I am enjoying a cappuccino, that borders perfection, at pianists’ Lucille Chung’s and Alessio Bax’ tasteful, uncluttered and brand-new address on New York’s Upper-Upper West side. Lucille’s organizational skills translate into the modern, streamlined, yet comfortable chic atmosphere, echoing Alessio’s Italian classy design heritage that takes a decisively leading voice when it comes to the kitchen as well as, to my delight, handling the professional grade cappuccino maker.
This generous space that the attractive young couple calls home, when in New York, holds two grand pianos. One in their study that for now doubles as a guestroom, for practicing and teaching; the other one in the living room, for practicing simultaneously or to entertain each other and guests who typically are music lovers or musicians as well.
Playing the piano is what both regard as central to their lives. That’s why they might as well spend time doing it together. Two young, successful musicians in their own right, they share the rest of their time together, between juggling the piano faculty at Dallas’ SMU and their increasingly busy performance and recording schedules. In great demand as soloists, they have found themselves increasingly performing as a duo as well.Not that they necessarily planned it that way. Even though it always seemed like a great idea and it had happened on occasion, their duo performances have only recently gained in volume, taking up about 20 percent of their time, which was previously engaged with their professional solo performances. And, the truth is, they enjoy spending this ‘quality time’ at the piano together.
Playing as a duo creates endless opportunities of preparing and performing wide ranging and well-rehearsed programs and finally offers them variety, by taking the music on the road to different venues they like to travel to, together. How much more romantic could it get?
“It takes a lot of coordination,” says Lucille, who is in charge of all organizational details for the team. Alessio smiles happily, while claiming no interest in that domain, confirming: “We just decided this year to block out increased time for our collaborative performances. We have always played together sporadically, but never had made the effort to plan for it formerly in advance.”
Lucille describes the psychology of playing together: “It just needs to be at the right time, then we love to say yes, since we are a great team. There is total trust and…we think so much alike, we don’t even have to talk while rehearsing. We just know after a halt, where to come in again and how to communicate what we would like to happen. We think as a unit and that is advantageous for improving one’s security level within the repertoire. We feel free to take risks during performance and still are aware of the safety net, the complete support at the same time.”
Alessio, who also performs in his second year of artist’s residency with the prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and enjoys different colors and textures provided by the different instruments within Chamber Music, feels strongly about their two piano situation as well: “In a way it is an ideal situation in-between Chamber Music and Solo performances. It feels closer to a piano recital, in that there is greater freedom, yet there is also the sense of a strong partnership and a satisfying musical dialogue. The repertoire is wonderful and we can easily coordinate rehearsals.”
And then there is of course the social aspect of traveling together, which the couple enjoys anyway. They always like to accompany the other en route to performances, now as a duo, that extends to the stage. Lucille explains, “This year we have already an extra thirty duo concerts and right now we just came back from a whole Chicago tour that consisted of four different programs, including an exciting two-hour long perspective; live streamed from WFMT.com ,“ with solo, as well as duo performances, introducing both of their new recordings. This broadcasted show was followed by a program in Madison, Wisconsin, that included Brahms Waltzes Op. 39., as well as their own arrangements of Piazzolla Tangos.
Brahms will be performed as well this summer at the prestigious Music@Menlo’s festival.
Alessio’s CD is just in the process of being released on the Signum Classics label, entitled: Rachmaninov Preludes and Melodies and will be, I am sure, a further stunning example of Alessio’s virtuoso technique, which connects to a refined musical understanding and brings out the most expressive nuances within the music. Alessio pays homage to Rachmaninov, an artist he calls “the last of the Romantics.” And if one knows Alessio, one can feel a sincere kinship. But no matter whose music it is, he always devotes his serious exploration, and, in performance, it sounds so … incredibly right – in the best sense of right, as in finding beauty and truth in the music. On Alessio as a solo performer, please also compare my article http://english.getclassical.org/2010/11/05/pianist-alessio-bax-new-york-debut-recital-at-the-metropolitan-museum/ and on some earlier duo performances of Lucille and Alessio at Poisson Rouge also see my article http://english.getclassical.org/2009/10/25/new-venues-open-their-doors-for-classical-music-in-new-york/
Lucille’s CD, is called Mozart and Me. Recorded last summer, at the Conservatoire de musique in Montreal, and just released by Disques XXI Universal, it touches on an important musical place for her. Mozart was the reason Lucille became a musician. She explains, “…His music was so joyful yet innately accessible, so simple and yet so deep. I immediately felt drawn in and was forever hooked. I remember vividly on one occasion while rehearsing the concerto with a second piano, I had a vision of performing in a brightly lit big hall with orchestra. I could “feel” the energy and the audience surrounding me. Little did I know that this would soon become a reality and my life…”
And she is a musician with every fiber of her tiny frame that could have just as easily belonged to a dancer. A bundle of focus, she gives every performance the full range of its emotional message. Since her debut performance, aged 10, with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit, and subsequently touring Asia with the Orchestra, music became the natural habitat for the Canadian born Chung, of Korean origin. At the piano she is herself, with complete ease and natural gestures, whether giving a private lesson or in a grand recital hall.
Her Mozart Disc renders a most vivid account of her intimate pianism full of playful imagination – a perfect match for Mozart.
And then it gets personal: Was it thanks to the music that this couple met? Could they have imagined being married to a non – musician and does it not sometimes become too much of a good thing?
Alessio sees it this way: “It would be too different, if we would not both deeply care for music. Almost every single hour of the day we are involved with music. It becomes almost impossible to find a moment that is not musically related. So I cannot imagine being with a person whose life centered on totally different agendas. It would disconnect on so many levels. Every person, every couple is different, but my reaction is: How could it work otherwise?” And yet Lucille comes up with another, yet equally convincing point of view: “If you would have told me that I would marry another pianist before I met Alessio I would have said, I don’t think so. Rivalry, egos… every thought in my head would have answered it can’t work well and playing together on top of it? It would never have crossed my mind. And yet it has turned out to be quite a blessing. I love and respect his playing so much; it makes me want to play with him.”
Alessio adds,” As pianists we do not have to play with each other, there is no real interdependence as with a violinist and pianist for example and that could get tricky, if you chose someone else you’d rather play with. For us it’s a bonus, not a necessity.”
What about if the mood is not that great, you just had a fight and have to perform together on stage? “First of all, we are not very confrontational,” says Alessio with this expression that makes me believe every word he says. “We ultimately look for harmony and that translates into the music as well.” “And we never have gone to sleep without having resolved a problem,” says Lucille. “On stage we perform as one, focused as in a solo performance. I have played concerts when I was sick and the audience would not have picked up on it.” And, with a little bit of a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, “I don’t mean to sound corny, but I do feel that people get drawn into it when we play together, our romantic relation comes through in our playing in a positive, harmonious way.”
The couple met during the Hamamatsu competition in Japan in 1997, where Alessio was awarded first prize. At the time, Lucille was studying in Italy and was hanging out with the ‘Italian clique’ at the competition. Alessio was studying in Dallas, but since he was Italian, he joined the same group of friends. Their names happened to be in the first part of the alphabetical order that divided the groups for practice room assignments and scheduled performing time. So Baglini, Bannister, Bax and Chung spent time together while waiting to concertize, ate together and formed friendships. Yet after the initial contact, everybody went his or her own way. Until about a year later, Lucille sent out her new email address with a Christmas card greeting, which started an intense email- exchange.
It was not that easy at the time to keep up with the slow Internet connection and time constricted plans.
“The movie: You’ve Got Mail comes to mind,” says Alessio when thinking back to those times of waiting at the computer. Yet, while the relationship became more and more important to them, it was still limited to friendship, both of them were still invested in other relationships at the time. Alessio came to Florence to perform a recital and they even went out together, with their respective others, for dinner. And then Lucille came to Dallas. Alessio had just broken up with his former girlfriend and Lucille, who had accompanied her boyfriend, a violinist, who was performing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra…well, to make a long story short: Lucille left her heart in Dallas and Alessio, who was a bit clueless about Lucille’s affection, came back to Florence to have dinner at “Dante,” the same restaurant in which they had begun their friendship.
The rest is history. Lucille moved to Dallas and enrolled as student of pianist and educator Joaquín Achúcarro, who already was Alessio’s great artistic inspiration. Now they both contribute as artistic directors of the Achúcarro – Foundation that has recently partnered with the Phillips Collection in Washington DC., as well as with the Bravissimo- Festival in Guatemala, presenting young artists. Lucille and Alessio have performed at Bravissimo yearly and one of this year’s highlights there will be a production that involves Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet score, performed by. …Puppets. Incorporating a special childhood memory of Alessio, this will provide an interesting performance motif, produced by a puppet company based in Miami. The puppets will work with a video of a previous duo -piano performance of that score, by Lucille and Alessio.
When Alessio was invited to perform for the recorded Master class of Daniel Barenboim in 2005, he was impressed how well the Maestro understood how music relates to life and how extraordinary well he could explain that connection, making music the ultimate medium of human experience.
While still relatively young, the musical couple already has collected remarkable experiences throughout their melodic life, its travels and wide-ranging performances. Alessio draws on some of them in his blog: Alessio Bax…have piano, will travel (http://alessiobax.blogspot.com/)
“If there is something I’ve learnt from these various self-imposed musical “expeditions” of the last few years (two Trans-Siberian tours and three Canadian Prairies tours), this is precisely it. An invaluable lesson of what is REALLY important, in music, or life for that matter, and what at the end of the day our ultimate goal should be in music making. Beauty, simplicity, immediacy is what makes music so universal. I’ve been lucky to experience that feeling in some of the most remote corners of the globe and see first hand the amazing effect that music has on people. No matter how long we work on every single minuscule detail, we should never forget that gut feeling, that visceral emotion that inhabits great music and is able to touch every soul in the exact same way, regardless of geographical, religious or cultural differences.”
The key to their extraordinary partnership may just lay in the distinctiveness of their own individuality. Whether as solo performer or as a duo team, classical performance seldom gets more attractive.