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Collard's Sound Opinion

The French pianist promises to bring a light touch to Rachmaninoff when he plays with the Pacific Symphony

October 03, 2000|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pianist Jean-Philippe Collard will tell you how difficult it is to make music on the instrument.

"The piano is a strange sound. It's not very pure. You have a hammer. It's very hard. It's not a good way to make music, with a hammer. A violin has a wonderful sound; it's natural. A piano--hammers, every day hammers. It's ugly. So you have to correct, to change, to sing."

Collard made these remarks nearly 20 years ago to a New York Times interviewer, but the pianist, who plays Rachmaninoff with the Pacific Symphony this week, hasn't changed his opinion.

"I'm still trying to get a good sound from the piano," Collard said in a recent phone interview from his Paris home. "It seems to me, it's more and more difficult. My whole life will be dedicated to making my own sound."

That dedication began in the little town of Mareuil in the Champagne district of France, where Collard was born 52 years ago. His father, president of a small Champagne company, was an amateur musician, as were his grandparents. He grew up hearing them play quartets by Beethoven, Faure, Debussy and others.

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"They were not very good musicians," he said, "but the way they loved music is something I will never forget."

A family ritual included listening every Sunday afternoon to radio broadcasts of live concerts from Paris, in those days still a fairly long trip from Mareuil.

As it turned out, Collard was sent to study in the City of Lights after a teacher from the Paris Conservatory heard him play at an annual children's recital. The boy was very gifted, his parents were told.

" 'If you should send him one day to the Paris Conservatory where I teach,' she said, "I'll try to arrange everything.'

"My parents said, 'Why not?' When they asked me, immediately I said, 'Oh, of course, I would love to go to Paris.' I hadn't done so before. I was so happy. It was such a discovery for me."

But everything there didn't turn up roses.

A year before he graduated--at age 16 with the highest honors--a competition judge told him bluntly he was not very good and shouldn't continue his studies.

Although he subsequently won the Albert Roussel Award, the Gabriel Faure Award, the Cziffra International Competition and the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition, Collard was given similarly discouraging advice from famed French pianist Robert Casadesus. And this at age 25.

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"I had a lesson with him and he said, 'There's still time to do something else.' My mother was there. I said, 'Thank you very much. How much for the lesson?' It was 500 francs or something like that. I paid it and as soon as I went on the street, I just cried.

"It was inhuman to say that, first of all, and secondly, it wasn't the truth. Even if I did not play my best, I had been at the Paris Conservatory for six or seven years already. I worked so hard. I knew at this point what I was able to do. It's not true I should leave music. I was so upset, and then really furious. That man, I thought, this is not possible. I'll work harder, harder, harder."

The story has a punch line, however.

Only a few months after this ill-fated lesson, conductor Seiji Ozawa phoned him and asked him to replace an ailing Casadesus in playing Ravel's G-major Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony.

" 'Would you like to go?' Ozawa asked. I said, 'Yes!' "

The 1973 concert marked Collard's American debut. He has been a regular visitor since.

For all that, Collard doesn't like playing in big halls.

"My personality is not democratic," he said. "I like Faure's music, even Ravel's. It's always intimate and you invite people to come to the music. But it shouldn't be done in big halls, as it is now.

"I would love to be in an 18th century salon and playing music for a few people, or going to the country and playing in a small hall. A big concert hall is not really necessary. I am obliged to play in big halls. But I don't like them."

Yet despite his preference for intimate music and surroundings, Collard has made a name playing big warhorse pieces such as the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto, which is on the Pacific program.

But Rachmaninoff doesn't have to be beaten to death to make an impression.

"A lot of pianists do too many things to make him flashy," Collard said. "Everyone thinks they have to play very loud, very fast.

"I always consider [him] very pure, especially this specific concerto. The second movement is pure beauty, and inside the music is a lot of emotion. I don't understand why so many pianists exaggerate. It's just pure, a diamond. Don't touch it. It's great music."

* Jean-Philippe Collard will be the soloist in Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the Pacific Symphony led by Carl St.Clair. Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The program also will include music by John Adams and Prokofiev. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. $19 to $52. ($12 student/senior rush tickets). (714) 556-2787.

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at chris.pasles@latimes.com.

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