On Bernstein, Root Beer Floats, and the Jazzy Side of Beethoven

Music Director Donato Cabrera and pianist Charlie Albright reprise a celebrated collaboration for the California Symphony’s 2018–19 season opener.

We asked Music Director Donato Cabrera and returning virtuoso Charlie Albright about the upcoming BEETHOVEN & BERNSTEIN concert at the Lesher Center — Sept. 23 at 4PM.

California Symphony: Donato, you intended for the 2018–19 season opener to commemorate Leonard Bernstein’s centennial. Can you tell us why you selected these pieces of music for the program?

Donato Cabrera (DC): The works on this program not only celebrate Bernstein, the composer, but the impact he had on what it meant to program a concert as an American Music Director. The two works composed by Bernstein reflect what I believe to be the most infectious and joyful of his music. I can’t think of more joyous curtain-raiser than his Overture to Candide.

And, what celebration of Bernstein’s music would be complete without a performance of Symphonic Dances from West Side Story! This suite is basically the ‘greatest hits’ from this ever-popular musical.

We also remember Bernstein as being a great pianist and communicator and Charlie Albright’s charismatic approach to music making, paired with one of the most dramatic piano concertos ever written, is a perfect way to remember Bernstein, the pianist. And finally Bernstein, as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, was known as a great interpreter and proponent for music by living composers. Performing Gabriela Lena Frank’s Three American Dances for Orchestra is a way of keeping Bernstein’s mission alive and well.

CS: Why bring Charlie back to Walnut Creek?

DC: Charlie brings an enthusiasm to making music that is infectious and unique. He lives in the moment, whether it’s at the piano or in conversation and, for me, the most inspired and inspirational way to live! I’m looking forward to his interpretation of the Beethoven concerto because I think his personality will be a perfect fit.

“The entire audience stood and applauded until Albright returned for an encore of pianistic wildfire, and then for a second encore — Great Balls of Fire. Embracing a program of American idioms, Albright dispatched this with even more fire, and with glissandos that zippered up and down the keyboard.” — Adam Broner at RepeatPerformances.org on Albright’s 2016 California Symphony debut.

CS: How about you, Charlie? How is it for you, coming back to the California Symphony after your January 2016 debut?

Charlie Albright (CA): I’m absolutely thrilled to be returning to Walnut Creek, playing again with the amazing California Symphony, and working with my good friend and phenomenal artist Maestro Donato Cabrera. The last time we all worked together playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was a blast (as was playing Great Balls of Fire), and I really can’t wait until we all get to share the wonderful Beethoven 3rd Piano Concerto together.

Donato is just a great guy, and working with him is a ton of fun… Especially when we’re working over big root beer floats.

Root beer floats, celebrating the conclusion of the 2016 “American Roots” program, in which Albright performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and brought the house down with his Great Balls of Fire encore.

CS: Playing Gershwin last time, you were able to incorporate some improvisation, which is something what you’re particularly known for. This time you’ll be performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3. How does that compare?

Last time when we performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, we were able to take a ton of liberties and incorporate jazzy influences throughout the piece. In the Beethoven, we will be able to do the same… but in a much different way. From the dialogue between the orchestra and the piano to the intense emotions that Beethoven aimed to incorporate, there is a lot of room for putting your own “stamp” on things. One thing I enjoy doing (especially in this piece) is to completely improvise a large cadenza (which was actually pretty commonplace long ago). The neat thing is that I never know how it’ll come out until the concert!

CS: What is something people might be surprised to learn about you?

CA: People sometimes ask what I listen to in the car, fully expecting me to say “Beethoven” or “Chopin” or whatever. Nope! Korean Pop and American Pop music is usually what’s on while I’m cruising down the road. I like to think that I listened to K-pop before it became “cool.” 🙂

CS: We’ve seen the news reports from when you were a toddler, seemingly improvising songs you had heard your mom playing. When did you start playing and when did you realize you wanted to do this for a career?

This is a long one! Long story short, when I was 3 years old, I climbed up on a clunky, junky old upright we had in the house that my parents had gotten at a garage sale. I started picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” by ear, so my mom came in and asked me who had taught me that. I said that no one had, so she noticed I had a knack for the piano, and started me on lessons with several teachers who taught me exclusively by ear.

When I was about 7, a teacher I had told my parents I should have a year of classical training to develop technique (and then I could return to the “fun songs,” which included Great Balls of Fire and the Backstreet Boys!), and referred me to Nancy Adsit. I ended up working with her until leaving for college.

I knew I loved piano, but I also knew that my family wouldn’t be able to support me financially if music didn’t work out. So, joint programs where I could do both music and something else sounded like a great idea. I decided to do the Harvard College/New England Conservatory of Music 5-Year AB/MM Joint Program, where I did Pre-Med and majored in Economics at Harvard, while doing my Masters of Music at NEC. During college, I began performing and touring more and more (I’d often spend each weekend in hotels somewhere emailing in homework, and weekdays on campus going to classes).

Near the end of the program, I knew I had to make a decision. I realized that business and medicine were strong interests of mine, but that music was a passion…and that there is a world of difference between something you’re interested in and something you’re passionate about. I then decided to pursue music and to go to Juilliard to do my post-grad Artist Diploma.

CS: Nothing ever goes as planned. What’s the craziest thing that has ever happened to you during a performance?

Oh, man… there are too many to name! Once, I was performing with an orchestra on the east coast in July (where “hot” and “humid” are huge understatements). The day of the concert, the air conditioning in the concert hall died for the first time ever. Luckily, the musicians in the orchestra agreed to proceed with the concert, so the show could still go on and not have to be cancelled. We were all melting on the stage, though (and the audience was in the hall, too, despite the paper fans that were passed out). Midway through the concert, in the middle of the piece, I swung off my tuxedo jacket onto the floor. It turned out to be an awesome performance… and a memorable one!

The California Symphony’s season opener BEETHOVEN & BERNSTEIN takes place on Sunday, September 23 at 4 PM at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

Visit www.californiasymphony.org for tickets and more information.


, , , , ,