Harvard, NEC, and Gardner Museum concertgoers may be used to thinking of pianist Charlie Albright as one of our own, and at that, a mostly serious sort of young musician. It turns out he is out in the world now, currently touring with pops orchestras. BMInt spoke with him recently on the road in the Deep South, prior to his homecoming Boston Pops Gershwin appearance Wednesday and Thursday nights in Rhapsody in Blue. The concerts will also feature more Gershwin with noted singers Nicole Cabell and Nmon Ford. More details here.
A companion interview with conductor Daniel Charles Abell is here.
FLE: Your bio has you studying and playing the piano since you were three. Do you have any recollections of not playing?
CA: Not really. When you have a distant memory, sometimes you’re unsure if it’s a real memory or something that your mind fabricated to go along with the story. I don’t remember not playing the piano is the best way to put it, but I remember when I was three we had a little broken upright, really, really dinky and rundown.
My mom is Korean, but my dad is a little bit ‘everything Caucasian’, from Akron Ohio. Mom had grown up in Korea where everyone plays a little piano or violin. Everyone just learns it when they’re a kid and so she knew enough that when we had this rickety upright I climbed up and started pecking out “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and she was in the kitchen or something, and she came in and asked me where I learned it, and I said I had just heard it somewhere. So she started me with neighborhood teachers, then with the old lady who lived a block down the road in my small town, who played the accordion and the organ and piano. I had several like that and one of the biggest teachers growing up was a lady who owned a little piano and organ store in this little rundown dying mall-type area. For years my dad and my mom would take me and the teacher would teach me oldies and we’d switch back and forth and improvise and all kinds of stuff between organs and pianos. I played by ear basically. I didn’t learn how to read music at all. And then I was taking lessons from a jazz teacher in Olympia when I was about 6 or 7, and he recommended a classical teacher, saying I needed to have about a year’s worth of classical training to develop technique, skills for fun songs. And so I started with Mrs. Adsit, who is an amazing teacher and classically trained and oriented. So I had to learn to play what was on the written page and interpret things properly, and I didn’t stop. I was with her up until I went off to Harvard.
So I went to her for about 12 years. She no longer lives in Olympia; she’s now in Michigan, where she grew up, but I’m so excited, she’s coming to the concerts next week. It’ll be the first time I’ve seen her in about a year; I get out to Michigan occasionally.
You seem to be as omnivorous about education as you are about the keyboard. After the NEC / Harvard joint program, you got an AD from Juilliard. Are you going to be a lifelong student?
When I was finishing up high school, I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, right? At least point the needle in some direction. And my parents aren’t wealthy at all: my dad’s retired from the Navy; my mom she works as a student supervisor in the local community college library; both parents have associate degrees and that’s it. I had to figure out what do I want to do with my life. Obviously I love piano and music and at that point I was performing more and more and starting to get out of the Northwest. I was performing in New York and the Northeast a bit more often, so I was traveling for music and loved it but also had to figure out how am I going to pay for college and what exactly do I want to do. To boot, my dad has a chronic disease, one of those really freak-of-nature ones, called reflex sympathetic dystrophy, RSD, basically a neurological disease, and he’s in pain all the time and they don’t really know why and there’s no cure. Anyway, I thought, if I can’t do music—music is a lot of practice and stuff, but a lot more of it is luck, God’s blessing, being in the right place at the right time, things that are out of your control—if music wasn’t an option, medicine was always an interest. So I thought about joint programs and applied to a whole bunch of them and it turned out that Harvard and NEC was the best match because, one, it was free; two, they’re both good schools. It worked out well.
So I went there and my concentration at Harvard was economics but I did premed, and kept doing music the whole time. During college I performed more and more; eventually it got to the point where I was gone every week, roughly. And most weekends I would be away and then come back to school on the weekdays and go to class and then email in homework. Nearing the end, people were always asking me, what are you going to do when this is over? I interned on Wall Street and all the stuff that they do, and I realized that medicine and business, finance, they were interests, sure. Finance is a quicker way to make money. But music was a passion, and I realized there’s a world of difference between something you’re interested in and something that you’re really passionate about. So I knew I had to do music, and applied to artist diploma programs, and moved to New York, into Julliard, and here I am.
So you don’t have plans to go back to medical school or business school?
Correct. But it was a long process coming and I think I knew the answer deep inside for longer than I let on; I’m one of those people who put off having to make a decision until I absolutely have to, even though I know what the decision will be.
How did you do in organic chemistry and cell biology?
All right. I took most of the premed, but if I want to go to med school I think I have orgo left. I took all the other stuff. But I did all right.
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We been hearing you a lot at the Gardner in serious repertoire. How did this gig with the Pops come about?
When I was finishing up at Harvard, they asked me to play the Grande Tarantelle by Gottschalk. Have you ever heard it?
I know it: I’m from New Orleans and he’s a famous name down there.
We did it at a couple of concerts in May 2011 with Keith Lockhart and that was a lot of fun. Lockhart is also the MD at the BBC Concert Orchestra in England and they were coming to the States to do this 14-concert tour up the East Coast, and they asked me to play; this was last year. We started in South Carolina and then all the way through Florida and as high as Purchase NY. And we also played Shostakovich 2 and the Ravel G Major concertos. So I got to know him well and when they were planning their music they asked me to play Rhapsody in Blue a few times. So on May 1, the Pops came to Purchase and we gave a concert there, and this time it’ll be Symphony Hall.
It’s one of the concertos I’ve had longest. I remember playing it in high school. I love it, an awesome piece, so fun to play
Does your love of improvisation play into it? If you listen to the piano roll that Gershwin made himself, he’s not playing exactly what’s written in some places.
Exactly; I do take a lot of liberties, and it’s a lot of fun because there’re so few rules. You can’t break out into singing when you’re doing Mozart, but in Rhapsody in Blue you totally can, so there are lots of parts where I change up the rhythms and do things that aren’t really written down. The score is pretty straightforward (singing), but when you play it you can turn it into complete jazz. A swing, yeah.
A few months ago I played it with the California Symphony out near San Francisco. The music director is Gianato Cabrera, great guy, and we the original jazz band version.
The Paul Whiteman version.
Yes, so cool, and actually different. There’s an added measure or two here and there. The notes are the same but the way you have to play some of them is different because the orchestra plays with you, and that doesn’t happen in the orchestral version. I think like the second or third page right after the piano makes its first entrance, there’s a part where the band is playing along with the piano in parallel, so you can’t take as much liberty as you might otherwise. A lot of fun. You have a whole saxophone section and you have just one violin and one viola. It’s crazy.
I learned it when I was working with Mrs. Adsit still back in Washington State, and when I first learned it I played it fairly regularly, and I think I may have worked on it with Miss Byun at NEC.
Did you ever play for Russell Sherman?
I did. I haven’t in a while now, because I’ve been away for a few years, but when I was in Boston my weekly lesson would be with Miss Byun. Occasionally when I’m working on something that he specializes in, like a late Beethoven sonata, I would go have a master lesson with him.
Of course he loves Gershwin too.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, he’s amazing, what an incredible artist.
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You like to talk to audiences. Was that something you were encouraged to do by teachers?
I don’t think any teachers encouraged or discouraged me from doing it, but it’s something I really enjoy doing. I worked with Yo-Yo Ma a few times, and he is so open, verbally as well as artistically. He’d be so open to talking to people. If you hear him perform often, it’s not super formal.
I saw that certain people were doing it, and the responses from the audiences, not only people who are not necessarily classical aficionados but also people who are; the responses were always generally very good, because I think it lowers this artificial wall between an audience and a performer. Speaking to an audience really helps me connect with them. Psychologically it helps me just as much, and I’ve gotten lot of amazing responses saying that not only it makes it more personable but I know what to listen for and it makes the whole experience more human, more natural and less artificial. And so I started doing that and really have enjoyed it.
Oh! Well, it’s a piece that is Americana at its finest, right? You can argue this is the most American of compositions. Everyone knows it even if they have no clue about jazz or classical or anything. It’s a dialogue between the performer and the orchestra and the audience, and it’s so free that you can really just let it go. That’s the real point of the music. It’s all of these crunchy chords and all of these wonderful—it’s freedom. And so that’s Americana at its finest.
Do you wish you could play between the notes like the clarinetist does?
(laughs) No, I don’t know how good that would sound on the piano. I could start playing two at a time and emulate, and psychologically it would sound that way. But yeah I’m looking for it. I’m in Alabama right now. I’m doing Mozart C Major, tonight and tomorrow, and then I’m up to New York on Sunday, I think. Looking forward to it. I mean the whole program is Gershwin and I think Maestro Abell and I are planning some extra fun things in the concert as well.
I look forward to it; look for me quietly drinking bubbly at one of the tables. And you’re such an old pro now that you probably don’t need me to tell you to break a leg.
For some pieces, no matter how old you are or how many decades you’ve played them, you still need a little bit of luck!