CIPC Features "Living the Classical Life"

Zsolt Bognár
Zsolt Bognár

Clevelanders and classical music fans near and far already know Zsolt Bognár as a talented concert pianist who specializes in Germanic, Russian, and Romantic repertoire. But there’s more. He’s a writer, a speaker, and a skilled interviewer. His speaking engagements have included two TEDMED talks and guest appearances on National Public Radio programs dealing with a variety of subjects. And he’s recently become the Charlie Rose of the classical music world as host of the Elyria Pictures film series “Living the Classical Life.”

As part of the Cleveland International Piano Competition’s 2016 Festival, Bognár will emcee three morning sessions this week in the Lecture Hall at the Cleveland Museum of Art. On Wednesday, July 27, attendees can enjoy the premiere screening of Bognár’s “Classical Life” interview with Yefim Bronfman. On Thursday, July 28, he’ll moderate a live conversation with Stanislav Khristenko, 2013 Mixon First Prize Winner of the Cleveland Competition. And on Friday, July 29, Bognár will introduce a “Classical Life” double-header of  interviews with Stephen Hough and Marc-André Hamelin. All sessions start at 10:30 am, preceding the competition rounds that begin at 1:00.

“If all goes well, we may also have the preview of a conversation with Jeremy Denk to go with the Bronfman interview,” Bognár said in a recent phone conversation from Berlin, where he was enroute to Munich to hear his friend Daniil Trifonov play a large public concert. (Update: the Friday double-header will now feature the Hough interview plus the Denk premiere, and the Bronfman premiere will be preceded by a brief episode with Yuja Wang.)

Zsolt Bognár describes his initiation into the world of filmed interviews with classical musicians as an accident. “Back in 2010, I was thinking with friends about content to put up on a professional website I needed to create,” he said, “and we decided it might be a good thing to have a little 2-3 minute film so people could hear me speaking on camera or playing a little.

“We started filming in Cleveland, Oberlin, and in New York where the production company I was using is based, and after seeing my interaction with friends and colleagues, the director (Peter Hobbs) said, ‘This might work as an interview show.’”

The trial episode was an 8-minute conversation in New York’s Central Park with cellist Joshua Roman, Bognár’s friend from CIM. After that, Bognár and Elyria Pictures started planning a series of filmed interviews with classical music notables.

“I think our big break came by way of three pianists,” Bognár said. “The first one was Stephen Hough, who really placed a lot of trust in me, because we really didn't have a lot to show for what we had done so far. But I think that episode turned out really well. He’s so engaging and so wonderful. Then we filmed Daniil Trifonov — it was a bit difficult to pin him down in Cleveland because he was so busy. And then we filmed an episode with Yuja Wang, who had seen the Daniil episode and wanted to appear as well.

“At that time we were kind of being pegged as a piano show, which was not a problem for me because many of my friends are pianists,” Bognár said. “But recently we've been trying to branch out into different instrumentalists, vocalists and other people who are involved in classical music.  We always have names on our drawing board and for every ‘yes’ we get ten ‘no’s’ — but that's part of the fun.”

Bognár noted that in the early days of “Living The Classical Life,” he spent most of his time writing personal notes to potential guests explaining what his team was up to and asking them to agree to be interviewed on camera. After a while, the tide turned, and musicians began approaching Bognár and his team themselves. Among the first was Joshua Bell, who invited Bognár and the camera crew into his New York apartment for a conversation that turned into a 45-minute episode.

To date, in addition to those mentioned above, Zsolt Bognár has interviewed such figures as pianist Peter Takács, baritone Nathan Gunn, composer Matthew Aucoin, cellist Zuill Bailey, violinists Anne Akiko Meyers and Rachel Barton Pine, music journalist Tim Page, and clarinetist Franklin Cohen — as well as Pierre van der Westhuizen, the Cleveland Piano Competition’s executive director (himself a pianist).

Has anything unexpected come up during the interview sessions? “Absolutely!” Bognár said. “I was surprised how performers were willing to open up on camera about insecurities which everybody seems to experience across the board. Yefim Bronfman spent a large part of his episode talking about stage fright and how that had gotten more pronounced with age.”

Bognár is also inspired by what his guests have to say. “I really love the advice they impart. I feel like the lucky one here because I get to ask all these performers how other people do things — like how do you go from being a student to having some kind of sustainable musical life? They all had to go through this, and hopefully their combined wisdom will be helpful to others.”

Wednesday’s and Friday’s sessions are on film, but Thursday’s will be a live conversation when attendees can watch the interview process unfold in real time. “I’m very excited about interviewing Stan Khristenko,” Bognár said. “He’s an old friend of mine, and we’ll see where the conversation goes. It’s interesting that thorough preparation doesn’t always lead to the best interview. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. That's something I'm learning to do.”

Published on July 25, 2016.

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