THEO PANAYIDES meets a renowned musician, only to find an engrossed and emotionally naked performer who suffers from stage fright despite having spent his entire life on stage
Alessandro Deljavan has a cold. Or not quite a cold, just a cough, but it feels like it could be “the beginning of something big”, as he says in his hesitant English. It’s not surprising since he’s come straight from China (where it was snowing) to much-balmier Cyprus for a piano recital at the Shoe Factory in Nicosia, presented by the Pharos Arts Foundation. Before that he was in Montpelier, playing the Goldberg Variations, and before that in India (Hyderabad, to be precise) in early January; he leaves the Friday after our interview, back to his native Italy where he has to teach for a couple of days – then on to the US (“near Cleveland”) next Thursday, followed by another gig in Brussels on March 3. It’s a life that would test the health of the hardiest pianist.
There’s an added complication, in that Alessandro dreads performing. “Worried. All the time,” he admits, when I ask how he feels before a recital. Seats have been reserved for tonight’s event at the Shoe Factory by assorted VIPs, including various ambassadors and a former President of the Republic, but in fact it makes no difference who’s in the audience, or even how many. In China he was playing to full houses, hundreds or thousands of people – but it doesn’t matter if it’s two or 2,000, he’s still scared. “Scared of everything, really. This is my relationship with music, a little bit.”
It seems odd that he suffers from stage fright; after all, as he puts it, “I started playing the piano before I started speaking”. Alessandro gave his first public performance – an end-of-year show at his music school – at the age of three, and his first recital (where people actually paid to hear him play) at the age of nine! There’s more pressure now, of course; a cute little boy can make the occasional mistake at the piano, a world-famous pianist who’s recorded over 40 albums cannot. Still, you’d think he’d be used to the life after all these years.
I may have caught him on a bad day – though it should be noted that he doesn’t seem grumpy. Some of what he says might appear bad-tempered on paper, but in fact he’s a wonderful interview: warm, low-key, soulful. His voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper, as if sharing confidences with a new friend. He laughs a lot, the conversation ranging from Inter Milan (his favourite team, currently third in Serie A) to the “lucky underwear” which he nowadays tries not to wear while performing, “because I have to be strong myself, without the help of the underwear”. Garo Keheyan, the redoubtable president of Pharos, has meanwhile intervened, steering his guest in the direction of a pile of herbal teas, one of them helpfully labelled ‘Organic Tea Against Cough’. Alessandro takes little sips of the yellow tea, talking of Mozart, Beethoven and less exalted things: “Do you have Masterchef in Cyprus?”.
His look is rather distinctive, a bushy beard topped by a bald dome – the head presumably shaved to disguise a receding hairline, despite his youth (he’s just turned 31). The face, in conversation, is polite and patient – but you only have to watch him on YouTube, for instance in a clip where he plays Chopin’s Etudes, Op. 25, to see how his facial expressions change and contort while performing. The eyes shut. The mouth juts open in a silent scream, then works furiously as if singing along with the music. The head leans in close to the piano, as if physically trying to push the notes along. At one point, when he plays a series of short arpeggios, he grimaces so violently you feel he’s about to start yelling at them.
Does he do it on purpose?
He shakes his head ruefully: “It’s completely not in my control,” replies Alessandro, and sighs. “It’s something I hate, of course! I hate to watch myself playing with this, uh, extreme passion. It’s something I try to control but it’s not possible, unfortunately. That’s why people should close their eyes and listen, maybe”.
The act of making music is a kind of release for him – though also a kind of captivity; he’s engrossed when he plays, and emotionally naked. There’s one exception to the rule that he doesn’t care who’s watching him play: “I think a musician should be honest, and be himself and show himself to people,” explains Alessandro. “That’s why I don’t like to have people I know in the audience”. Tonight, for instance, his programme includes a short piece that was specially written for him by a friend, an Italian composer – and the friend is coming over from Italy to hear him play, which he’s somewhat conflicted about. “It’s strange to have a part of your life listening to your concert. I mean, it’s extremely intimate for me.”
He wasn’t always so self-conscious. As a child, playing music was just a fun thing he did, like playing football – and his parents were smart enough not to make him practise when he’d rather be playing football. “It was all natural. I was playing and enjoying, and taking many risks,” he recalls. “Probably I started working on the piano when I was 18.” The turning point may have been earlier, at the age of 12 or 13, when young Alessandro was enrolled at the Milan Conservatory and started flying there and back (from Pescara, where the family lived) every week. That’s when he realised his life was different from other kids’, and may have begun to feel the pressure.
Something else happened at the age of 12: his father, an Iranian professor of architecture, died of brain cancer, having been sick for four years. Alessandro has a vivid childhood memory of practising at the piano and his father sitting on his bed, listening to him play: “He was telling me, ‘It’s so beautiful that I am almost falling asleep’. So my goal [after that] was to make him sleep when I was playing, and putting all my – all my soul in it”. He sighs: “I remember great things about my father, yes. It was a short relation, but extremely intense”. One reflexively assumes there’s a pushy parent behind every toddler singing Mozart symphonies (Mozart himself having been the victim of a pushy parent) – but his childhood doesn’t seem to have been like that, and there’s no resentment in any case. Alessandro is still based in Abruzzo, a short drive away from his mother, and family remains very important. “I have a very close relation with my mother. She is probably my first fan. And of course I am her favourite pianist.”
Still, there’s a melancholy there – maybe related to that early loss, and the way his musical memories are unconsciously entwined with memories of an ailing father. At one point I wonder if he plans any new career moves; this is all he’s ever done, after all, and he’s still so young. Even if he played the piano for another 20 years, he’d still only be 50. “But who knows if I will live another 20 years?” he replies unexpectedly, masking the chill in that remark with another rueful laugh.
Sure, I persist, but assuming he does – would he like to try some other life too?
“Actually, I’m trying to understand if this is my right life,” admits Alessandro.
Does he regret having devoted his whole life to music?
“Sometimes, a little bit. But of course I understand that there is nothing to do, I mean this is my life. I just – have to find a way to make it a little bit better. And it’s possible. It’s possible.”
Is it just exhaustion talking? The weary ennui of a man flung from China to Cyprus to Cleveland (these past few weeks have been unusually packed), not to mention a man who may be coming down with a cold just a few hours before a performance? Or could I be talking to a musical prodigy on the cusp – a man who no longer has the appetite for the draining, intense performances he’s produced since early childhood? Playing music is just so demanding. “I say to my students” (he teaches a class in Foggia, southern Italy, for about 12 students) “that every time I play I lose two weeks of my life, I think!”
There’s a precedent for this: at the age of 31, Glenn Gould (one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, and certainly among the best-known) stopped giving concerts, retiring from public view to become ever more reclusive. “He was scared,” sighs Alessandro when I mention Gould. “He was very scared. And he probably died because he was scared, of himself. He was an amazing personality… But I understand, I understand. It’s very difficult to construct a relationship with each of the persons who are listening [when you play]. You know, it’s such a complex job.”
Does he talk to the audience? Does he try to create a rapport?
“No, absolutely not. I’m so scared.”
Is it just that he’s shy?
“Probably I’m a little bit shy. Probably I’m – not good enough to talk, and to explain.” He doesn’t compose music either, he tells me later; he just plays, that’s his only vocation. “I believe you can [only] do one thing very well.”
But he teaches too, right?
“Yes, but I’m not a good teacher, I think”. He considers this: “I’m a good motivator, probably. But maybe I can play the piano a little bit better than teaching. And maybe I cook even better than playing the piano!”.
Cooking is his other big passion (hence the mention of Masterchef); his risotto is apparently legendary, at least to his mates. “I love to cook, I really enjoy it,” he says, adding wryly: “Maybe cook for a person I like, is even better”. There is such a person, a woman to whom he’s “very near”; she’s also a musician, with a similar lifestyle to himself (but perhaps “a little more positive” in general temperament). Alessandro, unlike the eccentric Glenn Gould, seems to thrive on being normal, cooking his risotto, watching Masterchef and the San Remo music festival – he loves competition, as long as he’s not competing himself – spending time with loved ones: his mum, his sister, his new baby nephew. Maybe it’s a way to cushion the intensity of what he does at the piano, just as his modesty and self-deprecation (and the way he whispers his replies, sipping tea and chuckling ruefully) also serve to cushion that intensity.
There’s another variable at play here: what he does, as a classical pianist – however intense, however acclaimed – is an art in decline (let’s not say ‘dying art’, just in case a solution is found). The old gets ignored in a culture that worships the new. “I mean, we are losing so many publics. For us, for the young generation – I’m not that young, but for the young generation – I think Asia is the future”. That continent (especially China and Japan) has a newly-acquired hunger for Western classical music, making up – at least for a while – for growing indifference in the West itself. Alessandro Deljavan is a 31-year-old playing 200-year-old music for an audience whose average age is about twice his own. No wonder there’s a melancholy tinge to our conversation.
Where would he like to be, in 10 years’ time? “In the cemetery of Paris!” he replies (I assume he’s thinking of Père Lachaise), laughing merrily at my shocked expression. “You can come and visit me, if you want. I would like a nice cemetery, with all the important people!”. To be fair, it sounds worse than it is; he seems cheerful enough, sipping Garo Keheyan’s herbal tea on a nice Thursday morning at the Shoe Factory. I suspect he’s tired, more than anything – plus of course Alessandro is an artist, and artists are allowed to have a dark side. Beethoven, for instance, was a very violent man, “he was walking with a knife on the streets! And yet we are all loving this amazing composer. I mean, it’s normal, to have a life of violence and then be a genius”.
He himself isn’t violent though, surely?
“I think I have a dark side also, but not that dark. I mean, I will not be in jail in the next five years, I hope.”
I get the sense his dark side veers more towards depression, I venture.
Alessandro laughs, his cough (and mood) much improved by the tea. “I don’t know, let’s not go to that argument, please!” he begs jovially, waving away my attempts at armchair analysis. “Please!… I don’t want to discover things now, before a concert!” Wrestling with his demons might get in the way of the performance; it’s bad enough having come down with a cold, or at least a cough.