Spanish pianist set to make a comeback at Miami Piano Festival

By David Fleshler

Claudio Martinez Mehner will perform Saturday night at the Miami International Piano Festival.

Claudio Martinez Mehner will perform Saturday night at the Miami International Piano Festival.

Just before a concert in Italy, the young Spanish pianist Claudio Martínez Mehner began to experience pain in his right arm after an intensive session of practice.

He forced himself through a performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the aid of a steroid injection, but the pain worsened. After two years of seeking treatment, including experiments with alternative therapies, he stopped performing completely in 1997 and moved to New York, working as a translator in Spanish and German.

The interruption of his career was to last seven years.

“I was waiting for the big depression everybody told me would arrive, but it never arrived,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Madrid, where he teaches at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía. “I believe there was a psychosomatic element.

“I was pushed into a solo career, which I felt at the time I did not deserve. I was–I don’t know– lucky or unlucky enough to win three international competitions. I was very happy when this forced me to stop.”

Now back on the concert stage, Martinez Mehner will make his Miami debut Saturday night at the Miami International Piano Festival.

Held from May 13 to 16 at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach, the Discovery Series events will include concerts, a film about child prodigies and a panel discussion on career paths. A four-pianist, 13-work recital will pay tribute to Chopin and Schumann, two 19th century masters of solo piano composition. Performers will arrive from China, Russia, Spain and the United States to play for an audience of hard-core listeners fascinated by this half-ton, 88-key wonder of instrumental technology.

“My audience is very different,” said Giselle Brodsky, the pianist who co-founded and serves as artistic director of the festival. “When they come to hear our concerts, you don’t hear a pin drop. You don’t hear anyone applauding between movements. They’re real connoisseurs.”

The typical pianist has practiced all his or her life and is ravenous for an international career, with recording contracts, concerto engagements with the great orchestras and recitals in Paris, London and New York.

Not Martínez Mehner. He practiced obsessively, up to 10 hours a day, and studied at conservatories in Russia, Germany and the United States. But despite a taste of the life of the touring virtuoso, he has no interest in a glittering concert career.

“So far I have stayed away from agents, publicists, recording companies and competition juries (with one painful exception),” he wrote in an email. “As I have been for some time in the real limelight, playing in the best halls and with some of the most important orchestras, I am lucky enough to be able to say that I don’t miss that world. Now that I’m back to playing, I have no ambitions to perform in important concert halls, although I have extremely big ambitions in terms of my personal further musical development.”

Martínez Mehner couldn’t stand what he calls the “star system” that produces practitioners of note-perfect, soulless performances, and although he has returned to performing, with the aid of Shiatsu, homeopathy and traditional Western medicine, he has no interest in becoming a part of contemporary classical concert culture.

He got a job teaching piano at one of Spain’s leading conservatories, married and enjoys spending time with his two young sons. Now 39, he considers himself more a teacher than a concert pianist, although he retains a high degree of respect in the piano world. Brodsky invited him to the Miami festival at the suggestion of the famous Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski, who knew him and his playing.

“What I admire most in Claudio is his honesty and his courage,” Anderszewski wrote in an email. “His playing can be simply mesmerizing. He will never go for ‘effect,’ though. He has got all the sensitivity, the extreme intelligence and the technical ability.”

Despite having the gifts to make it in the concert hall, Martínez Mehner said that world has long since been drained of genuine musical culture. The real music-making, with insight, feeling and love of great works of art, takes place outside the famous concert halls.

“To me, there is no worse music-making than that of professional musicians or professional orchestras with a professional conductor,” he states. “Amateur orchestras, youth orchestras and non-professional soloists tend to produce much healthier music. All of this is, of course, an entirely personal view. I’m not at all an ‘anti-system militant’ and do not mean those statements as any kind of criticism.

“Speaking about the big soloists, there is a very small amount I find truly believable. There are a few notable exceptions, but most of the musicians I like and admire today have no real career. I doubt that today a Cortot, a Gieseking or a Schnabel would have a chance of making the ‘star system.’”

He remains musically, if not professionally, ambitious. He still takes lessons – highly unusual for a pianist in the prime of life – from the Hungarian pianist Ferenc Rados, who he considers “by far the most impressive musician I have met.” As for recordings, he’s considering making a DVD of the Ligeti Etudes, difficult works that are among the most important piano pieces of the 20th century.

At his recital in Miami Beach, Martínez Mehner will perform the Beethoven Piano Sonata Op. 109, the Schumann Piano Sonata Op. 14, Janacek’s Piano Sonata No. 1, and Preludes of Debussy

Among his many interests, he is a linguist, and like most serious language students, is conservative about the level of proficiency he will claim in any language. Although he speaks excellent English, he says he is bilingual only in Spanish and German. English he relegates to a lower level, saying he is “comfortable” speaking it, a level he has also achieved in French, Italian and Russian. He understands and reads Portuguese, Polish, Dutch and Modern Greek. Anticipating a trip to study in Budapest, he’s teaching himself Hungarian.

“What happened to Claudio was he suffered and stopped playing for very many years,” Brodsky said. “And he started again, and by that time he was not really interested in a career.

“He has a lot of interests,” she adds. “He’s very, intense. He’s really, really inside the music.”

Claudio Martínez Mehner performs at the Miami International Piano 8 p.m. May 15 at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach. Call 877-722-2924 or go to www.miamipianofest.com

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