This is the third interview in my Conversation Series and today young Romanian pianist, Alexandra Dariescu, is in the spotlight.
Born in Romania, Alexandra came to the UK to study at Pocklington School in Yorkshire, which was followed by the Royal Northern College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her teachers have included Nelson Goerner, Mark Ray, Alexander Melnikov, Dina Parakhina and Ronan O’Hora. She was the first pianist to be mentored by Imogen Cooper and frequently works with Hungarian virtuoso, András Schiff.
In 2008, Alexandra was selected by the Young Concert Artist Trust (YCAT) and she has subsequently developed an impressive career. She was a Laureate at the Verbier Festival Academy where she won the CUBS Bank Verbier Festival & Academy Prize. She went on to win the Guildhall Wigmore Prize and the Romanian Ambassador‘s prize for her outstanding contribution to promoting Romania’s image in the UK, as well as the Prix Maurice Ravel in France. Alexandra’s debut CD was released in July 2012 on Champs Hill Records.
Recent performances have included appearances at Carnegie Hall, Barbican, South Bank Centre, Bridgewater Hall and broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, and Classic FM. She has appeared with many orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Mecklenburgische Staatskapelle Schwerin.
Alexandra in action….
And for those who prefer to read my interviews, the transcript……..
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Romanian concert pianist, Alexandra Dariescu, was selected by the Young Concert Artist Trust in 2008 and since then she’s become hugely popular with audiences both here in the UK and abroad. Earlier this year, she made her debut at Carnegie Hall in New York and she’s got some more wonderfully exciting concerts coming up so I’m delighted that she’s taking the time today to join me here at Steinway Hall as part of my classical conversations series. Welcome, Alexandra. It’s lovely to have you here.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: Thank you so much for having me
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I’m going to start by asking you about your musical education. So, how old were you when you started and, I know you started in Romania? So how was that system different from the one here in the UK?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: I did start in Romania. I was seven years old and I was very much encouraged by my mother who loved both classical music and the piano so she took me to have an audition at the specialist music school in Iasi, where I come from and that’s when I started.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, I know you come from a sort of musical family because your sister’s a very talented singer, isn’t she? You were telling me about that. So what attracted you to the piano? What made you want to play so badly?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: I think I come from a very encouraging family. Not necessarily very musical because it’s only my sister that’s a wonderful singer. She is ten years younger than I am.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Is she?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: Yes, she is and I think she’s got a very bright future ahead of her. I think that with the encouragement I had from my family. For example, every week, we’d have the family over and it would always gather around the piano to hear me play my latest piece. [Melanie interjects, “Wonderful”] Whenever I did little concerts when I was very, very young, they would all come and I think it’s very important next to having a very good teacher to start you off with. [Melanie interjects, “Yes”] To have a very supportive family, which carries you I mean, even now, after twenty years of playing the piano, I still have all of that support and encouragement from my family.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: And of course when they all came to come to hear you, you get performing experience which is so important to have as a youngster really.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: Absolutely. That was one of the things I started: doing little recitals, even a few months after I started playing the piano so they were public [Melanie interjects, “Yes”] either in the music school or the national library but they were very, very important for every single child to start playing, it’s so important to be able to perform and then you know how to control your nerves [Melanie interjects, “Absolutely”], to transform them into constructive emotions.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. So, when you were in Romania, did you actually study at a conservatoire or did you take private lessons?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: I studied at a specialist music school and then two years later, I started having private lessons with a wonderful professor from the National Conservatoire.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: How did you develop your technique? Did you practice lots of Czerny’s or Hanon’s or did you learn the technique within each work when you started?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: I learned the technique within the work. I do think that technique is just a way of getting to express what you want to express. It’s like grammer or vocabulary. You do that and you learn it rigorously and just in order to be able to express your views. I didn’t learn it through every single piece I studied. I don’t think you should learn technique first and then sound and then what you want to achieve in the piece so it’s an all-rounded experience, I think with every piece I started. I did get my piano teacher. She came to me. I think I must have been around fourteen when she gave me the Czerny Opus 299 and then said, by the end of this summer you’ll have to have memorized all of them up to speed.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: And did you?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: I didn’t happen. Not all of them. [laughs]
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, one thing I wanted to ask you about because listening to your recordings, I noticed beautiful, rich, warm sound you produce so you must’ve been encouraged to do that from young and which teacher helped you with that? So how did she go about doing that?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: Yes, it was from a very early age. I think most of all it was the professor from the Conservatoire who always showed to me on the hand or on the arm exactly how to use the weight of the arm.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, it’s very important, isn’t it?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: Extremely important. And again, it’s very important for piano nuances but also for the forte/fortissimo because you don’t want a harsh sound. You want something that’s very rich, exactly as you said, and it all comes from the shoulder and the back and then the arms and the hands and the fingers are just the way, you know, the transport. [Melanie interjects, “Yes, that’s right”] to the beautiful sound.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Well, it’s really beautiful, your sound. Then you came to the UK and you went to the Guildhall and the Royal Northern, so how did that come about? Who did you start with there?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: First of all, I went to Pocklington School where I got a full scholarship in the Lower Sixth so I was in Yorkshire for one year. I had the Constantin Silvestri full scholarship and that was wonderful because the system is so different in this country and it was a marvelous experience for me. That was probably one of the best years I’ve ever had. Again, because we were talking about technique, in Romania, you don’t do grade exams so—
MELANIE SPANSWICK: It’s quite different from here.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: It’s very, very different because you’re not forced to do scales and arpeggios. You’re not forced, but encouraged. Whereas in Romania, you do competitions and this is how I got to come to Pocklington. It was one the music competitions I did. I got this full scholarship and I went to Pocklington and I remember it was in May, when the history teacher came up to me and he was the career adviser for the school and so he gave me forty pounds and he said, you should go to this….Umm…to do an advised audition at the Royal Northern College of Music, which I did and it was marvelous because I got offered a full scholarship for four years. I was very fortunate to get the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music Scholarship and that was a weight off my mind not to think about funding every single year. That’s one of the great enemies, I think, of students everywhere and I studied with the late Mark Ray, who believed in me so much and it was wonderful to have him as a teacher. Then, I studied with Nelson Goerner and Alexander Melnikov and Dina Parakhina so I had—
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Fabulous teachers.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: Extraordinary. I learned so much from all of them and it was brilliant to get each of these teachers perspective, although very different but at the same time, I think, together with Ronan O’Hora, who I studied with at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, they all have beautiful sound in common. That’s what I loved about it. You know, their ultimate aim is all about sound and what you want to express in your music.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, that’s wonderful. You are mentored by Imogen Cooper, aren’t you?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: I am. I was so excited. [Melanie interjects, “It must be wonderful.”] I was the first pianist to be mentored by the wonderful Imogen Cooper through the Royal Philharmonic Society. It’s a Philip Langridge Mentoring Scheme which was established about two years ago between YCAT/ Young Classical Artist Trust and the RPS. It’s wonderful to have Imogen as an inspiration [Melanie interjects, “I bet.”] as a mentor because she’s really encouraging me to develop both artistically and personally.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s wonderful. You’ve mentioned that you were selected by YCAT/Young Concert Artist Trust . A Wonderful opportunity and your diary must be packed now I expect after winning that.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: It is. I mean, I got accepted on the scheme in 2008 so I think it was just the right time for the scheme to come into my life. [Melanie interjects, “Yes.”] I was a fourth year undergrad and moved to London and it was such a wonderful… I can’t say transition but it’s the period of learning very much about doing concerts and what YCAT does is nurturing, encouraging and promoting young artists so I feel very blessed to be on this scheme. They’ve really opened so many doors for me with the RPS as well but very importantly, just going and doing concerts up and down the country, going abroad as well. I had my first South American tour last year and just this natural progression that I had from not so many concerts in the first few months of being with YCAT and we’ve build up so much; the wonderful opportunity to be able to collaborate with so many professional orchestras and play in very small venues but very important ones as well. And I’ve learned so much from all of it.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: And it’s lovely to have that experience so young as well, isn’t it? [Alexandra agrees, “Yes.”] Because a lot of pianists have to wait a long time before they get this opportunities but you’ve already got all that experience.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: That’s wonderful because YCAT is not a commercial agency [Melanie interjects, “No.”]. This is why it’s so wonderful because you get all of the support from them and advice: which concerts should you say yes to and which ones should you not do. There’s always the risk of wanting to say yes too much and they’ve been wonderful.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So which composers do you particularly enjoy playing or do you feel an affinity for?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: I don’t think I can single out a specific composer at the moment. What these four years have really taught me is how to programme and how to think in terms of my aims and repertoire. It’s been a learning curve; I have to say with no teacher choosing your own program. It’s very important how you program that as András Schiff says, your programming is your business card. People look at that to see, oh, is that a clever way to do it or not? Again, you have to challenge yourself by not doing only composers that you think they suit you but working very hard to understand that, you find that you’re not there yet. Of course with all of these pieces, it’s a very long journey. You live with them your entire life and it’s always to learn something every single day.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, I noticed your forthcoming program for the year. You’re doing quite a lot of Schumann and Chopin: the Schumann Fantasiestücke Opus 12 and the Chopin Preludes Opus 28. So, they’re all very small, intimate pieces. How do you manage to make them a whole, give them some unity? How do you work at that?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: Well the Chopin Preludes I’ve lived with for quite a long time. I studied them when I was an undergrad and I left them for a few years and I went back to them because I’m recording them in few months and I think they’re such extraordinary pieces. As Schumann said they’re eagle’s feathers. They’re not really preludes because a prelude needs to precede something whereas—
MELANIE SPANSWICK: They are definitely pieces in their own right aren’t they?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: Yes. Liszt used to say that there are poetic preludes. Every single one of them takes you to another mood, another emotion and I think as a whole, they go through every single emotion that a human being can feel [Melanie interjects, “Definitely.”] and I do find myself at home with them, I have to say.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. I’ve been listening to some of your playing; I can imagine that. It’s beautiful. And, I noticed you love playing chamber music because you’ve done a lot of string quartets, I should say piano quintets with string quartet and do you really enjoy this? Is this something you’re going to develop or you’d rather be on stage on your own as a soloist?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: No. My aim is to be a rounded musician so to do lots of chamber music, solo recitals and performing with orchestras. I think it’s very important to have a balanced life. That’s what I’m aiming at. I don’t have a chamber music group of my own because of the requirements I get everywhere else but I do love collaborating with people and what other better way to learn from people than playing with them. [Melanie interjects, “Absolutely.”] So I’ve been very fortunate to perform with the Elias Quartet, the Belcea Quartet and I’ve learned so much from them and from the music itself.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, I could imagine that. You’ve played at some fabulous venues though. Which one has stood out for you or do you just happen to like playing in all of them and you don’t have a favourite?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: I just love performing so as a concert pianist you have to adapt very quickly to the pianos, to the hall, how they respond and to the audiences, of course. [Melanie interjects, “Yes.”]. I don’t know. I think it was a marvelous feeling to go into the Barbican. Last year, I performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and it was completely sold out and the feeling that you get to be in such a wonderful hall where so many other people that I so greatly admire have been [Melanie interjects, “Yes.”], it’s just such a celebration between the performers on stage and the audience.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, a wonderful opportunity.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: It really, really was and in terms of recital probably I would say the Wigmore Hall. I love performing there. I mean, the piano is so outstanding and in a way, it works without you having to do any effort and not trying too hard and of course the audiences are so knowledgeable and appreciative and the acoustic in the hall works perfectly. [Melanie interjects, “It does, Yes.”] What I love about it is that they have this window in the ceiling and when you do a lunchtime concert, it’s quite extraordinary but sometimes there’s a little ray of sunshine comes in at exactly the right moment so it’s beautiful.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’ve had the opportunity to work with the great Hungarian pianist András Schiff, which must’ve been fantastic. How has that influenced your playing, you think?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: It’s been absolutely amazing to work with András Schiff. I’ve played to him before in some master classes at the RNCM and at the Guildhall but this year I was very, very lucky to work with him in New York at the Carnegie Hall and and then this summer at the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad in Switzerland. I think it’s just his astonishing knowledge. The wealth of knowledge he has about everything; not just about music but about art in general. In New York, we had a little private tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it was absolutely astonishing to see the renaissance portrait exhibition and Mr. Schiff knew everything about it. The history behind all the paintings and sculptures, the relationship between them, he knew exactly how you would even put together this sort of exhibition, why would you chose to put a painting here and a sculpture there. It was wonderful and it was such an eye opener and I think I got back after New York and after Gstaad with a thirst of wanting to read more, to be more knowledgeable about everything [Melanie interjects, “Yes.”]. In terms of the actual pieces I played for Mr. Schiff, I think it’s the technical aspect of every phrase. I mean, everything is so well thought in his playing. He knows exactly how to explain it and for me as a student to understand it because at the end of the day, he always says that the score is your bible, which is something that you think is easy to follow, what’s in the score but it’s the most difficult thing to get exactly deep into what the composer wanted, what his intentions were in that particular piece so to forget about your own views and follow exactly what’s in the score but you think how to make it your own.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Tell us about your future concert plans because I know you’ve got some really exciting concerts and recordings coming up.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: There are…Actually, this year is probably the busiest I’ve ever had with extraordinary opportunities. Actually, in a few days, I’m performing with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s a great concert, isn’t it? Very exciting. A piano gala.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: Every…A piano gala and it will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3. I’ve got a lot of debuts actually this season with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Ryan Wigglesworth, with the Bath Philharmonia with the Birmingham Festival Orchestra and Jamie Phillips who is the newest conductor for the Halle. One very exciting concert is my debut at the Royal Albert Hall [Melanie interjects, “That’s very exciting.”] with the royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Yes, it will be magical, I think.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’re going to be very busy. Very busy.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: I will be. There’s a lot of concertos at the moment. Actually, I’m doing quite a few Beethoven and Mozart concertos which is great because last year I was concentrating a lot on the Russian big masterpieces of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and Rachmaninov, so I love to go really deeply into the classical period.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. You have a huge concerto repertoire already. It’s amazing.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: I do. Yes and it’s difficult at times to be able…because there’s so many programmes of concertos that I have to keep up at the same time. [Melanie interjects, “I could imagine that. Yes.”] There are weeks with even three different concertos in different parts of the country. It’s a bit difficult in terms of travelling and rehearsals but I think if you do everything with all the passion you have inside, it’s easy.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What does playing the piano mean to you, Alexandra?
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: It means everything to me. Ever since I was little, I wanted to become a concert pianist. That was my dream. I never knew what the implications are and I’m still learning at the moment, I have to say. It’s a very solitary world because you are on your own most of the time. You practice on your own. You travel and you perform in solo recitals and afterwards, you’re on your own again but you have to love in a way, your own presence and your own company but at the same time, being surrounded by all of this beautiful music. [Melanie interjects, “That’s right. That’s the payoff”] It’s so inspiring. Yes, it really is and again, I am very fortunate to have released my first CD which is such a fulfilling feeling that you see it out there. It’s my first commercial CD and we’re recording the next one in March on Champs Hill Records again with Dutilleux and Chopin Preludes so it’s the complete preludes of each of these composers.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Well, that’s wonderful. Very good luck with that. Thank you so much for joining me today.
ALEXANDRA DARIESCU: Thank you so much for having me
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.