Vanessa Perez: It Takes a Village

A happy follow-up to my last post (thank you, everyone, for so many good comments, tweets, etc)...

I recently had a chance talk with Venezuelan pianist Vanessa Perez, and our conversation was a perfect example about what I love most about my encounters here On the Bench. For pianists, bred in the solitude of the practice studio, raised on a steady diet of self-examination, self-obsession, and self-doubt, the ability to reach out and connect with our equally self-absorbed colleagues is priceless. It’s why these conversations are important to me, and why talking with someone like Vanessa opens up interesting connections in experiences and perspectives, exposing the common ground between very different lives.

Vanessa grew up in the incredibly rich and nurturing musical community of Venezuela, a country with a unique musical history, where the slogan “There is no culture without musical culture” defines the central importance of music in the collective consciousness. There, in the birthplace of El Sistema, Vanessa’s early years were spent with “so many children making music”, shaping her identity as a musician and building lasting friendships with her fellow youngsters coming up in El Sistema’s many orchestras, incubators which produced not only a generation of tremendously gifted young conductors – Dudamel among others - but also provided abundant opportunities for young soloists to perform with those orchestras. She talks with deep affection about those early opportunities, about the impact of young years spent in such nurturing surroundings.

This is a musician who depends on other musicians - the theme of community and friendship came up time and again in our conversation. Even in the recording studio - the most private and vulnerable arena, the place where most of us withdraw to commune on the most intimate level with our artistic  intentions, to examine every musical pore and wrinkle in the most magnifying of mirrors, and to do battle as best we can with our full spectrum of neuroses (See Jeremy Denk’s most excellent account of these horrors in a recent New Yorker piece) - Vanessa has found a way to create a support system of musical colleagues and friends. Most of us treat the studio as an inner sanctum, impenetrable except for the trusted troika of engineer, producer and artist. Vanessa, in contrast, opened up her recent studio sessions to a group of trusted friends and colleagues, creating a hybrid of live performance and recording session that, she says, helped her keep her playing "real and honest". 
The result, a disc of the complete Chopin Preludes, was recently released on Telarc and will be celebrated with a NYC release concert this Thursday, May 31 at the Americas Society, 680 Park Avenue.

Listening to the album, you hear the same humanity and honesty that comes across in conversation. Vanessa's connection to Chopin's music is almost primal, sometimes bypassing the surround of exquisite beauty in favor of the raw emotion at its core. Her relationship with Chopin is life-long. She remembers the thrill of discovering her first Chopin Nocturne as a child in Venezuela – the momentous feeling of entering into the world of “grown-up music”, as she puts it “I felt for the first time that now I was really a pianist”.  When she played for the legendary Claudio Arrau at age 14, he sensed the potential in her natural affinity and encouraged her to “play more Chopin”, putting her to work right away on the E Minor Concerto. Arrau took a pivotal mentoring role in her musical life, sending her to study in the U.S. with his former students Ena Bronstein and Rosalina Sackstein .

Leaving Venezuela for the States (first Miami, then New Jersey), being transplanted into the relatively arid musical landscape of the American suburbs, took its toll. Her response was to dig deeper into her music, to find there the sustenance and communication that had always been critical to her musical identity. At 17 she went to the Royal Academy of Music in London, and was able to connect again with a community of musicians who provided a environment of support and community. Studies in Italy followed, then some post-grad finishing back in New York. The friendships Vanessa has made at every point in her musical life have remained central to her musical life. She makes music with those friends - fellow Venezuelans Dudamel and Gabriela Montero are friends from childhood and have both been musical collaborators. She joined Joshua Bell for a performance of Piazzolla's Oblivion on Bell's At Home with Friends album. The musicians in Vanessa's life serve as mentors, role models, touchstones - as it should be.

The Chopin album may be a breakthrough to a new level of visibility as a soloist. Even alone on the bench, though, Vanessa Perez' music is full of the spirit of all the musicians who surround her - from her childhood friends in the musical sandbox of Venezuela, to her trusted advisors in her recording session, to the very tangible presence of M. Chopin himself. 

The ON THE BENCH Questionnaire
(with apologies to Proust and Vanity Fair)

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice?

It varies all the time...I don't have a specific routine.  
What's the last thing you do before you go on stage?

I look obsessively at the first few measures of what I will begin my program with.

If your piano could speak, what secrets would it tell about you?

My piano wouldn't tell on me ... :)
If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which would it be?

 I would attend one of those beautiful soiree salon concerts in 19th century Paris, with Liszt or Chopin playing.  
If you didn’t play the piano, what would you do?

Chef, specializing in Japanese and northern Italian cuisine.


Frenemies: Sharing the Bench

In response to the anonymous question about why I use this space to "boost the competition": 

I suppose that, on the face of it, it might seem less than strategic for a concert pianist to be giving exposure to/creating buzz for other concert pianists. Sure, we're all in competition for that very limited resource - the elusive concert booking. It's a tough world we live in, and survival of the fittest is a central part of our professional reality. 

But I've been thinking about this, and I want to share my motivations here On the Bench:
1) To communicate with my comrades in arms. As professions go, concert pianist runs a close second to lighthouse keeper in terms of solitary hours logged and restricted access to meaningful human contact. It's lonely on the bench. If we can share our stories, ideas, thoughts, dreams and challenges, it helps to ease the isolation of those many hours alone in the studio and on the road.
2) To give a peak into the weird and wonderful world of the professional pianist, for the concert-goer, the record collector, the aspiring student - anyone who cares about the nerdy technical details of what goes on behind the scenes and before the concert. Maybe these insights will inspire young students as they're logging their own lonely hours on their way to being the pianists of tomorrow. (Or maybe reading about the reality of the pianist's life will inspire a few of them to beat a much safer path to business school, asap.)

3) Lastly, and mostly: to make the point that all of us are very different people - emphasis on people - with different stories to tell and different ways of approaching our instrument, our music and our lives. Because this is the thing: I would like to think that maybe, if classical musicians can build personal narrative and individuality into our musical profiles, we can create more interest and more opportunities around what we do, make more room for ourselves in the world.
There is no such thing as a generic pianist. And no one should go to a piano recital just to hear a generic piano recital. No one goes to a "rock concert". We go to hear a musician or a band we care about, musically and personally. We find resonance with the musicians we follow. We should go to a classical concert for the same reasons. My piano recital is different than your piano recital! Maybe if the audiences (and potential audiences) out there understand just how different, then they'll come out to hear us both.
Knowing something about the personal side of a musician might open up new perspectives into that person's playing. Knowing how a musician thinks about music might shed more light on that person's musical choices. Knowing more might mean caring more.
In many cases, the concert hall is still a strangely depersonalized zone, with a lot of space between the person on the stage and the person in the last row. Maybe I'm trying to fill that space.

Maybe I just can't mind my own business. 

Or maybe I do have self-destructive tendencies after all, and maybe all my guests On the Bench are stealing my future concert engagements as we speak. But that would be such bad karma.

What do you think? Is there room for all of us On the Bench? 
Tweet your comments to @Laradownes, or leave them here!

Thanks to Maura Lafferty for talking this through and believing in a better way!


Anderson & Roe: No More Matching Dresses!

Anderson & Roe is not:
1) A law firm
2) A figure skating pair
3) Married (to each other)
4) Your typical piano duo

Anderson & Roe is one of the most exciting young duos performing today, with a musicality, repertoire and stage presence that bring their concerts closer to rock shows than demure chamber music recitals. Forget your image of a sweet sister team playing piano duets in matching dresses (more on my personal PTSD around that topic later on...), Greg Anderson and Liz Roe have a musical partnership that is anything but adorable. Whether playing their original arrangement of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, their performances are passionate, wild, intensely physical, and completely gripping. Audiences around the country flock to their concerts in numbers that defy the rumors of dwindling attendance for concert music, and the duo holds their own on MTV as well as on NPR.

Their interactive website is buzzing 24/7, with a dynamic online community that includes fans of all ages, bloggers, and the millions of YouTube viewers of A&R's self-produced, visually exciting and dramatically compelling music videos. Greg and Liz communicate with their fans in real time, generating an energy and sense of community that contributes to their success, and furthers their commitment to "make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society; to connect with others; to engage, provoke, illuminate; to serve as a conduit for the composer's voice; to express our inner lives; to share the joy and fulfillment that only music can elicit." And, furthermore: " to free the world from the constraints of sleep-inducing concerts." Done. 
In upcoming months they can be heard in San Francisco and Portland, among other stops.

Anderson & Roe's new album When Words Fade recently came out on the Steinway & Sons label. It's a remarkable collection of vocal works inspired by the night, in virtuoso arrangements for piano duo (composed by the artists themselves). Traveling through very different soundscapes of song, from Vivaldi to Coldplay with stops at Schubert, Bizet and Villa-Lobos along the way, the duo proves that their musicality is up to the challenge of reimagining songs without their words, and infusing them with new and profound meanings. Greg and Liz describe the music this way: "When words fade, a song sheds its specific narrative—but the emotion remains with all its potency. You, the listener, are free to infuse the music with your own personal meaning."

They're celebrating the album with a release party next Tuesday, May 22, at Galapagos Arts Space in Brooklyn. It should be a great party - go if you can!

I spoke to Liz and Greg by Skype, in a long and often hilarious three-way conversation (which has been slightly sanitized here for your protection)


Angela Hewitt: Checked Baggage

© James Cheadle
Angela Hewitt is a woman with a lot of baggage. 
Not that kind of baggage! Ms. Hewitt is far from neurotic. Judging from all reports and appearances, and personal conversation, she is thoroughly down-to-earth and professional, gracious,  organized, an anti-diva altogether. 
No, I'm talking about actual baggage. The suitcase that has been unpacked, she says, "maybe once in the last three years", what with her almost non-stop touring schedule and her travels back and forth between homes in Ottawa, London and Umbria (where she runs her annual Trasimeno Music Festival). I am told she always carries her own bags.

And then there is the metaphorical suitcase that holds her outsize repertoire, somewhat notorious among pianists, and always expanding, driven by her unstoppable appetite and energies. 
All the Bach keyboard works. 
The Beethoven Sonatas. 
The Mozart Sonatas. 
All of Schumann, give or take. 
Chopin: check. 
Debussy, Ravel, Liszt, Brahms... 
And her massive concerto repertoire as well. 

Extra handling fees may apply.

When asked how she does it - touring with as many as twenty recital programs per season, putting out four new recordings a year, managing the curatorship and heavy-rotation playing at the Trasimeno festival (she'll be playing seven different programs at the festival alone this summer), she says "I just work very hard", and laughs "I really don't do much else". But even so, the reconciling of the working very hard and the getting there is in itself a challenge. The demands of present-day air travel being what they are, the time and the energy involved in getting from point A to point B are considerable, taxing and unpleasant, and a major component of the artist's life. She says she "doesn't waste time on board the plane", using those transit hours for studying scores, writing liner notes, and planning concert programs, as we all do (although I argue that the time can also be well spent obsessively watching an entire season of Downton Abbey, just for example).

But back to the luggage. 

On Angela's website, an upcoming event caught my eye: a benefit for her Trasimeno festival featuring an exhibit of her concert gowns, including the very first one, custom made for her at age nine. (The photo here shows one worn at age 15). The preservation of four decades worth of concert gowns is further evidence of organizational skills (and good closets), and made me wonder about favorite dresses, packing challenges, and the pleasures and perils of dressing for the concert stage (more on that coming up soon On the Bench...). Angela says that some favorite keepers have come from Alberta Ferretti, Roberto Cavalli, and other European designers, that she has one dress she sewed herself, and that she is grateful for the current unstructured, minimalist styles, a big improvement on the "old days" of the complicated, poufy, and hard-to-pack dress. 
A very hard dress to pack.

Much better.
But aside from the necessities and complications of packing for different audiences, repertoire and climates, one senses that it's the second bag that is more important to Hewitt - the figurative (hopefully rolling, hopefully soft-sided and infinitely expandable) suitcase that carries her tremendous collection of repertoire new and old. That collection  is central to her identity as a musician, and to her musical satisfaction. It represents both the souvenirs amassed during all these years of traveling, and the legacy of a life spent, from the very beginning, devoted to the pursuit of music. 

The ability to navigate comfortably among many different recital programs, chamber music collaborations and concerto performances in short periods of time requires constant exercising of the musical muscles, and Angela's commitment to such flexibility and productivity is evidence of habits developed early on. She recognizes her range of repertoire as "probably much bigger than most pianists - I'm not one to tour with one program at a time", and she cites the voracious consumption of new repertoire during her youngest years as a critical phase of her development. She wishes that every young pianist would recognize the importance of taking advantage of youthful elasticity and capacity to stockpile vast amounts of repertoire. "That's when they should be learning it, all of it." she says. "They'll play it differently later on, hopefully, but now is when they should be acquiring the repertoire". We spoke about the staying power of those pieces learned well and thoroughly, long ago, the interesting sensation of bringing them back and brushing them up  - the  way that we can access those ingrained memories very differently from music learned more recently. "The old file is in there somewhere - it just has to come out, and usually you know when it's ready."

I think that the fascinating thing about that resurfacing of the old information is that it comes with layers of new and different understandings each time around. That’s one of the great pleasures of making and remaking music.

For Angela Hewitt, the opportunities for reconsideration and renewal within her vast musical inventory come frequently, thanks to the scope and range of her concert schedule. And this, maybe, is why it is so worth it to keep packing those bags, getting on another plane, and putting on another dress.

This month, both East and West Coasters can hear Angela Hewitt in U.S. recital dates: at Shriver Hall in Baltimore today, Sunday May 6, in Salem Oregon on Sunday the 13th, and in Seattle at the UW Presidents Piano Series on Tuesday the 15th.