Artist Interview: Matan Porat

By Erik Petersons on November 7, 2019

Matan Porat’s recital debut with the Chamber Music Society on November 22nd is entitled Carnaval and intersperses Schumann’s 21 character pieces with short compositions by 19 different composers. This innovative program is not his first, and his experience composing and improvising has affected him as an artist in many ways. We discussed this in a recent conversation.

Erik Petersons: Tell us about the program and how it came together. What do you hope these combinations highlight about Schumann or the new works?

Matan Porat: Tonight's program is my third narrative-based recital project. After "Lux," a program of pieces related to light throughout the course of the day, I thought about revisiting Schumann's Carnaval, a piece which by itself is eclectic and full of whim and innovation. By adding more characters through motivic connections, riddles and games, I have created a whole new “Carnaval”, seen through a completely fresh mask. Some pieces in this program are connected through their titles (Schumann’s Pierrot to Villa-Lobos Pierrot’s Morning, Schumann’s Arlequin to Couperin’s l’Arlequine), some by the specific character (Schumann’s Chiarina and Chopin are reflected in pieces by Clara Schumann and Chopin, for example), some are an homage to Schumann himself (such as Holliger’s Sphinx and Tchaikovsky’s Un poco di Schumann), and some by musical connections (as the repeated notes from Schumann’s Reconnaissance emerge from Kurtag’s A-flat ostinato). All of the "extra" pieces in this Carnaval help accentuate how fresh and truly innovative Schumann's music really is. The program is divided in six parts, each around 10-12 minutes long, with no intermission.

EP: As a composer, you have written works for all kinds of instruments and ensembles, including an opera. How has this part of your artistic career affected your approach to playing the piano?

MP: I started both piano and composition when I was six. Until I was eighteen, composition was actually much more important to me and only afterwards I became serious about becoming a professional pianist. Being a composer allows me better to analyze the pieces and strive for better understanding the composer's true intentions. I grew up idolizing composers, not performers, and my goal as a pianist was always to accommodate the composer's wishes in the best way I could. Programs such as Carnaval are the perfect blend of my two professions—creating and curating a program like this one is very similar to my work as a composer.

EP: You studied at Marlboro Music about a decade ago. How did your experience there shape you as an artist and what influences still remain with you today?

MP: I was fortunate to be a part of Marlboro for four summers and also go on two tours. What is wonderful and unique about that place is that an artist can truly spend a whole summer working in depth on a singular piece, which is in contrast to your usual "two rehearsals and then a concert" festival. I used that rare opportunity to learn complex pieces such as the Ligeti Horn Trio and Brahms’s A Major Quartet—pieces which most definitely benefited from the extra rehearsal time.

EP: Tell us about your interest in improvising live music for silent films. When did this start and what are some of your favorite movies to play for?

MP: The first time I improvised for silent movies was actually at Marlboro, after a suggestion from Richard Goode. Marlboro has a long tradition of improvising for birthdays, and the first summer I was there turned out to be full of birthdays, almost every other day. After a few "Happy Birthdays" I was encouraged to improvise for a silent movie, which was the famous Metropolis by Fritz Lang. I was a little afraid at first, but it turned to be a very successful evening. In following summers, I played for Buster Keaton movies, which became my favorite, especially The General and Sherlock Jr., and every once in a while I play them in festivals around the world.

EP: What are you reading at the moment?

MP: I just finished reading the first book of the My Struggle series by the contemporary Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård. It’s a very impressive autobiographic novel. I am also re-reading novels by the wonderful German author W.G. Sebald, which I highly recommend!

Matan Porat appears with PCMS on Friday, November 22 at the American Philosophical Society.