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Life & Style

A life at the piano

A child prodigy, Martino Tirimo has been playing he piano for almost 60 years. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man determined to have a normal life beside music

 

Martino Tirimo is discussing pianists. We’re sitting in a small, quiet anteroom at the TV studio where he’s just done an interview for the CyBC programme Apo Mera Se Mera. The initial plan was to sit outside, in the canteen, but he didn’t like the acoustics (to be fair, neither did I) so a change of venue was arranged. The hum of the air-conditioning was admittedly annoying – but it does cross my mind that he might’ve changed the setting on purpose, to show his musician’s sensitivity. After all, he’s been performing all his life.

Here we are, in any case, discussing pianists. They’re better than ever – at least technically – and they seem to be everywhere; 30 million pianists in China alone (classical music is booming in China, like many aspects of previously-banned Western culture). There are over 300 international piano competitions – he was on a jury in Glasgow just a couple of months ago – and the standard is “unbelievably high”. Specialist music schools are taking kids in early, and churning out virtuosos. Yet that’s not quite the whole story: “You may be able to phrase musically, but that’s still not enough,” says Martino. “There is more, there is the essence of the music – which I don’t think it’s possible really to produce as a young man, frankly. I think you have to live as a human being. You have to experience life”.

He himself is a pianist, of course – and he may (or may not) be the greatest Cypriot pianist, but he’s certainly the most precocious. At the age of 8 his talent was so evident that his father (Demetris Tirimos, himself a great musician who staged entire operas in 1950s Cyprus) planned to send him off to Vienna for advanced music studies. At 13 he did in fact relocate to the UK, where (at 16) he won the Franz Liszt Scholarship and became the youngest student at the Royal Academy of Music. A year before the move, he recalls, “I was conducting opera, I was a kind of child prodigy. Articles were written in Italy, and in European magazines and so on. I had offers to conduct in Milan, in Rome –”

As a 12-year-old?

“As a 12-year-old, at La Scala in Milano. And my father turned down all these great offers, because he thought I should grow up as a normal boy. And I’m really very grateful to him.”

Some might see a paradox here. He’s just told me that capturing the “essence” of music comes from life experience – yet his own life experience was unusually limited, shaped by the contours of early celebrity and ceaseless devotion to one noble cause. He’s never had another job; he’s never been at a loose end, or shuffled papers in an office, or wondered if his life had any point. How did it feel, I wonder, being a child prodigy? Was he ever ambivalent? Did he ever wish he could be like other boys, having fun and playing football?

“But I did play football!” he replies instantly. “And I still love football, by the way,” he adds with a chuckle. It’s true, insists Martino; his mother used to say that he might’ve had a concert in the evening, as a child, but he’d still be playing football in the afternoon. He pauses, unsure how exactly to phrase it: “I felt I had to… I mean, it was natural for me to do… I wanted to be normal. The fact that I had some talent was…” he shakes his head: “I didn’t want to be special, do you understand?”.

He’ll often pause and hesitate like that, like a man caught between different facets of himself. His hands sculpt the air as we talk, the long thin pianist’s fingers coming to rest a nanosecond after the rest of him, as though energy were coursing through his body and being released through his fingertips. His face is squirrelly, with an anxious quality in repose; he laughs loud and often, the whole face lighting up so the eyes appear to be squinting. He has a kind of elegant, distracted courtesy (“Would you like some water?” he asks, reaching for a plastic bottle on the table; “I’m OK, thank you”; “Are you really?”). He’ll be 72 in December, but looks very trim; he plays badminton once a week, when he’s in London.

Britain is his base, but Cyprus is a constant companion. “You know, my heart never left Cyprus. I may have lived most of my life abroad, but I am really a Cypriot”. He owns a flat in Larnaca, where he was born as Martinos Tirimos (his father also favoured the Italianate version of their surname, though the reasons are unclear), and visits whenever he can. Maybe it’s like playing football in his childhood, something to keep him grounded and ‘normal’ – or maybe he genuinely loves the place. He was here last week with the Rosamunde Trio, which he formed in 2002, playing two concerts as part of the Kypria Festival, and pointedly notes that the Trio is named after Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus, a 19th-century play for which Franz Schubert wrote the incidental music – so the name of his Trio encompasses the two great loves of his life, Schubert and Cyprus.

Then again, Cyprus and Britain are just names on a map; a professional musician doesn’t really live anywhere, going where the music will take him. He travels a lot (“Every month?”; “Oh every month, yes, absolutely”), and always has done. How does it work, I wonder, changing the subject slightly – how does he get in the zone, when he has to perform in a new place? Does he have any specific relaxation techniques?

What happens next takes me by surprise. Martino pauses again, weighing his words. His only real technique is to try and rest on the afternoon before a concert, he says – but “I think it’s very important to be quiet within yourself. There may be something that’s bothering you, and one has to discipline oneself to put that aside”.

So has it ever happened that he had to play a concert on the day of a vexing problem, or personal tragedy?

“Well… yes,” he replies, his face giving no indication of the bombshell to come. “The biggest experience of my life was when I was in Monmouth in Wales – this was nearly 12 years ago – and my concert was at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. At 2.30 the phone rang, and it was my son, and he said to me: ‘I’m terribly sorry to tell you, but my sister has just died’.

“Our daughter – she was 26 at the time – ran a charity half-marathon in Richmond Park in London,” he goes on, “and it seems that this time – she had done this several times before,” his voice suddenly falters; I’m afraid he’s going to burst into tears, but he only coughs and clears his throat, “but this time it seems that she went too fast, and 300m from the finish line she just collapsed, and it was heart failure. Of course, I just could not go onstage – I mean, my whole body was trembling. I had to cancel. I did in fact return to that concert just two weeks later, a concert in her memory. But that was the biggest experience of my life.”

I suddenly feel ashamed of my blithe assumption that Martino’s life has been sunny and sheltered – and I also see what he means, that an older pianist can bring something more to the music than a young man’s silky facility. He smiles wryly when I ask if he thinks his own playing has improved with age. One is always critical, he hedges, “but yes, I like to think there is more – how shall I say? – more… significance in the interpretations now than before”.

In fact, says Martino, he’s changed quite a lot in the past couple of decades. “I don’t worry so much about things,” he explains. “I think this event of my daughter’s death,” he pauses, caught between facets of himself again, “taught me a lot, and since then I really look on things quite differently. What seemed to be important before is no longer important. After that experience, I’m not afraid of anything. Nothing!” He sighs fondly: “I remember my daughter Clara with joy. I mean, I feel very privileged to have been her father. She was a fantastic gift. She taught me a lot. She enriched my life. That’s how I see it. You know, you can mourn forever, but you mourn for yourself.”

Music helped, I assume – especially his kind of music. Classical music is the only type that’s not just designed to entertain, he points out: it’s also designed to uplift, to touch, and perhaps to heal a grieving soul. That’s why he’s optimistic about the future, adds Martino: classical music “requires an effort from the listener as well, and the majority of people are not ready to make that effort” – but, as the “general level of awareness of mankind” keeps going up, people will become “more open to these wonderful vibrations of classical music”.

One wonders if he’d still be so optimistic about mankind’s growing level of awareness after an hour with the cat videos on YouTube. Still, the point is valid: classical music comes from a different place than pop, rock or jazz – making it all the more surprising that children like Mozart (or indeed Martino himself) can play and compose so beautifully when they’re so immature in other ways. How does he explain it? Not just his own childhood gift, but the gift in general?

“My feeling is that the greatest composers, during the period of creation, they were attuning to higher vibrations. They left behind their weaknesses, and their ordinary expression in daily life, and they were attuning to something much higher. This is why we have these masterpieces. They are not the result of Mozart the man, or Beethoven the man.”

Are we talking about spiritual things now?

He looks a little pained: “We are, really…”

Is he religious himself?

“It depends what you mean by religious. Uh… I am really. I’m deeply religious, I would say. And for me, Jesus Christ is the Godhead. He is the Heavenly man.”

Not that he goes to church, he admits cheerfully. How can he, with so much to do? “You know, the professional musician has very little free time,” says Martino, turning happily to secular matters. “It’s very demanding work, the standards are unbelievably high. You cannot afford to give a bad concert”. Even now, for him, after all these years, a sub-standard evening would have “repercussions,” he says darkly. He’d never encourage anyone to be a musician (his son designs websites, which makes much more sense); “if anything, I tend towards discouraging. Why? Because I feel, if someone has it within them, they will do it anyway. But it would be dishonest of me to encourage a moderate talent to follow this road. It has to be an absolutely top talent.”

Even for an absolutely top talent (like his own, though he’s too polite to say so), there are pitfalls. He recalls playing with another child prodigy a few decades ago, when they were both middle-aged; the other man had already been conducting famous orchestras at 15 – but the more Martino got to know him, the clearer it became that “he was, in fact, still a 15-year-old”. Music takes so much; it can take your whole life, if you let it.

And what of Martino himself? Has he stayed ‘normal’, despite the incredible gift placed on his shoulders by God or Fate or whoever? Hard to say – but is being ‘normal’ really more important than becoming the first pianist to play a complete cycle of all 21 Schubert sonatas, or a lifetime spent studying and interpreting the great composers? He’s achieved a lot – and it may have cost him something, “but I’m not complaining. The word ‘retirement’, for example, doesn’t exist for me. I will never retire, and I don’t want to. Because it’s not a job, really. What I do is – is – is life”. And always has been.

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