Pianist Charlie Albright: Communicating emotion


“Holy smokes! I want to learn that!” thought then-eleven-year-old Washington native Charlie Albright as he listened to Richard Goode perform Janácek’s Sonata 1.X.1905 in Lincoln Hall for Portland Piano International. His piano teacher Nancy Adsit was sitting next to him, and upon returning home they began learning the piece. Sixteen years later, now a winner of the 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant, Oregon’s next-door-neighbor has come full circle from being PPI’s eager young audience member to opening his very own PPI concert series this weekend with this same Janácek sonata.

Charlie Albright. Photo: Stan Giske.

Charlie Albright. Photo: Stan Giske.

Albright began his music studies at the age of three, focusing particularly on jazz until age seven when he began classical studies with Adsit. He earned an Associate of Science degree at Centralia College while still in high school. In addition to winning a 2010 Gilmore Young Artist Award and 2009 Young Concert Artists International Audition, Albright was the first classical pianist accepted to the Harvard College/New England Conservatory Joint program, receiving Bachelor’s degree as a Pre-Med and Economics major at Harvard in 2011, Master of Music degree in Piano Performance at the New England Conservatory in 2012, and Artist Diploma (A.D.) from New York’s Juilliard School.

Judging by his 2011 album Vivace, Albright is a pianist to be reckoned with. But before you hunker down for a serious listen, check out his Facebook page and watch him rock out to his own arrangement of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and Willie Nelson’s “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.”

In addition to gushing about Psy’s latest album, this young polymath shared a bit of his life story and music philosophies with OAW.

OAW: Your Wikipedia article is quite detailed, mentioning all the accomplishments and projects in your life, but it fails to mention your age or birth year. Why is that?

Well, I usually don’t put my age out for the press because age is often used to make funky comparisons between musicians. Art sometimes happens earlier and sometimes later in life, and if you latch onto age as a means of examining an artist, instead of thinking about what kind of art the person is doing, then the discussion becomes less about the art and more about the accolades, which isn’t as important.

You come across as a high-energy person; where does your emotional energy come from?

I often reflect on past experiences as a launching point for inspiration. For example, one experience that played a significant role in my childhood was my dad’s struggle with reflexive sympathetic dystrophy. This freak disease kept him bedridden for most of my childhood; it has no known cause and no known cure. This struggle has in some ways fueled the interpretation of pieces I have played, particularly the sad ones, like the Janácek.

Also, playing a piece over a long period of time keeps the interpretation fresh and exciting for me. Good pieces of music grow and change over time. If you play a piece for just one or two years, you’ll just have one interpretation, but if you play it over a longer period of time, not necessarily continuously, but put it away for a few years and come back to it, you’ll find that your understanding of the piece has changed. Your interpretation isn’t better or worse, just different based on the stage of life you’re in.

Ultimately, I don’t think you can fake emotion. There’s a lot of people who try to fake emotion in music and art, but people know if artistic expression is true or not, if it’s fake or not. You can take somebody who has never heard music, put them in a concert hall, and they will be able to tell you if the performer is being genuine or if it’s a show.

Give some guidance to an audience member listening to you play your concerts this weekend. What makes a good listener?

I don’t think it’s a matter of being a good listener, but more a matter of being a good performer. Combining a convincing interpretation with a convincing performance produces good listeners, listeners who are teleported out of their chair into a world of emotion. I don’t want to be a monkey in the window, nor do I want to get up there and say, “I’m gonna tell you how it’s done and you’re gonna listen.” Instead, I want my performances to be an inclusive experience in which the audience and performer share the creation of music together.

The magic of music is that you can’t truly explain how it feels in any other medium other than through music. Feeling the meaning of music is somehow embedded in our DNA and we can’t put it into words. The musical experience is a culmination of communication: ideas, thoughts, emotions, feelings from desperation to sheer happiness, exaltation and joy. I hope to share a bit of that with the audience.

Chopin’s etudes are performed a gajillion times each year. What value do you discover as you perform standard repertoire to an audience very familiar with these works?

Well, the magic of these etudes is that there are an infinite number of ways to play them. I was at a competition one time and played these etudes. Afterwards I talked to a couple of the jury members about my performance of the Winter Wind etude. One jury member said, “Charlie, you have to remember that this is a military march and it must be played as such.” No more than 10 minutes later I talked to another jury member about the same performance and he said, “Charlie, it’s not a military march. Don’t play it like a military march!” and it was at that point that I thought, “You know what, I’m gonna play these pieces however I want to!”

If everyone’s just thinking about whether I played the right notes or not, that’s a pointless musical experience. You might as well not come to the concert, and the performer might as well not be playing. I’d rather miss half the notes and speak to the soul of the music than play everything robotically correct. If the performance of the music doesn’t move you, then it’s meaningless. The core of music is emotion, is communication. My goal is to move people with the music so that even if they might not agree with me, maybe they were brought to tears at one point or another. That’s a success.

How do you see yourself changing the performance experience?

The very rigid atmosphere of the pianist sitting down to play for two hours and god forbid if you cough or clap wrong is a dying trend, and this is for the best! People don’t want a listening experience like that. When this standard repertoire was originally composed, people would clap in the middle if they liked it, creating a performance experience more like a jazz concert.

I enjoy talking to the audience between pieces, and I also enjoy asking audience members to call out notes and then improvising on the spot. These practices lower the walls between performer and audience and allow for a two-way road between the performers and audience members.

You seem to have a healthy perspective on music. Where does this come from?

My teachers, particularly Nancy Adsit, were very influential. Also, I was lucky to be able to study music while also pursuing something completely different at the same time. I was never in that conservatory situation where all I was doing was only music all the time. My degree was in economics, which provided a great balance. On weekends I would be off performing and traveling and on the weekdays I would be doing economic reports. Both served as escapes from the other, but this process also gave me perspective on the world outside of classical music.

What music do you enjoy listening to and what do you enjoy reading in your spare time?

In the car I almost never listen to classical music. I listen to a lot of Korean pop. Psy just dropped his new album, so I’m listening to “Daddy” and “Napal Baji.” Have you seen the music video for “Daddy”? It’s the new Gangnam Style so it’s pretty big. As for reading, I like exploring lots of tech and travel blogs, from CNN to enGadget.

Let’s hope that after Albright performs his programs of Janácek, Beethoven, Chopin, Menotti, Mozart, and Mussorgsky, he improvises off the theme from “Daddy.” Or at least posts a Facebook video….

Portland Piano International presents Charlie Albright on Saturday and Sunday, December 5 and 6 at 4:00 pm at Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University. Tickets are available online.

Jana Griffin is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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