Jay Gottlieb : In search of otherness

Jay_Gottlieb_Headshot

As I stepped out of the elevator, Leonard Bernstein’s theme for the film “On the Waterfront” flowed out into the corridor, and I knew I was in the right place to interview Jay Gottlieb, virtuoso pianist and showman extraordinaire:

FFC

Jay, I’ve known you for a really long time, but I don’t know how you came to live in Paris.  Can you tell me the story, at least some of it?

JG

I first came as a very young teenager to work with one of the legendary masters of music, Nadia Boulanger, who was a magnet to musicians – composers and performers  – from the entire planet, with a big accent on Americans.  Why?  Well, Aaron Copland got the ball rolling in the 1920’s when there was the American Conservatory in the château at Fontainebleau.  And Nadia Boulanger was on the faculty with a couple of people like Maurice Ravel, Poulenc and Igor Stravinsky, and guest stars like Rostropovich.  She was unique, probably one of the greatest musicians of all time.  She was likened to Mozart, with similar gifts.  She was able to reproduce dissonant scores for full orchestras after a single hearing.  Not to mention a spectacular pedagogue and life changer.  So it was definitely worthwhile to cross the Atlantic.Jay_Gottlieb_Headshot

FFC

What year was that?

JG

I was born in 1954 and I was 13.  The French connection was established, although I did not move here at that time.  I went to high school, and then Harvard, and when I finished, then, and only then, did I come over here.  But while I was in college I was taking hops over to France to come to see her.  I got my Bachelors and Masters in five years.

FFC

Was that in Musicology?

JG

No, it was in Composition.

FFC

So for how long did you attend this program at the American Conservatory?

JG

Summer after summer.  It’s even in the Guinness Book of Records as having the longest summer program.

FFC

Does it still exist?

JG

Oh yes, in fact I’m on the faculty, of course with other colleagues, which is great.

We rotate and I love doing that, communicating and spreading knowledge and information about Nadia Boulanger.  People are starved for that.  She was so unique and such an amazing figure.  She’s listed in the book “Masters and Disciples” by George Steiner, one chapter devoted to her.

FFC

So would you say that Nadia Boulanger was your mentor?

JG

Yes, she was one of them, but I’ve had others.  After working with Nadia Boulanger, I continued with Olivier Messiaen, who is probably the greatest French composer of the second half of the 20th century.

FFC

So you came over to France after getting your Masters; when would that be?

JG

1976.  That will be 38 years.

FFC

How did you begin as a musician, how did you start your career here?

JG

There are two questions here.  I was born a musician; when I was 13 and I came over here, I played four notes for Nadia Boulanger, and she said “that’s enough, you’re a born musician.”  She was completely psychic, omniscient.  So music is since forever for me.  My good fortune was to be in New York, where you find everything, including former students of Nadia Boulanger, and I studied with some of them.  Students of Nadia Boulanger are said to be in the Boulangerie.  That is the origin of the famous adage: no one comes out of the boulangerie half-baked.  (NB: in French, a “boulangerie” is a bakery)

FFC

Tell me about Olivier Messiaen, another one of your mentors

JG

He was considered to be the greatest composer after Debussy and Ravel.  He died in 1992.  I had the privilege of working with him and his extraordinary wife and muse Yvonne Loriod.  She was a genius as well – I work with a lot of geniuses.  They were an incredible duo.

So the French connection is continuing.  It begins in Tanglewood, in Massachusetts and then continues in France.  I met Messiaen and his wife at Tanglewood, just as I was getting ready to move to France.  The timing was golden.  He was Boulez’s teacher.  I worked with Boulez, not as a student, but professionally, he conducted me.

FFC

Tell me about your professional work in France

JG

Very early on, I replaced Messiaen’s wife for a big concert at the Salle Gaveau.  And that was my transition between student and professional life.  It was a hugely difficult hour and ten-minute piece; that’s a lot of work and she didn’t have the time.  That launched my professional career.  I was in demand the same night.  I was meeting people at the top, not just musicians, but people like the Bourbon family, the true royalty of France.  So what is life for me now, I’m asked?  Thank heavens, it’s always been up, up, up.  Lots of less, less also, but that’s OK.  When you’re clear with that and don’t show off and realize that life is one fabulous series of variations to put it in musical terms, the philosophy to bear in mind, it’s about Other, don’t look for Same, it’s about Other.  So these are life lessons that I find are very important.  And when you get that clear, it no longer goes to your head because you know it could be Other in a second.  And football results is one of the many manifestations of this, of the Otherness of the unexpected.  Fabulous situations are there, it doesn’t matter what the address is, it matters who the people are.  That’s another one of my philosophies.  We as Expats certainly know what Other means.  Don’t waste your life complaining, just close your mouth and deal with it, but live.  Don’t spend all your energy on negatives. Enjoy the variety of experience.

FFC

Can you tell me about one of your most memorable experiences?

JG

There have been many.

Once I was working with Bette Davis on a TV show.; Frédéric Mitterand had a TV show called “Du côté de chez Fred”  that was an hour-long portrait of some great star in any field.  And in 1988 he wanted to invite Bette Davis, she died a year later in 1989.  And I was called by the producer to play musical interludes throughout this show, music from her films.  They wanted me to play music written for a full orchestra on the piano.  This is not easy.  The producer sent me a mass of material – scores and CDs – and I made my own arrangements.

I met the great lady and she immediately attacked me.  I looked her right in the eye and answered, giving her back her language, and she said: “I like you.”  I told her that she reminded me of my mentor Nadia Boulanger, and she said “yes, others have said that to me, tell me about her,” and we went into a corner and in the middle of the production spent about half an hour talking. It was a great broadcast.

There are many situations where I never would have found myself had I been in the United States: meeting Liz Taylor or Bette Midler for example.  Being invited to chateaux with the Duke of this and the Prince of that – professional situations but overlapping personal friendships as well.

FFC

Tell me about what you’re doing now, the current agenda.

JG

The current agenda is festivals, in France, in Poland, in Amsterdam, the United States in Washington DC; that covers summer.  That’s what I do all year long.  Most people wait for a vacation to travel, whereas I’m always moving.  As to accommodations, I usually stay in upscale hotels, but if there’s a budget issue, I am flexible.  But I do insist on a quiet room with total darkness, it’s in my contract.

FFC

I want to ask you about your piano.  We’re doing this interview in your apartment, and when I walked in I saw this huge piano, it must take up about 40% of the space of your living room.  I had no idea a piano could be this big; can you run me through the sizes?Jay_Gottlieb_Yellowshirt

JG

It’s a full concert grand.  It’s a Steinway that we’re talking about, and letters are used; there’s no A, but the smallest is called a parlour grand, or a baby grand.  An upright is a toy.  Then there’s the B and that’s just the standard grand that you find in most living rooms of people with means.  In French terms, 1 meter 80.  Then you have the C, about 2 meters and then you have the full concert grand, which is a D.  That’s a nine and a half foot grand.  And that’s what I’ve got here.  This is a piano that you’d find in Carnegie Hall and the Salle Pleyel, it’ not one that you find in most people’s homes.

I had resolved that I was going to get one, but resolution and doing it are two different things.  Then in 1990-91, there was a wonderful film called “La Discrète”, which put Fabrice Lucchini over the edge; he became a mega-star thanks to this film.  Very French, very adult award-winning film, beautifully acted by everyone in the film.  It happens very often in my field that there will be a replacement situation, and I was asked to replace another composer.  I had no idea what it was about, but what I liked is that it was just for the piano.  I was asked to do transcriptions of Schubert and Scarlatti, and some improvisations. It was one afternoon and I made a fortune.  I had royalty checks coming in for over a year, so my desire to have a Steinway concert grand in my apartment became doable.

FFC

We said you’ve been living in Paris for the last 38 years.  Tell me about a few of the things that you really like, and some that you dislike about living in Paris.

JG

What I love is the human proportions.  I’m a New Yorker and I know what out-of-the-ballpark proportions are.  I was just there for a month; I have New York in my bones and in my brain, so I can really make the comparison.  Everyone is SCREAMING.  It’s not like that here.  There’s a more modulated tone.  It’s total hysteria in New York.  Now, I’m in love with New York, it’s my hometown, and of course this is an enormous generalization.  To get back to Paris: human proportions in terms of volume and in terms of size.  I own a motor scooter that I use to get around, and the longest distance takes about 30 minutes.

I like the discretion, gastronomy and proportions.  And then culture would be on the list, not in order of priority. And, did I say the health system?  Ok, now for what I don’t like.  The thinking.  The French school system encourages people to be little robots, to memorize and not to think for themselves.  Of course, there are fabulous exceptions and all of my friends here are exceptions.  Gore Vidal wrote a marvellous book in the early ‘80s called  “Matters of Fact and Fiction” which I think is a masterpiece.  He summed up the thinking of the French as opposed to the Americans : the French go point by point by point, whereas the American basically goes (he makes the sound of a curve) by synthesis.  The big divide is between analytical thinking and synthetic thinking.  While I hate generalizations, there are so many situations where this applies.

What else do I dislike?  I hate the administration, papers, it just goes on and on.  If we talk about the current situation, then taxes on top of the general crisis.

FFC

Let’s end by you telling me some of your favorite places in Paris.  Can you just give me three or four suggestions that you would make to someone who is visiting for the first, or second time?

JG

I’m not so good on typical French situations, as what I really like are the Asian situations.  So I would give addresses of Japanese restaurants.  I adore Guilo Guilo on the rue Garreau in Montmartre.  You don’t need to take the 12-hour trip to Toyko or Kyoto, it’s there.  Owned and operated by a star chef from Kyoto.  Fixed price, 45 €, his choice, and the menu changes each month.  Two sittings, one at 7pm and one at 9:30pm  You need to book a month in advance, only dinner.

A place that no one knows about:  Le Cottage, a restaurant in the 14th.  It’s run by an Indian who came from the world of literature and then of fashion.  An amazing find.  You cannot believe the prices, how reasonable it is.

The café, coincidentally, the one in “La Discrète”: Le Café de la Mairie., on the Place Saint Sulpice, facing the church.   You go around the corner, get some macarons from Pierre Hermé, take them to the room upstairs and order your coffee or cappuccino.  They’re used to everyone doing this.

And there’s a fantastic restaurant in the Parc Montsouris in the south of Paris.

I would add that it would be absolutely erroneous to spend one’s time here only with Americans.  It’s part of my interest in otherness to mix with an international group.  I’ve done things with American groups, but in a French context.

FFC

You see yourself as being part of the French community.

JG

I am Parisian,  that takes in American expats as well as the whole French and international community.   It bothers me when Americans who have lived here for years speak no French.  The French are arrogant when you don’t speak their language, otherwise the reputation for arrogance is exaggerated.

 

Guilo, Guilo, 8, rue Garreau, Paris 18.  T: 01 42 54 23 92

Le Cottage, 1, rue Léopold Robert, Paris 14.  T: 01 43 35 14 18

Pavillon Montsouris, 20, rue Gazan, Paris 14.  T: 01 43 13 29 00

Jay Gottlieb will be the featured pianist at the Festival Final Note Concert, sponsored by the Washington International Piano Arts Council, on Tuesday, August 5, 2014.  “A Time Curve with Preludes and Phrygian Gates,” Chopin to Gershwin and John Adamswww.wipac.org