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INTERVIEW | Piano Prodigy Sunny Ritter Talks About Music And Her Upcoming Concert With Sinfonia Toronto

By Anya Wassenberg on February 24, 2023

Sunny Ritter plays Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 in January 2023 (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Sunny Ritter plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in January 2023 (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Sunny Ritter is currently in the midst of a flurry of travel and activity from Salzburg to Canada in a few days for her performance with Sinfonia Toronto on March 4. Her voyage to Canada will represent the first time she’s travelled alone.

Although, at 12, Sunny has travelled more miles as a performing artist than many musicians twice her age.

Born in Vienna, she began professional training at age seven at Vienna’s University of Music and the Performing Arts (MDW). Later, her family moved to Canada, where she continued her studies under a full scholarship at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto with Dr. Michael Berkovsky.

Nowadays, she’s back in Europe, studying with Pietro de Maria at the Universität Mozarteum.

From her first competition gold medal at age six, she’s barely looked back, clocking in more than 25 international competitions, including wins at the Steinway Klavierspielwettbewerb and the Grand Prize across all age categories at Mihaela Ursuleasa International Piano Competition, among others.

She made her orchestral début in Bucharest and Vienna in 2018, and her solo recital début in Ottawa the same year, and has gone on to play many of the world’s finest stages.

We caught up with her to ask a few questions about her work, and the upcoming Toronto concert.

When did you decide that music was your life’s work — is there a moment you remember in particular? Or was it something that grew naturally as you began to play years ago?

I always knew it, but my mom took a while to catch on. When I was two, she enrolled me in ballet and karate. When I was three, I had to decide between them, and of course I chose ballet, because of the music. Ballet was fun, but the best thing it brought me was my first piano teacher, Aya Kaukal, an accompanist at the Vienna State Opera Ballet Academy. I started piano on my first day of school and there was no turning back.

If there was a moment when I consciously realized that my survival depended on music, it was during lockdowns. I was in Canada at the time. I had given some real-time livestreams, and my wonderful teachers, Michael and Coral Berkovsky, had kept me going by plying me with marvellous new repertoire. But I also needed to perform, I needed this thing that Yehudi Menuhin called Live Music Now. A painting can be finished in the artist’s studio, but we musicians need our audience. Without your ears, our music is lost. When the stay-at-home order was extended in April 2021, I despaired. I threatened to jump off the balcony. “Stay home, stay safe,” was a contradiction in terms, because the 16th floor wasn’t safe for me anymore. Europe had started to open up, I had concert-invitations in Italy and Austria, and we booked the next flight. My mom called me a gig junkie. But I think we both understood that, whether I end up busking in the subway or on the Elbphilharmonie stage, music is the air I breathe.

Why did you choose the piano — or did it choose you?

Why the piano? That’s a good question. The piano is pretty scary. It looks like a coffin. Or a three-legged monster with tonnes of teeth, some of them black. Gross! And it can sound so percussive. I mean, are we pianists crazy? BUT! If you give it lots of TLC, this monster will be transformed into a prince with the most ravishing voice. Like in a fairy tale.

Sunny Ritter plays W.A. Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat-major, KV. 271 “Jeunehomme” in Salzburg.

You’ve studied (and lived in) both Austria and Canada, and travel nowadays for concerts. How do you stay centred and focused with all those changes in location?

The country of my citizenship and the country of my birth are not one and the same. So, while I love my two countries, I feel kind of geographically fluid. Maybe like Chopin with Poland and France. A change of location does not usually throw me, knock on wood. Music is itself a journey. When I was six, I travelled to outer space with Polunin’s Piano Concertino. Regular travel is no big deal compared to that! As long as I have a piano, I will feel centred wherever I am. Because it’s also home-sweet-home, of course. The place I’m happy coming back to. I don’t need a map, I don’t need GPS, I know my way around! It’s just when I can’t play that I feel lost. Like when illness, schoolwork or neighbours get in the way.

For your Toronto concert, you’ll be playing Mozart’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 21 in C’, K. 467. Is this a favourite piece of yours?

Yes, because Mozart is a favourite composer of mine, and this concerto is quintessential Mozart: “too easy for children, too difficult for adults.” Like love itself! For kids, love is the default setting, the most natural thing in the world. For grown-ups, it seems to become so complicated.

As soon as Maestro Arman invited me to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with Sinfonia Toronto, I learned it straightaway. Patience is not my forte when I’m excited about something. Then for a while I was busy with other rep.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 is still very much a story-in-the-making for me because we haven’t even had our first rehearsal yet. And later this spring, I will be playing it in the Goldener Saal of the Musikverein, and for the finale of Classicalia in the Großer Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus.

Are there any (other) composers whose work you feel drawn to in particular, and/or do you enjoy exploring the large repertoire for classical piano?

I’m drawn to composers whose works best allow me to share love. So Chopin is right up there alongside Mozart. And I always love a story. Not necessarily one that’s spelled out. Just one that’s suggested or evoked. According to Alan Walker, the Toronto-based musicologist, Chopin couldn’t stand it when someone ascribed titles or stories to his works. Yet his works have tremendous narrative power, and often different people’s “readings” correspond. Once, in a ballade, my teacher said, “… water gushing in…” I was like, No way! Because I’d been hearing a shipwreck.

At the end of the day, though, Chopin’s right. Words don’t have enough in them to tell these stories. That’s why interviews make me uneasy. BYE!

Do you have any other plans for your career in music — i.e. have you considered composing or conducting, for example?

At the moment, my plan is to play as much orchestral music as possible, because it is the opposite of war. Wars start when people are not listening to each other, not empathizing with each other. When we play music together, we HAVE to listen to each other. And it’s been proven that cardiac rhythms synchronize with music. Meaning, your heart and mine will beat in sync if we’re sharing music together. That is a very bonding, healing, life-changing thing. In the most literal sense, we’re creating harmony and world peace.

Bertha von Suttner is one of my idols and I want to continue her mission with one of the best tools God gave us. When I saw Bruegel’s famous “Tower of Babel” here at Vienna’s Art History Museum, I understood why God gave us music. Everyone knows the story of Babel. How we humans tried to climb to heaven by building this soaring skyscraper. And how God punished us for our audacity by scattering us across the globe and shattering our means of communicating. But I believe God later regretted His strictness and took it back. How? By giving us Music. Music is our shared language and our round-trip ticket to heaven. Music gives the human hug a global reach!

Do I want to compose? Yes. Do I want to conduct? Well, there are two female conductors I hugely admire — Maria Seletskaja and Marie Jacquot — and my middle name is Maria, too, so I guess it’s destiny!

Tickets and more information about the upcoming concert with Sinfonia Toronto are available now here for either in-person or online viewing.


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