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Curtain Call: A trombone may have saved pianist Alexander Tutunov’s life

A graduate of Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory, with a doctorate in piano performance from the Belarusian State Academy of Music, Alexander Tutunov brings a large repertoire and a high level of artistry to his performances. [Courtesy photo]

International pianist Alexander Tutunov believes a trombone may have saved his life.

Tutunov is professor of piano and artist in residence at Southern Oregon University. He has a busy performing schedule in Europe, China, Mexico, and the U.S. as a recitalist and soloist with orchestras. He also is on demand as an adjudicator for piano competitions.

He was born 54 years ago in Bitebsk, Belarus, and attended the Tchaikovsky Conservatory’s 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 that saved me from being sent to Afghanistan during the Soviet campaign there. Possibly, playing the trombone saved my life.”

After his military service, he went back to Belarus’ capital city, Minsk, earned a doctorate with honors in concert performance at Belarusian State Academy of Music, and continued his studies at the University of North Texas in Denton.

Tutunov’s first faculty appointment was at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, followed by the move to SOU in 1997.

“It was amazing growing up at the boarding school,” he said. “Everyone was quite gifted. One of our pastimes was for eight to twelve of us to gather around the piano and sightread an entire opera from an open score. It was my kind of musical family.”

It was American-born pianist Joseph Benawetz who was responsible for Tutunov’s coming to the United States. He met the University of North Texas professor on a concert tour of the Volga River.

“We both performed and enjoyed each other,” Tutunov said. “He recruited me to the U.S. in 1993.”

When he visited Ashland on 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 earned a fully-paid scholarship to an elite music school like Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

“It had an incredible lineage, stemming directly from Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Rachmaninoff — you name them. My first teacher there was a roommate of Vladimir Horowitz during her student years.

“The atmosphere was wonderful — the traditions, the spirit, the pride, and the hundreds of performances we were fortunate to attend during our formative years,” he said.

Tutunov has won several piano competitions, and describes the kind of commitment required as not unlike preparing for a world-level sporting event.

“The preparation process is one of careful planning, strategy, and utmost discipline — and a lot of self-denial,” he said. “Sometimes it takes four to five years to prepare for the big ones.”

That experience informs his work as adjudicator today.

“Having been on both sides, I have more understanding and compassion,” he said. “The rising stars of today’s classical piano world possess a lot more knowledge, both in practice and in theory. The quality has gone up tremendously. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the career I had, had I started now.”

When asked about his favorite composers, he likened it to the proverbial “desert island” question.

“If I were stuck alone for many years with one music score, would it be the book of Bach’s ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ or the complete 32 Beethoven sonatas? Normally when I am asked such a question, I joke that if I single out one composer, the others will get mad at me,” he laughed.

He is often complimented for being an expert on Russian music or a Bach or Beethoven expert.

“I feel I need to rise to the occasion by becoming a Chopin and Debussy expert,” 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, Opus 11), Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, Schumann’s Carnaval (Opus 9), and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

The classical piano catalog is immense and vast, and one could describe Tutunov’s repertoire with the same words.

“Among them are some ‘towers’ of the standard repertoire, and I am both proud and humbled to be able to play those pieces,” he said. “Just like any relationship, it could deepen with time, or dwindle and phase out.”

Tutunov tries to be objective and “omnivorous” in his musical diet.

“There are works of the moment, the ones I am currently working on or considering working 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 declined to reveal what’s on his bucket list.

“There are some surprises. I don’t want to spill the beans,” he said, smiling.

“But I am very interested in music by underrepresented composers of the distant and recent past. There is a huge body of terrific music that is still untapped.”

His advice for his students is to develop their own voices.

“I recently had a student tell me, ‘I’ve listened to a bunch of recordings on YouTube of the piece assigned to me and I didn’t like any of them. I want to play this piece my way.’ I think it’s one of the best compliments I could get.”

What makes for a good performance?

“I search for the perfect balance of emotion and quality, to please the microphone and to move the audience — being in control and on fire at the same time,” he said.

The Tutunov Piano Series has become an integral part of the calendar of events for the Oregon Center for the Arts at SOU. Through the series, Tutunov introduces audiences to acclaimed pianists he knows and admires, many he has met at festivals, tours, collaborations and recording studios.

“I tried to launch the series in the past, but we were unable to achieve lift-off,” he said. “But 10 years ago, at a dinner at my friends’ house, with some very generous people in attendance, we were able to generate the seed money and come up with some terrific ideas. The rest is history.”

Tickets and donations fund the appearances.

“There’s no overhead,” he said. “I don’t pay myself any salary, SOU is very generous in letting us use the facilities, and we enjoy tremendous support.”

The next concert in the series is tonight (March 18) at 7:30 at the SOU Music Recital Hall, featuring the Francesca Amate and Sandra Landini piano duo. Then on May 13 at 7:30 p.m., the series features Robert Yan and Xiting Yang in the closing performance of the 10th anniversary season.

These days he’s in search of the perfect balance.

“I have to stay in decent shape pianistically and be a good role model for my students,” he said. “Family is very important to me. They give me a great reason to love life. And I do more traveling as an adjudicator and a clinician these days. Occasionally I get to travel just for fun.”

Fun is something this man embraces. Anybody who has ever seen him in concert or hosting his series knows firsthand that it is part of the Tutunov experience — both for the artist and for the audience.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.