1. When and why did you start playing? Why the piano?
When I was about 3 years old, I remember a Steinway upright came into our house. My dad loved the piano and wanted his children to play. I remember pushing down some keys, standing up, with the keys on my chin level. I remember hearing really harmonious sound, must have pushed just the right keys... I was mesmerized. That’s my love at first sound! with the instrument. Soon after, my sister and I both got accepted into the Istanbul Conservatory.
2. Where did you receive your early musical training? What was the first piece(s) you learned?
At the conservatory, The method Beyer was our first book. It was tedious but comprehensive. Nowadays there are so many options out there. The new generation kids are very lucky and spoiled probably, with all this availability.
3. Is your family musical?
My dad was extremely talented, he played the piano as a young child, and had a wonderful ear. My grandmother also played Classical Turkish Music. She was awesome, sitting at that upright, all dressed up, with a lace cloth hanging over the piano, playing away these rhythmic, harmonically rich songs, or “türkü”s.
4. Which famous musicians do you admire? Why?
Of course the best, during the 60’s all these artists included Istanbul, my city, in their European tours. My wonderful parents were devoted to taking us to all the concerts. I got to hear Richter, Brendel, NY Philharmonic with Mehta, and Rubinstein as a teenager living in Istanbul. I admired all of them, and of course I idolized our own İdil Biret, Verda Erman, Ayşegül Sarıca. I listened to the records of Van Cliburn, Cortot, Brailowsky, Horowitz. I was in love with classical music and playing the piano.
5. Which famous musicians have you learned from?
You can learn from anybody, famous or not. Fame is a relative term. Aside from all the “famous” musicians, :) I learned from so many, including Jazz artists, friends, teachers, colleagues, I also learned from dancers, thespians. Everyone has a different gift, the trick is to tap into it. I can perhaps summarize that I learned lyricism from Bill Evans, and from Josef Raieff, my teacher at Juilliard, I learned tone production from Ar#n Karamürsel, a Turkish pianist and friend who studied in Russia, and later from Arminda Canteros, my Argentinian teacher, who also taught me the physics of playing the piano, both in the mind and in the body, interpretation from my friend and composer Ali Darmar, the Israeli Pianist, David Bar Illan, and again Arminda Canteros. And I owe my very solid beginnings to my teachers at the Istanbul Conservatory, Rana Erksan, Ferdi Statzer, Rashid Abed, Cemal Reşid Rey and Mahmut Doğuduyal. I learn from my sister all the time. I think inspiration is a co-requisite of learning.
6. We know from your profile information that you made your orchestral debut in the United States under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra as the first prize winner of the International Competition of University of Buffalo. Can you tell us about this experience, what year it was and the road that led you there?
Well, it was 1977 and I decided to enter this competition in the autumn of that year. I prepared the Prokofiev’s third Concerto along with a recital programme. As was the case all the time in those days, a whole group of us from Juilliard went. When my name was announced as a winner, I did something I never thought was in me. I screamed with my arms up in the air. Thank God it wasn’t very awkward because my friends in the next seats were all cheering for me too. I mean, how could I not? It was the first competition I won and I was going to play with a world class conductor. He knew me and he liked me! I returned to Buffalo in a snow storm, to two sold out concerts. I am sorry that I do not have proper recordings of these concerts. For me it was like playing with the New York Philharmonic. That’s how good they were. What touched me so from this experience is one lady who wrote to me: “Miss Güneyman, thank you so much for this. One day I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I have heard you play and that you touched my life”.
Here is a segment from the review I received: “Miss Güneyman made a hit and she did it by playing with a balanced sense of force. Miss Güneyman does not play with a percussive sonority, her sweeping passages could sound very touching. She played with fine impetus, sometimes riding on currents of air”. Soon after this concert, I got re-hired by Tilson Thomas to play the Schumann Concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony.
7.What are your fondest musical memories, privately or performing?
I have so many; but I have two that are outstanding. One, when I won the Juilliard Chopin Piano Competition and I played with Maestro James Conlon and the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra in Lincoln Center; I think the fact that I had a huge crush on this man might have fueled the way I played in the finals...:), and two, when I was performing in Mexico at the Cervantes International Festival. It was a Monastery turned Concert Venue with a gold plated temple as the backstage green room and to make it even more storybook like, I had a moment when I looked straight ahead during the performance instead of having my eyes closed- which I quite often do-, or instead of looking at my hands -(the stage was outdoors, the sun had still not set, and the stage was elevated so I could see far beyond it into the magnificent, multi tier gardens before me and all of I sudden I saw hundreds of butterflies circling in the air. It took my breath away. How can you ever top this?
8. Can you tell us about the East and West Competition and how it felt to win this prize?
This was one of the very first competitions I won in New York, and the prize was a New York debut in Carnegie Hall. I was practicing even in my sleep. My roommate would tell me I had my fingers moving on the pillow, on the bed, while I was asleep. I played a Beethoven Sonata, op 10 no 3, and the Liszt Concert Etude, La Leggiereza, they were my signature pieces. Even I could not believe how solid I played in the finals. I even remember how I was dressed and my hairstyle. This was a big deal for me. There were at least a hundred people trying out for this. I got a review from the New York Times which was famous for tearing up young soloists in their debuts in those days, (or we were overly anxious) or both..anyway, John Rockwell who was a highly respected music critic wrote: ...“Miss Guneyman’s recital was a most pleasing occasion-done with real style and technical command” -not bad for a complete unknown in her debut such as myself!
9. Who are your favourite musicians and what in particular impresses you about them?
Personality, distinction, sensitivity and versatility move me the most. Ivo Pogorelich can take 10 minutes between each chord and I wouldn’t care. He is the prince of piano. Glenn Gould had an incredible mind. He and Sviatoslav Richter are the kings of beauty and intellect combined. Since I somehow began defining names in royal terms, I might as well mention the Queen now: Long live Martha Argerich! Talk about personality! Gieseking was a marvellous player, so was Cziffra. I admire Alfred Brendel. Gosh, there are so many names. Vladimir Horowitz belongs with the kings of course. I also have many contemporaries who play different genres, such as Christopher O’Riley who plays incredibly beautiful renditions of Radiohead material, and Fred Hersch, the ever so magical jazz player. It is impossible to mention everyone here.
10. What advice would you give to those who wish to embark on a professional concert music career?
Go for it! don’t make excuses and be well rounded.
11. How often and for how long do you practice?
My practicing is completely erratic. I can be the laziest and the most disciplined person. It keeps my creativity going. I also do other things like teach, arrange and transcribe, obviously.
12. How do you balance your music with other obligations – or does work invariably win over play? If you did have copious free time, would you embark on a vacation or a research project by preference?
I take vacations very rarely. Last time I was on a beach island was in 2006. Ok, you know, us musicians, we can not have vacations, really. My vacations are only in my mind; just knowing that I am going away to perform. I say, ah vacation time! concerts... I get to meet new people, and new places, always carrying concert energy and work and psyche in my bag. Then I look forward to escaping with whatever I can fit in between, dinner, maybe shopping, sightseeing. Last year I hoped to go to Bruge, after my concert in Brussels. The French had to have another one of their commuter strikes. So I had to leave Belgium the next morning from fear that I would not be able to get to London for my next concert if the strike spread. Then I had to leave London two days after I performed to get to my concert in Istanbul.
13. You were twice the winner of the Maria Guerra Judelson Award at the Juilliard School from where you earned a Post Graduate Diploma. Can you tell us about this award and the experience of attending this institution?
The Judelson award paid for my full tuition for a couple years, and partially for my entire Juilliard education. Maria Guerra Judelson was a student from Mexico at one time. She decided against spending her life as a concert pianist, instead she helped students recommended by the school. It was a great honour.
Juilliard was wonderful. My teacher was a Mensch of a guy- supportive, he believed in me all the way, without this you can be broken in this dog eat dog profession. He was a fantastic pianist, himself a student of Schnabel, Siloti (a student of Liszt,) and Lhevinne. So you might say, I have a real connection to Franz Liszt:)
14. Tell us about the various commercial albums that you have released.
My first album was devoted to the Turn of the Century composers. One of them from Britain, the great Frank Bridge... I recorded this for Warner Atlantic records and it became one of the year’s five best recordings. The next one was a Chopin CD. It was one of the first compact disc releases, again with Atlantic. After a hiatus of bringing up family, I serendipitously connected with Warner Music once again. My new CD ‘Nostalgia’ and Anthology of Jazz piano, followed by “a Christmas Memory” were distributed by Warner, and later I was signed by Rykodisc/Warner to record the next two albums, “Playful Virtuosity” (CD of the week, German Broadcasting) and “Danzas Tropicales” (editor's choice, iTunes) on two pianos with legendary composer arranger and Jazz pianist, Dick Hyman. All recordings received international acclaim.
15. Do you compose? What inspires you?
The beauty of music alone inspires me. I composed very little, but I arrange and I transcribe, the latter can be much like composing.
16. Do you listen to ‘world music’, how wide is you taste in music genres?
I get asked this question quite often and I always give the same answer, quoting Duke Ellington: “There is only two kinds of music, good and bad”. So, yes, I listen to all music, and can find soul nourishment in all music.
17. Do you have future projects in the pipeline?
I am developing an ‘eclectic improvisation’ program, encouraging classical musicians to improvise, to feel free for self expression and creativity. We as classical musicians have to do a lot of unraveling in order to do this. In other words empty our heads and start from scratch. This is a privilege that the brain can tap into.