A graduate from the Conservatoire Superieur de Paris with a first prize in piano, concert pianist Matthieu Cognet also holds a master’s degree in musicology with the highest honors from the University of La Sorbonne (Paris, France) and a master’s degree in piano with high distinction from the Royal Conservatory of Brussels.
Matthieu, it’s a pleasure to see you again in New York! You began last year as a freelance musician, and working at Mannes and the Manhattan School of Music; now you’re back for a doctorate! How’s your New York experience been so far? How have you managed to find work opportunities ?
I must say that living in New York has been a one-of-a-kind experience. As cliche as it sounds, I think New York is undoubtedly the most extravagant and fascinating city in the world. I was lucky to have friends who were already settled and helped me find my way in a very demanding city. I also started some serious job research online at the beginning, created my profile on muendo, and auditioned for as many musical jobs as possible. That is how I got hired at both Mannes and Manhattan School of Music as an accompanist. I got great performance opportunities through these schools and was able to meet a lot of great musicians and thus broaden my contacts!
As a doctoral student in piano performance, what are your objectives with this diploma? Is it helpful to achieve specific career objectives ? Do you feel like the higher degree is a requirement for musicians these days to find a job?
I will be starting my DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) in the Fall. I am really excited about pursuing the highest musical degree in the United States, academically speaking. With the current economy, I also believe that it has become quite necessary to get such degree in order to get a good job. The number of prospective professional musicians has considerably increased in the last decade, and the market has become more and more competitive. I think that getting the chance to do a Doctorate is an opportunity to take.
Self-promotion and an entrepreneurial spirit seem to be necessary for classical musicians today, and especially in this city. Is it something you learned at school ? How does one learn these skills?
I think this is something that you learn everyday and everywhere. When I am in school, I focus more on self accomplishment, in other words how to become a better pianist. In school you have competitions, scholarships, performance opportunities, but the real musical world is outside, when you really get to play in a professional setting. I am wondering what would happen if music schools offered more classes in marketing or computer science: how to build a website, how to manage your network, etc... That remains the theory. It is no longer enough to play the piano well (and you really need to play well!), you need somehow to be a business-man as well!
What about your repertoire ? With the classical music field so saturated with performers, how do you approach programming and interpretations of the standard rep? Are you strictly a ‘Classical’ performer, or do you extend your programming to new music or other genres?
This is a hard question to answer. It has become quite fashionable to play contemporary music, always explore unknown repertoires and never, ever, play Chopin's ballades again because hundreds of legendary musicians have played and recorded them. I disagree with this obsession to innovate. To be more precise, I think there is actually some confusion here because you can somehow be as innovative in a Scarlatti sonata as in Boulez's 3rd sonata. What has become fashionable is to play something new and not necessarily in a new way. There is a big difference between what you play and how you play it.
As a result, I do not really know what the best move in terms of repertoire would be. But the key, according to me, is quite simple, and I learned it from one of my former teachers. It is to play whatever you love and feel comfortable with, and always try to widen your spectrum. How to choose to specialize if you have not explored as much of the rep as you can? I have been really excited to learn and perform Boulez's First sonata a few years ago in Paris. I am always curious of discovering composers I did not know so much of, and I am as excited as playing a Mendelssohn Prelude and Fugue. What I try to do is balance as much as possible, and to play as many composers as possible.
Speaking of new music, why do you think the general public today doesn’t seem to know much about contemporary composers, in comparison to the audiences of the time of Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, etc.?
I quite disagree here. I think, on the contrary, thanks to the media, the increase of the number of music schools, that the public has a great access to information. The composers have also better tools (especially through technology) to promote their music. In reality, it is even easier nowadays than during the 18th or 19th centuries. Bach is one of the most famous composers of occidental music, but he was quite unknown during his life (Telemann was the best-known composer of the time). Granted, Liszt reached the status of "star" by inventing the (piano) recital.
You're back in New York with a concert on April 7th, and a new CD. What was the process to make that CD, and how do you get to play in various concerts through the city?
The recording was a quite standard process. The biggest part of the job was to find the sound engineer, the hall. Deciding and practicing the program was actually the easy part! I chose purposefully to have a "recital pot-pourri", with two Scarlatti sonatas, Rachmaninov's last Etude-Tableau, Schumann's Second sonata and Dutilleux's Choral et Variations. I recorded my program in September 2011 in Paris, and performed it numerous occasions ever since in France, Italy, Spain and the US.
I am looking forward to the upcoming concert, because I will be performing some excerpts of Prokofiev's Cinderella, in a transcription for two pianos by Mikhail Pletnev, with a wonderful French pianist and friend Macha Kanza.
Matthieu, many thanks and all the best! Looking forward to your next concert.