Jul 1st 2020

Ivan Ilic: ‘Recording the old warhorses seems wasteful and trite’

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”



The American pianist of Serbian parentage Ivan Ilic was raised and educated in California where he studied mathematics and music at the University of California at Berkeley. Now living in France with his wife and two children, he has a reputation for discovering neglected piano works and delivering them in sensitive, authentic interpretations. His revival of Antoine Reicha’s piano works has drawn critical acclaim internationally, as did his discovery of David Stegmann’s piano transcriptions of symphonies by Joseph Haydn. Previously his unconventional repertoire explored Morton Feldman’s ‘For Bunita Marcus’ and the 22 Chopin Studies for the left hand by Leopold Godowsky. In our interview he says that bringing such works to public attention ‘is probably the most worthwhile thing I can do’. .Two ‘Reicha Rediscovered’ CDs are published and Volume 3 is scheduled to be released. Two more solo recordings are planned, and Reicha’s Piano Concerto has been scheduled later because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Other repertoire is in preparation with Chandos. At present, Ilic is also working on preparations to launch a new piano festival in a French chateau next June.

An abridged and edited text of our interview follows [below the picture, Editor's note]:


Ilic Castle
Château la Borie


Q. How do you see the music business evolving, recovering or changing as a result of the virus crisis?

A. In the short term, it will be catastrophic. My hope is that in the medium term it will bring the emphasis back to more intimate concerts, which I prefer anyway.

Q. You are one of those musicians who studied mathematics and music at the same time. Were you strong in math from an early age?

A. Yes. I grew up near Stanford, and the public school system was unusually competitive: they tested students for aptitude, constantly. I always tested in the top percentile in math. I also enjoyed it from the beginning; it was always like a game to me. Advanced mathematics is a different story. You have to enjoy struggling with elusive concepts, and most people get discouraged. To my surprise, I enjoyed it the more difficult it got.  

Q. Was there a sudden revelation that determined music as your calling?

A. No, nothing sudden. At university, I began attending music classes assiduously and spending my time in practice rooms. I wanted to absorb all things musical. I couldn't even say it was a choice because it didn't feel like one. Something clicked. I had excellent teachers who were totally committed, which makes all the difference, of course.

MJ Ilic
Ivan Ilic as seen by the author


Q. What kept you in the more precarious world of music rather than going into more conservative business and industry?

A. In the music lectures, I was excited by everything. For example, my first university-level music course was about Middle Eastern music. I learned to sing in Arabic, recognize Umm Kulthum's voice immediately, and play basic Middle Eastern percussion rhythms. I was even infatuated with a classmate, an Egyptian named Dina. Equally, I took a class on Brahms given by a distinguished professor emeritus took delight in introducing masterpieces like the Horn Trio to oblivious students. Or musicianship classes which involved singing the oboe parts of Bach cantatas while other students read the figured bass. Or combative musicological readings of history by Richard Taruskin, one of the most inspiring musical minds I have encountered.

Q. What were you playing at this stage ?

A. I was deep into Bach partitas, Chopin études and Beethoven sonatas, and was asked to premiere student and faculty pieces, and play in the orchestra. It was inspiring and a broader education than I had imagined possible. I originally anticipated that I would just practice the piano three hours a day and study to become an electrical engineer like my father. I was wrong. I graduated with a double major, math and music.

Q. How did you end up at the Paris Conservatory? You didn't speak fluent French at the beginning. Was there a teacher there that you wanted to study with?

A. I had studied French in high school, and since it was my third language (after Serbian and English), I spoke it reasonably well. The year before I finished college, I spent eight weeks at a summer festival in Aspen, and my roommate was French. We became friends and he helped spark my interest in France. The plan was to stay for a year, then attend graduate school in the US. I applied to the Conservatory and, to my surprise, I was accepted. My first year in Paris, paid for by a scholarship, eliminated any desire to return to the United States.

Q. You studied with the eccentric René Duchâble. How did that come about?

A. I saw a flyer in Paris for master classes with him, so I applied and was accepted. I then traveled to Annecy, his home, to visit and work with him a few times a year. Then I became a part of his small class at the Ecole Normale, for one year. He was generous with me, and expansive in his lessons, but also practical. He doesn't have a premeditated pedagogy, which meant that he was like an older brother showing me how to do tricks on a motorcycle. I loved that fraternal aspect of working with him. 

Q. Why did you part company?

A. I increasingly felt the need to find my own way, and I subsequently lost touch with him and all my teachers over the years.

Q. Your first recitals and CDs focused on Debussy, Haydn, Liszt I believe. But weren't you also interested in contemporary music?

A. My interest in contemporary music started at university, and I took to it immediately. I gave premieres of new chamber and solo works. Frankly, it felt easy to me, compared to traditional repertoire. Other musicians seemed intimidated by the complexity, but compared to my math classes the musical complexity was a joke.

Q. Are you collaborating with living composers?

A. Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me.

Q. Who starts the process and how closely do you work together?

A. Usually they send me fragments or finished works, as Wollschleger does. I record myself practicing them with my phone, and share via instant messages, very early on, to check if I'm on the right track. Sometimes they provide hints, sometimes detailed discussions ensue, and sometimes I suggest changes. With these three composers, I feel I have a good intuitive grasp for their music, which makes it more enjoyable from the beginning.

Q. You have become known as a pianist who brings neglected works to the fore. Is this your main thrust now? Do you have other revelations in the wings?

A. I have a list, a pipeline in progress, of works that I plan to record or perform which I think of as ‘just below the surface’ in terms of notoriety. Scientists have made the point that although colonizing outer space captures the public's imagination, the ocean contains such a multitude of species and landscapes that is mostly hidden in deep, inaccessible waters. The repertoire is also like that. Bringing these works out into the open is probably the most important thing I can do. I have young children, and that has made me conscious of the fact that I want to look back on my career and feel like I did something worthwhile. Rerecording the warhorses of the repertoire yet again seems wasteful and trite.

Q. How confident were you when you decided to bring Antoine Reicha’s piano music to public attention. Wasn’t this a career risk?

A. It didn't feel particularly risky. It felt like a logical continuation of everything I had done. I was mostly confident because the music is superb and this is something record companies should have identified decades ago. Personally, it felt like taking things a step further, since these are first recordings. This gives me great freedom to recreate the works, and also a sense of heightened responsibility. But as time goes on it matters less to me whether other people agree, because few people have what it takes to discern quality.

Q. What is the critical reaction to your Reicha interpretations?

A. It has been overwhelmingly positive, thankfully. There are some people who just don't respond to his music, and that's fair enough, I appreciate their honesty. I certainly don't expect everyone to love it. What's more important to me is that people respect the seriousness with which I am approaching his music, and give it a chance.

Q. You have done little ensemble work recently. What makes you focus on solo repertoire?

A. The collaborations early in my career led to disillusionment. I came to believe that most musicians are lazy, unreliable, and intellectually limited. Or maybe I'm a sociopath. Either way, I adore working alone, and it seems to work for me.

Q. Do you have long-range aspirations to compose or conduct?

A. There are so many pianists out there who are poor conductors that it has become a cliché. I hope I don't fall into the trap of thinking I can just wave my arms and get away with it, and no one will notice. 


The full text of this interview will be published in the forthcoming book Lifting the Lid: Revealing interviews with 50 concert pianists.



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