A graduate of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow and holder of a doctorate in piano performance from the National Academy of Music of Belarus, Alexander Tutunov brings a vast repertoire and a high artistic level to his performances. [Courtesy photo]
International pianist Alexander Tutunov thinks a trombone may have saved his life.
Tutunov is a piano teacher and artist-in-residence at Southern Oregon University. He has a busy schedule performing in Europe, China, Mexico and the United States as a recitalist and soloist with orchestras. He is also on demand as a judge for piano competitions.
He was born 54 years ago in Bitebsk, Belarus, and attended the Tchaikovsky Conservatory boarding school in Moscow from age 7 to 20, followed by two years of compulsory military service.
Which brings us back to the trombone.
“I learned to play the trombone in the army,” Tutunov explained. “And it saved me from being sent to Afghanistan during the Soviet campaign there. Maybe playing the trombone saved my life.
After his military service, he returned to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, earned a doctorate with honors in concert at the Belarusian State Music Academy and continued his studies at the University of North Texas at Denton.
Tutunov’s first professorship was at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, followed by the move to SOU in 1997.
“It was amazing growing up at boarding school,” he said. “Everyone was pretty good. One of our hobbies was for eight to twelve of us to gather around the piano and sight read an entire opera from an open score. It was my kind of musical family.
It was the American-born pianist Joseph Benawetz who brought Tutunov to the United States. He met the professor from the University of North Texas during a concert tour on the Volga.
“We both played and had a great time,” Tutunov said. “He recruited me from the United States in 1993.”
When he traveled to Ashland for a job interview four years later, he was struck by the beauty of the area.
“I had never spent time near the mountains. Russia, Belarus, Texas and Illinois are all pretty much flat.
He considers himself lucky in his youth to have obtained a fully paid scholarship to an elite music school like the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow.
“He had an incredible lineage, straight from Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Rachmaninoff – you name them. My first teacher there was a roommate of Vladimir Horowitz during his student days.
“The atmosphere was wonderful – the traditions, the spirit, the pride and the hundreds of performances we were lucky enough to attend during our formative years,” he said.
Tutunov has won several piano competitions and describes the kind of commitment required as reminiscent of preparing for a world-class sporting event.
“The preparation process is one of careful planning, strategy and extreme discipline – and a lot of self-sacrifice,” he said. “Sometimes it takes four to five years to prepare for the big guys.”
This experience informs his work as a referee today.
“Having been on both sides, I have more understanding and compassion,” he said. “Rising stars in today’s classical piano world are far more knowledgeable, both in practice and in theory. The quality has increased enormously. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed my career if I had started now.
Asked about his favorite composers, he compared it to the proverbial “deserted island” question.
“If I was stuck alone for many years with just one score, would it be Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Keyboard’ book or Beethoven’s complete 32 sonatas? Normally, when I am asked such a question, I joke that if I choose a composer, the others will get angry with me,” he laughed.
He is often complimented for being an expert on Russian music or an expert on Bach or Beethoven.
“I feel like I have to rise to the occasion by becoming an expert on Chopin and Debussy,” he said. “That’s the plan then.”
Tutunov will tackle just about anything. Some of the most difficult, he says, are Beethoven’s Last Sonata (No. 32, Op. 11), Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, Schumann’s Carnival (Op. 9) and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. .
The catalog of classical pianos is huge and extensive, and one could describe Tutunov’s repertoire with the same words.
“Among them are ‘tours’ of the standard repertoire, and I am both proud and humbled to be able to play these pieces,” he said. “Like any relationship, it could deepen over time, or dwindle and fade away.”
Tutunov tries to be objective and “omnivorous” in his musical diet.
“There are works of the moment, those that I am currently working on or that I plan to work on in the near future,” he said. “There are the bucket list works and composers, and there are new names for me – from the present and from the past.”
He refused to reveal what was on his to-do list.
“There are surprises. I don’t want to spill the wick,” he said, smiling.
“But I’m very interested in the music of underrepresented composers from the distant and recent past. There is a huge body of great music that is still untapped.
His advice for his students is to develop their own voice.
“A student recently said to me, ‘I listened to a bunch of YouTube recordings of my assigned piece and I didn’t like any of them. I want to play this piece my way. I think that’s one of the best compliments I can receive.
What makes a good performance?
“I seek the perfect balance of emotion and quality, to please the microphone and move the audience – to be in control and on fire at the same time,” he said.
The Tutunov Piano Series is now an integral part of the Oregon Center for the Arts events calendar at SOU. Through the series, Tutunov introduces audiences to acclaimed pianists he knows and admires, many of whom he has met at festivals, tours, collaborations and recording studios.
“I tried to launch the show in the past, but we couldn’t get off the ground,” he said. “But 10 years ago, at a dinner party with my friends, in the presence of very generous people, we were able to generate the seed capital and come up with some great ideas. The rest is history.
Tickets and donations fund appearances.
“There are no overheads,” he said. “I don’t pay myself any salary, SOU are very generous in letting us use the facilities and we have great support.”
The next concert in the series is tonight (March 18) at 7:30 p.m. at SOU Music Recital Hall, featuring piano duo Francesca Amate and Sandra Landini. Then on May 13 at 7:30 p.m., the series stars Robert Yan and Xiting Yang in the 10th anniversary season finale show.
Today, he is looking for the perfect balance.
“I have to stay in decent piano shape and be a good role model for my students,” he said. “Family is very important to me. They give me a great reason to enjoy life. And I travel more as a referee and clinician these days. Sometimes I travel just for fun.
Pleasure is something this man embraces. Anyone who has ever seen him in concert or hosting his series knows firsthand that this is part of the Tutunov experience – both for the artist and for the audience.
Contact Ashland Writer Jim Flint at [email protected].