You’d be hard-pressed to find any blarney when Italian-born pianist Alessio Bax joins the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra (SBCO) this St. Patrick’s Day — unless you count the craft beer tasting event afterward, open to subscribers. The first half of the concert, however, belongs to conductor Heiichiro Ohyama and the orchestra, who will celebrate music from or about the British Isles, including works by Frank Bridge and Frederick Delius, as well as Felix Mendelssohn’s deeply affecting The Hebrides. But the second half has nothing to do with St. Patty and everything to do with Bax and the fulfillment of his dream to perform Brahms with the SBCO. The international piano star and 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient has garnered mega kudos in Santa Barbara in recent years, principally due to repeated appearances with the SBCO. Bax spoke with us from his home in New York last week.
So, I’m anxious to learn the connection between Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor and the Irish spirit. You’ll have to ask Maestro Ohyama about that! I think the program came together from different angles. I’ve played so much repertoire over the years with the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra and Ohyama. It’s been so rewarding and so interesting for me. The Brahms normally is considered much more symphonic; you usually need a much bigger orchestra. But it’s such an incredibly intimate and beautiful chamber work, as well. I’m really excited because often it’s perceived as piano versus orchestra. And concerti, you know, they’re big orchestra, big forces, and big writing on the piano, and there’s this constant almost-fight between the piano and the orchestra. But, as I said, [the Brahms] is such a beautifully collaborative work. The piano is really part of the symphony, and you need the kind of musicianship that this orchestra has — collaboration, really. Everyone’s listening to each other and reacting on the spot. I’m really excited to bring it to a much more intimate level than usual.
Have you ever played the Brahms before with a chamber group? I might have, many years ago, but it was one of the first times I played it, with the chamber orchestra in Italy. Now that I have played it with many larger orchestras, I’m coming back from a different side, so it’s kind of coming full circle. I feel like I’ve lived with this piece long enough to know it much better than I did 10 or 15 years ago. So the collaboration with the musicians will be much more enjoyable for everyone.
How did you first meet Heiichiro Ohyama? We met each other as chamber musicians — he is a violist — and felt so comfortable playing together that he invited me [to play with SBCO], and I don’t think I’ve missed a year yet! And at the beginning of this year, he started a new chamber music festival in Japan, and we got to play together again for the first time since we first met. It was really a lot of fun to come full circle that way, because now I know him as a musician in such a deeper way, because of his conducting. It was great, I mean, I feel like we’ve played all our lives together.
The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra presents the concert Celebrating the Music of the British Isles on St. Patrick’s Day at the Lobero Theatre on Tuesday, March 17, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and info, call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.