Music News & Reviews

From chamber music festival to Philharmonic, pianist needs it all

In town two weeks ago for the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, pianist Alessio Bax is back to help the Philharmonic open its season.
In town two weeks ago for the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, pianist Alessio Bax is back to help the Philharmonic open its season. Lexington Herald-Leader

It's almost as if Alessio Bax never left ... well, for us, at least.

Two weekends ago, the pianist was onstage for three concerts at Fasig-Tipton as part of the core quintet for the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. Friday night, he will be back on a Lexington stage, at the Singletary Center for the Arts, helping to open the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra's 2012-13 season.

True, he slipped in a gig in Venezuela between those Lexington performances, but after six years as part of the Chamber Festival, Bax is happy to be back in the Bluegrass.

"I go to quite a few places over and over, but there is something about Lexington and the Chamber Music Festival that is quite special," Bax says during the few hours he has at his New York home on Tuesday between returning from Venezuela and flying to Lexington. "I usually stay downtown, and I love the restaurants and walking around, and then we go out to the countryside to play, and it's beautiful."

His return engagement has been a few years in the making.

"I discussed repertoire with Scott over a few bourbons, probably," Bax says with a laugh, referring to Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell. "That doesn't happen very often, I'm afraid."

It took a few years to coordinate schedules with the orchestra, although Bax did sneak into Lexington last winter for wife Lucille Chung's performance of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with the Philharmonic.

His own engagement will be to play another keyboard icon, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini in a program also featuring Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien and American composer Roberto Sierra's Fandangos.

The concert finds Bax in the midst of a Rachmaninoff tear, including recording an album of the composer's Preludes and Melodies that was released last year on Signum Classics.

"If I had to pick one composer for pianists above all the others, it's definitely Rachmaninoff," Bax says. "His music is incredibly difficult, but it's very rewarding.

"The Rhapsody is a short piece, but it has so much content because of the variations. Each one has different character, and it's a lot of fun to find the character in each variation."

During the last Chamber Music Festival, Bax was one of several musicians to conduct master classes at Central Christian Church.

"I always try to think about the music, and not so much myself, because the music is so much greater than whatever we can showcase of ourselves," Bax says. "For me, the freshest way to approach the Rach 2 (Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2) or the Paganini Variations is to go back to the score and see what his intentions were. By doing that, I always find that you get more original performances. The traditional playing is a little bit different than what you hear."

The big change for music fans Friday night will be seeing Bax playing in front of an orchestra in a big concert hall as opposed to a smaller venue with a handful of musicians or even playing solo, as he did the afternoon of Sept. 2, playing his own arrangement of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise.

"To me, it's very important that the pianist be able to play all different forms of music — solo, chamber and orchestral, concerto — because music is music whether you play it yourself or with three people or a full orchestra," Bax says. "I would be really sad if I stopped playing chamber music or if I stopped playing with orchestras. I need it all."