Triumph of Light and Hope

Interview with Martín García García, who won first prize at the Cleveland Piano Competition and third prize at the 2021 International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, where he also received a special prize for the best performance of a concerto.

By Bożena U. Zaremba

Martín García García during the final stage of the 2021 International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition (Photo: Darek Golik)

Martin Garcia Garcia getting ready to walk up the stairs leading to the stage of the 2021 International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition (Photo: Wojciech Grzędziński)

Bożena U. Zaremba: The “mission statement” on your website says that “Martín García García … feels a sense of responsibility and service to humanity … he understands there is a deep content to offer to each person who has decided to come and listen to him.” This is a profound statement. Can you explain?

Martín García García: Yes, that's enough for a book [laughs]. What I mean is that music is the only tool I have to share transcendence with other people. Somebody who is religious, for example, can get that transcendence through religion, but music is more than that. It encompasses humanity; it's about an individual, not about some dogma that some people believe in and some don't. Music allows us to share this transcendence with every person who listens.

Are you talking about the universality of music here?

Well, everyone says that music is a universal language, but I don't know what it means; perhaps that the message music carries can reach every single person on earth. My mission is to always give my best, no matter if I play for one person or many. It does not matter how many people are listening but how I am playing.

Still, when you travel, do you try to learn about the local people, their history, language, and traditions, or immerse yourself in that culture?

Yes, definitely, I try to learn at least something about the place, although it is not always possible. With five concerts in five different places every two days, I would have to be reading 24 hours a day. I only have two hands, one brain, and two eyes [laughs].

Do you feel a special connection to your Spanish heritage?

Absolutely. I was born in northern Spain. My mother would always sing a cappella at home - old Spanish folk songs, like flamenco. This music has been passed from generation to generation, and my mother knows about 50 songs. I feel very close to Spanish music.

What about classical composers and pianists?

There is a lot of great Spanish music, especially for solo piano. There is [Mateo] Albéniz, [Enrique] Granados, or [Federico] Mompou, whom I discovered not so long ago, actually. His music is very profound, and he had a great influence on me during the pandemic. These are probably the greatest and most influential composers because they were also great pianists. Then there was Alicia de Larrocha. She actually gave master classes at my school in Madrid, though it was long before I was a student there. Still, she is a huge role model to absolutely every pianist in Spain.

You won the first prize at the Cleveland Piano Competition and placed third at the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, where you also received a special prize for the best performance of a concerto. How did those two experiences differ?

At both competitions, they made us intentionally feel like it was not a competition but more of a festival or celebration of music. But they were very different - a different country, a different audience and each director had a completely different personality. Cleveland was less stressful; we all had more time, and because of the pandemic, there were fewer people in the semifinal stage. We got to know each other, and the atmosphere felt more like, I don't know, enjoying a glass of wine. In Warsaw, on the other hand, it was pretty hectic - long and intense. I was not really nervous per se, but the Chopin Competition carries a huge history, with millions of stories and anecdotes about it. Every young pianist, for example, knows those stairs that take you to the stage. And we all know every member of the jury, whether from concerts or other competitions. Many of them are previous Competition winners. They are all living legends. So in that sense, it was a bit extreme.

The Chopin Competition online streaming showed a lot of behind-the-scenes action, such as individual interviews with participants and group discussions. There was a sense of competitive spirit but, at the same time, camaraderie. Is it true?

Camaraderie - I like that word. We felt it especially in the final stage because, by that time, we all started to know each other well. Everybody was exhausted; we were this group of people who experienced the same thing at the same time, and we understood each other very well. So, naturally, there was no more feeling of competitiveness.

During those meetings, you were always cracking jokes and making everyone laugh. That sense of humor also shows in the way you play. One YouTube comment on your third stage appearance says, “[another player] brings the dark side of Chopin; Martín García brings the bright side of his music.” Do you agree?

Yes, I do. There is this kind of misconception that Chopin was all about darkness and complete despair. I don't see that in his music. Chopin is like a coin; he is not one-sided, and that's what I try to show in my repertoire.

For your Atlanta recital, you chose Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 35, and during the Chopin Competition, you played Sonata No. 3 in B minor, op. 58. How do they differ?

This question calls for two books [laughs]. They differ in absolutely everything. One goes to the dark side, while the other goes to the bright side. The only thing that connects them, besides the composer, of course, is the deep roots in Beethoven and, ultimately, in Bach. It's the same coin with two sides of Romanticism: one is the deep despair and darkness that came into art in the late 18th and the 19th century - the Sturm und Drang movement - while in the Third Sonata, Chopin ultimately goes more for abstraction. It's a symphony for the piano. He brings in this deep emotional content and then holds it back.

What role does Chopin play in your repertoire?

He is like every genius composer I perform. I try to devote a fair amount of time to each of them. For the Chopin Competition, I obviously dedicated much more time to Chopin, which had its repercussions. This side of my repertoire is much more developed. Chopin is my “friend,” and I have a particular connection to his music.

What do you cherish most about his music?

Chopin is like a journey throughout the entire range of styles as well as emotions, which are present both in his turbulent life and his work. The deep link between all of Chopin's pieces - especially in his Piano Sonata No. 3 - and Bach is fascinating. Like Bach in the early 18th century, Chopin set up a “template” for future generations of keyboard players and musicians. Beyond that, what I appreciate most about him is that beyond the usual concept of darkness that permeates all of Chopin's music, there is a clear triumph of light and hope in almost every piece. He was a man of more strength and fortitude than it may seem!

Let's go back to the beginnings of your music journey. You started playing the piano at a very early age. Why the piano? Were you drawn to any other instrument?

It was purely accidental, though it turned out to be lasting. It started with my brother, seven years older than me, who found a piano in his elementary school. I was also fortunate with my first teachers, who came to Spain from the Soviet Union, and I started playing with them at the age of five. They saw something in me and had a vision for my future. I later discovered different kinds of music, like Tchaikovsky's ballet. Then, when I was older, I fell in love with the sound of the violin, and I would ask, “Can I play the violin, too?” But my mom told me there was not enough time to do both, and she was right. My love was always for music, and I happened to be very close to the piano.

You also studied in America at the prestigious Mannes School of Music in New York.

I was in the U.S. for two years. I first came for a master class with Jerome Rose. We had a brief moment at that time, and then he said, “Please come to my festival in New York, and we will see how it goes.” I returned to Madrid, thought about it for a while, and decided that maybe it was time to leave the nest. This was really a great opportunity for me. I made a trip to this festival in the summer of 2017. What Mr. Rose offered was extremely opposite to the way of teaching I was used to. He was more of a mentor than just a teacher and guided me not just through music but life in general. He had a significant influence on me. We often talked about music, culture, and art. It was very interesting. We continue to keep in touch.

I recently listened to an old but lovely interview with Yo-Yo Ma, in which he admits it was only relatively recently that he realized that besides loving music, he also loves being a musician. Don't you think this is necessary to sustain a successful career?

Of course, but let's ask ourselves: What does it mean to love something in the first place? That we feel attracted to something? But we cannot be attracted to something 24/7. So I ask: How? How much? When? If you think about love as some infatuation of a teenager, there comes a time when you realize that falling in love does not lead to anything. You have to start thinking about how to foster that love and keep it up. And this requires effort and sacrifice. You also have to find purpose. It's just like a relationship. If a musician wants to keep that “marriage” with music, falling in love with your profession is a must. But when it becomes too much for you (and it happens to every professional musician), you have to find a way to keep the flame alive. In my case, in every concert, I have to find that deep meaning. Only then can I do seventy, maybe ninety concerts every year.

He also said, and maybe it's a cliché, that you need to hear the music in your head first before you start playing. Do you agree with that?

The way I look at it is that you have to somehow become the piece you are going to perform on stage, and you have to have full control of what you want from that composition.

Do you have any other passions besides music?

I love cars. I love racing on a computer simulator. Generally, I like simple things in life. I love walking in the park, for example. In my busy schedule, it's a luxury. I also enjoy reading books, and I love good food.

Circling back to the purpose of music, we at CSA advocate for intellectual, spiritual, or emotional education through classical music. Is this something you believe in, too?

Even more than just believe in. Some time ago, in New York, I started a project called the Musical Society, which is very close to what the Chopin Society of Atlanta is doing. It's a global project, and I already have some students from Japan and San Francisco. Its goal is to use music to enlighten people's hearts. For the last year or so, I have noticed in many parts of the world that many musicians in their twenties realize they lack meaning in their lives; they seem lost. They have music as a tool to give sense to their lives, but they don't use it. The project will include concerts, lectures, and master classes. It's not about how to place your fingers on the keys but rather to show what it means to leave a concert and come out in some sense renewed.


The artist's official website:

Martín García García's recital for the Chopin Society of Atlanta is on March 11, 2023. See details here.