever instrument we play, is that something happens to the public, that it moves them, that they come out revitalized, transformed, with less pain.
You have released two albums where you reflect aspects of your life.
In the first, Rêverie, childhood dreams are reflected. There are great composers who wrote for their children (Schumann or Debussy). Although a teacher laughed at me when I told him as a child that I wanted to be a piano soloist, those dreams remained unchanged. The important thing is to follow your wishes, what you really want. Nobody says that you have to comply with them at one age or another, everyone has their GPS, so you have to follow your path always. In addition, on that album is my stage in Paris and Alicia de Larrocha with everything she brought to me with the Spanish music (Albéniz, Granados). The second album, Mouvement, is movement: it is good to want things but to achieve them you have to take action.
And what about creating and organizing the Bouquet Festival in Tarragona?
Well, I always had the memory of the times I have played in Germany in concerts where there were also Spanish products such as wine. And in France I have played in Historical Heritage places like churches, abbeys… On the other hand, in a hard time I worked as a tourist guide in Tarragona (I speak French) and I knew incredible places. In one there was a grand piano, I did a concert once and then mixing everything I shaped the festival in different places with musicians who wanted to do things, in order to revitalize the cultural environment in Tarragona, to unite music, artistic places and wine. And in the end, people responded, came, paid their entry, it was a success and thanks to those resources and institutions that supported by sharing spaces, they got feedback and we’re already on the fifth edition.
You are an honorary senator in Tarragona. How is that?
It is an honorary, not a political one, a position as something symbolic such as advisor. It comes from the time when Tarraco was Roman and the consul surrounded himself with people from different backgrounds to be advised. Today we are people from culture, art, science and other branches of knowledge. We meet four times a year, and they hear our vision on different topics. In my case they proposed it to me when I created the festival, and I receive it as an acknowledgment of what I can contribute to the cultural life of the city with my work.
Could it be said that you have been married to the piano until the end of your days?
The piano is a way of life. I have had many obstacles, I would be lying if I said that I have not thought about quitting several times in my life, but the idea of leaving it made me lose my strength. For me it is a project of personal self-realization. I have a lot of piano ahead of me and I think it will continue to bring me good things.
María Parra performs with Isabel Villanueva in a piano and viola concert within the ‘Classics in Summer’ of the Community of Madrid (July 13, 14 and 15) and within the ‘Bouquet Festival’ (Tarragona, July 20)