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  • elzbieta bilicka

'Honor your intuition'

Today, I'd like us to come back to the topic which I started in the 'Greek tragedy with a piano' post - what options young musicians have to develop their careers.

A few days ago, I had a chat with François-Xavier Poizat, a French/Suisse pianist whom I met when I was studying in Geneva []. This courageous man started his own music festival when he was only 20! This year, Puplinge Classique Festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary and on this occasion I'd like us to uncover the backstage story of this special undertaking!

- 'I am going to start my own music festival' - where did this idea come from?

- When I was 20 years old I didn’t have enough self-confidence to apply to big piano competitions and I thought it wouldn't be my way. Funny enough, a year later, I took part in the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition and won a prize there, which changed my mindset completely… I got addicted to big competitions. But when I was 20, it was very different. I had a lot of free time, a lot of energy, I was full of ambitions so I just asked myself how people around me made it to have a successful career in music. I was really inspired by the French violinist, Renaud Capucon, whom I’ve always admired. He launched his own festival when he was only 19 [Les Rencontres de Musique de Chambre de Bel-Air] so I thought: if he could, why couldn’t I. I started with zero experience. First of all, I had to choose a place. It was my girlfriend at that time that suggested Puplinge, my mother’s village. We thought it would be easier to start a festival in a smaller place than Geneva, especially that the city authorities already knew me from a recital I had played there a few years before.

- Let's talk about money. How did you handle this issue?

- The budget of the first season was CHF 23,000. As a matter of fact, we were very lucky because we got CHF 12,000 of it from La Lotterie Romande [the Suisse lottery]. The rest was up to ticket vending and how many people the concerts would attract. I’m sure our young age was a great advantage. Funny enough, it seems that we started a new trend then - at that time, I knew nobody at my age that would have a festival and now there’s a plenty of such people. It seems that nowadays to be young and to start a big musical event is no longer anything special. Coming back to the Puplinge festival - the first edition was very modest, a total of four concerts with the maximum of three people on stage at once. Most of them were my friends and we were all so excited that even if we had had no money at all it still would have happened.

- How many people did you manage to attract?

- We had the biggest audience at the opening concert, mostly our friends and family, a total of 120 people. It felt like an incredible success then, we were really afraid that no one would show up. Nowadays, if we have 120 people in the audience it’s a great shame! (haha)

- During the very first edition, the second concert was played by Sergey Ostrovsky. How did you manage to invite such a famous violinist?

- We just contacted him and he came (haha). The truth is that we had very little money to offer but the money is not everything. There can be a very old festival with badly organized concerts and a brand new one with very good energy. Besides, all big artists have to rehearse their programs and they often agree to do this at smaller events for a smaller salary.

- Tell me how the festival started to grow.

- The second season was already much bigger. We had 8 concerts instead of 4 and the Quartet Sine Nomine and the Suisse Youth Orchestra on stage. This edition also benefited a lot from the fact that just a month earlier I had won a prize at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition and whenever the newspapers were writing about it they were also mentioning the Puplinge festival. The forth season was another big step, we welcomed the first fully professional orchestra then, the National Orchestra of Armenia. What gave us a true credibility as a professional festival, though, was a gala concert at the Victoria Hall for the 5th anniversary. We had the National Orchestra of Armenia with four pianos on stage and it attracted a great audience of above 1000 auditors. The impact of this concert was so great that it doubled the number of people coming to the festival from the following season on. It made us really popular in Geneva. This year we’re very excited to be organizing another gala concert for the 10th anniversary! The Victoria Hall will be hosting it again and it will have a few times more impressive program than at that first time; but that’s in the future!

- I understand that the bigger the festival was becoming, the more financially profitable it was for you?

- Actually, already the first season brought me some satisfaction moneywise. Today, the festival is a third of my whole income, the rest comes from concerts. Of course it costs a lot of effort, I have to work all year long to prepare the next edition, there’s not a single month of vacations. I’m responsible for the biggest part of the artistic programming, executive direction, which means hiring all the staff that works for the festival, and the accounting- managing the budget and registering all the expenses. It ends up as a 60-page book and at times I write it in three languages, French, English and German.

- How do you manage to do this all on your own? Do you consult any professionals?

- Yes, my godfather is a professional accountant and he’s spent a few years helping me learn how to do it properly and correcting all the mistakes I made. Now, computer softwares take care of it all so my job is to learn how to use them. Another person that helps us a lot is the uncle of Damien Bachmann. Damien has been the Co-Artistic Director of the festival from the very beginning and it’s amazing how we’ve kept the same enthusiasm for all these ten years of our cooperation! His uncle is a famous lawyer and we always ask him all the questions about legal matters, mainly taxes.

- So it’s all doable for a musician?

- Yes, of course, we just need to learn new things all the time; plus we share duties.

- Drawing on your experience with the festival, do you have any advice for young people graduating from music universities nowadays?

- Yes, I have a very concrete one: put all your resources on the table and write them down, both the material ones: money, sponsors, contacts etc. and the ones connected with your personality. I got the idea of the festival when I was 20 because some voice in my head kept telling me that I was not only a pianist, that there was another part of my personality with a lot of leadership and maybe if I started such an undertaking this part would begin to live. It turned out that I loved it and that’s why I’m still doing it today. Every musician has something more than just music and this something more is what makes a difference. We should all find out what these special non-musical strengths in us are and then make a choice if to use or to ignore them. I know many young musicians that dream only about big competitions and great careers they’ll guarantee them but the truth is that not all good musicians are born professional competitors. It’s another part of personality and it requires special features that not everybody has. All in all, use what you have and don’t wait for somebody's permission to start doing something more than only playing music. Just don’t get discouraged - when I was starting the festival everybody was against it, my mum, people at the Puplinge town hall … but I decided to honor my intuition. After all, life is mainly about experience and success doesn’t matter that much at the end.


Puplinge Classique Festival

Festival YouTube channel

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