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'Pianoforte' director on his film featuring piano prodigies competing for a top prize


In the early years of the piano, about 300 years ago, the instrument was called the pianoforte. Unlike the harpsichord, it could play both piano, the Italian word for soft, and forte, loud. "Pianoforte" is also the title of Jakub Piatek's new documentary. It charts the nerve-wracking journey of young piano players performing in Poland's International Chopin Piano Competition. Just like the instrument's name, the documentary has a wide range of sound.

JAKUB PIATEK: We knew, like, from the very beginning, that we will, like, somehow balance between silence and this eruption of noise.

RASCOE: Piatek says some people describe the competition as the Piano Olympics.

PIATEK: The Chopin International Piano Competition is one of the oldest and one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world. That's one of those kind of events that can change your life entirely, for a young pianist, overnight.

RASCOE: How did you decide which musicians to follow for this?

PIATEK: We decided to and we chosen our protagonists before the competition happened. And, like, the most honest way to make this documentary for me was to not, you know, to look for a winner, just to find people that I kind of, like, resonate with their stories in a way. So we just use a gut feeling. But from the very beginning, I kind of knew that I'm not trying to make a film about the winner, and probably I will make a film about not winning. I know personally much more about not winning than winning.

RASCOE: What do you think was driving each of the people that you featured?

PIATEK: I think it's, like, a common thing for all the arts, in a way, that if you want to be, like, really good at something, you need to sacrifice. For those people, it means that - it's like, you know, nine, 12 hours per day alone with an instrument in a practice room, because that's how they live their lives. And basically for, you know, a year or two years or three years before the competition, that's the whole lives they've got. And - but at the end of the day, there is this beautiful moment of, like, sharing the music.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Playing piano).

PIATEK: And maybe I will sound right now, like, really naive, but I strongly believe that they were participating and they were sacrificing a lot to share the music. Also, because it was - the competition was postponed for a year because of COVID, so for some of those people, it was, like, the very first public performance with a live audience in two years. And you could, like, feel this kind of, like, a special, magical vibe in the air.

RASCOE: And can you tell me more about the teachers who mentor and guide the contestants? Because some of them, like Hao's teacher, Vivian Li - she's with him constantly, and she really seems very encouraging. At one point, you know, someone thought that she was his mom. But Eva, her teacher - she's a bit more tough. Like, talk to me about that dynamic.

PIATEK: Yeah. Like, from the very beginning, when I was preparing to - like, to shoot the film, it was like the relationship between the teacher and our protagonists - we knew that it's crucial part of their lives. Because, like, for some of them - they're spending more times with those teachers than with their relatives. One place in a film that we use, like, this, you know, kind of like a normal interview to a camera, when Vivian is admitting that she wanted to participate in the year 2000, but she - like, she was a little bit afraid. She was not well prepared. And she didn't have, like, this - you know, this kind of like a concert instinct for that and the guts to enter, like, the big stage. So, like, there's kind of like a transition between, like, a teacher to her pupil and, like, when you try to imagine, like, what she feels when she is looking and listening to how her pupil, her student on stage - like, he's performing in his name, but also in her name.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Playing piano).

PIATEK: So that's something that is, like, really, really beautiful and naive and - so that's a one side of being a teacher. And of course, on the other side, you've got Professor Trou (ph) which is like, Eva's teacher, which is like, you know, Moscow Conservatory, like, really traditional, and a little bit harsh and tough.

RASCOE: You know, classical music can often feel inaccessible to a lot of people. How did you think about that as you filmed this? And, like, what did you think about the music, and what that brought to this documentary?

PIATEK: I'm not a musician at all. I remember once I was in primary school and I was, like, picked up to a school choir, but not because of my voice, but because of my height. And I remember during the rehearsal, my music teacher, like, just listen to me singing. And she said, just lip sync and just be there and pretend that you are singing. That's my individual perspective. And I remember being, like, for the very first time in a concert hall and having this like, this feeling of entering, like, this sacred space or temple of music. And I don't have, like, a knowledge about the music, or back then I didn't have. But at the same time, I remember a piano recital - I was sitting on the balcony, and I was really emotionally moved, and I was really having, like, this experience that someone is talking to me throughout the music. That was also the, like, the kind of a feeling, that I wanted to pass to make the film about, you know, really serious matter, which is, like, a really serious piano competition and classical music, but trying to communicate it also to people who are not listening to that kind of music every day.

RASCOE: That was Jakub Piatek. He is the director of the new documentary "Pianoforte." It's available in select theaters now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.