On Sunday, November 17, 2019 at 2 p.m. Portuguese pianist Vasco Dantas makes his Carnegie Hall debut performing music by Debussy, Mussorgsky, and Portuguese impressionist Luis de Freitas-Branco. In this Insider Interview, Vasco Dantas talks about his role as a cultural ambassador for Portugal, his early aspirations as a pianist, and more.
What first drew you to the piano? Tell us about some of your first memories about it.
The piano came into my life at the age of 4 by a mere coincidence. No one in my family is or was a professional musician, although my father always enjoyed music and arts (he had been a theatre actor before deciding to do engineering) and my mom has always painted as a hobby.
When I was 4 years of age, my father was singing in a choir and I would go with him to the rehearsals on Saturday mornings. The conductor of this choir, José Manuel Pinheiro, noticed that during the rehearsal break I would play at the keyboard. He realized I was imitating some of the melodies the choir had been singing just before. He sat down with me started playing a few musical games with me. He quickly realized that I had perfect pitch and subsequently suggested to my parents that there should be no question that I should begin studying the piano. That was it, the next school year I started learning this instrument which is now a major part of my life.
How did you choose the repertoire for this program? Tell us about the connections between the pieces.
I wanted to choose a program that I love and, at the same time, one I would be comfortable playing. Therefore I immediately chose “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky, which is one of my favorite works for piano which, curiously, I first learned about when I played the Ravel orchestration of the piece, on the violin with the Portuguese Youth Orchestra. I first recorded this piece in 2015 at the London Royal College of Music on my first solo CD called “Promenade” and I believe this is a fantastic piece to have in any piano recital.
For the first half of the program, I chose a special combination of 10 Prelúdios by Freitas Branco together with 5 Preludes by Debussy. This has been a recent project from me, combining these two similar composers, contemporaries of each other, resulting in carefully chosen sequence of 15 preludes performed with no significant interruption, giving it all a wonderful new combination and fresh vision. During the first half program, besides choosing wonderful music, I also wanted to bring new sounds and something different from my country, Portugal, a ‘premiere’ at Carnegie Hall.
Tell us more about the Portuguese composer Luis de Freitas Branco – he is not familiar to most music lovers here. How would you describe his style, and where does he stand in the history of music amongst his more famous contemporaries?
Luís de Freitas Branco is probably the most important Portuguese composer and pianist from the first half of the 20th century. Branco was from Lisbon but had the opportunity to study abroad in Central Europe and France where he had his first contact with modernism and impressionism, the prominent musical styles of the previous century. At that time the dominant musical paradigm in Portugal was still based on and inspired by the Romantic Musical Style from the 19th century. When Branco returned to his homeland he was the first composer to introduce Modernism into the Portuguese music. He, along with his older friend and composer Vianna da Motta, (pupil of Franz Liszt) also renewed the music curriculum at The Lisbon Music Conservatory, together).
Branco’s style is very much inspired by the French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, as well as the Belgian composer César Franck. These preludes, in particular, remind us of the French Impressionism from a uniquely different Portuguese perspective.
Branco has to his credit an abundance of high-quality repertoire, not only for solo piano, but also for Chamber Music. I believe his music ought to be played more often and studied more, both in Portugal and abroad.
You have won dozens of prizes in competitions, and now are making your Carnegie Hall debut. What are the next steps in your career?
First of all, it is for me an honor to perform in Carnegie Hall: such a mythical and hallowed venue where I have seen so many historic concert videos of fantastic musicians, particularly pianists.
I plan to continue developing my career, not only in Europe, but also in other parts of the world like USA and South America. One of the things about being a classical pianist is that there is almost an unlimited quantity of wonderful repertoire available. Therefore, I still have much repertoire I wish to perform, in solo and chamber recitals and with orchestras.
In the future, I would also like to combine my performance career with a pedagogic career, because I love teaching and I feel I learn so much by teaching others!
Apart from my performing career, I would like to continue to develop the cultural and musical scene in Portugal. I plan on expanding my chamber music festival “Algarve Music Series”, and creating other new musical projects in order to provide greater opportunities to the younger generation of musicians so as to foster classical music in Portugal, both broader in scope and in depth.
Your performances have taken you to many parts of the world. What experiences stand out to you in your travels?
My concert appearances have taken me to four different continents and many distinctive countries. I have had quite a few wonderful experiences while in contact with different people, cultures, food, and weather.
Once, on the first time I was in Russia for a concert with the orchestra, I had just met the musicians, and I realized they could not speak English well enough nor could I speak Russian very well. So before the rehearsal we were having a hard time communicating and sharing opinions with each other. I felt a little bit stressed imagining how hard those rehearsals and the concert were going to be. But something wonderful happened; once we started rehearsing everything started to make sense and we were able to communicate through music, musically demonstrating our artistic opinions on the piece we were playing. At that moment I understood that music truly is “the universal language”.
Which activities do you enjoy during your leisure time?
I love sports, when I am home I like to go surfing. It works as a kind of meditation time for me. I also like to run by the sea, play football with my friends and often I participate in chess tournaments, which I love too.
I like to be with my family and friends, hiking in Natural Parks or other beautiful places full of nature, and cooking nice meals.
What would you like people to know about Portugal?
Portugal has almost nine centuries of history and distinctive culture; it has both influenced and been influenced by its worldwide trade with other nations. However, during much of the 20th century, Portugal was ruled by a dictatorship that kept its borders closed to cultural and music influences from abroad.
Since the “Carnation Revolution” in 1974, the country has gradually changed; it is now a completely different place. It’s become a tourist destination, open to the arts and classical music, and the Portuguese musicians are among the best in Europe.