If you live in Los Angeles and are into new music, chances are high that you’ve crossed paths with pianist Richard Valitutto. Pianist is an understatement, though. His website lists him simply but accurately as “musician,” and he often appears as melodica-player, composer, curator, and more. To get a taste, here’s a live recording of his premiere performance of Ryan Pratt’s On Expansion.
Next week is a big one for him, as he’s got his first full-blown solo recital on PianoSpheres’ new Satellite series, at REDCAT on Tuesday at 8:30. Here’s Richard:
Let’s start with NAKHT. What’s the concert all about?
NAKHT is a major step forward in my exploration of the genre of the piano nocturne. I’ve been imagining and devising programs either largely based on or entirely comprised of nocturnes for the last couple years, and this is my first major solo recital in the process. I guess it’s something that could be called a ‘nocturnes project,’ but I don’t want to get too nerdy about it. I wanted this particular program to be mostly 20th/21st century music, being that it is presented by Piano Spheres, and I wanted to create a program that definitely included certain pieces, particularly the Sciarrino Due Notturni crudeli and the Skryabin Poème-Nocturne. They’ve been on my wish-list for a while now!
Also, several months ago I was hanging out with Nicholas Deyoe having some whiskey (as we do) and we were discussing my nocturne fetish as well as his feeling of closure to his Lullaby series, to which the only other large-scale solo piano work he’s written belongs, Lullaby 2. He said he would love to write another bigger piano piece, and contributing to the nocturne idea would be cool because he’d been thinking particularly about various ways to subvert the idea of a “nocturne” piece, drawing a lot of inspiration from Benjamin Britten’s incredible guitar solo Nocturnal (after John Dowland). So it was then I knew exactly who I wanted to commission as a part of the Piano Spheres Satellite Series.
The program basically developed from these various repertoires and ideas; I think it’s a good representation of my interest in pieces that delve into the complex and volatile relationships between the night and the human psyche.
What attracted you to programming around nocturnes in the first place?
Mostly the music itself, of course: these are some of my favorite pieces of late. But it’s also the fact that I came to realize I had never really heard of a solo piano program (or series of them, for that matter!) comprised mostly or entirely of nocturnes. There are often all-sonatas programs; and I’ve heard many all-prelude, all-dances, even all-etudes (which, in fact, is exactly what Piano Spheres Satellite artist Steven Vanhauwaert will be doing on June 2, 2015)!
Like many people, some of my favorite pieces very early on were Chopin nocturnes. They’re some of the most gloriously melodic pieces we pianists have, and the figurations are so pianistic that it’s like swimming with the hands through maple syrup. On a conceptual level, though, the young me loved the idea of a piece somehow specifically being for night-time – something we don’t get a whole lot of in Western Classical Music. Also, the budding linguist in me loved my understanding etymology of the name itself. But in the last couple of years, I began to notice that not only are there some absolutely wonderful, overlooked gems in the major nocturne oeuvres of Chopin and Fauré, but many composers – often composers unfamiliar to me – will have in their catalogs a nocturne I never knew existed, and many of them just wrote a single one! It became a game, every time I saw a composer’s solo piano catalog I would look to see if they had a nocturne, and many do! It’s alluring: the idea that there was this body of pieces out there – simultaneously limited in scope and largely unknown – that all share the same title, presumably alluding to a similar affect or tradition.
But at the same time, the genre doesn’t really have a set form or tradition, unless you count the original notion of John Field and Chopin of a solo piano aria quasi bel canto, which frankly, a lot of people simply aren’t interested in writing anymore, at all. So what does it then mean for a solo piano piece to be a “nocturne” especially in this century? That’s what I’m trying to find out, mostly by experiencing the music itself.
This might be a big one: when we met we had both just moved to LA, and you were a new student at Cal Arts, and mentioned that you’d heard this guy was starting this orchestra you might help out with. That’s turned into one of the country’s most-acclaimed new music ensembles, and your own notoriety as a performer has grown in parallel, from new student in town to playing at Disney and Carnegie Hall and getting written up by Swed. Could you give us an idea of what that ride has been like for you? And have you thought of your career so far as an artistic narrative, or are you more focused on the project in front of you?
Yeah, that is a big one! Downright cosmic, actually. It’s hard for me to answer that, mostly because that part of all of us that always wants to as humble as possible is currently shoe-gazing and scuffing his toes saying, “Pshaw…” But really, you put it better than I could: I’m just focused on the projects in front of me. It’s certainly exciting to notice the attention and opportunity, not to mention the critical acclaim, of course. But we’re all just people trying to say and do something interesting, from the biggest arts organizations to the smallest independent arts venture or show. During my last year at CalArts and into my first year out of school, I had two rules for myself: The first was, if you can do it, say yes. The second was, even if you have no idea what’s going on, have as much fun as possible. They’ve gotten me pretty far, I’d say, and I’ve certainly done a lot of things that have been really fun (although recently, a couple more rules had to be implemented to temper this unilaterally over-zealous approach)! Most importantly, I truly believe that we’re all students of the world for life, and I try to keep a beginner’s mind throughout it all. The general rule in nature is, “if you’re not growing, you’re dying”. And I think that we’re all called to be constantly bettering ourselves physically, spiritually, emotionally, and artistically so that we may then be a benefit to our community and the world around us simply through our existence and representing our set of values through the things we do for ourselves and others.
Can you share any stories from Gnarwhallaby’s Carnegie Hall concert? I heard a thing about you breaking pianos, which I was actually kind of proud of…
Well, the piano-breaking thing is something I was confused by, more than anything, although in retrospect, it does feel pretty badass. What happened was, our rehearsals were in these recording/rehearsal studios way out in Midtown West, and there were a number of Yamaha grands located in multiple studios. In the course of our few days of rehearsals of Nicholas Deyoe’s Lullaby 4 for the premiere in Zankel Hall, there were no less than three instruments that simply… gave out, I guess is the best way to put it. Like, they were rendered completely unplayable. By me. It had something to do with at a certain point during our rehearsal, the action got jammed and then most of the keyboard just simply didn’t work. At first I thought it was a fluke, but then it happened twice more, and I realized that I must have hands (and forearms) that an ordinary piano simply can’t handle. And just to be clear, this piece had no extended techniques at all – so it’s not like I wasn’t playing the instrument “the right way,” or whatever.
As for other stories, perhaps a better question is, should they be shared! Of course there are stories, but what is appropriate in this context I wonder…?
What excites you about making music here in LA in 2014?
I’m just gonna come out and say it: Los Angeles right now is the most fulfilling and exciting musical environment I could have hoped for, and it’s only looking to get better! What I totally admire about my colleagues and our city is the prolific diversity of style and context as well as the profound commitment to truly interesting and unique modes of art-making. It’s like nowhere else. And most importantly, the level of support within the various artistic community I’ve been privileged to be a part simply feels like family, a home.
What music have you been digging recently?
Andrew McIntosh’s new album Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure is just off the chain beautiful. And speaking of Nicholas Deyoe, I feel like I hear a new piece of his every other month (including the one I’m going to premiere at REDCAT!) and it’s always an experience to which I look forward, both as performer and auditor. Most recently, it’s been exciting for me to discover the composer Ramón Lazkano, whose recent CD Laboratorio de Tizas with Ensemble Recherche has been getting a lot of car play.
Anything else to add?
If you’d like to know more about the program and particularly the new pieces to be premiered, Piano Spheres will be presenting an open forum discussion with Nicholas Deyoe and me facilitated by Mark Robson at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena the day before the concert [Monday] from 10:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.
It’s not on the Boston Court website, but it’s definitely happening! Here’s the link to the Piano Spheres webpage about the event: http://pianospheres.org/satellite-series-workshops/