x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Ioannis Potamousis holds the keys to the future

The concert pianist Ioannis Potamousis talks about feeding young musicians, hunger and ensuring music is available to all.

The concert pianist Ioannis Potamousis performs for children at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi.
The concert pianist Ioannis Potamousis performs for children at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi.

The concert pianist Ioannis Potamousis recognises the look in the eyes of young, aspiring musicians. He describes it as a mixture of hunger, thirst and determination and every time he sees it he wants to help.

More especially when he meets someone from an underprivileged background like his own, he will take time to encourage and advise because he well remembers the aching frustration he felt as a young boy who dreamed of playing the piano.

He saw that look in the face of a young pianist in Ramallah four years ago when he was part of a Music Without Boundaries tour of the West Bank and gave the boy a private lesson and advice on how to advance his career. He showed similar dedication during a series of masterclasses this week at the British School Al Khubeirat in Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates University at Al Ain.

He is also here for three charity concerts, the last of which is at the British School this evening with a voluntary collection for the Future Centre for Special Needs.

On Sunday morning, Potamousis performed at a school assembly with the former British School pupil and violinist Sultan Kara, who now lives in Surrey and hopes to go to the Royal College of Music in London. That same look of quiet determination was reflected in 14-year-old Sultan's face, and Potamousis believes the teenager has the talent to become an accomplished soloist.

"He is a gifted musician, but it's not just the talent - it takes a great education, willpower and the right circumstances and he has all the potential."

Potamousis, who lives in New York and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he is head of piano studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Music, says he knew from the age of 13 that he wanted to become a concert pianist, but because of his modest background it took a little longer to get started.

"I didn't start playing till I was 14. I was born in Athens to a poor family who were not at all musical and we couldn't afford a piano. When I was nine, my grandfather bought me a three-octave keyboard, and I found a book somewhere and taught myself to play," he says.

It was a gift that changed his life and he tells how he was engrossed in his little keyboard one day, composing tunes and experimenting with chords and rhythms, when he was noticed by a young music student. "Her name was Elene Belibasaki and she was only about 17, but she thought I had some talent and started giving me free music lessons. Later, she helped me win a scholarship to the Conservatory of Piraeus.

"I remember my thirst and my hunger to learn the piano. Whenever I see someone with that same thirst, I love to be able to contribute to their effort. It gives me enormous satisfaction now that I have students who are winning prizes for their age groups."

With the help of scholarships and international prizes, Potamousis was able to realise his own dream. When he was 20, he studied at the Musikhochschule Köln, Germany, where he achieved "outstanding" marks in his advanced Masters degree. At 26, he went on to Mannes College of Music in New York, during which time he won first prize at the International Piano Competition in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the silver medal at the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati. He gained his doctorate at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which enabled him to teach as well as perform.

"As a young man, I would practise for up to six hours a day. I have a friend who is a golfer, and he always says the harder he practises, the luckier he gets. I feel like that about music."

His luck almost ran out in 2004 when he was hit by a car and suffered badly torn ligaments in his shoulder that took six months to heal, but in typically determined fashion he tackled one of the most physically demanding pieces upon his return to performing: the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, known as Rach 3.

"We know it has 10,000 notes because the Russian conductor and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy counted them. It's a blessing for anyone who can play this piece," he laughs.

At 38, he still works hard at his personal fitness, going to the gym several times a week to build up the core muscles that support the back, which are so important to a concert pianist.

Potamousis first came to the UAE five years ago as accompanist to the soprano Donna Zapola with the Music Without Boundaries tour, also performing as a soloist at Dubai's Madinat Theatre. In 2006, he was invited back and played with the National Youth Orchestra, traveling to the West Bank for four back-to-back concerts.

The experience of playing to people who have necessarily been starved of regular cultural offerings was a thrill.

"It was amazing, and I felt I was embraced by the people. I would say there is a kind of a risk in going, but I believe music should be heard everywhere."

There was one unnerving incident at a checkpoint when a guard stopped the party of musicians, refusing to believe they were there to give a concert. "That day we heard rumours that something was going to happen at Nablus and we were advised we shouldn't travel there, but we talked to several people, including someone at the Greek consulate, and decided to risk it. At the checkpoint they weren't going to let us through at first and couldn't understand what we were doing there."

There was another surreal moment when they arrived at the hall and, 20 minutes before the concert was due to begin, Potamousis discovered a broken string in the piano.

"I realised we couldn't go ahead with that piano, but we called up the president of the university to ask if we could move the concert there. He called the maintenance man, who was at a wedding, but he was persuaded to leave and open up the hall where we physically shifted the piano on to the stage. The audience didn't seem to mind driving across town, and in the end the concert was a huge success."

He is looking forward to going back to the West Bank in April where he will perform in St Georges Cathedral, Jerusalem, the International Centre of Bethlehem, Ramallah Cultural Palace and Al Najah University, Nablus. "We owe it to the audiences. I don't see the challenges, I see the beauty," he says.

Tonight's performance, organised and produced by Bravo Productions and directed by Janet Hassouneh, will include Mozart's Sonata in E flat major, Chopin's Scherzo No. 3, op. 39 and three Debussy Préludes as well as works by the Greek composers Manos Hadjidakis and Yannis Constandinides. Sultan Kara will also perform.

Potamousis says his ambition is to head up a music school and help young musicians to become performing artists who are able to perform in any part of the world. He would also like to be among the first to play in the Performing Arts Centre in Abu Dhabi when it is built.

"It's important that music travels everywhere. It shouldn't be the privilege of one group of people."