Alex Raineri is one of the three finalists in the 2017 Freedman Classical Fellowship competition. As a way of discovering the interests and concerns of younger musicians, each has been invited to contribute and Inside the Musician article and all three articles appear in this edition of Loudmouth.
In this article, I will share thoughts and stories relating to my experiences of being a musician today.
I play the piano, which is not a unique thing to do. Tune into any international piano competition, and you’ll quickly get an idea of how many young pianists are currently playing at a terrifyingly Olympian, world-class level. Within the professional performance sphere, I find it difficult to ignore the reality of existing within this giant pool of incredibly talented colleagues and to avoid feelings of doubt, competitiveness and tension creeping into my artistic practice.
Being an artist in 2017 is a privileged position to hold. Each musician will have his or her own subjective means of rationalizing how their music-making contributes to society in a meaningful way. I don’t believe that music should ever be a high-brow pursuit. It is a form of emotional and intellectual stimulus that can comment (albeit abstractly) on the world around us and on the nature of the human condition.
Competitions were a huge part of my childhood and early career phase, and, on reflection, those experiences taught me greater lessons than I was ever able to recognize at the time. Taking out a prize in a notable competition can be extremely useful for career trajectory, but I feel that it’s important to not let this override your artistic ambition. This seems to be a pitfall especially for pianists and singers, as we tend to subject ourselves to a culture of competition hopping and critical success.
Competitions are unnatural. I don’t embrace the notion that the winners of major competitions are the most valuable artists – often the prizewinners are never heard of again! When playing in competitions, so many factors come into consideration – nervousness can lead to slippery execution, momentary memory blips, negotiating the tension of striving for perfection under pressure, performing for a panel who are being paid to judge your playing – it’s completely divorced from the rationale behind creative music-making. It turns music into sport. Having said this, I find that the impact of practising under this pressure heightens the intensity of my preparation and I believe I have often emerged from a competition experience as a better pianist, regardless of whether I took out a prize.
I have been fortunate to have had some notable successes in the competition field. More often than not, I am introduced to the stage as “Alex Raineri, winner of the Australian National Piano Award”. Despite it not being a creative turning point for me, it has been an important milestone in establishing my identity as a serious performer.
When I perform I very rarely suffer from nerves. In a competition setting however, I struggle to maintain the same level of composure. As my teacher used to say, “you should be in it, but not of it”. I haven’t quite figured out a way to exorcise myself from the anxiety that comes with being judged, but perhaps that’s why I’ve found my current career trajectory leading me down a path that is imbued with a broad spectrum of projects.
Over the past few weeks, this broad spectrum of projects has involved performances in multiple states which include being a featured soloist in six concerts with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, a solo recital, chamber programs with cellist Natalie Clein (Utzon Music Series at the Sydney Opera House), trumpeter Tristram Williams, Southern Cross Soloists (including a Mozart Piano Concerto), ‘ANAM Artists’ touring program, a top-secret recording project with soprano Jessica Aszodi (keep tabs on www.alexraineri.com to find out more) and playing for nine undergraduate recitals at the Queensland Conservatorium. I’m also writing this article in Charters Towers, North Queensland, where I’m on tour with Bethany Simons performing in a cabaret called Reception the Musical. Having such a diverse scope of musical activities is really exciting for me as a performer. Whether I’m the feature artist or playing a supporting role, I’m so thankful for the opportunity to live such a colourful and varied performance life, and love being on tour so much.
When I was growing up, a big question for me was – what kind of piano player do I want to be? This brings me to the problematic notion of identity and branding. As a kid, one of my party pieces was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. My naive younger self was set on the idea of being a jazz pianist, but as I got older, my love for the classical repertoire grew and now embodies the bulk of my arts practice. After recently seeing Ryan Gosling in the movie La La Land, I’m glad I didn’t go down the jazz path, I don’t think I could live up to that standard of cool…
Even now after working professionally for ten years, I’m often still asked these kinds of questions “what kind of pianist are you?”, “are you a soloist or chamber musician?”, “I saw that you play contemporary music, but now you’re playing Mozart. I thought you were a new-music specialist?”, “I didn’t know people could be curators and performers!”. As a pianist, I don’t have the prospect of steady employment with an orchestra or opera company, so freelancing needs to encompass as much as possible. I have a healthy appreciation for wine and cheese that needs to be supplemented by a reasonably steady and regular income. And then there’s the important life purchases like buying a new piano, buying a car, an apartment… I couldn’t imagine freelancing within only one facet of music-making. Specializing ultimately narrows your employment opportunities. For me, the much more important aspect is that I can enjoy being a concerto soloist one day, playing for student recitals the next, chamber music the next day, contemporary music program the next day, and so on.
My least favorite label is ‘accompanist’. ‘Associate artist’ is a nicer term, but the issue is the lack of understanding regarding the role of the pianist. Serious musical partnerships acknowledge the equality of the roles regardless of whether they are primary or secondary, or rather, this becomes irrelevant as the roles are constantly shifting focus in a genuine collaborative environment. I mention this because the culture of (mostly unintentional) disrespect and lack of collegiality in being called ‘an accompanist’ for me can inspire thoughts that lead to uninterested and uninteresting piano playing. I truly believe that it’s my job to transcend these labels and just make music. The fundamental concept of performance isn’t any different in various contexts. The way I self-identify as an art maker is an attempt to synthesize all of these various aspects of music making. I am a soloist, a chamber musician, an associate artist, a curator, an exponent/commissioner of new music, and despite being a ‘classical musician’ I sometimes dip into jazz and cabaret. Ultimately, I think of myself as ‘an artist’. Labels feel silly!
It’s interesting that the common conception of classical music is that of a celebration of work by dead white males. I find it really exciting being part of a contemporary music culture that is actively pushing to break down and destroy this stereotype. Appearing more and more in concert programs are composers of diverse ethnic backgrounds and composers of both genders. Off the top of my head I can name a list of incredible Australian female composers – Liza Lim, Mary Finsterer, Annie Hsieh, Kate Moore, Cat Hope, Samantha Wolf, Corrina Bonshek, Lisa Cheney, Cathy Milliken, Melody Eotvos, Holly Harrison, Jessica Wells, and so many more. I was on the panel earlier this year for the APRA/AMCOS Instrumental Work of the Year. At least half of the nominated works were by females. I don’t feel that it’s my place to comment on the political aspects of programming works by female composers but being able to address the inappropriateness of a male-dominated classical canon in a small way lends a sense of meaning to my practices.
My love of contemporary music started in my second year of my undergraduate course at the Queensland Conservatorium. I was asked to play in the Steve Reich Sextet with the Ba Da Boom Percussion and this was really the start of a spark that caused a fire that continually burns brighter and brighter. A number of my colleagues shy away from contemporary music as being too abstract, or too difficult and unfriendly, but like any aspect of art, there is endless complexity to the range of materials being produced by composers. A colleague of mine once eloquently summed up artists’ responsibility in being active commissioners and presenters of classical music as “not embracing the death of the art form”. It sounds a bit blunt out of context, but classical music for me isn’t about worshipping the work of dead white guys.
I’m really excited to be in the process of recording an album of new solo piano works that I’ve commissioned from Australian composers James Ledger, Chris Dench, Samantha Wolf, Samuel Smith, Corrina Bonshek and Liam Flenady. I’ll be touring these works around Australia and to various international destinations in 2018. Keep a look out!
While contemporary music is a driving force for me artistically, I don’t think I’ll ever give up playing older repertoire. I love it so much. My favorite composers are Brahms and Mahler. In addition, there’s something very touching about respecting the legacy of works that have stood the test of time.
I’m constantly being struck by the emotional resonance that music can inspire in people. I don’t feel as though I have a fresh interpretative spin on a Beethoven Sonata, but I’m still going to play it, because it’s beautiful transcendent art, and it’s meaningful in different ways to each person in the audience. I’ll never forget an instance when I played a solo recital earlier this year. At the end of the performance, the host stood up in front of the audience and said that despite all of the craziness and misery that seems to imbue the world news constantly, she thanked me for giving them something to live for. That sounds corny in writing, but it was a really lovely reminder about how music can be transcendent and extremely meaningful, and I’m so thankful to have the ability to share my art with others.