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Two Pianists, One Dream

September 24, 2019

It’s a thrilling story. Of bravery. Of courage. Of triumph over adversity. The story of a musical passion so deep it crosses oceans, and changes lives. It’s also the American dream, and it’s being lived by two pianists who will pool their talents on Sept. 27 at Herbst Theatre to open SF Performances’ 40th season with three tours de force of the piano repertory, Sergei Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, and Mily Balakirev’s Islamey.

Both artists are veterans of SF Performances having debuted in the Young Masters Series, Natasha Paremski in 2007, Alfredo Rodríguez in 2017. Paremski is a prize-winning classical virtuoso, performing as soloist with orchestras from Taipei to Moscow, and giving recitals in prestigious venues from the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires to Wigmore Hall in London. Rodríguez is a Grammy-nominated jazz phenom, touring the world’s elite festivals, often collaborating with his trio and, most recently, with percussionist Pedrito Martinez, with whom he released the album Duologue this year.

For 33-year-old Alfredo Rodríguez, life began in Cuba. The son of a performer and television personality, Rodríguez was a child prodigy, beginning his professional career at the age of 7. The Cuban system of music education is endowed with the benefits of the Russian traditions, and Rodríguez began his path much as Paremski was doing around the same time in Moscow, working hard on classical technique in a state-run environment.

“The schools in Cuba are very selective,” says Rodríguez. “It is free, but you have to be chosen to get in, and they make it clear that there are other kids who want that spot. So if you want to keep it, you have to work and practice. The competition is very high. It is very vigorous. That is one of the things I miss the most about Cuba, the spontaneous, vigorous passion.”

The musical traditions in Cuba were rich and vibrant. The audiences, however, were small. “I was sometimes playing with my trio and we were playing for one person, but we were giving it our all, and that is something beautiful Cuba has. Then, the first concert I did here in the United States was at the Hollywood Bowl for 15,000 people. But I was the same person who had been playing for one person in Cuba. If you love what you do, you give 100 percent, whether it is one person or a thousand.”

Rodríguez’s musical trajectory changed radically when he first heard a recording of the Köln Concert, Keith Jarrett’s’s seminal recording. Jazz and improvisation became his milieu, and Rodríguez flourished, but within the bounds of his country. At the age of 21, he traveled to the jazz haven of Montreux, Switzerland, where he was heard by legendary producer Quincy Jones. The idea of an international life of music was born, but it would take three years for Rodríguez to find the opportunity to make the move. His chance came in 2009, when he was performing in Mexico. It was a difficult choice. Now Rodríguez’s family has joined him in the States, but at the time, he did not know if he would ever see them again.

“I got arrested. I didn’t have someone to guide me so I just flew to the nearest city and went to the border.”

Lately we have all seen how badly a story like that can end, but for Rodríguez, a strategy of honesty and hope won the day. “Now I know that they could have just sent me back to Cuba,” he says. “Very fortunately for me, I told them the truth. I said, ‘I am coming here for music. I have met a producer [Jones] who wants to help me in my career, and I want to make a change in my life.’ Basically, all I had with me were my compositions, my music, my charts. I didn’t have PDFs or a hard drive because we didn’t have that technology in Cuba, so it was all on paper. They searched through everything, and I guess they understood because they let me go. It was an incredible moment.”

Now the international musical life is his reality. For this upcoming concert, Rodríguez — whose all-time favorite composer is Johann Sebastian Bach — is excited to dig in and explore his own take on works that have meant a lot to him. “All of my teachers were trained classically at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. We have so much influence from the classical world of Russia. I was introduced to Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev.”

For Natasha Paremski, the notoriously difficult works on this program are bread and butter, especially Islamey, which was so challenging to composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin that he injured himself playing it.

“I attacked it when I was a teenager, thank goodness,” Paremski says. “I wouldn’t want to be climbing that virtuosic mountain now, although I am climbing my share of virtuosic mountains. It’s difficult. It requires stamina. Control. Not getting ahead of yourself. Not playing too fast. And “Scarbo,” [from Gaspard de la nuit] was a direct reaction to Islamey, not in its content but in its virtuosity. Ravel wanted to write a piece that was equally unplayable. You’ll see in “Scarbo” there are a lot of repeated notes, and there are a lot of repeated notes in the Islamey.”

Paremski, born in Moscow in the 1980s, moved to the United States at the age of 8, already having studied for four years, but her piano studies were significantly interrupted by emigration. She describes the challenges of this change:

The economic and social situation was dire after the fall of the Soviet Union. It just so happened it was right around the same time we had the Silicon Valley revolution. My father, along with a team of about 10 scientists, was responsible for the first Soviet internet connection, in 1989. Because of that, he was high on the radar of recruiters in the Silicon Valley. But he didn’t want to go. He wanted to stay and make things better in Russia. But you talk to anybody about the early ’90s, every day got exponentially worse. It was an overnight thing. The night before the wall came down, it was safe for us little kids to run around in the yard, and literally overnight, because criminals were released onto the streets, it became unsafe. Then, my father was attacked within an inch of his life. While he was in the hospital the recruiters called again and asked, “Has Mikhail had a change of heart?” And my mom said yes. The recruiter asked to see him, and my mom lied and said, ‘He is in the country,’ because my dad had had his head beaten in. So she got power of attorney and signed with the recruiter, and when my dad woke up she said, “I have news.”

Her father emigrated first. “With a pack of cigarettes and a passport,” Paremski says.
“If that’s not the American dream! I think my parents made an agreement that within nine months or a year he couldn’t land on his feet with a job he would come back. He lived in a house with other Russian scientists, and he got a job and we joined him about nine months later.” (He is now a program manager at Cisco.)

Leaving Russia meant leaving behind state-sponsored music education. And when the family first arrived, they could not afford for Natasha to study. “I started piano lessons in Russia and they did notice that I had capabilities and was talented. But when we came here, we didn’t have money. In Russia, piano lessons are free. Here they are expensive. So I just focused on school, being bullied as the outsider, the newness of everything, the ocean. But then my Mom got these concert tickets for Evgeny Kissen. I had idolized him so much when we were back in Russia. The piano had kind of fallen off my radar, but we went to Davies Symphony Hall and it all came rushing back. I spent the whole concert crying, realizing how much I had missed it, remembering this thing I loved to do in Russia. I turned to my Mom and said, ‘do you think I can ever perform again?’ and she said, ‘That man works very hard!’ and I said, ‘I promise, I will work very hard!’ So my parents ended up sacrificing a lot for me. I got back into piano. I was 8 years old.”

Eight years after that tearful concert, Natasha made her own debut at Davies at the age of 16.

When the choice was made for her to resume her studies, the family knew the teacher had to be Russian, not only because the family valued Russian culture — no English was spoken in the home, and the food, the movies, Paremski says it was “all Russian all the time”— but both parents had studied piano, and understood the value of the Russian piano lineage.

Paremski talks about the Russian approach:

There’s a big emphasis on sound production. I think that’s what separates any core Russian pianist from the rest, the ability to create an enormous spectrum of sound, always avoiding harsh[ness] in the loud dynamics, and having a very special beauty and sheen in the quiet passages. That lineage started with Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubenstein, they are sort of the grandfathers of Russian classical music, followed by Rachmaninoff, and then there was Heinrich Neuhaus, who was indeed German [and Polish], but he was able to take what these people had made sort of with instinct and worked through, and actually make a kind of syllabus if you will, really put it down, in his book, The Art of Piano Playing. It basically details the very nitty-gritty of the Russian technique. I’ll say this: It’s not shy. Russian piano playing, Russian culture, Russian people, it’s very bold and it comes through in the approach to music making. And there is a big emphasis on technique. Neuhaus does a big diagram on Russian technique and the approach to virtuosity. Virtuosity not only encompasses playing fast and loud octaves, it encompasses having ultimate control over quiet passages. So anyone Alfredo would have studied with, if they were from Russia, they would have passed that along. And I studied with Russian teachers, even in the United States. In fact my teacher at Mannes [Pavlina Dokovska] was in a direct lineage from Neuhaus because she studied with his student.

Paremski was raised in Fremont and performed at an early age with the Oakland East Bay Symphony, Fremont Symphony Orchestra, and El Camino Youth Symphony, but both performers have a strong passion for San Francisco.

“The Bay Area is a place I’ve been very welcome,” Rodríguez says. “The first year I defected, in 2009, I went to Yoshi’s in San Francisco, and I have also played at the Herbst Theatre as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. It’s a beautiful place. I have beautiful memories of that theater. Usually when I go to S.F. I play at SFJAZZ, and they have created something really beautiful there. They have so much music every week, and that is something special for the culture and the children. It’s wonderful. And playing these works in this way, I’m really looking forward to it.”

The two pianists have not met. Each will take one half of the program. “We put this pairing together because Alfredo is our newest artist-in-residence,” says SF Performances president, Melanie Smith. “We thought, what if we mix it up this time? They are brave young artists. We’re thrilled to bring them together and have them be the kick off our 40th season. I think it’s a great way to start the year.”

Performing is always a leap of faith, but there is something particularly daredevil about a solo pianist, who walks onstage with nothing but their two hands, ready to throw down something spectacular. For Rodríguez, that bravery is personal. “My music is my experience. My life. That is all I can share.” He hopes that through music we can remember our common humanity. “We all as humans come from the same place. We come into this world naked.”

But barriers are everywhere in the musical world. National barriers that sometimes deprive artists of the freedom to learn and collaborate, but also barriers between styles and traditions, between approaches and interpretations, between classical artists who play from the score and improvisers who create in the moment.

The pairing of these two artists is an opportunity to hear two great players at the top of their games, and to listen to these masterworks in a new way. It is also an invitation, just for one night, to let some of those barriers come down.

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of SingerSpirit.com, a website for singers.