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Artist Interview: Juho Pohjonen

By Erik Petersons on October 11, 2019
Juho Puhjonen, piano

Juho Pohjonen is the first artist to offer a debut recital with the Society this season. His October 27 program features repertoire that is rarely heard on our series—music by Rameau and Scriabin. We talked with him recently about these works, his influences as a pianist, and the app he is helping to develop in his free time.

Erik Petersons: How did your program come together and what drew you to these works? Are there any connections between them?

Juho Pohjonen: I wanted to present a program that showcases works of two great but lesser known visionaries of Western art music: Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) and Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915). Even though the two composers are separated in time by almost 200 years, they both share a similar approach to keyboard writing—a desire to search for new pianistic colors through an innovative use of ornamentation and harmonization, and a certain rhythmic flexibility that allows the performer to freely shape the music with their own creative ideas.

Interestingly, some of the harmonic concepts pioneered by Rameau, such as the octatonic scale cleverly hidden in the baseline of L'enharmonique, were later fully embraced by Scriabin, whose Sonata No. 6 is almost entirely based on harmonies extracted from this scale. Also, Rameau was a master of trills and ornaments of his time (he even invented his own special notation for ornaments)—however Scriabin took these ideas even further in his sonatas by creating trills that overlap with each other, trills that repeatedly phase in and out with dynamic changes, and even entire clusters of trills that happen at the same time.

The program is also a program of contrasts: while Rameau draws inspiration from concrete and occasionally rather mundane things such as chickens (as in La Poule), Scriabin's ideas are highly abstract and they evoke images that are more esoteric than familiar (such as "insects born from the sun" in the Sonata No. 10).

EP: Who have been your major influences as a pianist? How have they affected your approach to music?

JP: I would say that non-pianist musicians have influenced me a lot more than pianists. Piano as an instrument has so many restrictions (such as the constant decay of the sound, or no possibility for vibrato) that I think it is important to first think about music without those constraints and then search for ways to work around them. Of pianists I like to listen to recordings of "old-school" players, such as Alfred Cortot or Arthur Rubinstein; they have a special way of capturing the interest of their audience, which works by constantly setting up expectations and then either confirming them or defying them in some way. This creates a special feeling of unpredictability that still serves a greater musical purpose.

EP: What is your routine in preparing for a concert? How do you like to relax afterwards?

JP: My concert preparations practically start the day I start practicing any new piece, and the relaxation afterwards happens gradually over several days (unless there is a ton of new repertoire that I have to start preparing for). Ideally the concert day should feel like just another day, only with some extra concentration cushioned around the concert.

EP: What other projects are you working on?

JP: Apart from the obvious piano practice I am also developing an app for iPhone and iPad, MyPianist—an A.I. based virtual accompanist that listens and reacts to your playing almost like a real pianist. For example, one can play repertoire like Franck Violin sonata so that the A.I. plays the piano part through speakers while following the timing and the nuances. How closely it follows depends on the musical style and context; sometimes it reacts instantly and sometimes it prefers to just keep the tempo. It is a fun project to work on, because through it I am learning a lot about how music works on a very fundamental level!

EP: What are you reading at the moment?

JP: Right now I am working on several projects at once and have unfortunately little time for reading, but the last book I finished was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari which I got as a free e-book of the week from my Finnish newspaper subscription.

Juho Pohjonen appears with PCMS on Sunday, October 27 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For tickets, visit his concert page.