Russian pianist Alexander Paley, who calls Lithuania his second home, took his vocation seriously from a young age. Having played the piano since the age of six, he won a national music competition in Moldova just a decade later. After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory (in the classes of Bella Davidovich and Vera Gornostayeva), he can be proud of his first prize at the Leipzig International Bach Competition (1884), the Bosendorfer Prize (1986) and the Grand Prix Young Artist Debut (New York, 1988). While concerting, he has shuffled the world, sharing the stage with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Aspen Festival Orchestra, and more. The interviewed musician remembers his university days, discusses quarantine, and declares his love for Lithuania.
I imagine that you have a very busy schedule as a concerting pianist and now in the quarantine there were a lot of changes for you.
All of my concerts are rescheduled for the autumn and next season, so everything is okay. Quarantine for me is a very interesting time. The only bad thing that has happened is that I got stuck in Paris and my wife stayed in New York for these two months. But I can’t say that only bad things happened because of quarantine, because vanity had disappeared. For two months I was living like a monk, going out only to the supermarket and back. I had all this time to learn an enormous amount of music and to think. I was practicing every day as usual; I also have a lot of books to read. Obviously my lifestyle didn’t change so much. My manager had organized two video releases on the internet: on one I speak and play the music of Rameau. And it will continue.
Paris is my most beloved place. Since the early age I was dreaming to live here and finally my dream came true. My friends from all over the world now call me every day. I say them that the worst thing to me is that me and my family are apart, but earlier I never had enough time to talk to my wife, because we both were constantly working. In quarantine we had time to talk as much as we wanted. Hopefully in August I will be able to come back to Europe touring. There are a bunch of concerts in Lithuania as well.
It would be so nice to have you here.
Oh, Lithuania is my love. It became my second home. There is no country, except probably France, where I play as much as in Lithuania. I have million friends there. Of course I am always very happy to come. My wife is supposed to come with me, we have many things that we are playing together. I hope that it will happen.
How did your connection with Lithuania start?
Well I will tell you. The first time when I came to Lithuania, I was 15 years old. It was a competition between Moldova, Belarus and three Baltic countries. Then I became the youngest winner of the competition. I came back to Paris, already knowing Gintaras Rinkevičius, who is one my favorite conductors. You understand that in my life I had played with all type of conductors, great ones, bad ones – nobody is like him. He is a gigantic figure in Lithuanian music life, enormous talent, big repertoire on the hands, great work capacities and love for music. That’s everything I love about the musicians.
He was born a maestro, as conductors should be born. For example, I conduct, but I never consider myself as a real conductor. I was born a pianist, but I can’t imagine him doing anything else musically. Conducting is what he is about. So my love for Lithuania is a hundred percent his merit. Now I say to him – maestro, we have to think what we did not played yet. Because we had played everything together – all major concerto repertoire.
You mentioned that you were born as a pianist. How did you relationship with the instrument and this profession had evolved?
You know my parents were doctors and like all doctors they love music very much. The person, who was the closest to me before I got married, was my grandmother. She was a professor at the university, history department, also one of the founders of the first public library in Moldova. That’s why I am so passionate about reading. I was taught that as much as I have practice and read every day. These were the rules from my childhood.
I am very grateful to my parents, because they took care of my general education. I was going to theater or concert hall every night. I was very little – three or four – when I sang every melody I heard and I wanted to play piano. It was piano Belarus, my very first piano. And my music teachers were great, I was very lucky with them through all my life. My father said to me: “I love music very much, but I am not a professional. You have to understand that piano is not a toy. Either you do this seriously or it will be taken from you”. I was very afraid he would take the piano away. That’s how we started.
My education was very different from what I see now. I was a wunderkind, you know. My parents didn’t want to hear this and no journalists were allowed in my life, no noise. I had a quiet childhood, I was working very hard with my teacher, I was reading. Now I see that kids with talent are treated poorly. Their parents want them to be stars; they don’t understand that in front of this kid is his whole life. This is the essential difference.
You mentioned that there is a lot of vanity in the musical world of today. How do you navigate being a part of the music business and also having values and respect the music?
Music never was and never will be business. I am who I am; I don’t associate myself with anybody. I was never thinking about popularity, about being a part of something. And I know what I do I do what I do, simply because I cannot live without this.
Now because of the media and internet the world became different. Many musicians so to call, who never played on the big stage, who never played with big orchestras, never had a management – they can go online and feel like a maestro for a little bit. Now is a time of mediocrity, unfortunately. And it’s up to the listener to have a taste, to understand, who is who.
You mentioned few projects on the internet that you were doing this quarantine. How it is different from playing live?
I play in this place in Paris, called “Centre Chopin”. It is one of the biggest piano halls in Europe, where they give me a piano to choose. I am practicing there and I am recording there. Of course, the quality of the performance is not like playing live, but I am happy to play to the audience. This is my first such experience in life. Unfortunately all of my colleges are teaching online, including my wife. They are terrified, because to teach online is nonsense. It should be live conversation with a student. I hope life is coming back to normal.
I have to tell you, that this experience for me is very special, because I have two magnificent grand pianos at home in New York, but in Paris I have only mute keyboard without any sound. In the beginning I was skeptical about this, but later I realized that concentration is enormous when everything sounds in my head. Then I come to the real piano – like architect, seeing his plans on paper and then seeing the building. For example, I learned all five Rubinstein concerts without tune, Rachmaninoff etudes, and many things.
You have mentioned that for you Tchaikovsky conservatory is the best in the world. What do you value the most from your education in this place?
I am very happy being a part of the Moscow conservatory, but don’t forget that many great students of this university came from Lithuania and then came back, started to teach. There were O. Steinbergaitė, A. Livontas, D. Geringas, R. Katilius, R. Armonas, J. Dvarionas, R. Butvila, etc. Don’t forget that two of the most important of Lithuania’s pianists – Petras and Lukas Geniušas are also from Moscow conservatory and studied with the same teacher. These are all my connections.
What Russians developed in musical education is absolutely unique. There is no such system in the world. Only Chinese adapted the system like this, and also Lithuania with M. K. Čiurlionis school of arts and S. Šimkus conservatory in Klaipėda. In Russia now an enormous amount of money comes to culture and art. But there are other things, of course and nothing is more cheaply ugly and immoral than Russian pop music. But the values are present you see and I hope it stays for a long time.
Could you compare how Chinese adopted this Russian system?
A lot of people in west speak about Great Russian school, but they have no idea what it is about. Russian system is about many things. You cannot come to the teacher like to supermarket. You cannot come and take something, you also have to bring. Relationship between you and your teacher matters. My teachers were interested in what I was reading, what music I was listening, what concerts I was going to, what theater premieres I saw. They were close people in my life and still are. Piano is a piece of wood, which we have to make sound like human voice. We have to make it sing. Kids were taught how to play and hear music in their mind, to feel the sound inside and play as close to that as possible. In the west they are mostly teaching how to put the right finger in the right place. They don’t hear.
Chinese had adopted our system, they have enormous interest. Every Chinese kid has to learn piano. I played in China many times, the competitions there are amazing. First time I came to jury in the finale and I asked – “how many finalists do we have?” It was a big competition. They answered – “oh, eight hundred”. So that’s what it is.
You mentioned that it is a privilege to play and listen to the classical music, which should be learned through work and study. How you approach your audiences and connect with listeners during the concerts then?
This is a very serious question for me. First of all, there are no people that I would hate, but there is a thing I hate – pop art. For example – imagine, a man meets beautiful woman. She has everything – she is beautiful, brilliant, cultured, it’s huge pleasure to talk to her, and so on. The man sees that if he wants to be with her, he has to be on her level. He works on himself to be together with her. Or man meets another woman, who can be very nice looking, but she is available for everyone. How do you call this kind of woman? A prostitute. So for me pop art is the prostitution of art.
Now I can tell you how I approach the audience – I never approach the audience. I do my work, I create what I feel. Real art could not be shown, regardless of the repertoire. The audience has to work to understand what I do, it has to be prepared. I never understand why children go to serious concerts or opera having no idea what it is all about; allowing the children to come and try instruments. You don’t let children to make a surgery or drive, why can they touch instruments? It’s dangerous for their minds. That’s why children have to be prepared for a young age – they have to be educated.
People live a double life – we come to the office, come back from the office, take shower, change cloths and live a different life. But for musicians music takes all your life. We don’t have office; we work twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. In the backs of our minds we are learning all the time.
How do you approach new piece and how do you form your interpretation?
Most of the pieces I am learning, I have heard before in my life. So first of all I learn everything alone – I am not going to the second page when the first page is not learned. If I don’t love the music I play, I absolutely force myself to love it. This is my way to learn the piece.
I never listen to other interpretations of other musicians. They can be absolutely fantastic, but I am not interested in how other people are playing, I am interested in how I am doing the piece. I am glad when people say to me that my interpretations are very personal. I try to find something in the piece that is essential for me. Then I try to make it essential for everybody.
Where there moments that defined you as a pianist you are today?
I have to tell you, I didn’t emigrate from Soviet Union, I escaped it. I played my first concert in Italy when I escaped to American embassy and ask for help. It was a terrible scandal, as you can imagine. But I escaped from Soviet Union not because of the political reasons. I was far from politics, I always was. Soviet Union at this time was a very different country. As a musician you had a great education, but not many performance opportunities. I knew that if I stay there longer, I would die as a musician. That’s why I escaped to the west.
My childhood was very happy; I had great teachers – Bella Davidovich and Vera Gornostajeva. To my last day I will be grateful them for everything. In West Europe I also learned many things, for example, I built practically my entire chamber music repertoire in the west. I created a chamber music festival in France which will be 30 years old. It gave me wonderful opportunities to share the stage with wonderful musicians: violinists, cellists, pianists, singers, and conductors.
You also mentioned that for musician is crucial to be a part of cultural life.
Absolutely. I cannot imagine one able to play Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff not very well knowing Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky; playing Beethoven not knowing Goethe and so on. When the pianist starts to play I immediately feel how much he is reading. That’s crucial, absolutely. Music without art doesn’t exist.
Do you usually feel dissatisfied after the performance?
No, after the performance I am very satisfied. Then night passes and then in the morning when I wake up I remember all my mistakes. Since I was a child, I don’t sleep well, because all these memories doesn’t let me sleep.
That’s why I don’t like to listen to my recordings. I am very lucky to I record for a wonderful company. And my sound engineer, who is also my friend, is probably the best in France. He was very first sound engineer who made me sound exactly like I sound. Sometimes I feel that I sound on the disc better than I sound live – he laughs when I say this to him. But even if this is not the greatest quality sometimes, I am happy if I can express myself and send the message with the music that I play.
How do you understand the power of music and what does it mean to you personally?
I am sure that music will be the very last thing that will disappear from this planet. I think that music is a creation of God it make our lives different. Every day I wake up, I go to practice and I serve my God. I think if it’s given to me, it’s not for nothing. I have to work hard for my gift.
When you are listening of the performances of other pianists, what are you hoping for? What is resonating with you?
I don’t know if I hope for anything, I just admire. Even if this is very different from my interpretation, I find it absolutely fantastic. In other musicians the one thing I admire the most is their love for music. That’s the most important. After that everything is simple – either you love music and you cannot live without this, or you just love music – these are also two very different things.
I wanted to ask about the difference performing alone and in the concert for other people. How the inner experience differs for you?
I play as I play. When you play on the stage you always feel the hall, you always feel the people. Honestly speaking, if every night I can be on the stage, I need nothing else in my life. But when I am playing alone, there are two of me – one is a playing artist and another is observing, criticizing policeman. He watches what I am doing and controlling me. My very first teacher said about that to me – pianists mind has to be cold and his heart and soul has to be warm. Not the opposite!
True. Thank you for the conversation!