Alessio Bax is not a native North Texan, but we'll claim him as our own nonetheless. After all, the Italian pianist moved to Dallas at age 16 to study piano at Southern Methodist University and made his home here for more than a decade.
When Bax returns to Dallas to perform -- he is in town this week as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's guest soloist -- there is a strong sense of homecoming. "I have so many friends that are still here," he told me in his characteristically soft-spoken, unassuming manner. "When I walk on stage [at the Meyerson], I recognize more than a third of the orchestra from my SMU days. I feel like everyone is wishing me the best. It's a fantastic feeling that doesn't happen elsewhere."
Bax is in town this week to perform Samuel Barber's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with Jaap van Zweden and the DSO during their second weekend of the 2013/2014 season. When I met with Bax on Tuesday he had just finished his first run through of the concerto with the orchestra during an intense rehearsal that left him glistening with sweat. We talked about the piece he is performing this weekend as well as his life as a performing artist. Below are some excerpts from our conversation:
First of all, welcome back to Dallas. When you are in town, are there any restaurants you have to make sure to hit? The restaurant scene is really exciting here. Every time I come back there are new things to try. My friend Francesco Farris has a fantastic Italian restaurant which is like my home away from home when I am in Dallas. It's called Zio Cecio on Lovers Lane. We were there last night and we're going back I'm sure. It's funny; when I'm traveling, I rarely eat Italian food. I love to cook and I'm always kind of disappointed going out to eat. But here, we always go to Zio Cecio because I trust him.
So, you come to Texas and eat Italian food instead of tacos? Haha, well, that too. Unfortunately, there are never enough meals for me to get to everything.
What is your practice schedule like when you're on the road? It depends on what I have to prepare and how much time I have. We live in New York City now, but we only spend maybe one month a year at home, so if I didn't rely on practicing on the road then I would never practice. It's hard. Having said that though, there are a lot of great times that I have alone on stage in beautiful concert halls when I can practice undisturbed and that's really fantastic.
Your wife (Lucille Chung) is also a concert pianist. Do you work it out so that you usually travel together? We try. We play a lot together and so that helps. And then if one of us is free, we try to travel together. We just always have to arrange it so that there are pianos for both of us to practice.
How do you balance your relationship since it is so closely tied to work? There's nothing to balance. That's our life, basically. It's amazing, actually, to be with someone that does the same work that you do. Sometimes people ask if we're competitive, but there's not really any kind of competition because we do different things. It's not like we take the same auditions. We are never competing for the same jobs. The fact that we can understand each other and listen and criticize each other -- that's amazing.
Will she have notes for you after your performance Thursday night? I'm expecting a long list from today's rehearsal already!
This Barber concerto is not a piece you hear all that frequently. Have you performed it before? Only twice ... both times were this summer at Grant Park in Chicago, which is a fantastic venue. They program a lot of American music. It's a very great piece. No one plays it anymore, and it is such a great concerto.
Yeah, it's amazing. I love how it starts with this big piano entrance. What is that moment like for you on stage? Well, I think it's always the most magical moment. It's the biggest responsibility to break the silence. It's more than just silence. Right before you start playing the first note of any piece there is this great silence filled with anticipation. It's very exciting. Actually, this is one of the most comfortable ways to start because it is not really subtle, you know, you just really get to make an entrance. That's why I think this is probably the greatest American piano concerto -- actually maybe THE American piano concerto. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is great, but this is a full scale concerto with three movements. It's very romantic in structure but then the language is so typical of Barber. You have this big introduction that says, "Here I am!" and then a big cadenza, which is so typical of classical structure. It touches on so many different things: it is so intimate in the second movement, for example, but then as far from intimate as you can get in the last movement.
You've worked with Jaap van Zweden before. What is he like as a conductor? He's really ideal in many ways. What I really admire, obviously, is his energy and commitment. He's very picky. He never lets anything go. He's a perfectionist and that frees the players during the concert because they don't have to worry about technical issues. Musically he has a great combination of working on the smallest details to make them special and at the same time keeping the big vision of the whole.
You have a pretty great career right now. You just finished a South American tour with Joshua Bell. Is this what you thought your career would be like at this point? I don't know. You can't really plan. This weekend is very exciting. I'm so happy to be here. Hopefully I get to do this for a very long time.
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Do you feel like the classical music world is intoxicated by youth? How do you maintain staying power over time in this hyper-competitive world when there's always a new young performer coming up behind you? (Bax is 35) It's not something you can plan. All I can do is just love what I play and never compromise and do the best I can do. I mean, you do have to adapt to the times with social media, but that's a side I don't mind at all.
Do you tweet? I tweet all the time. Too much probably.
That's good. Sometimes I think regular people think classical musicians are weird and don't ever tweet or watch TV. Let's talk about TV. I love Breaking Bad! I just watched the next to last one. I have no idea what is going to happen next week. They do such a good job of keeping us guessing.
You can hear Alessio Bax perform with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, and you can send him a tweet about the Breaking Bad finale @allesiobaxpiano.