In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.
Winner of the Leeds International Pianoforte competition in 2000 and 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 his ability to send audiences into a frenzy, Bax has a calm presence about him, and is notably, very humble. Below is Part I of our July 22, 2011 conversation with Alessio Bax.
EH: You will be playing Brahms this week. People have often referred to the 3 B’s, with respect to composers – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. 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 that it really depends on the point of view. Overall, I would totally agree that he is – 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. And he had the incredible courage to not only start fresh, but to look back and actually make – within his own language, a new language. 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, first of all, 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 probably, from the program (which I will be performing at Music@Menlo), the Brahms ballades. They are an amazing work from the early period of his life. A young work that is so wild in many ways – very experimental, describing strong feelings with very few notes. It is also written in a style that he did not use quite often.
EH: Some very prominent musicians of the past have said that in order to become a great musician, it is necessary to read, experience, and know things outside of music. I know that 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 very 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 wasn’t one particular moment. 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 piano as part of my day, my life, and have been lucky to make the transition.
EH: How old were you when you learned the Chopin etudes ? And who gave them to you to learn ?
Bax: My first Chopin etude was given to me at eight years old. It was 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.
EH: I’m sure that students are curious to know – because every pianist has a different answer, which Chopin etudes are the most difficult for you ?
Bax: It’s hard to choose one, because they’re all so difficult! (looks away and shakes his head) 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. And Op. 10 No. 2 as well. Especially when they 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 practicer ?
Bax: Not really. There was a point when I was preparing for competitions – it was not compulsion, but knowing that 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. 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.
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, but 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: Does the audience ever affect you when you are on-stage ? Is it even necessary for you to have an audience ?
Bax: Yes, otherwise it would just feel like practicing. And sometimes, it can affect us positively or negatively. These are the necessary elements of live performance.
Different audiences, different places – 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 about music is that everyone can understand it and be moved the same way.
EH: As someone who has done 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 very 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 it. You cannot totally block everything out while you are on stage – but you can, through practise, coordinate mind and body, actually knowing what is going on in the music, and 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: Many performers believe that there is a spi
ritual 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 it is something very difficult to describe. I know that [it is not something you can prepare for]. It is a power that we don’t have so much control over. All we can control is how the music is delivered and to give it the space it needs – for it 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. Everyday, 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 a 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 we 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 terms of repertoire, when do you find the time to practice or learn new pieces ?
Bax: It’s constant. That’s one of the hardest things. But you have to get used to it. And the one positive is that you get to practice in some very beautiful halls (laughs).
EH: Have you noticed any upcoming artists, perhaps someone that you spotted in competition who has really caught your attention ?
Bax: There was this one boy (Seong Jin Cho) at the Hammamatsu. I heard him when he was 14. He played a beautiful Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1. A year later, he entered the Hammamatsu Competition. I wondered to myself, “ he is so young, I wonder what the jury will think”. But then he ended up winning the competition. I commend the jury for having the courage to support such a young talent. I haven’t heard him since, but I recently heard that he entered the Tchaikovsky and won a prize.
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 in 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.
Part II of our interview with Alessio Bax can be found here.
A full list of reviews and interviews with artists can be found here, and new material can be freely sent to your e-mail by clicking ‘Subscribe’ below; follow us on twitter@elijahho.