If you think all piano recitals are dull, stuffy, pretentious affairs, then think again. Beloved German pianist Joja Wendt has not only proven his dexterity at the keyboard–he’s also stretched his genre well past its traditional confines. From his interactive performances that call for fervent audience participation, to his rollicking onstage collaborations with Chuck Berry, AC/DC, and other mainstream rock stars, Wendt has defied expectations again and again. Below, he reveals the secrets of his spirited playing, ahead of his upcoming performances at the Shanghai Children’s Art Theatre on Oct. 4 and 5, and Beijing’s Ethnic Cultural Palace Theater on Oct. 6.
Why do you make your performances interactive?
When you ask people on the street ‘Do you like piano music?’ they’ll say ‘Oh yes.’ When you ask them ‘Do you go to piano recitals?’ they’ll say ‘It’s boring, I don’t do that.’ So I try to show people what is possible.
For me the music is still, of course, the most important thing. It’s at the centre of it all and my audiences can expect nothing less than very high level piano playing when they come to see me. But I also want to bring humor in and make it more accessible. Because if you just go out and play, it’s much more difficult for them to follow. It happens even to me- sometimes I’ll go to a normal piano recital and, even when I know the piece and I love the piano player, it can be hard for me to follow. So I’ll tell my audiences stories about a piece before I play it, or give them a riddle and tell them to listen for clues in the piece.
I have a song called “The Rain Song,” where the audience does the rain by snapping their fingers. For other pieces I ask the to sing along with me, or have them clap together. So this might be different from other piano recitals.
Have your onstage performance with Chuck Berry, Joe Cocker and other rock legends been another way for you to make piano recitals more accessible?
Yes, but that started as a coincidence. Twenty years ago, when I was still a nobody, I was playing in a bar that Joe Cocker happened to be in. He said ‘I want this guy to be my supporting player.’ So I went from playing for three rows of people to performing for thousands on the stage. And after that, I realized ‘Yes, it is possible, alone at the piano to entertain thousands of people.’ I played some rock and blues stuff that fit perfectly for Joe Cocker’s audience. I was 20 years old, and from then on I decided that’s what I wanted to do. Until that point I thought I’d only ever be an accompanist, backing up other people in little bars and clubs. But after Joe Cocker invited me onstage, I realized that I could make it big.
How did you impress Joe Cocker enough to make him extend such a generous invitation?
When he first saw me in the bar I played a Muddy Waters tune, “I’ve Got My Mojo Working.” So that might have convinced him. It was a lucky coincidence, and such a pleasure to get to know him. He is a really down to earth guy.
From there I went on to be the opening act for a lot of stars who had tour stops in Hamburg. Fats Domino once came to town, but he hasn’t rehearsed enough material to sustain an entire concert. So I got to be the opening act, and played alongside him when he took the stage. But I was just lucky enough to be in their right spot at the right time to take advantage of that opportunity.
I also sat in with AC/DC when they played in Hamburg. (Guitarist) Angus Young and I ended up hanging out all night.
What kind of mischief did you and Angus get up to?
(Laughs) He didn’t come across like a superstar at all. He invited a bunch of us to his hotel suite, where he had his insturmetns. We hung out and, of course, he was looking to meet the girls that were with us. It was really rock and roll, even though I didn’t partake in the drinking or drugs at all. It felt like a real subculture thing. Angus wanted to take a walk through the Red Light District, and we all ended up singing with a prostitute who played piano out on the street. It was like early New Orleans or something. Even today, Hamburg has a lot of musicals now like Cats, and that leads to those musicians and singers hanging out and jamming in underground bars all over town. There’s a real thriving subculture there.
And what was it like to perform with Chuck Berry?
He has a reputation for being very difficult onstage–sometimes he’ll quit the show and walk off, or send the piano player off if he doesn’t like him. But I had the exact opposite experience. We sat together at the piano and we played, four handed. He even gave me his guitar to play for awhile partway through the gig! He’s a real showman, through and through. But I watched him perform another day with another piano player, and saw that he could be very… complicated. But he’s a legend, he’s had nights where he’s been ripped off and gone through all kinds of hardship. He’s what he is, a legend, and he deserves to be treated well.
Can you ever see yourself acting in such a ‘complicated’ or difficult way?
I’m not in a postion to be difficult (laughs). In Germany I’m the most successful piano player, but that doesn’t mean I should be difficult. There are of course things that I let other people take care of, and these things might look unimprotatnt from someone on the outside. But I need them to get the show right, and I always try to explain why they need to be sorted.
What details do you typically fuss over?
I always have a screen that needs to be set up properly. If I have props I need them to be in order. I need the piano to be tuned. Things like that, to keep the show going. But I’m not difficult with food or hotel rooms, that kind of stuff. I grew up in Istanbul, which was at the time very far from any luxury standard. But I take care that my show is right, that the stage is right, and my piano is right, things like that.
How did your upbringing in Istanbul affect you and your piano playing?
I was there when I was very young, between the ages of three and six. My Dad was there and my Mom was in Germany. So I would end up traveling back and forth a lot. In Istanbul I had an old Russian piano teacher who was just able to play with one arm, because the other was paralyzed. So I remember every lesson having a very strange atmosphere. I learned the basics from her when I was about four, then I went back to Germany and met other piano teachers. But the most important thing, for me, was listening to records and trying to play along with them, without reading the notes. My biggest influence was jazz records, but my Mom was a classical teacher, so I often listened to her classical records as well.
How has your mother reacted to your success, considering her own background in classical music?
Mom said she knew I had to go my own way. But Dad took some convincing (laughs). He was concerned about my economic situation. But he told me if I was going to do it as a profession, I’d need to travel to different countries and study. He said “Learn as much as you can.”
During my first solo show in Hamburg, in front of several thousand people, Dad came to see my play, and he was more nervous than I was. He was expecting people would applaud for only the first couple of songs. But he told me “It’s amazing that you can keep people going and applauding the whole time!”
Even before that, I was the only one of my nine siblings that never took one penny from my parents. I had always managed to make my own way, playing on the streets and in clubs. So my parents tell me they’re proud–it’s a confirmation for them that they let me do the right thing.
Joja Wendt will perform at Shanghai Children’s Art Theatre on Oct. 4 and 5, and Beijing’s Ethnic Cultural Palace Theater on Oct. 6. All the shows begin at 7:30pm. For more information, visit http://www.jojawendt.com/english/.
Event Name: Around the World in 88 Keys
Date: Oct 4/5
Venue: Shanghai Children’s Art Theatre
Box office: 400-921-5686
Date: Oct 6
Venue: Beijing Ethnic Cultural Palace Theater
Box office: 400-818-3333, 010-83195319/20
[Images via Facebook // Wikipedia]