With the first breaths of spring approaching from the windows of her flat in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, we talked with the Riga-born, Grammy-nominated pianist Maria Lettberg to celebrate "Piano Day", while she takes a break in her preparation for the concerts in April/May 2023.
Today, 29th March, marks the 88th day of the year 2023. For this reason, today is celebrated as Piano Day, in honour of the number of keys of the beautiful instrument. On the occasion, we were lucky enough to have a conversation with pianist Maria Letterbeg, born in Riga with Swedish citizenship, but based in Berlin.
When and how was your relationship with music born? How did the piano come into your life?
I began to play the piano at the age of seven, and the main reason for that was - for sure - my mom. Her piano playing of Mozart's Sonatas and Chopin's Études as an amateur pianist was pretty good. I liked it very much and wanted to learn to play the piano too. I guess, that was the reason why my parents put me at the special music school for gifted children, something equivalent to the Waldorf School, but just for musicians.
All my memories of piano lessons in the first three or four years are incredibly positive. I was very inspired by the piano and spent almost 3 to 4 hours every day practising without any force from my parents or teachers. Everything was easy and enjoyable! After one year of playing the piano, I already could play for the public and I just loved it – no big worries or stage fright. As a child, I did not have a doubt about being a musician, but later, in my teenage time, all things changed. The period of coming to adult life was not very easy for me. In that period of time, you begin to see yourself from another person's perspective, distinguish the world and yourself, get new perceptions, and compare and despair. You are trying to find your place in the hierarchy of this big world.
How do you define music, and what does music mean to you?
Music is just similar to life. Making music can be a great trust, and a huge inspiration, but could as well be a big pressure or suffering. I am still trying to recover that wonderful mood of my childhood, as the piano and I were one united feeling of happiness. Furthermore, I am managing to get it, at least for a short period of time.
"Making music can be a great trust, and a huge inspiration but could as well be a big pressure or suffering"
You have studied all over the world. What were the moment and the place that made you the great pianist you are today?
Learning classical piano art at a very high level is a long process that takes a lot of years. Yes, I studied music, particularly piano playing, in many schools around the world, trying to develop my own way of interpretation and musicianship. However, I always tried to avoid too categorical opinions of some professors and toxic relationships in the music business. It is not easy for young musicians to keep and develop their own positions and opinions. The connection between self-confidence and outside criticism is very important for enlargement and growing up as an artist. This is, in my opinion, the essential problem for all artists for the whole time of their artistic career. Am I good enough for this profession? What can we give to the world?
"Zara Levina, the female composer which has firmly remained in the shadows of her male dominant counterparts achieved deserved fame and I am very proud to add something to this justice"
Your Grammy nomination was for none other than your performance of Zara Levina's two piano concerts. How valuable is it for you to have been nominated for an interpretation of another woman's work?
The nomination for the Grammy in the category „Best Classical Instrumental Solo“ was a wonderful surprise that inspired me to continue to work in the same direction as before: carry on discovering new names and new repertoire. It is a very clear sign of the new time! Zara Levina, the female composer which has firmly remained in the shadows of her male dominant counterparts, achieved deserved fame, and I am very proud to add something to this justice.
Are further female pianists parts of your repertoire? If yes, which ones and why?
Well, I have music of Fanny Mendelsohn, Cécile Chaminade, Grażyna Bacewicz, Lūcija Garūta and Zara Levina in my repertoire. But I don’t make an accent exactly on the female composers, and I am playing their pieces just because it is great music and I feel connected to the world of these women. The best music piece is a picture of the composer’s soul, a truthful document of an intellectual and emotional moment of a particular time. It is an incredible feeling to meet this soul through a piece of music, especially if this composer died many years ago and of course, very special if this composer was a woman, like me. The music has no gender, but everyone tells us their own story, and it makes sense to me to hear stories of women. Unfortunately, we have too few documents of those “female voices” in our cultural heritage.
Does equality - or a lack thereof - influence your daily experience as an artist?
Even as a child, I was wondering why we have mostly women piano teachers at primary school and high school when most of the professors in the college of music or university were men. Furthermore, I felt very proud and privileged to get a male teacher from the college of music at the age of thirteen. It was kind of a sign to me that had said “now you are good enough”. Later, as I studied in the college of music, I noticed that the amount of good and very gifted female and male students in the piano department were kind of the same, but the famous pianists in the leading positions and piano professors were mostly men. Where did all these great women disappear to? Why did so many women not continue their careers after getting children? Is it, in general, possible to make a big carrier as a performer and be happy privately as a female? I must admit that I still did not find a satisfying answer to these questions yet.
Do you personally attach importance to diversity when playing a concert?
The diversity in classical music is a big issue. In my opinion, it is very important to add new names to the concert repertoire, no matter if they are male or female composers. There is a lot of good unknown or forgotten music that deserves to be presented to the public - and not just once. For example, I have some very good piano concertos by female composers Zara Levina and Dora Pejačević in my piano repertoire. I wish to play this music much more in concerts, but most of the orchestras want to play the same standard repertoire time after time, giving the argumentation that this is what the public wants to hear. There is a vicious circle: we do not know this music, and we are not interested in playing it. Unfortunately, we forget very often that classical music is not just entertainment; it is an education as well.
What are the biggest challenges in your professional life?
You have to be always in good form and give the public everything you can.
Well, almost everything: concerts are like butterflies, living for just one evening.
As an equality ambassador and reader of our magazine, we believe that you, too, would enjoy the work of Maria Lettberg. And who knows - maybe you'll get to know the work of an often overlooked female composer through her, too. If you are in Berlin, you have two opportunities to meet and listen to this wonderful pianist in the upcoming weeks:
15. April 2023, 19:00
Kulturstall auf dem Gutshof Alt-Britz 81 12359 Berlin
07. May 2023, 17:00
Jägerstraße 51 10117 Berlin