Alfredo Ovalles, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I started playing piano at the age of five. According to my parents, I was the one who asked for lessons, which really surprised them since there are no musicians in my family. The first memories I have of wanting to be a musician come from watching Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson performing, which made me think being on a stage would be a lot of fun. To this day, the stage is one of my favourite places and is where I feel the most comfortable.

I declared to my parents the intention of becoming a full-time musician when I was about 15 years old. It took about three years of negotiations in order to be allowed to study only music after finishing secondary school. Given that classical music is not a very mainstream activity in Venezuela, my parent’s wariness toward my desired profession was fully understandable.

Because of this, I wouldn’t say I was inspired by anyone in particular to pursue a career in music, even if my teacher at the time, Carlos Urbaneja, was (and still is) an incredible role model. I was driven to music more as a physical need. If I don’t perform regularly I feel physically ill, as if I had a stomach bug or something similar.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I have been blessed enough to encounter fantastic teachers and mentors throughout my life. My main piano teachers, Carlos Urbaneja in Venezuela, and Krassimira Jordan in the US, are the two biggest people to credit for who I am as a musician and pianist.

Both of my parents, albeit neither of them musicians, definitely have to be credited for my work ethic, which makes me quite fastidious due to a phrase I often heard during my childhood. One of the most recent direct influences is Ingomar Rainer. I studied very briefly with him in Vienna, and his approach to historical musical practice gave me a lot of confidence in some of my own musical ideas, which previously I had thought were a little too idiosyncratic.

A very big influence to me as a musician was the fact that I grew up in Venezuela. With classical music taking place mostly in very specific circles, it was something I only experienced in practice rooms and concert halls. On the other hand, daily life was always full of other kinds of music – I started playing keyboards and writing songs in a metal band at age 17 (and still do), getting on a bus, going shopping, or just opening the windows of our family apartment meant having salsa, bolero, Venezuelan folk music, or any other sort of Latin American rhythm blasted around, whether one wanted it or not. This made me appreciate music in a much broader sense than if I had only grown within the confines of the conservatory, which probably has informed my approach to interpretation more than I can describe with words.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

As a classical pianist I focus mostly on contemporary music, but I also like to stay connected to standard repertoire as well as performing in projects more related to world music. Therefore the greatest challenge for me has been the pressure to commit to just one genre in order to be marketed more easily.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I try not to think too much about past recordings and performances as I prefer to focus on what can be improved. But if I have to mention moments where I have been happy with a result, I would say that I am very happy with my first album, Transoceanic. This is largely because we recorded it in about nine hours with and did very little post-production. That approach also seemed to work very well for my Bach and Bernstein recordings, which were done in only a couple of takes and without much editing. I find this lack of ’perfection’ quite exciting and liberating, since to my taste, a lot of modern recordings tend to be too sterile and are missing that sense of risk that was there until about 30 years ago.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I am very drawn to works that allow me the freedom to play them a bit differently each time, which makes me feel as if I was improvising them. I am also very drawn to programmatic works or works that have a strong concept behind them, whether purely musical or linked with other sorts of ideas.

Pieces that have a strong rhythmic sensibility or are full of sharp contrasts are also very exciting for me to play.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

For my repertoire as a soloist, I normally don’t think of the whole season but try to think of which programs I want to do and then see where they can fit within the year, along with the programs of the other projects in which I am involved. Most of the time I try to leave a healthy amount of time between projects to prepare, but it always happens that there’s a period where three or four different projects overlap, which makes for the more stressful but ultimately more fun part of the year.

As for an aesthetic approach, I just try to look for things that interest me and find ways in which they can fit together. Then there’s a lot of experimenting with program orders, for which my wife is a fantastic sounding board, as well as sometimes discarding some pieces and exchanging them for others. But most of the time it feels as if I’m going on gut feeling than any carefully crafted method.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I love Vienna’s Porgy & Bess club! They have two halls, the main one downstairs, that sounds fantastic, but their small one, which fits about 40 people, allows for the most intimate relationship with the audience and the Bösendorfer they have there is really lovely as well.

Somewhere I miss is the Jose Felix Ribas Hall of the Teresa Carreño Theater in Caracas. It’s a relatively small hall with amphitheatre style seating, and the audience is about one meter away from the soloist (at least in concerts with orchestra). This close proximity to the audience is one of the things I like the most in a hall.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

When my band was still touring Venezuela, we had one week that was particularly intense. At the end of this week our last concert was going to be in a town called Cumana, right on the coast in the east of the country. We had just had a very eventful trip back on a ferry from the island of Margarita, made a short stop at a friend’s house for supper and a quick shower, before driving another couple of hours to play the show in a club in Cumana.

As we were driving to Cumana through some of Venezuela’s narrowest, most sinuous roads, we got a call from the promoter to tell us that two days previously the club had been closed due to tax evasion, but that the concert was still going to go ahead. With instructions to meet the promoter at a gas station along the way, we had no idea what was waiting for us.

Arriving at our destination, we realized it was a family house in a residential area. The promoter managed to convince the singer of the local opening band to stage the concert in his garage; so without any lighting nor video projections and just a small sound system, our backline and a couple of small ice boxes with beer, we set up for a sold-out garage of about 150 people plus the ones that decided to listen in from the sidewalk outside the house. We played a set of about one hour and afterwards, some people in the audience came to thank us for not cancelling the concert, since this was their first experience of live music and they found it to be an incredible thing.

That night started with us actually wanting to cancel the concert due to being so tired and yet ended up being one of the best concerts we played in the seven years we were together as a live band. Needless to say, those seven years provided me with some of the best learning experiences of my life so far.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being able to have the freedom to develop the projects that interest me and to be involved with artists that inspire me on a daily basis, while also being able to make a living out of this is what keeps me humble and thankful every time I wake up. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Life is about a lot more than just music, even if music is the best fuel for it. It has taken me a long time to learn but experiencing and learning about anything else will almost always make us better musicians.

A career in music nowadays implies way more than just being a great musician. There are skills we need that are not normally taught in a music academy/university, such as the basics of graphic design, video and audio editing, web design, creative writing and so on that contribute immensely to the musician as a freelancing professional. This is particularly true at the beginning of a career.

As classical musicians we shouldn’t forget all the other kinds of music that are out there. We don’t necessarily have to like all of it, but we should widen our horizons as much as possible. There has been so much fantastic music written (and not written) outside of the classical canon, that to me it’s criminal to limit ourselves to just that.

Matei Ioachimescu & Alfredo Ovalles – Caribe

What is your most treasured possession?

My sense of hearing. I suffered from sudden sensorineural hearing loss in 2010, losing all hearing in my left ear for about a month, regaining part of it later on, but never got it back fully. Although it doesn’t really affect me on a musical level when performing, it does change things radically. It made me realize we generally take our hearing for granted, and it is the one sense that is hardest to fix when something goes wrong.

Alfredo will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Marta Gardolińska on the following dates:

Wednesday 5 Feb Plymouth Guildhall, Thursday 6 Feb Exeter Great Hall, Friday 7 Feb Portsmouth Guildhall. Further details

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Alfredo’s start with music came at a very early age. According to his father, he asked for piano lessons as a gift for his 5th birthday. Not being from a musical family, his first experience of how a piano sounded did not come from classical music, but instead from an old videotape of a Queen concert that was always lying around the family’s home.

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