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A musician with "ambassadorial" talent

Piemontesi says the decision to become a musician was a spontaneous one

(Marco Borggreve)

Swiss-born pianist Francesco Piemontesi has played in some of the world’s top concert halls, but only one has managed to produce “magical” acoustics.

The Musikverein in Vienna manages to have perfect acoustics no matter how big or small the audience, but how it happens is a mystery, Piemontesi tells Lucerne’s concert hall also does the same, but through state-of-the-art architecture.

Piemontesi has been on a classical concert tour of Britain to mark winning this year’s Swiss Ambassador’s Award. The tour was organised by the Swiss Embassy and Swiss Cultural Fund in Britain.

His series of solo performances was launched at the “intimidating” Wigmore Hall in London and attended by Anton Thalmann, the new Swiss ambassador to London.

The 27-year-old pianist has also been named a BBC New Generation Artist. A regular on the festival circuit, his stirring performances have become well known for their contrasting explosions of sound juxtaposed with tender and thoughtful sequences. How did you feel making your debut at London’s Wigmore Hall, one of Britain’s most revered concert halls for soloists and chamber musicians?

Francesco Piemontesi: It was thrilling. The Wigmore Hall is unique. It’s a very intimate experience and the acoustics are amazing. But it’s not easy to play there, because the piano is almost too big for the size of the hall. So it was almost like an adventure for me to try and control the sound and not let it get too loud.

It is also quite intimidating when you enter the hall and there is this huge collection of photos on all the walls of artists from the past who performed there: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig and then all the great pianists, people like [Arthur] Rubinstein. And now I’m playing there. It’s just crazy. Is it a lonely life as a soloist? Do you miss the companionship you might have performing in an orchestra?

F.P.: I actually feel really fine on my own. I love reading, so trains, airplanes and hotels are fantastic places to be reading books. When I’m at home I never find the time to read.

I like to read a lot of scientific books because I always had this passion for physics and science subjects. I didn’t invest even one-tenth of the time I invested in music. But still it’s interesting to find a discipline with which you can divide your brain. It’s really healthy to think, “Okay, I’m not going to think about my music and my profession for a few hours.” Did you know from an early age you wanted to be a concert pianist?

F.P.: There was never a point where I said, “I want to become a professional musician”. It just came very naturally by itself. It was very spontaneous. Every day I sensed I had to invest more time, so I think it was a very unproblematic way to choose this job.

I started on the violin when I was about four, but I didn’t enjoy it, so I switched to the piano. My parents tell me I had a toy piano when I was about three and I was always trying to reproduce the songs they sang to me.

Finding time to practise throughout my childhood wasn’t easy because Swiss schools have lessons until five o’clock. My German and Italian colleagues had a much easier time because they finished classes at lunchtime and then had the rest of the day to practise.

Although I had a very happy childhood, these were quite difficult years because I wasn’t sleeping much and as I was never interested in sports I didn’t have many friends. It wasn’t until I got to university that I found similar-minded people who thought living with knowledge was interesting. You have performed in some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world. Do you have any favourites?

F.P.: The Musikverein in Vienna - without a doubt. And if you ask me again in 20 years it will still be the Musikverein. When you enter the hall you think it’s quite narrow and the stage is not very big. There are always problems getting the piano on stage. But then you start playing and this divine sound comes out. It is unbelievable.

Normally when you rehearse in a hall the acoustics can change quite dramatically once the auditorium fills with people. In Vienna it remains exactly the same. I don’t know what kind of acoustic miracle this is, but it only happens in Vienna’s Musikverein.

Of course, it also happens in modern halls, like in Lucerne, but here the sound is computer-controlled. Lucerne Concert Hall can balance the acoustics despite the size of audience, because there is a resonance chamber which can open or close depending on how full the auditorium is. But that’s not as magical as in Vienna where it happens and you don’t know why it happens. Are you aware of the audience as you perform on stage?

F.P.: You can feel them and you can hear them. Recently I have played in some cities where the cultural life is totally different to what I am used to. I remember playing a recital in China where the public was so unconcentrated it affected my performance.

A telephone started ringing and I stopped playing because it was so loud. The person answered the phone and his conversation lasted about two minutes. He slowly finished his phone call and nobody seemed shocked by it. Experiences like that are not good for the nerves. That is probably the last time I’ll play in that particular hall.

Francesco Piemontesi

Francesco Piemontesi was born in 1983 in Lugano. He studied with Nora Doallo in his home town and with Arie Vardi in Hannover.

He first came to international prominence as a prize winner in the 2007 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels.

Through his close collaboration with the pianists Alfred Brendel, Cécile Ousset, Alexis Weissenberg and Mitsuko Uchida. Piemontesi has performed at many of the world’s most prestigious concert halls, including the Berlin Philharmonie, Vienna Musikverein, Zurich Tonhalle and New York Carnegie Hall.

Argentine-born concert pianist, Martha Argerich, personally invited him to her festival in Lugano where he now appears every year.

In 2009, the young musician received a Fellowship from the Borletti-Buitoni Trust and was also named a BBC New Generation Artist.

He will be "Artist in Residence" at the Heidelberg Festival in 2011.

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Swiss Ambassador’s Award Concert

The Swiss Ambassador’s Award Concert was established in Britain in 1999 with the aim of presenting some of the most talented young Swiss soloists and chamber ensembles in a concert at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Due to its popularity and musical excellence, the annual event now tours the country.

The concerts are organised by the Swiss Embassy, in collaboration with the Swiss consulates in Britain and the Swiss Cultural Fund in Britain, a charity promoting Swiss artistic excellence in Britain.

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