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Alessio Bax Italian Virtuoso

CC-Mar-Apr-2009---1

First Prize winner In the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition in 2000, and at the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 1997, 31-year-old Italian pianist Alessio Bax has sure-handedly established himself as one of the most accomplished performers in the world.

Praised by the international press, his performances have been described as "real music-making that makes its own world on stage and invites the audience in as guests" (The Independent), and "successfully combining authority and poetry" (Daily Telegraph). 

His extensive concerto repertoire has led to appearances with over seventy orchestras including the London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Royal Scottish National, Dallas Symphony, Houston Symphony, Rome Symphony, and the Tokyo Symphony.

He has collaborated with a number of esteemed conductors including Sergiu Commissiona, Alexander Dimitriev, Jonathan Nott, Vernon Handley, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Owain Arwel Hughes, Ken-ichiro Kobayashi, and Sir Simon Rattle. 

On an unusually bright Saturday morning last November, Alessio Bax took time from practicing to meet with me in the music office at Southern Methodist University.

For a young pianist who in the next six weeks would perform several concerts in the US (including the Gilmore Festival), tour Japan, record for a week in France, and then embark upon a trans-Russia tour from Moscow to Eastern Siberia, he was astonishingly relaxed and generous with his time and energy.

In an interview frequently punctuated by smiles and laughter, we covered everything from his early training to his victory at the Leeds International Competition, his remarkable relationship with master artist and teacher Joaquin Achucarro, thoughts on teaching, iPods, Facebook, and more.

This article contains excerpts from that interview. If you find it interesting, you can listen to audio of the complete interview as a podcast online at http://ClavierCompanion.com. There Alessio talks in more detail about many of the same subjects, as well as the Achucarro Foundation, the Meadows Underground Project, and his rapidly grow in career as a collaborative pianist - including his new role with the Lincoln Center Chamber Players. 

The interview 

How did your life change after winning the first prize in the Leeds International Pianoforte competition?

It changed a lot - overnight. I remember the first couple of weeks. I went back to Dallas and couldn't sleep at night because there were faxes coming in asking if I was free for this or that date. It was quite amazing. All of a sudden, I didn't have to prepare for the next competItIOn. Fanny Waterman (the founder and director of the Leeds) gave us a wake-up call in her closing remarks. She said, "From tomorrow, you are not going to be com- pared to this or that young pianist in the competition, but you are going to be compared to the Brendels, Pollinis, and Perahias of this world." Now that really puts things in perspective.

A major competition win lets you out into the real world - which is quite an interesting place. [laughter] 

Having won the Leeds, you did not go to any more competitions. Why is that?

Many reasons. It's not that one competition precludes another, but that it would have been unfair to
the Leeds to go to another competition right after winning. It would be implying the next competition might be better or that I wouldn't get enough recognition from Leeds. 

Who are your favorite composers and repertoire to perform?

It might sound cheesy, but I really try to make it whatever I am performing at the moment. There's something about performing in public that leaves no room for uncertainty. Knowing that there are many ways to do things, you have to be convinced that this is your way; this is a piece you really love and believe in.

Having said that, there is some music to which I feel closer. The music of the Romantics - Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff - comes easily. If I have to perform Mozart I feel the same way, but it is much more work. 

You play a diverse repertoire, often getting into music that is not well known such as the Brahms Four Ballades, Op. 10.

If it's something I really love, it doesn't really matter how well known it is. There is so much great music that I find very, very inspiring and very interesting. It's an extra motivation, if it's well known, to get the audience on my side. I feel like a recital, more than a concerto, is a journey. I'm trying to reach each person in the audience and bring them along with me. That's the definition of a suc- cessful performance. Sometimes it can be a very long and hard journey. [laughter]

What do you recall about your earliest experiences with music?

It was completely by chance. When I was seven, my parents went to search for a Christmas present. The toy shop was very crowded everywhere except the musical instru- ment aisle and so they got me an electronic keyboard. I loved this keyboard and couldn't take my hands off it. At an early age, I fell in love with the organ and the music of Bach. The conservatory required five years of piano before I could begin organ - an idea I hated. But I got stuck in it anyway and started to love it. That was the beginning.

You have perfect pitch that was identified very early.

Until recently, I never thought there was anything different - that it was the way everyone was wired. Every time I hear a note, it tells me its name in do-re-mi terminology.

You can identify the pitch regardless of the source?

Yes. It's easier on the piano - more difficult with voice. My awareness has changed over the years but it has always been there on piano. And it's very helpful. I realize fixed do can be simplistic because it does not open a window into theory. But it has the benefit of immediacy that is essential in a performance situation.

With Dame Janet Baker at the Leeds Competition

 Pitch is as clear to you as a color?

Yes, as a color. There's nothing in between. I hear a note and I know it is a do or a re.Just like when I look at that hat and see it's black. There's no processing. It just is. Every time I hear a melody, I hear the names of the notes. 

 How did you become acquainted with Joaquin Achucarro?

I met him at the master classes of the Academia Chigiana in Siena, Italy, when I was ten. Mr. Achucarro tells this story incredibly well. I didn't know it until I came to Dallas. There was a rule that you couldn't attend the master classes unless you had a degree. For some reason, my dad drove me there and we just showed up. It caused extreme havoc among the administration. Some one said, "Maestro, there's a kid with his father who came all the way from Bari. He doesn't have a degree, but he expects us to listen to him." Mr. Achucarro said, "He came all the way. Let him play. And if he's no good, we'll send him back. Simple."

Well, he didn't send me back and I was extremely grateful for that. That started a very close relationship that has lasted until this day. Meanwhile I completed my conservatory degree, and at age fourteen I started attending the master classes in Siena every year. 

Can you describe those master classes?

They were open classes that lasted half a day every day for the period he was there - a week, ten days. I recall many classes, not just playing, but listening to other people, to repertoire, taking notes. I probably didn't understand half of what was said but I'm sure something stayed.

It opened my mind in so many ways. Of course, my teacher at the conservatory in Bari, Angela Montemurro, was wonderful. It was also wonderful that she encouraged me to attend the master classes. From an early age I realized that there was more than one way to play music. Two different approaches are not necessarily in conflict. 

Alessio Bax at age 16 with Joaquin Achucarro
Bax in Siena at age 10 (left),

You came to SMU from Italy at a very young age. What was that experience like?

Yes, I was sixteen. It was great. When you are a teenager, you enjoy getting out of the house. It was like a family at SMU. I felt protected and didn't even think about being far from home. I lived in a dorm right next to the music school and just had to walk a few steps in the morning to practice, take my lessons, and hang out with friends.

How did you balance the demands of university studies with practicing while working toward your Master's degree?

Of course I love piano, but I love to do other things, too. It was a great opportunity. Although my education in Italy was good, I did ten years in five. So, I missed a few steps along the way. I remember preparing for music history exams back home. While most people studied three years for them, I studied for one summer. I was thirteen instead of eighteen when I took the exams. So it was great for me to come back and study more deeply. I didn't feel overworked. Or at least I was already accustomed to being overworked. 

Alessio Bax winning his first competition as an 8-year old.

This is a loaded question, but did you find your studies in music history and theory here worthwhile?

Yes, absolutely. 

Why?

Focus. For example, I remember taking a choral music class in the Master's program. Other people may have hated it. Instrumentalists and pianists may have wondered why they had to do it. But I found it fascinating that I could spend an entire semester in such a narrow area. I had a fine general education in Italy, but here it became more specific. 

Let's talk a little about lessons with Mr. Achucarro. Do you have any special recollections?

Yes. It's really about exploring and finding new things in the music. He is always willing to share his discoveries. 

Once he called my answering machine from Spain two months after seeing me in Dallas and said, "Alessio, here in this passage of the cadenza of the Rach III, if you put your hand this way, and you place your finger (and he plays at the piano during the message on the answering machine), I think that works much better. Bye." And he hung up. [laughter] 

Mr. Achucarro is always thinking about music. Always searching. He is not only a great musician and teacher, but a great inspiration. He is always the first one here in the morning practicing. And he's probably the last one to leave at night. 

Do you still play for him?

Oh, yes. I just did. We worked on the Grieg Concerto because we were both performing it the same week. He would come down to my studio and write things on my score even if! wasn't there. We played the orchestra reduction for each other. Now that's inspiring. 

Alessio and Lucille

There is a story in circulation about you playing Rhapsody in Blue with the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra on about an hour's notice, never having played the piece before. Is that true? 

Not entirely. My wife Lucille and I had played a two-piano version where one piano is the solo and the other is the orchestra. Actually, we didn't think that was very fair so we rewrote the piece to have equal parts. [lots of laughter] 

So I had played half of the Rhapsody from that version. Anyway, we were invited to a pre-concert dinner and arrived ready to enjoy a fine dinner and company. Some of the GDYO leaders were standing by the ticket office with a panicked look on their faces.

One came over to me and said, "Alessio, do you play Rhapsody in Blue?"

And I said, "No, not really. I play half of it."

"Can you play it today?"

I thought he was joking but his face told a different story. Andrew Litton, who was to perform the piece, had just left to be with his mother who was gravely ill. We rushed home to get the music and then back to the dressing room to practice. There was Litton's tux hanging ready to go. I had 25-30 minutes before the on- stage rehearsal in which to learn the part. And I had given all the really hard parts to Lucille in our two-piano version! You know - all the repeated notes. [much laughing]

During this 25 minutes, Maestro Richard Giangiulio, the conductor came in. He pointed out that, "These are kids. They have rehearsed with Litton and we will have to perform as he would have. They can't change now." We had the on- stage rehearsal with me glad to have Lucille at my side in case something went wrong. She could just reach up and play.

It was a strange, but happy feeling to be able to do this. There was no time to feel nervous. It was either that or no Rhapsody in Blue. Such an incredible feeling of positive attitude came from the kids on the stage and the audience that it was quite special. 

This publication reaches teachers and I'd like to explore your thoughts on teaching. Right now, you are devoted mostly to performing, but you have a few students at SMU who adore you, and you offer concerto classes to all comers.

I love teaching. From the moment I started teaching here it changed my outlook on music quite a lot.

How so?

It really opens your mind and your ears to what you are doing - especially things you take for granted. I think listening to people, reacting, and finding a solution to what they need is extremely interesting on many different levels. It makes me much more conscious of what I'm doing - in a good way.

Are you saying that teaching helps you be a better artist?

Absolutely. There is no question about it.

I find it incredibly rewarding to work on the same pieces as a student of mine like I mentioned earlier with Mr. Achucarro. And hopefully, they get the same kind of feeling. It makes you think much more about what you are doing - not in a bad, more self-conscious way, but in a way that makes you aware. What works for some people doesn't work for others, and it doesn't necessarily work for me either.

I think teaching is fascinating. Every time I'm offered a master class where I'm performing, I take it.

I wonder about extraordinarily gifted pianists - and I put you in that category - and I don't mean to say that you haven't worked incredibly hard to get where you are - but when you encounter some one who is less gifted and try to help them solve their problems - do you find that frustrating?

No, I find that extremely rewarding (when it works). And when it doesn't work, it makes you think - what could work?

Sounding selfish, I can then go back to my own practice and try what worked or didn't work for someone else. It changes my outlook on what I'm doing. I never find teaching frustrating. Maybe it's because I'm taking it in small doses. [laughter]

But, quite the opposite of being frustrated - I feel energized after teaching. And I find that my best practice time is sometimes in between lessons. I may have just half an hour and my mind is spinning with ideas.

Teachers will love to hear that. 

You're a member of a generation that's grown up with personal computers, the Internet, iPods, and Facebook. What is the relationship between the digital age and classical music?

I think I am lucky because I grew up in Europe between the two ages. I would have missed something if I had never been in touch with LPs and the pre-personal computer age. It's nice to be able to know both. But I think that, in the digital age, relationship is becoming more important.

It is a fact that more and more recordings of classical music are sold on iTunes. The whole is changing In that direction. On a business level, it's very obvious. But I think that, on a personal level, things are changing as well. People love to be connected all the time, to be in touch with life, and other people. I spend most of my time traveling. It would be easy to just get lost in a bubble and be out of touch with anything else. I try to write blogs to connect with people, and I have a Facebook page that I use very often. It helps me meet friends when I'm traveling and is a wonderful tool to connect with audiences.

Where can readers find your blogs?

My own website is alessiobax.com. I post photographs from my travels on Facebook. I also posted my Russian journal on there. I think it's entertaining to read and it reveals a different side of the "glamorous" world of the traveling musician. 

What's on your iPod?

It changes. There's a lot of good jazz music - Ella. There is music that I am performing at the moment. I know this may be a bit unusual. Some teachers and pianists don't like to listen to what they are performing. But I think that if an artist invested the time and work to prepare a recording, there must be omething you can learn from it. For example, I had ten recordings of the Grieg concerto on my last trip - all by different artists. It's not to steal ideas, but to be open to as many possibilities as there are. There is also chamber music that I am currently performing, and podcasts unrelated to music. Like electronics, mostly from CNET podcasts on the newest gadgets. I'm really a gadget freak. And cooking podcasts. I really love cooking! 

What popular music, if any, do you listen to?

Not much. I listen to some of my friends' music that is classified as pop, but it's really a cutting edge style that borders on contemporary classical. What I'm not fond of is background music. In this country, you hear music so constantly that I'm afraid people become immune to it. There's a danger that they will go to a concert hall with the same kind of approach that they would have in an elevator or a hotel lobby.

Of course, listening to a concert of classical music can relax you. But it requires your full awareness if you are to get the most out of it. The fact that we're surrounded by music all the time can make it seem less important.

Any advice you would give a young pianist who wishes to perform professionally?

Be completely in the service of the music. It's wonderful to have a great personality in performance. But remember, it is not about you. It is about the music. The music that we play is so much bigger than we are that all we can do is try with each performance to get closer and closer to it. To try to do the music justice. Your personality will come across, but you must always strive fir t to communicate what the music is about.

Are you optimistic about the future of classical music?

I am! I am. The more I travel and see young musicians, the more optimistic I feel. I recently played an open rehearsal in Italy attended by 2,500 kids. There are some pessimistic remarks that I could make, but I think classical music is really on the rise in many ways. It's up to the musicians to do all we can do to connect with the new generation, to connect with the audience, and to make it more ... more human. There is an old image of the classical musician playing in a big hall far away from the audience in a bubble. The audience is just peeping in, trying to catch some of it. But music is really the most human form of art and there are ways to include people in it that we are just beginning to realize. 

Photo credits:
Front cover, p. J4, and p. J6 by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.
Photo of Alessio Bax on p. 10 by James MacMillan.
Photo of Siena on p. 10-11 © Edobric, Dreamstime.com.
Leeds photo on p. 12 © Warner Classic 2004 - James McMillian Photos on page 13 courtesy of Alessio Bax. 

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