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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 20 JULY 2016 — The French pianist, Pascal Amoyel, by turns musician, actor, poet and magician, presented a fascinating show, Le jour où j’ai rencontré Franz Liszt (The day I met Franz Liszt), illustrating the life of the great composer, Franz Liszt, at the Theatre du Ranelagh in Paris in March. The theatre was packed each night, when audiences discovered Amoyel, alone on stage with his piano and texts that he had written, conjure up the life of Liszt from the age of 7 in his small Hungarian village to the age of 35, when he left the concert hall to concentrate on his creative work. The life of the Austrian Hungarian composer, adulated in his short career, when he was noted for his innumerable feminine conquests, was unraveled via excerpts of music from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Wagner, to which Amoyel added several of his own improvisations.

I met Amoyel in Paris shortly after to talk about this original and highly personal way of bringing people to listen to classical music, to audiences who otherwise might not have made the effort to go to a concert hall.

"The story behind Franz Liszt goes back many years when I began to become somewhat disillusioned if not a little bored with simply going into an auditorium, playing my piece and then going home. Recitals alone were beginning to lose meaning for me, and then in 2008 I had an extraordinary encounter with two people who changed my way of looking at things.

Pascal Amoyel
Photo: Charlotte Spillemaecker

I was in London and met Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, an accomplished cellist, and Simon Laks, a pianist and composer, who had both been interned in Auschwich for 3 years. In the men’s block, Block 15, they had discovered a set of musical instruments in perfect condition, and they told me of how, in the midst of hell, they had formed an orchestra to play for the Nazis, but also for the prisoners, for their forced marches. They said that the only ‘human’ sound that was heard was the barking of a dog."

"The stories they told", he continued, "made me realise that playing a straightforward recital in a concert hall was now no longer enough. It gave me the idea that to recount a true historical story via music, no matter how tragic, had more relevance than an abstract concert. I needed a theme connected to humanity, and so after working on it with my wife, the cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand, my piece, Block 15, ou la musique en résistance was born.

"It was so well received that I then went ahead with the thought that I could reach a larger and more eclectic audience if I could create concerts that were connected to real issues, making music that related directly to people’s lives. I wanted to take people on a journey, and the next journey I wanted to take them on was one very close to my heart".

The pianist then spoke about his teacher, Georges Cziffra, with whom he had worked for over 8 years both in France and in Hungary, whose story he subsequently told in Le Pianiste aux 50 doigts (the pianist with 50 fingers). Staged by Christian Fromont, the theatrical concert covered the poverty-stricken childhood of the young Georges brought up in the back streets of Budapest, who played in a circus at the age of 5, and adolescent, was obliged to serve as a soldier under the nazi flag. He escaped, stealing a locomotive from the Wehrmacht, joining the Russians but was interned in a camp as a deserter.

"But wherever he went, he always seemed to find a piano to help him to resist", Amoyel smiled. "He was even a jazz pianist in bars before being caught as he fled Communist Hungary when he was sent to hard labour camps and forced to carry heavy blocks of stone up to the top of sixth story buildings. I wanted to bring his extraordinary trajectory to life."

It was following the popular success of these two ventures, which combined love for music and theatre, that Amoyel decided to launch into the life of Liszt, again a true-life story. His Le jour où j’ai rencontré Franz Liszt (The day I met Franz Liszt) is a remarkable one-man show mingling music, theatre and magic. It opens with the ticking of a metronome on a piano, and for the next hour and a half, a mesmerised audience watches Amoyel transform himself into a 7 year-old boy then an adolescent, as well as provoking merriment with his lightning transformation into Liszt’s father culminating  with a remarkable impersonation of Beethoven. It is a show which is not only superbly interpreted, but is also original and full of charm.

Pascal Amoyel in J’ai rencontré Franz Liszt
Photo: Charlotte Spillemaecker

Spectators learn, or are reminded that Franz Liszt was a visionary, a man who invented the recital, whose modesty was revealed in an anecdote told by one of his students, who, horrified to discover that Wagner had used Liszt’s own chords in a score, received the reply that Liszt, far from being offended, was simply proud to have inspired such a genius. Amoyel points out that Liszt was 50 years ahead of his time, being the first to abolish tonality.

But above all other considerations, the show was accessible to everyone. Pascal Amoyel is cleverly bringing people from all walks of life into the world of classical music, for even in his earlier, grim pieces, Block 15, he was playing the same pieces of classical music as were being played in the deportation camps. For Le Jour où j’ai rencontré Franz Liszt, he captivated not only adults, but children from Parisian schools as well as students from the Conservatoire of music. There were people in the audience who had never been to a classical concert before, but who are now hoping that Amoyel will continue with his brilliant one-man shows.

And why not, A history of the world in 101 notes, a project that is already turning round in Amoyel’s head?

The pianist and composer, Pascal Amoyel, born in 1971, was named ‘Solo Instrumental Discovery of the Year’ at the Victoires de la Musique in 2005, followed by a Grand Prix du Disque in Warsaw awarded by the prestigious Chopin Society for Nocturnes de Chopin with Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire. His Funérailles de Liszt, and his "Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses de Liszt were also elected as amongst the five best recorded in 2007, and 2009.

His latest recording, Polonia, of the Polonaises op. 26, 40, 44, and Polonaise-Fantaisie op 61, dedicated to the memory of his grandfather, was  released on 29 April by La Dolce Volta.

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. 

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