Fifty-four is just a number, but when it refers to a lifetime devoted to playing the piano with virtuosity at the world's most important venues, we can safely say that we are in the presence of a great maestro, or better yet, a musical genius: Frank Fernández, an award-winning Cuban pianist who is now part of the history of Latin American and world culture.
Our chat with Frank Fernández began at his studio in Havana's Miramar neighbourhood, with the renowned artist seated at his piano.
“I played the piano for the first time when I was 5 years old,” he recalled. “My mother was a major influence, because she ran a music academy. She was my first mentor.
“When I was just six, I lost my mother. On her deathbed, she told me, ‘Son, don't ever abandon the piano. You are talented.' So, in a certain way, my entire artistic career has been an eternal tribute to the memory of the person who gave me life.”
During his interview with Cubaplus, Frank Fernández talked about his student years, when he won a scholarship to the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, the most challenging school in the world for piano and strings.
“I won that scholarship in a contest sponsored by the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba in 1966; I was the only contestant who didn't have a piano. Nevertheless, I was able to win, and I got the scholarship.”
Going to that school was the fulfillment of a dream for Fernández: his teacher was the excellent Víctor Marzhanov, who passed on his knowledge and played the piano until the last days of his life (he died in December 2012).
“The first time I heard a lecture by Marzhanov, I said to myself, ‘If I could only take a class by this man.’ It was the scholarship contest that made that and much more possible, because I studied at that conservatory for five years and a half under his aegis, a great teacher and a great man.”
Throughout his career, Fernández has performed in some 40 countries, and in many he has played more than 15 times, a reflection of the universal appreciation for his virtuoso skills.
Reflecting on some of the highlights of his artistic life, Fernández said that he played for the first time with Cuba's National Symphonic Orchestra at the age of 19, at the Teatro Amadeo Roldán in Havana's Vedado neighbourhood. He played Beethoven's “Choral Fantasy.”
“When we were finished, the audience got to their feet and applauded long and hard, and at that moment, I remembered many important artists who had performed on that stage, people like Rubinstein, Carusso and Alicia Alonso. It was an incredible emotion. “Another unforgettable moment was when they asked me to play Rachmaninov's Concerto No. 2 at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory Great Hall, one of the six best halls for acoustics in the world.
“That was an exceptional gesture, for the Russians to ask a Latino, a Cuban, to play that concert there, in their house. I was very proud.”
Fernández's work includes 29 concert albums and more than 650 compositions of all kinds. He is currently working on a project that he says holds special importance.
“For the first time, Beethoven's five concertos have been recorded, and that CD should be ready by the end of this year. I think that it is my most important accomplishment of the year, because it will make it possible to listen to the rhythmic evolution of the work of that wonderful musician.”
For the rest of the year, Fernández is planning a number of national and international performances, and he noted that one of these will be at the national fine arts museum in Havana—the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes—to celebrate the centennial year of that prestigious cultural institution.
When asked what kind of advice he might have for young pianists who are just starting out, Fernández said that it is extremely important for them to always feel like students, to always feel like they are learning from music, contact with other artists, and life.
“The piano is nothing but an instrument; it is a means, a bridge for expressing states of mind that human beings can transmit. That is why being able to or trying to convey the state of mind of that wonderful machine, the human being, is a titanic task, and it is the only way to come a little closer to the goal of becoming a useful person for art,” he said.