Donald Munro

Charlie Albright has an appetite for great piano music

Charlie Albright is the opening performer of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series.
Charlie Albright is the opening performer of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series. Special to The Bee

It’s bright and sunny in New York City – one of those rare, vivid-blue-sky August days where you don’t feel as if you’re bench pressing the humidity. As he ambles down the street, Charlie Albright is in a great mood. He has good reason to be.

The night before, the pianist made his solo debut at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center’s annual Mostly Mozart festival. He thinks his performance went quite well. (He played, among other things, the decidedly non-Mozart offering of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”) While his appearance was billed as a pre-concert recital, sort of a prelude to the main event, it’s still a substantial career milestone for a pianist to debut in the hall.

Now, on this perfect New York day, he’s ready to return to Avery Fisher this evening for his second recital, a repeat of last night’s program. But hang out with Albright for even a brief time and you realize there’s something beyond piano that’s important to him:

Food.

“I’m on my way to Chipotle right now to grab my fuel for the day,” Albright says. “There’s one not too far off.”

Flash forward a couple of weeks, and Albright is preparing to wing his way to Fresno for the opening concert (Sunday, Sept. 6) of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series. His performance is a good way to introduce the Fresno area’s new classical music season (including an accompanying roundup of season offerings).

Fresno hasn’t been on Albright’s radar very long, however. He’s a last-minute Keyboard Concerts replacement for German pianist Joseph Moog, who had to cancel for health reasons.

“I’m really excited to come to Fresno for the first time,” Albright says by phone.

Say what you want about today’s overabundance of online information – a world in which you can track what your friends are eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner, if they choose to share. (And many do.) In the classical music world, many performers. especially younger ones, are embracing the online connection with fans wholeheartedly.

“I enjoy communicating directly with people,” he says.

With short notice for an interview, I did what any audience member can: I went to Albright’s website.

There I found the standard bio (an impressive education at Harvard, the New England Conservatory of Music and Juilliard), discography (his debut CD was titled “Vivace”), awards (among them a 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant and 2010 Gilmore Young Artist Award) and critical raves (the Washington Post described him as “among the most gifted musicians of his generation.” I also found a link to his personal blog, where I learned that his family’s “wiener dog” is named Sophie.

(What you won’t find is his age. He says he prefers others “to not just compare me to other musicians based on how old or young I am, rather than the music itself.”)

Albright likes making videos to give his fans a backstage look at his life. That’s where I got a taste of his Avery Fisher Hall debut, from a tour of his dressing room overlooking Alice Tully Hall to him practicing backstage.

It’s also where I got a bit of a feel for him as a person: comfortable on camera, earnest and polite, a hard worker who still gets nervous before a big gig.

Is it oversharing to know he ate a big salad, burger and fries from a neighborhood diner before his first Avery Fisher concert? Perhaps for some people it is. There are musical purists who believe the offstage life of a musician doesn’t really matter, that what’s important is the music he or she makes.

“I completely respect professional musicians who want to keep a very solid line separating their personal and professional lives,” Albright says.

But you can’t separate the person from the musician. From my point of view, if I know something about the player, I can connect better to the work. It’s human nature. When people tell me they’d like to develop an appreciation for live classical music, one of my first suggestions is to learn about the artist. Find that connection.

It should come as no surprise that Albright, who spends a lot of his time bopping about the country – and who recently performed on an American tour with conductor Keith Lockhart and the BBC Concert Orchestra – is comfortable in front of the camera. On his blog there’s an old “Inside Edition” clip (with Bill O’Reilly as host!) reporting about Albright as a 5-year-old piano prodigy.

It turns out his mother (who was born in South Korea, which is where she met and married his father, a U.S. Navy serviceman, then moved with him to Washington state, where Charlie was born) heard him playing the piano at age 3. He’d never taken any lessons but had learned by ear.

Over the years, he was lucky he didn’t have “tiger parents” who forced him to practice, he says. He just loved playing.

He’s never lost his love of making up tunes on the keyboard. Along with works by Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin, his Fresno program features a dedicated interlude of improvisation.

He has it down to a routine: Albright asks members of the audience to provide three or four random notes. From that bare skeleton he constructs a minutes-long piece on the spot.

“It’s always different every evening I perform,” he says.

There’s a long history in piano music of improvisation, but as the art form got stuffier in the 20th century, it’s something of a lost art.

He takes care to record each improvisation he creates on the road, though of course some are better than others.

“If I ever become rich and famous I can hire someone to listen to them and transcribe them for me so I don’t have to write them down,” he says with a laugh.

Forging a meaningful career as a solo classical pianist is tough. He’s in it for the long haul, though he also has backup degrees in pre-med and economics from Harvard, just in case.

“There are tons of phenomenal musicians who just don’t really make a career,” he says in a 2012 video on his blog, this one a short documentary. “You need the hard work and talent, but it has to meet with luck. You need both to make it work. It’s such a gamble. But it’s so much a part of me that I don’t want to give it up.”

For now, he’s exulting in what it means to travel the world and be paid for doing what he loves.

He gets to eat what he loves, too.

“I’ve already looked up my hotel in Fresno and know there’s a Chipotle across the street,” he says.

Charlie Albright

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