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Vasco Dantas Rocha, pianist

Interview

1. What was the first piece(s) you learned? Was the piano the natural instrument for you from the start?

I still know the very first piano piece I learnt, it was called “warm bread”, and it was, of course, very simple but still fun for a 4 year-old kid. The first piece a bit more “serious” I learnt was the “Musette” by J. S. Bach.

The piano was probably the natural instrument for me from the beginning. I did not actually choose the instrument. When I was 4 years old, my father used to sing in a small choir on Saturday mornings. I didn’t have a place to stay, so he used to carry me to that place with him. Apparently, while I was waiting for him, I used have fun with a small electric keyboard. The choir conductor heard me playing some notes on the keyboard, and thought I should try a piano lesson, as I seemed to have some potential. Since then, I started learning the piano.

2. Is your family musical?

No. No one in my family is a musician or has ever played a musical instrument. However, my father used to be a theatre actor, and my mum used to be an artist - painter.

3. Which famous musicians do you admire? Why?

I admire many different musicians, depending on which music style we talk about. I love to listen to Grigory Sokolov, a brilliant famous Russian pianist, who is in my opinion absolutely perfect performing almost any composer, such us, Beethoven, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, etc. I have heard him some times in the Casa da Música, in Porto (Portugal) and I absolutely loved it. I also admire the Canadian pianist Glen Gould mostly on his original interpretations of J. S. Bach works. I love the famous Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires’ interpretations of Chopin and Mozart. I think they are absolutely heavenly. I like the virtuoso Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman. I think he is fabulous in his virtuosity and repertoire with the violin, always very clear, captivating and, of course, very musical.

4. Can you tell us about your first piano teacher?

My first piano teacher was Ricardo Fráguas. I studyied with him during one or two years only. I was very young, about 5 years old, so I only have a few recollections of that. I remember the lessons to be very exciting and fun, and I understand now that in that small period I was given very good technical advices, which has helped me improve my skills till today.

5. What are your fondest musical memories, privately or performing?

I remember my first Piano Competition, in Porto Music Conservatoire. I was 9 years old, and I was very nervous because it was my first big appearance in public, my first piano competition and also because I was the youngest participant in my category. I remember the jury seemed quite annoyed, perhaps because I was the last one performing after a long day of auditions, and were a bit shocked, due to my young age, as soon as I went on stage. I started with a Czerny etude, and I can still remember that I started the left hand one octave below, with the right hand being correct. I did not stop playing and I performed it like that until the end, which made it even more difficult to perform. In the end everyone was impressed, and despite this adventure, I still got the 3rd prize in that category, with congratulations from the jury.

6. Your earliest of many competition prizes was for the competition of chamber music of Maestro Ivo Cruz, held in Portugal in 2004, at the age of 12. Can you tell us what pieces you played and your feelings at the time?

I participated together with a violinist, Afonso Almeida, and we both won the 1st prize after have been playing together for 1 year. We performed a Handel Violin Sonata, “Lamento” by Luis Costa (a Portuguese composer), and the Preludio Allegro by Pugnani Kreisler. I remember we had lots of fun playing, because it was something we really enjoyed to do together, and everything went very well.

7. How often and for how long do you practice?

I usually try to practice an average of 4/5 hours per day. During college time, it is not always possible because of the classes, homework I need to do, and the difficulty of accessing a grand piano to practice on. But, when I am preparing for some important event, such as a concert or a competition I usually don’t practice less than 5 hours per day. However, I don’t think the number of hours I practice is that important. What is important is the quality of practice I can get. Some days, when I don’t have so much free time, and I can only get 2 or 3 hours of practice, are sometimes more productive than those days when I am entirely free and I get 5 or 6 hours of practice. So, I always try to do a very focused practicing session no matter how much time I can spare.

8. Do you or would you like to teach music?

Yes, I have already taught a few piano students and I found it very interesting. I think that teaching is a great experience and is also very good for me in terms of improving my practicing skills. When I am teaching young students I realize some interesting but basic facts in the music or practicing techniques, which I already knew, but when teaching them to someone else, that helps me to remember them again.

9. In 2009 you were awarded the ‘Casa de Musica’ prize. Can you tell us where this competition was held and what pieces you played there?

After achieving the first prize in the Porto Music Conservatoire Piano Competition, each of the first prize-winners of all the categories (strings, wood winds, brass, percussion, singing) had a final concert, where the “Casa da Música” prize-winner would be chosen.

In that concert I played B. Bartók - Suite op.14, M. Ravel - Jeux d’eau and F. Liszt - “Waldesrauschen”. I thought it was a good overall performance, and I remember the audience applauded enthusiastically. In the end the jury announced me as the prize-winner, unanimously.

10. You have participated in master-classes with many eminent musicians. Is there one anecdotal inspiration you can recollect and share with us during these many hours of instruction?

I usually love to participate in piano masterclasses because I am always interested in hearing different opinions and ideas from various professors or pianists. I have received lots of good and interesting ideas and opinions which I have saved for myself. One of them, for example, was given by a Portuguese piano professor, who told me of a very basic routine which is however important to do. He told me that when we already know some piece very well, and we are already able to perform it by heart in a good performance quality, that we should go back again to our score and sit in front of the piano and start reading it as if it was the first time we were looking at it. We will then probably find and understand some little things on the score about expression or technique or even in the music melodies or harmonies which are very important to be done correctly, and which makes the difference between a good performance and an excelent performance.

11. Can you tell us more about your piano instructor Rosgard Lingardsson during your 10 years at the Porto Conservatory, how was that experience like?

My piano teacher until I was 18 years old was Rosgard Lingardson, a Swedish pianist. I really loved to work with her. She was a very kind, patient and friendly teacher, but she was also very demanding, rigorous and critical with my performings when it was necessary. I think I am very lucky to have had such a good musical teacher who helped me to develop so much of my musicality. Her willingness to follow me to some piano competitions, and supporting me whenever I had an important performance was very helpful, as well as her readiness to give me longer or more lessons when she thought I could benefit from those. After so many years having piano lessons with her, we built a very strong relationship as musicians, and nowadays we are still in contact with each other, sharing ideas about interesting issues, or advices about anything related with my music career.

12. You are a bit unusual as a musician as you are able to perform also in violin, and have participated with many important orchestras. You eventually rose to the rank of concert-master at the Lisbon Metropolitan Young Orchestra. Could you tell us more about this role and your time with this orchestra?

As you know I started learning the violin when I was 7, after listening to my younger sister playing it. It has always been my second instrument; however I have participated in many violin concerts or other events. The Lisbon Metropolitan Young Orchestra was a workshop I participated in three or four times. It was usually during the summer holidays, and it lasted 1 or 2 weeks. During that time, we had intensive classes and rehearsals every day to prepare for a final concert performing some difficult works. In the second time I participated in this workshop, after being admitted, several professors, mostly of violin and strings chose me, to be the concert-master of the orchestra. It was such an enriching experience, and I learnt so much as a musician and violinist during that time. The responsibility of heading the 1st violins suit of the orchestra, and also the rest of the orchestra, really made me more independent, more confident with my actions and generally made me grow more as a complete musician.

13. In January of 2011 you had your piano recital debut in the famous “Sala Suggia” in Casa da Música, in Porto. Can you tell us more about this momentous experience?

This was until that date the biggest audience I’ve played to. Around 800 people were there just to listen to me. It was my favourite recital, because my performance went quite well, and also because of the distinguished place where it occurred. It was at the famous “Sala Suggia” of Casa da Música, in my birth city – Porto, which for me was a very prestigious and significant place to play. The fact is some years before I dreamt of playing there and when the opportunity arose to do it, made this recital even more unique and magical.

I remember of being quite nervous and anxious some days before the date (4th January 2010). At the same time I was really looking forward for the big day. In the morning of the big day, I went to the Portuguese national radio (Antena 2 – RDP), after being invited to, to have a small live interview, to talk a bit about myself and my evening recital, to help promote it. In the afternoon I practiced a bit in the Sala Suggia, and then I went to relax and meditate to a nearby beach, contemplating the sea, which is something I really like to do, maybe because I have always lived in front of the sea. A couple of hours before the recital I went back to Casa da Música, to gradually start concentrating and preparing for it. I completely remember the time the stage doors opened for me and I walked through. I became a bit scared as soon as I saw such a big audience waiting to listen to me. My heart rate shot up with my nervousness. But after performing the first set of pieces (a group of Scarlatti sonatas) and after receiving a warm applause, I became more confortable with the piano, the place, and on stage. The concert went very well, I had to performe three encores, and the critics were very generous. In the end of the day, after signing lots of autographs I was very happy and relieved.

14. You are currently studying piano at the Royal College of Music of London, under the tutelage of the South African professor Niel Immelman. How is it like to study under this man and at this institution? Is there a major difference in the manner of instruction compared to Portugal.

The Royal College of Music is as you know a very prestigious institution, with a big musical tradition. Being part of it is very significant and important for me. Until now, I am enjoying this new experience of studying in a new College, in a different country with a different language. The fact of being surrounded by so many musicians of good quality and famous professors is very enligthening. An important aspect is the good quality of the conditions provided to the students, such as the grand pianos, the practice rooms and the performing halls.

My piano professor, Niel Immelman, is a very good instructor, and it has been a good new experience to be working with him. He is a bit different than my previous teacher, in the way he teaches, and the way he behaves. He gives me more independence to decide more things which I partially prefer. The main difference I have noticed about the manner of instruction in UK and in Portugal, is maybe the fewer number of hours for theorical classes in the Royal College of Music than in Portugal. This is something I prefer, as a pianist who wishes to have a performing career, because in my college I can devote more time to give attention to my instrument and to practice.

15. Can you tell us more of your plans for the future please?

For the future, I would like to complete my Bachelor in music degree and proceed with the Masters degree. I want to participate in even more important piano competitions around the world, and work very hard with the goal of being a concert pianist. I am aware it is something very hard to do which needs much time spent on it, but this is what I like to do and what I would like to be. I am also a man who likes interesting and big challenges. I do not bother spending much time fretting for these to come my way because, as they say in the Portuguese popular expression “Quem corre por gosto não cansa”, which literally means “Who runs for pleasure does not get tired”.

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