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Winner of the Leeds International Pianoforte competition in 2000, the Hamamatsu International Piano competition in 1997, Alessio Bax was in Atherton, California to give a series of concerts at the Music@Menlo festival. In spite of an awesome ability to send audiences into a frenzy, Bax has a calm presence about him, and is notably, very humble. Below is the transcript of our July 22, 2011 conversation with Alessio Bax.
EH: In a letter to his friend, Hans von Bülow referred to the 3 B’s of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. In your opinion, is Brahms as significant a composer as the other two?
Bax: Musically, yes. There are some things in Bach, for example, that cannot compare with anyone else. But I believe it really depends on the point of view. Overall, I would totally agree that Brahms is as significant as the other two, and I might even add a few composers to that list.
I think that Brahms might sometimes be misunderstood. He came at a funny time in history when people were trying to find new languages and new voices. He had the incredible courage to not only start fresh, but to look back and, within his own language, make a new one. He also greatly valued what happened in the past and felt a burden to continue the tradition of Beethoven. It took someone of incredible talent, with great skill and competence, to write in the way that Brahms did.
EH: Is there a particular Brahms piece that you feel a deeper connection with ?
Bax : I think the Brahms ballades. They are amazing works from the early period of his life, young works that are so wild in many ways, very experimental, describing strong feelings with very few notes. They are also written in a style that he did not use quite often.
EH: Prominent musicians of the past have said that in order to become a great musician, it is necessary to read, experience, and know many things outside of music. I know you are very much interested in photography. Is there a particular medium of art outside of music that draws your attention ?
Bax: I think the way we play is a combination of several things: who we are as human beings, what we have been exposed to, and how we decide to mix all the different kinds of exposures. For me, photography is very important. But also, something like cooking can help you develop (laughs).
We must remember that composers were human beings, first and foremost. Even someone like Bach – we tend to think of him as some kind of heavenly figure, writing music that was out of this world. But then again, he was a very human composer. I think of his Suites, his dance music, or even his most complex fugues. They all sound very complicated and so perfect, but he was very much human. It is important that we don’t forget this and experience things in the world.
EH: When did you realize that your life would be devoted to music and the piano ?
Bax: It’s a funny thing - there really wasn’t one particular moment (laughs). I do not come from a musical family, even though my parents love music. In a way, it was by chance that I came to music and the piano.
Every kid starts something new with a certain enthusiasm, and I have been lucky to have never lost this feeling. I’ve always had the piano as part of my day, my life, and I have been lucky to make the transition.
EH: How old were you when you first learned the Chopin etudes ? Who assigned them to you ?
Bax: My first Chopin etudes were given to me at eight years old: Op. 10 No. 9 and Op. 10 No. 12. It was not my very first teacher but my first conservatory teacher who gave them to me. She was the first person I studied with long-term, and the first to assign me pieces that were much harder than what I could manage at the time. She definitely got me out of my comfort zone (laughs).
EH: I’m sure students are curious to know: which Chopin etude is the most difficult for your hand ?
Bax: It’s hard to choose one because they’re all so difficult! (Bax looks away, shakes his head in contemplation.) Each one has a different problem. I worked very hard on Op. 10 No. 1 and managed to perform it a few times in concerts -- Op. 10 No. 2 as well. Especially when these are played in succession, it becomes very difficult. Op. 25 No. 10 with the octaves is alright, the thirds (Op. 25 No. 6) eventually works out (laughs), but I would say, probably Op. 10 No. 1 and 2.
EH: Are you a compulsive practiser, then ?
Bax: Not really. There was a point when I was preparing for competitions - it was not so much compulsion but knowing I had to put in my time. Back then, I had all day as a student to practise, but now, maybe it’s become more compulsive because I need to do it.
With a tight schedule, the worst part about being a pianist on the road is that you have to schedule your practice time and learn repertoire ahead of time. Say, from 5pm-8pm, you have to find a piano and feel like practising. And it’s constant. You have to get used to it. But the one positive is that you get to practice in some very beautiful halls (laughs).
EH: How long do you practise a piece before performing it in public ?
Bax: It varies. Ideally I set it aside for a while. I actually learn a lot while performing a piece. No matter how much you practise – you can prepare a piece for a whole year - what you learn on a stage cannot be learned in a room. There are also different degrees of preparation. I might present a piece in recital right now and not be happy with it until the end of the year.
EH: As someone who has performed quite well at international competitions, do you still get nervous before or during a performance ?
Bax: Yes, always. It’s part of it. You have to find a way to channel this into something good. It could be excitement, that which makes live performance much more interesting. It is the reason we go to concerts rather than staying home and listening to recordings.
Now that I am out of competitions, avoiding wrong notes is important, but not the most important key to the music. These days, with the technique being at such a high level, you rarely hear wrong notes anymore.
I think the deeper we are involved with the music, the more we allow ourselves to dive right into it. You cannot totally block everything out while you are on stage, but through practice, you can coordinate mind and body and actually know what is going on in the music. This makes the experience much easier. In performance, what drives you to make mistakes on stage is your mind being occupied with other things.
EH: Does the audience ever affect you while you are on-stage ? Is it even necessary for you to have an audience ?
Bax: Yes, otherwise it would just feel like practising. Sometimes, this can affect us positively or negatively. These are the necessary elements of live performance - different audiences, different places, etc.
I think at the very core basic level, people are touched by music in the same way, but they show it very differently. An audience can be so quiet that you can hear a fly go by, and then out of excitement, they can jump up and scream. The incredible thing is that everyone can understand music and be moved the same way.
EH: Many performers believe that there is a spiritual element to music – that perhaps a composer is channeling their message through them. Do you believe that such a spiritual dimension exists in music ?
Bax: Probably in any art form, it exists. But this is something very difficult to describe. I know that it is not something we can prepare for; it is a power we don’t have so much control over. All we can control is how the music is delivered and give it the space it needs to be as powerful and successful as possible. And what this does varies from person to person.
EH: Was there ever a moment when you experienced some kind of profound revelation about a piece, or a clear way of playing a particular composer ?
Bax: It happens all the time. And maybe the very next day, I’ll think to myself ‘Well, maybe that wasn’t such a revelation after all!’ (laughs). Absolutely, this is the exciting part, and it is what keeps us practising. It could be something musical or something technical. Your body, in a slightly different position, can make something very much easier. Or going back, when you are working at something very difficult, like the Beethoven ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, the Brahms-Paganini Variations, or the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, you are constantly looking for things to make the performance better and easier. Every day you try to find something, anything that could be helpful.
EH: Is there a composer that you have difficulties connecting with ?
Bax: I don’t like music that is not so honest. There are some things, in say, Shostakovich, for obvious reasons, that were not entirely honest. And no matter how wonderful or exciting the music is, it’s not so much about the music but the message behind it. And this is something I have trouble connecting with. So even though part of me says, ‘This is great’, it wouldn’t be my top choice.
There is also music that is meant to sound ugly. There are some composers that go for the shock effect, to really distort things. They try to be purposefully ugly, and I don’t think that any art-form, no matter how modern it is, should be ugly.
EH: One often thinks of pianists as people who are chained to the instrument – practicing 8-10 hours a day, leaving the house only for concerts. Is it possible for a musician to be successful and lead a balanced life ?
Bax: My life revolves around music. What is a balanced life ? (laughs). It is very difficult to have another job when music is so much a part of your life. But you can definitely find time to enjoy the world.
EH: You are married to fellow pianist, Lucille Chung. Would you recommend this arrangement ?
Bax: I totally would (sincerely). First of all, you have to get along and like each other. That’s the key. I mean, people ask how it works, and I think that you really have to like each other. Otherwise, it would be impossible. But this could be the case with anyone. When it works, it’s an incredible thing.
In many ways, we work as each other’s worst critics, but in a good way. We can trust each other’s judgment and know what the other wants to do in performance. Imagine having an extra pair of ears that you can trust all the time, a pair of ears away from the stage. You really gain another perspective.
In the summer, we also travel together, playing various music festivals, and it’s all a very fun part of it. I would definitely recommend it.
EH: In your experience as a teacher, have you encountered any phenomenal, up-and-comers who have made an impression on you ?
Bax: There was one case when I was teaching music at the Hamamatsu Academy, right before the last competition. There was this one little boy, 14-years-old (Seong Jin Cho), who from the moment he walked on stage, any 40 year old would have been happy with that kind of performance! There was not a trace of immaturity at all. I wondered to myself, ‘He is so young, I wonder what the jury will think,’. He ended up winning the competition. I commend the jury for having the courage to support such a young talent. He recently picked up a prize at the Tchaikovsky competition.
There’s also Rafael Blechacz. I was very impressed with his playing. I met him very briefly at the Verbier festival. If I’m not mistaken, he actually substituted for Lang Lang. He had recently won the Chopin competition (2005), and it was such beautiful playing, especially the smaller pieces. He was very young and incredibly talented. There was a certain nobility, a great sense of phrasing, and the kind of honest playing that I, myself, strive for.
EH: Who are some of the pianists from the older generations you’ve admired, then ?
Bax: If I have to pick only one, it would have to be Rachmaninoff. It’s amazing because I’m not really an obsessive type, but I’ll find myself listening to the same pieces that he recorded for years. There is so much: I love his transcriptions, Daisies, Lilacs, etc. I think that his playing, much like his music, has many layers. It’s really quite unbelievable. Rachmaninoff has a reputation for simplicity and melodies, but his playing is just incredible. I find new things every time I listen to these recordings, and I’m really quite amazed by them.
EH: Is it important for young pianists to listen to recordings ?
Bax: I think it’s important. For me, it was essential. Of course, one must have their own voice and have a great teacher, too, but to listen in a way that doesn’t influence you negatively, is very important. To say, ‘I’m going to sound exactly like this pianist’, is not a good thing. But when you hear old great recordings, there is so much to learn on a deeper level. It’s not just about how to play every single note. I mean, that’s probably the wrong way to listen, if there ever was one. To listen to a great recording and try to play it the exact same way is probably the worst thing you can do. But beyond this, trying to understand why artists have played a certain way is very important. Also, the recording process is something that takes a lot of time and thought. So if a great musician has taken the time, I want to take advantage of this a little bit (laughs) and try to get something out of it.
EH: At this point, who are some of the artists you look to for inspiration ?
Bax: They tend not to be pianists, even though I love listening to any great pianist. For inspiration, I look to violinists, singers, and others, trying to imitate various things at the piano.
I just heard Grigory Sokolov in recital in Germany. We had a ten-day residency in Schloss-Elmau, and on the last day, Sokolov played a recital for about 200 people. It was simply incredible. There are things he can do that people may never be able to do again – his control, his focus, is really astonishing. I love many current pianists for different things. Unfortunately, with scheduling, it’s very difficult for me to hear live concerts, and this is one of my biggest regrets. When I am at home in New York, I do go to concerts. There is just so much to hear and I very much wish I had more time.
EH: What are your thoughts on Vladimir Horowitz ?
Bax: Incredibly, his was a very different kind of playing to the core, in comparison with Rachmaninoff. I don’t know if they had similar personalities - probably not - but I grew up listening to all of Horowitz’ recordings. He and Rubinstein were my favorite two pianists - very different, but what I listened to most. I think on a very superficial level, you can find similarities between Horowitz and Rachmaninoff, but on a deeper level, they were completely different. With Horowitz, you always get the feeling that you are listening to Horowitz, first and foremost. With Rachmaninoff, no matter how much rubato, stretches, or so-called distortions to the music, it’s always about the music itself. And that is what I respect most.
EH: Do you have an opinion of the Chinese pianist, Lang Lang ?
Bax: You probably get all kinds of different answers to this question (laughs). But I can answer this. I believe he has a very straight connection - from his conception of the music to its delivery. And that’s probably why it’s done so well, why audiences feel something with his music. Whether they know about music or not, there is a huge audience that is able to follow him. Also, he has the technical means to make that connection. Most of us hear the music a certain way in our minds, but you must have a full technical arsenal to be able to bring this out. Lang Lang definitely has this. If there are some things that people don’t agree with musically, I can understand that. But I really admire that he has the confidence to go out there and have a straight connection. It is something that we all strive for.
EH: Do you think that some of the criticism directed at him is justified ?
Bax: If there is criticism, it is a matter of taste. It is based on what people expect of, for example, a Mozart or a Beethoven sonata. My impression, having met him a few times, is that he really feels the music the way he plays it. So there is a kind of honesty there about what he perceives the music to be, and what he delivers. So any effects are a part of the music as he feels it.
EH: Do you have any thoughts on pop music ?
Bax: It depends. Pop-music, like any kind of music, can be commercialized and uninteresting in many ways. But there are many up-and-coming ‘cutting-edge’ musicians. New York City, where I live, is a fantastic place for this. There are so many classically-trained jazz and pop musicians, and they are influenced by a lot of contemporary-classical music, writing a lot of interesting music, too. Pop is such a wide category that it is hard to comment on it as a whole. But if you are talking about commercial pop-music, I don’t know if there are many musicians that I am too interested in.
EH: I’d love to hear about any upcoming projects you have coming up.
Bax: I’m hoping to get through the summer festival season. It gets harder each year as it seems to get more packed. This goes on until September. Then we’ll be going to Rome for a couple days, then straight to Tokyo, Taiwan, Dallas, to play with the Dallas Symphony, and right after that concert, we will be playing for the Chamber Music Society in New York on opening night.!
EH: Alessio, thank you for your time. We wish you nothing but the best.
Bax: Thank you, Elijah. This was fun !