Getting to Know 2020-21 Rising Star Dominic Cheli
November 27, 2020
We are so excited for our third Rising Stars concert of the 2020-21 Virtual Season on November 29 at 4 PM ET, featuring Dominic Cheli. In order to prepare, we asked Mr. Cheli if he would be willing to answer a few questions for us to get to know him better. Here’s what he had to say!
Your program for this concert is entitled Hidden Stories. Can you tell us a little bit about how you found these pieces and what inspired you to put this program together?
Dominic Cheli: I have always been interested in story-telling and history from a young age, with music being a wonderful intersection of the two. With my programs, I want to tell stories both old and new, and while I am so fond of famous/popular works, I have a strong penchant for research and discovery. As the title indicates, my program is built around individuals and pieces that have been forgotten or hidden through time. Schulhoff’s Suite no. 3 was written by a composer who was a tragic victim of the Nazi Regime and as a result never had the chance to become as well-known as he deserves. Carl Vine and H. Leslie Adams are examples of living composers whose music is beautiful and possesses strong rhythmic vitality that is so exciting! Beethoven was known for many things, but his lesser known art-song is exquisite and in “An die Hoffnung” we see him writing music of hope (his hope was that Josephine Brunsvik, the “immortal beloved” would be with him.) I would say that hope is something that we need more than ever today. The Valse Caprice No. 6 by Liszt and Clara Schumann’s Romanze feature two of the most prominent pianists of the 19th century: Sophie Menter and Clara Schumann. Both women made enormous impacts on pianism and its developments, with Sophie being Liszt’s favorite pupil and pianist (playing this Valse “better than anyone” as Liszt said), and Clara creating the modern-day piano recital as we now know it. Finally, one of the composers who admirably set the tone for this entire recital concept was Johannes Brahms, a man who not only wrote breathtaking compositions, but also sought out and championed forgotten music from the past, namely that of French composer, François Couperin. For me, it is inspiring to see how Brahms (and the other composers above) not only advanced art into the future, but also cultivated the past by paying homage to men and women whose messages will always hold relevance. Sharing music that is fresh and sparks the imagination is as important as introducing who these geniuses actually were!
You’ve traveled across the U.S. and around the world to play with symphonies such as the San Diego Symphony, DuPage Symphony, Columbus Symphony, and Princeton Symphony. Is there a place you’ve traveled to or recital hall that you’ve performed in that has been your favorite thus far?
DC: I have two answers for this, an outdoor and indoor venue! My favorite outdoor performance was on the island of Samos, Greece which overlooked the Aegean Sea. As night fell, I felt a special magic in the summer air as I could hear the nature around me, smell the salt of the ocean, and feel the warm breeze. Indoors, my favorite hall to perform in would have been Walt Disney Hall where I played a Prokofiev Concerto with Maestro Valery Gergiev and colleagues/friends from the Colburn School.
We see that you like to participate in triathlons. Do you see any intersection between running, biking, and swimming and the study and performance of piano?
DC: There are so many comparisons to be made between the disciplines. Just two of these would be organization/determination and realizing what we do is athletic. First of all, it is important to be organized in how I prepare for concerts and triathlons. I compete in races lasting nearly eight hours so planning how to pace oneself, provide sufficient nutrition to the body, and fight the mental battles against nerves and exhaustion are critical. Concerts/touring can feel very similar. Deadlines pile up, the repertoire is vast, and it is so important to have a plan on how to handle yourself in the face of what appears like a monumental task at times. For me, combating this comes down to setting simple, attainable goals while just putting one step, one finger, or one swim stroke in front of the other. The second comparison is more complex but crucial to how one actually follows their plans. A concept that I share with all my students and give lectures about is that we are not only artists but also fine-motor athletes. It is so important to practice and train smart! I discourage my students from what I call “ego-practicing” which typically amounts to playing a demanding piece (typically fast and loud passagework, and thus using the muscles in a strenuous manner) repeatedly despite having mastered it. Endurance athletes cannot run a marathon every day (or there will be an injury) and likewise, musicians must also respect their bodies and not needlessly waste energy in the practice room that should primarily be reserved for the stage. Chopin himself said that no one should practice more than three hours a day! After an Ironman Race, there is no doubt that I need rest, massage, cold/heat therapy and mental unwinding. Performances might not last eight hours but in many ways they can be equally intense! Musicians use their bodies to incredible results but sometimes forget just how muscularly demanding it is to perform with such facility, velocity, and power. We must always realize that it is important to not overstress our bodies/minds, and that adequate rest, recovery, and nutrition is vital to remaining sharp and ready for the stage. I believe we should demand less from our bodies but ever more from our minds during our practice and preparation.
You recently recorded an album featuring the works of Liszt and Schubert. How does the experience of preparing to record a cd differ from practicing for a concert?
DC: Recording a CD is a special process – a truly different experience for the performer and listener in comparison to a live concert. In a recording, we craft our ideal interpretation of a piece of music through tedious work in the studio. In a concert we try to present our best interpretation of a piece on that particular day but also have many factors to contend with, such as the added excitement of an audience, different conditions of the hall, and any unexpected occurrences that happen in the moment and are perhaps out of our control! However, I prepare in very similar ways for a recording as I do for a concert. Regardless, I record myself often at home, where I can listen back critically and determine how to better convey the message I am trying to get across. In addition, I think it is always important to experiment with different ideas and from the first note, embark upon an exploration into the psyche of the composer, and the world they create with paper and ink. The beauty of live concerts is everything happens in the moment and is therefore especially intimate between you and your audience! The beauty of recording is…you can always play another take to try and reach your ideal!
We’re excited for you to travel to Michigan and play at the Wellspring Theater. Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing while you’re here (even if we are in the middle of a pandemic!)?
DC: Honestly, I am very much looking forward to returning to the Midwest, an area of the country I grew up in (born in Missouri). We don’t have many seasons out here in California, and if I want cold weather, changing colors of leaves, or snow, I have to search a bit! I am mainly looking forward to meeting some new faces (even if they are covered with masks!)
You have taught numerous workshops to kids ranging in age from 12 to 22. What is your number one tip for young pianists who want to turn their passion into a career?
DC: My number one tip is to listen. Listening comprises so many things: listen to yourself, your teacher, recordings, your friends, new music, music you don’t understand, and more. It is so important to expose yourself to as many ideas as possible so that you can begin to determine what you like, what speaks to you, and what messages you want to convey as an artist. Listen with humility and honesty. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, record yourself more at home. Listen back without fear and forgive but don’t forget mistakes. Record and listen until you like what you hear but always be curious and search for new meaning in the music you play!
Thank you to Dominic Cheli for his candor and we hope you’ll tune in for his virtual concert on Sunday, November 29 at 4 PM ET. Get your ticket today!