Ru Az

Life in music

Hélène Mercier, also known as Hélène Mercier Arnault, is a renowned figure in the world of music. The Canadian born pianist is considered one of the best concert pianists globally, having both solo and chamber performances at prestigious venues like the Champs-Élysées and Chatelet Theatres in Paris, the Southbank Centre in London, the Konzerthaus in Berlin, the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, the Villa Medici and the Lingotto Auditorium in Italy. She currently resides in Paris and has performed at numerous French festivals such as Aix en Provence, Menton, Colmar, Nohant, Evian, Reims, and Lachaise Dieu. Recently, she performed in Baku as part of the II International Piano Festival at the special invitation of the founder and director of the festival, Honoured Artist of Azerbaijan Shahin Novrasli, and she kindly answered our questions.

Inspiration to start playing
My sister was a violinist, and I have always had a great desire to play with her and accompany her. Hearing her practice every day inspired me to start playing the piano at the age of six. I progressed quickly, and my teachers encouraged me to pursue a serious musical education.
My master of music in Vienna was German and he really inspired me to continue studying music. My sister and I met the violinist Vladimir Spivakov when we were kids, and we were driven by his playing and technique. Thanks to him, my sister followed her studies in Sofia, Bulgaria all the way from Montreal, where we lived at the time. Later in life, I performed with Spivakov and even recorded a Chausson CD with him in Paris.

Rituals and techniques to overcome stress before a concert
It's often stressful, and we can't always guarantee the effectiveness of our rituals. But the unexpected awaits us all the time, so we have to be ready. Music is a very passionate profession, so there’s something unforeseen on the agenda all the time. I can note that there are constantly new discoveries with Shahin Novrasli, and many surprises along the way because he really likes to improvise. I don’t carry anything with me, like a talisman or something.
However, lately, I have a story to share. I didn’t even know it existed until I received by surprise my great grandmother’s wedding ring. I got it the same day I met my grandson for the first time. The synchronicity made it magical. I have the impression that this ring protects me. I don’t want to travel with it in case anything happens. Generally, I don't wear jewellery while playing or rehearsing.

Daily routine
My concert routine includes having a rest in the afternoon when possible and eating a light meal before going on stage. When I have to rehearse a lot and when my repertoire is extensive, I sometimes practice for up to six hours straight. During this time, music takes over all aspects of my life. When I have to learn new scores, I start practicing at 8 in the morning, and I practice till noon. I also have gym sessions twice a week, but if I miss them, I go for a fast walk, jog, or swim. I also enjoy a stretching session once a week with a dancer. It can be challenging to practice, but it’s essential for me to keep my back in good shape, and I find it beneficial.

Balance in life.
For me, my personal life is just as important as my career. However, when you choose music as your profession, it can become more important than your personal life. Some women even decide not to have children because of their musical careers. Their partners often follow them wherever they go, or vice versa. Sometimes, partners have to follow each other for musical tours around the world for 2 to 3 months. It becomes even more challenging when children are born into the family. However, this is the case with all professions. What could be missing here is having some time alone, having your own timing and schedule. Classical Music world is a microcosm. It is not as visible as pop music, for example, but classical music has some sort of connection with the divine, evoking unique emotions that I cherish. It is a demanding profession, and discipline is necessary to excel in it. I cannot imagine my life without music. It is sacred and holy, and all the composers have had a connection with this sacredness. Music is a special type of prayer that brings me depth and meaning.

Luxury is a purchase of a dream. We are currently in the era of consumption, where items such as telephones are changed frequently compared to the technology of our grandparents’ era, where a refrigerator could serve for ages. The progress of luxury over the last thirty years has been very significant, and it has become overwhelmingly attractive to consumers.

Piano festival
I am incredibly excited to play with Shahin at the opening of The Baku Piano Festival 2023. We met through our mutual connection with Professor Rena Shereshevskaya, who introduced us.
Shahin’s performance reminds me of the typical Russian school of classical music, where every sound and note are heard to its depth. This differs Russian school of classical music from the rest of the world.
I was impressed by his improvisation skills. There's a lot of unforeseen in it. Shahin’s sound can be very sophisticated and refined, while other times it is clearly jazz. It is direct, sensual, and constantly changing, unlike classical music, where everything has to be defined. It is essential to mix different types of music sometimes. It becomes easier to open up the classics through the mixture with another genre. Shahin is a jazzman, but his education is rather classical, and it enriches our mutual play as we perform together. The mixture of music genres creates a dialogue, enriching classical music... He can mix genres enthusiastically with his posture and charisma. I believe Shahin has a vision of this festival, and there is always space for brainstorming. I trust his ideas, and he has enough of them. The main idea is to reflect the era we live in, and the combination of Oriental music mixed with Gershwin, performed with the Azerbaijani orchestra (Valid Aga), is already quite unusual and exciting. The festival also has a spiritual dimension because music touches the divine. "La musique creuse le ciel" (Baudelaire).

The future of music
I would love to see different genres of music influence each other more in future. You may have seen some instances where art pieces are vandalised in museums, which diminishes the value of art and makes it seem useless. We talk a lot about the planet and its problems, including the activists who act violently towards art in museums. However, we should also remember to talk about human values and cultural exchange. Culture is essential, and it's not just about economic success. Music is a fantastic way to connect people. For example, I will be playing in Baku with Shahin a piece by George Gershwin, a Russian composer of Jewish origin, that he wrote while living in the United States. Our music will communicate and engage universally – the language of music.

Sometimes, philanthropy attracts skepticism. I think it's better to stay anonymous when giving money; otherwise, it becomes narcissistic and a part of one’s image, or there may be expectations of something in return. I am skeptical enough in regards to such an image. In the US, for example, the culture of philanthropy is not the same as in France. There are differences in the tax system, and it's not the same level of acceptance in different cultures. It can also be challenging to track the spending of the given amounts at times.

Favourite musicians
I loved deeply the French pianist Brigitte Engerer, who was a student of the famous Stanislav Neuhaus in Moscow. I cannot state a single name of my most preferred composers as we need them all. They nurture each other. However, if I give you a name today, I feel very close to Olivier Messiaen – a French composer of the 20th century. I perform his pieces, and I find his harmonies connected with the invisible. He was very spiritual, and one can feel this in his music. I started to play his compositions with my sister when we were teenagers.

When life gets hard…
I always think of my mother. We were very close, and I have a very strong attachment to her. I deeply admired her strength and courage. Despite losing a daughter, she remained driven and inspired with a deep respect for life. We should never be discouraged from moving forward and pursuing our goals (il faut y aller!). The world is constantly changing, and even more, especially in the modern times, where values are sometimes doubted and even lost. Therefore, we must stay strong and brave, especially when we go on stage.