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Pianist Marika Bournaki: A Different Sort of Rockstar

November 13, 2012

Marika BournakiEight years of tender, loving care and cinematic skill have produced a rare insight into the personal and professional development of a young classical musician. Canadian director Bobbi Jo Hart’s film I Am Not a Rock Star is a rare and valuable tribute to both classical music and talented pianist Marika Bournaki, a fellow resident of Montreal, Quebec. The biodocumentary enjoyed its American West Coast premiere last week at the Napa Valley Film Festival, with Hart in attendance. Bournaki, now 21 and enrolled in a master’s program at Juilliard in New York, was also supposed to appear in Napa and to deliver a short recital, as well as an in-person interview with SFCV. But Mother Nature confounded the East Coast again, this time in the guise of a snowstorm, and Bournaki couldn’t book a flight west. So this writer ended up having to rush from the screening in Napa back to San Francisco to conduct a phone interview with the young pianist in New York City. Portions of that chat follow, interspersed with comments (in italics) about I Am Not a Rock Star, which is still touring film festivals.


You’re not in Napa, so where are you right now?

I’m in a Chinese restaurant, the Empire Szechuan, with my friend; it’s at 68th and Columbus.  

So you’re not far from Juilliard.

Exactly. It’s still really cold, so I didn’t want to walk too far to get a bite to eat.

And you’re in a master’s program at Juilliard?

It’s my first year, and it’s a really different schedule. In my bachelor’s [program], we had so many more classes. Now I have time to practice, I have my lesson, and I’m teaching a little bit.

The documentary’s early scenes show Marika, at age 12, when she first went to Juilliard as a student in the Pre-College Division. Her teacher, Yoheved “Veda” Kaplinsky, corrects the child’s technique: “You’re strumming air instead of the strings.” The importance of sustaining a relationship with a great teacher is evinced by later scenes of Marika, with Kaplinsky advising that “She does need to be tamed sometimes,” but adding, “You don’t want her to lose that spirit.” In repeated scenes of practice and performance, Marika’s spirit is sustained.

Are you still working with Kaplinsky?

I studied with her for seven years, but I started doing what we call half-and-half: taking lessons with Veda and with Matti Raekallio, who’s now my main teacher — my only teacher. He’s been all over, he’s from Finland and he studied in Russia, and that’s important to me, because I feel like it’s different over there, how people listen to and feel about music. Matti comes from that tradition, so I I kind of have everything together with him.

What new things are you getting from him?

It’s partly becoming more comfortable at the piano. Veda, I think, fixed a lot of technical things. When you hear me from age 12 in the film, you can hear that every year I’m improving. She helped me with my hands. I have very small hands, so I had to do a lot of compromises. I had terrible fingerings; I didn’t have the natural technique that some people do. And when I was very young [before Juilliard], I was already playing big pieces — the Ravel Concerto. That’s not normal, it’s not good. Now I’m exploring different repertoire, and Matti gets works for me which I wouldn’t necessarily pick; I played last year the Mendelssohn Fantasy. [He helps with] the mental stuff too: feeling good about yourself.

At this point, a lot of what I do, I’m conscious of doing; I can stand up for my interpretation.

The film shows the preteen Marika trying to smile through her braces as she prepares for early recitals, with her mother, Jocelyne Caumartin, applying makeup, and her father, Pierre Bournaki, supplying psychological support. Their efforts can’t protect Marika from the remarks of an elderly member of an audience at one of the recitals who, having learned of the family’s Romanian heritage, compares Marika unfavorably with the late Romanian virtuoso Dinu Lipatti. He chastises the girl: “Lipatti didn’t allow himself to change tempos.”

The folks at the Napa screening chuckled at that scene with the critical old man.

That was actually one of the hardest moments in the movie for me to see, because it’s so hard when you play: You give your all, you give a part of yourself, and then somebody comes and tells you this crap. It’s still hard, but now I’m an adult.

Speaking from inside the Fourth Estate, I can advise you to beware of critics, paid and otherwise.

For sure! But at this point, a lot of what I do, I’m conscious of doing, I can stand up for my interpretation. When I was 12, I couldn’t have said the same thing.

The confidence inspired in her subjects by director Bobbi Jo Hart allows her to portray clearly the emotional price that the Bournaki family paid for Marika’s growing collection of trophies. “She doesn’t have time to play with me,” complains little sister Clara. Marika is precociously forthright and intelligent in her self-expression, and a bit harsh in her self-criticism, declaring at one point, “I’m just fed up!” Nevertheless, her keyboard confidence palpably strengthens, and one man at a later recital describes her to the camera as “a real woman taking control of the Steinway.” As Marika prepares to leave Montreal at age 14 for more study at Juilliard, Hart depicts a surprise send-off party staged by school friends and the family, at which Marika both weeps and laughs as she reads their sentiments scribbled on a giant greeting card. Back in New York, Marika invites the filmmaker to visit her ramshackle apartment, where she declares “I suck at life,” but shares a perky, favorite Jack Johnson pop tune, Banana Pancakes, from her laptop. Later, there are periodic homecoming trips, on one of which she and daddy Pierre visit the “Sounds of Genius” exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, honoring the late Glenn Gould.

Did they invite you to that exhibit?

I had already been in contact with the Glenn Gould Foundation. They’d heard about me and had seen my Widmung YouTube video. They were looking for a pianist to play Glenn Gould’s piano [which is ensconced at the exhibit].

I can relate to Glenn Gould’s love of recording, and of Bach: To me, Bach is God!

In the movie, you seem delighted to discover that you and Gould wore similar sunglasses. Have you felt other affinities to him? Your physicality somewhat reminded me of his.

I love his playing very much, but I don’t think I’m the same kind of player. But what I find so interesting is that he was such an innovator, not just as a pianist but in his mentality on how to share music. He took some walls down, he had radio shows, TV shows, and I feel in some ways what I’m trying to do is take away some of those walls. I can relate to his love of recording, and of Bach: To me, Bach is God! But in his personality, he was completely different, he was a very introverted person, and I’m not at all.

Marika does, however, seem somewhat bummed, at age 18, during a voyage with Pierre to Wigmore Hall in London, a showcase for younger artists. After a long plane ride, she’s tired and morose, and she lights up a cigarette (eliciting gasps from the Napa audience). Her father seems to have inadvertently booked them into a seedy hotel; they have to carry their bags up the stairs, and Marika, after examining the accommodations, throws a fit, screaming, “It’s so f-----g ghetto!” All this will be familiar and rather funny to other teens and their parents. After a couple of days in London, Pierre confides to the camera that his daughter is suffering from both insomnia and her menstrual period. Preparing her for interviews, he elicits from her the source of the documentary’s title: “I’m not, like, a rock star!”

I like that you felt so free to express yourself in the film. Bobbi Jo seemed to handle the story beautifully; she was tender and not invasive.

I Am Not a RockstarIt’s hard for me to watch myself. I understand how it can be interesting, but in other ways, everyone’s life is a story — why did Bobbi Jo film me? I do love to talk, to say what I have on my mind. Maybe it’s because I’m being hard on myself, but sometimes everything I say [in the film] seems stupid, everything I wear is so ugly. Actually, the part I like about the film is that it’s universal, it’s about growing up and finding your own way.

Hart, who functioned as the much-traveled principal cinematographer as well as director, is also masterful at mixing in scenes on the street, in taxis, and in elevators, with the subject engaged in shopping, e-mailing, and brushing her teeth, all of which serve to instill in viewers both a sense of place (Montreal, New York, London, and so forth) and the confidence that they’re watching the “real” Marika find her way. But the film is also about finding your way within a family. Hart nicely interposes clips from home movies. In one, Pierre recalls how Clara, as a child, would say about herself and brother Emmanuel, “We’re not important, we don’t have a career.” His eyes fill with tears as he comments, “We can handle it as adults, but with them [the kids], we’re not sure.” In fact, Pierre and Jocelyne decide to divorce while the film is yet unfinished. Even though there’s no direct blame, Jocelyne points out that “The piano has had a huge impact on our family.” Marika is seen nurturing her own relationship with a handsome young pianist, David Aladashvili, who informally coaches and plays four-hand scores with her.

How long has it been between the movie’s final scene and now?

Actually, the part I like about the film is that it’s universal, it’s about growing up and finding your own way.

A year-and-a-half. I’m now 21. Old enough to vote and drink in this country! But I’m still Canadian.

Are you and and David still an item?

Yes, we are. He’s right in front of me, actually. [Laughs]

Have you thought about making it legal?

[Laughs heartily] Hold on, here’s my boyfriend.

So David, I know there’s good reason to road-test a relationship before you drive it into marriage, but do you guys have a date yet?

[David:] We’ve been testing it for four years already; it’s not going so well. [Laughs] Just kidding, just kidding.

Where are you from?

[David:] I’m from country of Georgia. Now I’m at Juilliard, in the same program as Marika, same year. I am studying also with Mr. Raekallio, but I’m sharing my studio with Mr. [Jerome] Lowenthal.

I’d like to see you guys doing more of that four-hand stuff you do in the movie, live and on record.

[David:] We are actually thinking of doing more duo performances, we’ll update you on that.

Toward the end of the film, in a Skype communication, Pierre advises Marika to showcase her Rachmaninov rather than Bach at an audition for Young Concert Artists. “Are you f-----g insane?,” she responds. Marika realizes that Pierre’s heavy involvement in her musical career may, in part, be a reaction to his having abandoned his own (including five years of Juilliard study), in favor of a career in finance. (In one scene, Pierre plays violin vigorously in a restaurant. Jocelyne, it’s revealed, had plans to be a professional dancer.)

Is your dad still functioning as your manager?

He doesn’t like being called “manager,” he’s a conseiller. I think we see the direction of our relationship in the film: I’m able now to speak my own ideas and opinions, which when I was younger was harder. He knows what he’s doing; he’s a great businessman and also is a great musician. And it’s good that it’s my father doing this, ’cause I know he has my best interests at heart.

Aside from concertizing at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland and in South Korea, Marika is depicted playing for kids at a Montreal school where the director’s daughter, Phoénix, is enrolled. Phoénix then joins Marika in performance of some four-hand Diabelli at a concert, with projections of the children’s art behind the piano. “Playing for children has opened my eyes,” says Marika. “They don’t judge you.”

When you teach kids, aside from helping them work the keyboard and pedals, do you have life lessons for them?

People have talked to me about mentoring, and in August I was an “ambassador” at a festival called “A Cool Classical Journey,” with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. That’s why I like to go help present the movie, as well. But I’d rather not warn kids, because it’s so different for everybody. I struggled, making compromises and setting my priorities. I’ve always said, you have to have a lot of luck and you have to work hard, it’s not just talent and love of music. My dad used to tell me, and I’m understanding it more now, that ultimately you are your own teacher.

What are your next plans?

There’s no plan, exactly. I’ve been having a great year so far, and there are a couple of important engagements coming up in Greece, I’m playing in Switzerland in January, and later the Schumann Concerto in Montreal and the Mozart A-major Concerto in Quebec City. With the film I’m getting all these opportunities: We’re going to Mexico City tomorrow for their film festival, and to the Bahamas for theirs. It’s nice for the public, and it’s great for me! But I don’t watch the movie every time, ’cause I can’t really do that and then focus and play. For me, it’s a very big emotional ride. The first time I watched it, at Billie Jo’s home with my family, I think I cried the whole time, because it was very personal for me. But this film is helping me make classical music more accessible, and that’s very important.

Are you recalculating your West Coast debut?

No, not yet. [Laughs] But hopefully Bobbi Jo made some contacts in Napa.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.