In 2002, Cédric Pescia was 26 when he won the gold medal in the international competition of The Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation. It was the first and only competition Pescia, a dual citizen of France and Switzerland, in which he participated. He had shied away from the competitive performance arena, assuming that everyone else would be better than him but Klaus Hellwig, his teacher at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, finally persuaded him to give it a chance. “The reason why I chose Bachauer because at the time it was one of the only ones that gave me a free choice of deciding what to play in the program,” Pescia recalls in an interview with The Utah Review.
He took top honors with his performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat Major, K. 271, also known as the Jeunehomme. “It was a turning point,” he says, adding that even a few days before the finals of the competition, he considered not coming to Salt Lake City.
Seventeen years later, Pescia says that he always looks forward to coming to Salt Lake City. On March 8 at 7:30 p.m. in the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts, he will perform a recital featuring cleverly curated pairings of selections from both books of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893, which were composed 20 years apart (1722, 1742). The recital is part of Bachauer’s current season with the theme of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms … and Beyond.
Pescia’s program is a unique offering. Other soloists for this season’s Bachauer series have selected programs that juxtapose classical piano music with works from the contemporary era. Many pianists, harpsichordists and organists have cultivated a worthy relationship with Bach’s music but Pescia strives for expanding the esoteric intellectual and musical connections with The Well-Tempered Clavier to an experience for the audience that can be as approachable, accessible and enlightening in deepening their own appreciation for Bach.
After he won the Bachauer gold medal, his debut recording in 2004 of Bach’s Goldberg Variations earned praise in many reviews, an unconventional choice of repertoire perhaps but one that now seems genius for an international artist emerging at the time. However, it’s not that surprising given that it was one of Mozart’s earlier piano concerti that set him on the gold medal path at Bachauer. In Colombia, he performed the entire Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080, for a mostly youthful audience of more than 1,000.
Pescia’s program represents an ambitious goal. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a major pedagogical experience for keyboard players, much as aspiring actors might whet their skills on Shakesperean plays or choral singers develop their skills in singing Handel’s oratorio The Messiah. In these two books, Bach has composed preludes and figures that explore the spectrum of harmonic, stylistic and rhythmic differentiation.
Pescia, whose latest recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier was released late last year, normally might play the whole two-book set of 48 works over a series of two or three concerts. In selecting the various pairs for the upcoming concert, he decided to pick seven pairs of prelude-fugue selections (14 pieces in total) that juxtapose different harmonic and stylistic elements. Therefore a cantabile or choral style alternates with a dancing style piece. In each book, Bach composed the pieces to climb the 12 semitones from C to B, and presenting a prelude and fugue for each tone in the major and minor keys. The selections and how they are presented, not necessarily in the sequential order or even chronologically in terms of when they are composed, do not disturb the overall integrity or cohesion of the entire work.
Pescia adds that audiences will be able to discern how Bach’s composing voice matured over the course of the two decades that he took to complete the work. It also gives audiences a new window into Bach’s creative character. There always is the profound emphasis on his religious connections and faith that propels his music. However, he also embodies a rich sense of delight and entertainment even as the works demand intellectual concentration that always has been celebrated as a genius hallmark of his creative output. Likewise, Bach intended the work also as a technical primer. Four of his sons were composers and musicians, including Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who wrote one of the earliest and still relevant pedagogical books on piano playing technique and execution.
Pescia cut his teeth on the music by listening to the recordings by the late great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, long considered one of the greatest interpreters of Bach’s keyboard music. “I discovered how important this music was in my teens and early twenties but it always has become even more important to me,” he adds. Pescia’s career encompasses a diverse repertoire including Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Busoni, Enescu, Messiaen, Cage, Suslin and Gubaidulina.
Returning to Salt Lake City, one of his favorite activities is the chance to perform in schools, as part of Bachauer’s educational outreach programs. His parents were not musicians and he remembers how he discovered his love of playing the piano by listening to a musician in a live performance. “I always look forward to playing for students at school,” he says. “They don’t even need to have the best piano. It can be an upright.”
For more information about tickets and the remainder of Bachauer’s concert season, see the foundation’s web site.