While talking to the pianist Elizabeth Sombart, I felt a sudden calmness, generated not only by her serene presence, detached from the everyday problems, but also by the depth and the emotions that ran through her words.
It was a rainy Friday afternoon, cold and not really charming. I was upset by the weather, but I was looking forward to reaching the place where I was going to meet the pianist Elizabeth Sombart. As I was waiting for her, I had the opportunity to talk with Lavinia Dragoş, the director of the Romanian branch of the Foundation Résonnance. As I came to know Lavinia better, I was able to understand the work and the beliefs of the great pianist, who came to confirm the image I pictured.
Elizabeth Sombart was born in the beautiful French city of Strasbourg and started studying the piano at the age of 7. She studied in France, Argentina, the United Kingdom and Austria, benefitting of the careful advices of great teachers such as Bruno-Leonardo Gelber, Peter Feuchtwanger or Hilde Langer-Rühl and even Sergiu Celibidache, with whom she studied the phenomenology of music. She has an impressive soloist activity, playing on various renowned musical scenes and recording an important discography.
While talking to Elizabeth Sombart, I felt a sudden calmness, generated not only by her serene presence, detached from the everyday problems, but also by the depth and the emotions that ran through her words.
You are familiar with music since your childhood, when your mother used to play and you were around her. Please, tell us more about your musical childhood.
My childhood was difficult because I could not really integrate, I was very lonely. I had no real relation with my mother. But when she used to play, I was under the piano and this was the place where I could feel protected. Here I understood that music can open some ways to another perception of the world, which is not only material. I could feel this protection and consolation. At that very moment I knew the power of music, not as an end in itself, because the end in itself is eternity, but it was one of the royal ways to get there.
Did music help you through your life to get past the difficult moments?
No, this is for the amateurs. When an amateur plays the piano, he plays because he has a headache. We have a headache when we play the piano.
When I was very little, classical music was opening another reality, so there was not only the reality of material existence, but something else, where you could find consolation, beauty. Although it’s not an end, music could be the way to get there. Somebody said that classical music is the noise made by the door of Paradise when it’s opening. It’s only the noise, it’s not Paradise, but it’s a beautiful way of getting in.
This is very nicely put in words. What is the greatest lesson that you’ve learnt from your piano teachers that you would like to pass on to your students, to other musicians?
I learnt that a real pianist is like an alchemist because you have to transform a percussion instrument in a serene instrument. For that you have to understand that you are not playing only with your fingers, but you are playing with your breath. You have to become the instrument, through something bigger than you that is going to get through you and your fingers. We have to learn that we are not the source of music, the source is coming from somewhere else; we are instruments. We have for as much as possible to get away from our ego, to let this source come out through us. We have to be transparency, we have to work on that and this is a long way.
You have an impressive discography and I observed that you have some special interpretation of Frederic Chopin’s pieces. What do you love about this composer, is he your favourite?
I would say that my favourite composer is God. I recorded Bach – you can see on the internet that I have recordings from Bach to Bartok. I love Bach, Mozart, I love them all. I love the way they used music to describe how, when we are broken, we can come to unity. And they all have their own way of doing this, by using Major and minor modals only to say this. They tell us in this way that, behind every sadness, there is joy.
You created the Foundation Résonnance, which has an impressive activity so far, also having a branch in Romania. From where did the idea start?
If I had to say in just one word what I do, it is relation. Because of these relations I did all the things. You hear a child saying that he likes history because he likes his history teacher. Nothing is ever happening without this movement of love in a relation. This movement can also be the contrary of that. For example, because you see poverty, loneliness, injustice, you are called to replace this emptiness. I saw that in hospitals there was nothing human. In all those asylums for old people, there were no enjoyments and all those people who had a life before would eventually die alone. Then I said that I will go and play for them. Also, although I am from a generation that thought that it would not live the war, because the generation before us had lived the war, this is not true. All these experiences that we are living now are like war. We are in war. I would never have imagined the concerts I have been giving these past two years in refugee camps. The world has been so ugly. It was already ugly – we had Khmer Rouge, we had everything –, but one believes or dreams that the experiences will serve to something. Now I realise that all those experiences of ugliness, of violence did not help to change anything. This is something very difficult for us.
The more it is like that, the more we in the Foundation have to get involved in these situations and give some consolation, beauty and hope. Hope is actually what music teaches us. And you know why? Because this music is the proof that there is something greater than oneself in the human being. The music of Mozart or Chopin is greater than them. This is somehow a proof of that. Believe me, people are not afraid of their smallness, they are afraid of their greatness. Everybody knows how people really are inside, but they construct walls to just be protected in a very small place, when they are called to be greater. Music gives them this hope.
The Foundation in Romania is also born from a relation. Sometimes in your life you understand things afterwards. There is also a very nice definition of faith – faith is to not understand the things immediately. And I have not understood anything until now, so I have a big faith. Because faith is accepting to enter in life. Although war is crawling here, you still choose life and love. This is a movement, it is harmony. Sometimes, we understand the things years after they happened to us, because on the moment we just live them.
What do you think about Romania? You have been here before and you were able to catch a glimpse of the people. How do you see them? How are the students?
I can see myself last year in the cemetery of Iași, at my family’s grave, with all those wonderful things that the priest did with the bread and coliva, all those traditions. I thought then that if I would say to my grandmother, who was a Romanian from Iași, that I would one day be here to do that for her family… Life is always more interesting than all you could have imagined before, if you are free to accept what happens to you.
Romania is an encountering, but also a resonance, something that I really care about.
This is fascinating. I did not know that you have Romanian roots.
Well, yes! My grandmother was the daughter of Nicolae Leon, a renowned parasitologist here in Romania, the founder of this discipline here. He was also a half-brother of Grigore Antipa, the naturalist.
When I visited the University of Medicine from Iași, I went to a course of parasitology, where I was introduced as the great-granddaughter of Nicolae Leon and they were really enchanted. The students stood up and applauded me. I was thinking then that this is life, this is the relation I was talking about earlier.
Believe me, when you are in these moods, relations will appear to you not only in that dimension or in that light, but, as we already have with Mozart or Chopin, rather as an encountering with the Saints in the reality. Sometimes I don’t really know if I am talking to somebody who is already there or is still here, because it becomes one thing, there is no more duality.
I would like to ask you about your relation with Camerata Regală. What do you think about the musicians, as they are young and passionate?
I love them because they are not professional (as in old) in their mentality. They are like the youth orchestra; they are passionate and willing to do the best. They are open to the phenomenology of music, they are listening. There are a lot of musicians who are playing without listening, but this is not the case with them. This is already my second time playing with them, the first time was last year.
I will tell you about some intuition. In the old Europe – France, Italy –, classical music is disappearing, but here its life is past the crux and you are in Resurrection time. That I can feel. Everything seems like that here. Although there is poverty or other things which remain from communism, it is there. And the movement I can feel here, in Romania, is a movement towards the future, with hope, open-mindedness, with something inside about freedom. Maybe it is because of all those times of difficulties and of missing a certain freedom that I can feel that everything is possible here. When I am in France, I feel everything is impossible, because we are not moving in a forward direction, but in a backward direction.
Lastly, I would like to ask you to give a piece of advice to the youth here in Romania.
I would tell them that we are on Earth to find what real freedom is and the aim is to find what makes a person a real person, which is the fact that the choice comes from the deepest silence inside, not because somebody imposed this to you. There is an urgency to get into interiority, because when we die, we let everything material here, but if we’ll see that we did not construct in our inner world, it will turn out to be too late. This is the most important thing – to be able to imagine yourself in your bed, dying in minutes – will you be able to say I achieved my life as I lived? Until you can say this phrase, do everything to say what you really are and want, to never die saying I haven’t done what I wanted.
This is a beautiful advice and I hope our readers will take it fully!