BRITISH MUSIC CRITICS describe Italian pianist Alessandro Taverna (33) as the natural successor to Italy’s Arturo Beneditti Michelangeli (1920-1995) who arguably headlined the 20th century in pianistic skill and verve. Since winning the prestigious Minnesota International Piano Competition in 2009, Venice-born Taverna’s career has taken off exponentially, with awards, international concerts and significant recording opportunities. He performs this Saturday evening for the Johannesburg Musical Society, and graciously responded to an email interview with My View.
Warming to the expression of a “love affair with the piano” he says a musician is bound to his instrument in something similar to a love relationship. “Often everything in music starts with love at first sight, then comes the passion … sometimes you experience the ups and downs but what you soon understand is that you can’t help it”. He and his twin brother began music as six-year-olds.
“During the first years of my musical education, I played simply because I liked it and I liked to read as many new pieces as I could, without thinking too much about my future career,” he says. But things began to change for him as an adolescent. When he was about 13 or 14, his piano teacher began to forge in him a more mature awareness towards his performed repertoire. It was about diligence, structure and technique, he says, over and above the pressure of competitions and performing in public. He trained at both Imola and on Lake Como (both institutions are famous in Italy and worldwide for their piano academies).
Thirteen years later, Taverna won the Minnesota competition – and was awarded bronze and silver in the London and Leeds piano competitions – which effectively started his international career. Now, he looks back on that “competitions-phase” of his life “in a more disenchanted way, without denying that the competitions have undoubtedly represented a crucial moment of my artistic growth.”
Winning competitions “can play just a small part in a career, which must be planned with intelligence, the spirit of sacrifice, and by looking carefully at what’s happening around you,” he adds. “Competition by itself is not sufficient to open the doors of any career, it’s just the first brick. Building a career is a combination of many factors that we must face with wisdom and humility.”
But the notion of a big challenge comes in the form of the “necessity to match my practice sessions with the other organisational aspects related to the career: travels, relationships, etcetera … you must find a good timing for each one of these: It’s a balancing act.”
Taverna has a strong and varied repertoire and significant teaching reputation. He records and performs regularly, but his teaching is for him the most inspiring. “When you teach, you basically speak to yourself. You first see your own weaknesses in your students, before anything else,” he adds. “Teaching is probably the last stage to come in an artistic path and it’s what fills your performing with a new awareness and understanding, especially regarding the technique.
“What my teachers gave me during the years I was a pupil has come back to me since I started teaching. And indeed only now I can fully understand the meaning of those teachers’ words and what they wanted from me. Teaching shouldn’t be separated from performing: the two complement each other. Performing is for me the source of my later reflections and inspirations on my new and old repertoire and also on what my pupils play.
On August 13, Johannesburg music lovers will be privileged to hear Taverna perform four ballades by Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt’s Tarentella di Bravura, Mephisto Waltz and his Concert paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto.
“These two composers represent two main sides of my musical soul. The romantic abandon and introspection, and the virtuosic and dramatic way to give voice on the keyboard to the most conflicting of feelings. Liszt has always accompanied me throughout my career, while the idea of presenting Chopin’s four Ballades (although they are not conceived as an organic piece) comes from the opportunity to explore the evolution of Chopin’s language in a form which is at the same time pastoral-narrative (it seems to tell the story of a people) and also deeply personal.”
Taverna’s professional repertoire stretches from Johan Sebastian Bach’s music composed in the 17th century, to that of Oliver Messiaen of the 20th century. “I wouldn’t speak about a ‘favourite’ composer,” he says, “But I feel I express myself better in a certain kind of repertoire, probably because it is better suited to my personality, to my character … and to my fingers. Among them I would certainly mention Liszt, Sergei Rachmaninov, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
“Twentieth century music and also some contemporary music has, in my opinion, the ability to unexpectedly reach the strings of the soul without filters, with the use of the harmonies and their links, the colours and the effects that arise from the extreme exploration of keyboard possibilities.”
Taverna first visited South Africa eight years ago, when he gave a masterclass at the University of the North West. “What I love most about this wonderful country is the genuineness with which music is experienced,” he says. “The summer season which follows my visit in South Africa will include concerts and masterclasses in Europe. Among the highlights of the new season, I’ll play the two Liszt Piano Concertos at La Scala in Milan with La Scala Philharmonic Orchestra. In November my new all-French recital disc will be available in the United Kingdom and Europe: this album follows my Medtner Sonatas disc, which was well received by international critics. Towards the end of the year, I perform Mozart’s Piano Concertos K466 and K467 in Milan, Brescia and Bergamo.