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Gülsin Onay, pianist


1. Tell us about your first piano teacher, clearly you started very young and presumably you knew the piano was the instrument for you.

My first teacher was my mother, Gülen Erim and my parents were both brought up as professional musicians. My mother was the student of the prominent Turkish musician Cemal Resit Rey (1904-1985) and continued her training at the Stuttgart Conservatory where she met my father the violinist Joachim Reusch, the married and settled in Istanbul. I like both instruments very much but the piano had a bigger pull on me and I can create the exact sounds I want with it. I gave my concert aged 6 on Istanbul radio.

2. Before the age of 12 you were fortunate enough to be tutored by the late great names of Mithat Fenmen and Ahmet Adnan Saygun. Can you tell us more about these great musicians and how it felt to be trained by them?

In Turkey at the time there was a state sponsored fund to support ‘wonderful children’ and I was one of the fortunate ones to be selected. Within this program I was trained in Ankara for two years under the tutelage of two giant musicians before being sent of the Paris Conservatory.

Mithat Fenmen in his time was the pupil of Alfred Cortot and is a real good pianist and instructor. He had an angelic smile and a charming soft disposition. He would constantly crack jokes and deliver these with his sweet tongue. In lessons he would sing along to pieces I was playing, acting as a chef. This would charm me greatly and I would prepare myself to the forthcoming lesson with great enthusiasm. During those two years I was able to achieve a rich and diverse repertoire way above what was expected of my age through his tutoring. In the summer he invited me to his summer house on the shores of Lake Abant stating: ‘Come and lets practice on my Steinway there as well’. When I arrived I was surprised to see an upright piano, so once again he had cracked his joke! Mithat Fenmen was at the same time a very talented chamber pianist, and had the ability to instantly decipher any musical score placed in front of him and play the score as if he was familiar with it for years, giving it his full expression. The proof of what a great musician he was can be found in CDs available today of his instrumental duets with the violinist Ayla Erduran.

Adnan Saygun is one of the greatest composers to have emerged from Turkey. To work with him was a rare honour indeed. Initially, at my young age, the difficult tasks he loaded on to me had nearly over-whelmed me, but soon I got used to this and as I succeeded in these tasks I began to enjoy the process, so much so that each success gave me the satisfaction as if I had just won a game. In addition each week we would be on this journey of discovering new wonderful music, analyse it together, like a trip I was taking with him, one I didn’t want to end. I learnt a short while later this tutor who had affected me so much was also a composer and I became very curious of his compositions. He had never mentioned this side of him, and my curiosity was heightened. As the years past I appreciated his deep philosophy and talent and I recognized why I had I was struck by him from the first time I saw him. Each key of his work had a meaning for me, how I was overwhelmed in emotion and pride, the creator of this music was my teacher!

Naturally there was a continuation to his auspicious start and our deep friendship continued without a break till his death. I have played his pieces across the world in 68 countries. Adnan Saygun dedicated his second piano concerto to me.

3. The Turkish State saw the great potential talent in you and presumably sponsored and paid for your expenses at the Paris Conservatoire. Can you tell us about this crucial period of your training and any abiding memories of this city?

Naturally arriving in Paris at a child’s age was a great excitement for me. I had waited with expectation for two years for this moment, I had learnt the language and looked at the pictures and suddenly I was living and going to school in this different world. Everything was different for me, I was like a baby learning to walk again. However for my musical development everything was contrary to expectations. Despite being younger than my peer students I was more advanced in all the various fields: piano, harmony, counter-point and orchestration. My tutors liked me a lot and I got top marks in all the various subjects. I was introduced to many new composers, of course many of the French. To discover the colourful worlds of Ravel, Debussy, Faure was a wonderful experience. I won the title of ‘the best interpreter of Ravel’ prize in the international piano competition of Marguerite-Long Jacques Thibault that has a prominence in the classical musical work, where 117 (39 of whom were from France) pianists from 33 countries competed.

I was able to study under prominent tutors such as Pierre Sancan, Monique Haas, Nadia Boulanger, Pierre Fiquet and graduated aged 16 with the distinction titled ‘Premier Prix du Piano’.

I was very happy in Paris and as a hobby I had the chance to engage with theatre which I love. I performed in many plays with an amateur group, for example played the role of Constanza in Goldini’s ‘Les Femmes de Bonne Humeur’. This side interest gave me a lot of pleasure however as our theatre began to rise in fame and receive touring offers I had to leave that group. The members of the group and our theatre instructor Madame Pux were sad to see me go and nearly tried to make me give up the piano.

4. Later you continued your studies with Bernhard Ebert. Can you tell us how long this lasted and where this took place please?

Crossing paths with Bernhard Ebert was much later. I had married, had a child, was in the middle of a break of giving piano concerts and I had settled with my husband in Germany and I wished to become a student again. Ebert helped me to return to music in an active way. I decided then to return to the international concert circuit with its consequent heavy work tempo. I first won awards in the competitions in Sydney and then in Busoni, Italy.

Ebert added a lot to my musical interpretation. We worked together on the important German repertoires, and through him I discovered many things that I had earlier not noticed. Erbert affected my work ethic and musical vision. Winning in competitions was almost the second aim, preparation and aiming to perform my best was the motivator. However in addition to these prizes the concert offers that came with them made me very happy.

5. You have performed in a whole variety of concerts in all continents, can you tell us which one stands out particularly either in the lasting impression or the unusualness of the venue.

Oh, there are so many they wouldn’t fit in a book... Naturally amongst the 68 countries I performed are those with major music centres and others where concerts are given rarely. Amongst these it was inevitable that I would experience what could be termed unforeseen happenings. Amongst these mishaps that I experienced were the piano lid falling down, the wires snapping, the tuner tuning the piano to his personal taste and having to continue performing when the pedal of the piano had fallen off. Amongst these life experiences we can add the strangeness of food available, and the landscape to resembling like another planet. Sometimes the musical gathering is so bewitching it creates a special memory for these locales, a situation I have experienced many times. For example my concert with the St. Petersburg Philhamornic Orchestra had such a wonderful acoustics, it has etched an indelible impression in my memory and I carry many such other recollections.

6. You have played along with a ‘who-is-who’ list of orchestras and conductors, and clearly it would impossible to select a favourite, but can you tell us of an anecdote or a striking impression in one of these concerts that you still treasure.

I love performing with an orchestra, to breath together and to experience the beauty of the art together creates a musical synergy between us at that moment. I have many examples in my mind of this elation, exhilarating unions. If I had to pick one it may be the happy concert where I performed with two great Russian chefs interpreting two great Russian composers: with Vladimir Ashkenazy Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto and with Vladimir Fedoseyef Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto.

In addition in the performance with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, of the Ulvi Cemal Erkin piano concerto we performed, every note is indelibly marked in my memory.

7. Prominent contemporary composers, including A. Adnan Saygun have dedicated works to you. How does it feel to play such works and are you sometimes humbled?

In any piece I perform, I try to reflect the beauty within and to bring it to life, and with the dedicated pieces to me, I apply the same diligence but feeling a bit more the weight of responsibility. I strive to prove that I am worthy of this bestowal. This sense of utter trust they place in my musical interpretation leads me to feel both a joy and a sense of humbleness at the same time. It is impossible to describe the sense of contentment in my heart of knowing these composers created and gifted compositions intended to compliment my interpreting style as they imagined it.

8. In what year were you bestowed the title of ‘State Artist’ in Turkey? And how did it feel to be honoured by the authorities both in that country and also Poland, for your contribution to Polish culture through your outstanding performances of the music of Chopin.

I received the prize of ‘State Artist’ in 1987. It was a great honour to be recognised at a young age and to be on the same platform of the many great performers who I admired and had received this title earlier such as Adnan Saygun, Mithat Fenmen, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Cemal Resit Rey, Idil Biret, Suna Kan. It felt like even if I worked day and night I couldn’t do this honour justice - (all my life in all my awards I got the title of ‘youngest’ and now I am the ‘youngest grandmother’! I wonder what ‘youngest’ I can be from now...)

For my performance in Chopin I received the Polish state medal which again was an emotional moment. In my mind I am almost in first name terms with ‘Frederick’, this composer is one of the biggest loves of my life. In my admiration for him, I enter an endless land of wondrous magic when I play his works. For this reason when they found me it felt like I was caught out with my love declaration... But it is one of the most meaningful awards I carry.

9. How often do you practice? Have you ever or would you like to teach music? Have you ever composed pieces? What inspires you?

I could state that there is no day when I do not practice. This is both for the need to prepare for the busy concert circuits and also to maintain the happiness I garner from my dedication to music. I do have students I give advanced level tuition to, particularly in the summer school of Gümüşlük Festival where for the past 9 years I have acted as an adviser, have given master-classes and have given concerts. I have never seen myself as a composer however Nadia Boulanger did appriciate my compositions and I did practice this art at the time a bit and once in a while like a word-play, I do jot things down.

For inspiration the music is the inspiration, there is no need to look elsewhere. This source of inspiration never fades for me.

10. If you could duet with anybody, dead or alive, who would that be?

I would have loved to work with Daveid Oistrach and Jasha Heifetz. I love the sound of the violin and I have given concerts with my excellent violinist son Erkin Onay, both as a duo and trio, and it was a great pleasure.

11. You have a prolific programme of performances throughout the year, of around 20 engagements in different countries. Do you sometimes find it hard to balance your time and interests? What suffers?

Sometimes the annual figure tops 100 and as you indicate there are periods when you are rushing with time. The understanding of my husband is very important, we miss each other greatly, however this is made bearable to feel our strong bond even from afar. I miss and wish I could see more my mother, father, son, his wife, my 3 grandchildren (Efe, Bora and Lila).

12. What words of wisdom would you have for piano students today?

Devote yourself to the music. You will enter the world of wonders with each note you embrace, work with dedicated love and you will reach that nirvana. To me music doesn’t represent the trail but the sound of the destination. Even if we musicians follow different paths, our destination is the same.

Amongst the thousands of musical notes, these are the ones we create, we personalise and we give life to. Music doesn’t wait for your pleasure; it brings that joy with its own hands. Sometimes one is inclined to procrastinate with the words: “right now I am not in the mood, I will work on it later”, yet once you touch the keyboard of a piano, the inspiration dawns.

If a student doesn’t see in themselves the faculty of analysing the story behind the notes, he / she may delay that revelation. Yet that is the story that will fuel that quest and bring that skill. If you overload the voices more than their capabilities, rather than getting a full volume you will end up with a forced and stressed shriek.

You concentrate with determination on the difficult passages and after a while the difficulties wane in the face of your strength and the process eases. Sometimes the difficulties are hidden between two passages. Do not give up, those who do succeed aren’t better than you are. Then comes a moment when the piece you are playing sounds as if it is being played for the first time that is when you have reached the standard. That is the moment to savour…

Don’t let the notes get in the way of the melody you wish to express, they all have a part to play. The love you feel for this task shouldn’t come from a sense of self-worth but the result of your continued unconditional love and keeping this alive in your psyche. Finding beauty in the piece to play isn’t sufficient grounds to play it well; that beauty needs to be nurtured in a welcoming environment that you need to create. Each time we perform these works of pieces that we personalise as our favourites that become part of our soul, we approach anew and we rejuvenate the dialogue with them.

Even when you master the piece to a level where you could play it in your sleep, do not become complacent, add to the impressionism through the wonder and fear you felt when you were learning it, adding magic to it. If you perform not to prove your ability to play it but sharing the love and joy with the audience, they too will be gripped by those sensations. If you consciously try to impress others with the music, the essence of the piece will leave you instantly. The third party is only included when our attention is focused solely to the music.

All of us wish to perform better than our earlier concert. As we strive for this constant improvement our inspiration should not be our earlier performance, but the essence of the music itself; even if it is encapsulated in different forms, it is always true.

15- In your programmes of performances you often mix the well-known with the not so well-known. Some I think deserve a wider airing such as the Grande Marche by Liszt written in 1847 when the composer visited the Ottoman Sultan. Do you think there are loads more gems to be released from obscurity?

Indeed, possible and the example you mentioned is one that has recently been rescued from obscurity. Emre Aracı who does research in this field makes us all happy by presenting to the wider world these interesting discoveries.

16- Which pianists, dead or alive do you admire the most?

I like Horowitz a lot and Clara Haskil is amongst my favourite impressionists and Dinu Lipatti.

17- In 2008 you collaborated with the Turkish author Serhan Yedig on an autobiographical book ‘Gülsin Onay: when the joy of life meets the keyboard’. Clearly this must have been a euphoric and nostalgic project for you. Was it strange to look back at your life ‘under a lens’, shall we say? Would you like this book that was published in Turkish to have an English version in the future?

Very true, and the story still goes on, yet “why stop and just look back?” was the question I posed to myself but later its publication please me a lot. Of course I would be very happy if in the future an English version is also released.

18- I see you are very active in nurturing and supporting young Turkish musicians during your long stay at Gümüşlük in Turkey. Can you tell us more on the details of this support and how long you have been involved with this festival?

The Gümüşlük Classical Music Festival started 9 years ago (2003) and with that a meaningful ‘summer season’ also entered my life. From long ago I’ve enjoyed giving concerts in the summer and participating in festivals. In this manner, in our own festival, I was able to welcome guest artists I treasured and work with youngsters all within the special atmosphere of ‘Eklisia’ and meeting up with the very appreciative Gümüşlük Festival audience has become the greatest joy of my life.

19- If you had a special wish, what would that be?

A concert hall of my own. I would make the decisions for each concert, the artists and my own programme.

To return to Gülsin’s profile:

Gülsin Onay plays at Taksim Square in support of democracy campaigners Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, 15-6-2013 - images