NWEAMO-soloWe’re so pleased to be featuring pianist Geoffrey Burleson at our Gala Season-Opening Concert, 7:30pm Saturday October 19 at The Academy of Music, Northampton. Geoffrey is an astounding pianist who has made a specialty of the works of Camille Saint-Saëns. He is currently involved in recording the complete solo piano works for Naxos’s new Grand Piano label. Fitting, then, that he should be performing the composer’s most famous piano concerto with us, the one known as “The Egyptian.”

You can check out his very impressive bio here, but I asked Geoff some more personal questions so we could all get to know him as an individual.

Your resume is very impressive. Tell us a little about how you got your start in music. Did you have musical parents? Was it love at first sight with the piano?

When I was around 6 years old, I became more and more obsessed with the huge early 20th century Steinway upright in our house, and apparently was picking out tunes frequently via trial and error.  I eagerly started lessons at that point.  Both my parents are wonderfully musical.  They are both Ph.D. physicists, and worked in physics and engineering, but my father had a strong piano background, and my mother sang and played the violin as well as piano.  There was always music in the house.  My parents definitely had one of the most extensive classical record collections I’ve encountered in any household.  At that time, though, I just thought everyone had a whole wall of LPs in their homes.

You’ve recently recorded the Saint-Saëns solo piano music. Why Saint-Saëns? What drew you to his music, especially for the piano?

I have always been attracted to composers whose music has been underrated. Saint-Saëns seems to have a single “hit” in each genre—the 2nd Piano Concerto, the 3rd Symphony (i.e., the “Organ Symphony”), the opera Samson and Delilah—even though he wrote other great piano concerti, symphonies, etc.  But the big impetus was when I discovered his piano études. He wrote 18 miniature masterpieces in this genre; most are quite difficult (including the “Toccata” Etude, Op. 111, No. 6, which is based on the last movement of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 5!)   A couple of them are performed occasionally, but by and large, they have been unduly neglected in the concert hall.  I went on to explore the other solo works, and was equally compelled.  The Complete Piano Etudes ended up comprising Volume 1 of my project; at this point, three out of five volumes have been released.

What’s the life of a classical performing artist like? How do you divide your time between practice and performing?

It’s a perpetually wonderful and stimulating experience to play for new audiences, and to get to experience different cities, countries and cultural scenes on a regular basis.  At the same time, it’s very rewarding to get to constantly grow with both new and old repertoire. I have never gotten to the point where I don’t go through some major re-assessments with some of the music I’ve been playing even for a long time, such as Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”, Liszt’s B minor Sonata, many of the Beethoven and Schubert Sonatas, and so forth.  It constantly astounds me, and is further testament to me of how multi-faceted all of these works are.  

Where does the teaching fit in?

It’s definitely a tricky juggling act!  I feel like I spend a good deal of creative energy trying to work out schedules between performing, recording and teaching.  (I’m the “full-time” Director of Piano Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York , and I also teach piano and chamber music part-time at Princeton University).   But I have always loved teaching, for many reasons.  It is always fantastic to experience the moments when students grasp, assimilate and really internalize technical and musical concepts.  And the process of teaching repertoire that I play actually provides me with new insights into these works, in ways that wouldn’t necessarily manifest themselves purely by studying the pieces by myself. 

Does your busy life leave time for leisure pursuits? What do you do on your downtime?

I really try to make time for something other than “work”, but since I am lucky enough to work at something that is so fulfilling, it’s a bit easier even if the schedule is pretty breathless sometimes.  I’ve gone through different phases; I used to do a fair amount of rock climbing, which I miss, and I might return to at some point. I really enjoy running and hiking, and the attendant adrenaline rushes that sometimes remind me of performing (which was also true of rock climbing!)  I can’t leave out anything having to do with art; i.e., anything that deeply stimulates the senses.  So I intensely enjoy museums, film, wine, etc.  But who doesn’t?

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Thanks so much Geoff! We can’t wait to hear you on October 19th. Tickets are available at The Academy of Music Box Office online, in person, or by calling 413-584-9032.

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