Dr. Alexander I. Tutunov has become something of a luminary in Ashland musical circles with his Tutunov Series at Southern Oregon University, which has brought together some extraordinary international talent at the SOU Oregon Center for the Arts (OCA). I caught up with the bashful-but-brilliant maestro to discuss his plans for the future.
JG: You emerged as a virtuoso pianist during a time when Russia still existed as the USSR. That's a long way from Ashland. Would you share some of your artistic history, and what brought you to the Rogue Valley, and to SOU?
AT: I grew up in a very structured system and, albeit being very fortunate to be singled out as somewhat of a child prodigy, there were some serious restrictions and pressures during my upbringing. I had a great career going for me in what was then the Soviet Union, but by age 27 the opportunity came to move to the U.S. My first stop was in Texas, where I completed my American schooling, and, after spending some time as a faculty member at the Illinois Wesleyan University, I came to Ashland. I was greatly impressed with the opportunity here, and in the U.S. in general. Among my special memories, the selection committee at SOU told me I was chosen over the other candidates because I had agreed to play jazz with the students. I came across as a down-to-earth, approachable, fun person and everyone seemed to liked me and what I had to offer at the piano. I love my job, my students and my colleagues. Over the years I have had multiple opportunities to realize what a special place we live in; a cultural oasis, if you will.
JG: Your piano series at OCA has brought in some extraordinary talent since its inception. My personal favorite was the Francesco Nicolosi recital a couple of years back. Do you have a specific vision for the series, and how do you continue to attract artists of this caliber to Southern Oregon?
AT: I meet artists, some less known than others, on my international concert travels/tours; this way, I can be sure of their level and quality. Sometimes I am approached by artist management agencies, but then, it’s more like an audition on a CD. I don’t love those as much. So, I simply have to take advantage of those personal connections and share the performances I enjoy elsewhere with my favorite audience right here in Ashland. We hope to continue bringing outstanding piano talents here — there is no shortage! In addition to letting my patrons experience, first hand, the difference between the piano tradition of French piano school vs. German, Polish, Russian, Chinese, etc., I feel so fortunate with the interest we generate but the competition is very stiff in the Valley as there are just so many outstanding, world-class offerings around. Still, I am optimistic about our future.
JG: Do you have any particular favorite pieces of music or composers that you would like to suggest to your audience as primers for upcoming Tutunov series concerts? Anything that you're listening to yourself these days that you are finding to be particularly inspiring or miraculous?
AT: I feel it’s very important for the audience to have some well-loved, favorite music to be balanced with the more challenging, less-familiar music to broaden the experience. The idea of musical (and spiritual) transformation has always fascinated me and this next, 2016-17 season we offer a great opportunity for our audience to experience the live performances of the three particular masterpieces in the repertoire, amongst other jewels: Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Beethoven’s immense “Hammerklavier” Sonata, which he wrote very late in his life, and the incomparable "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Moussorgsky.
JG: What would be your dream scenario, in terms of continued, concrete support of your series, beyond ticket sales?
AT: We feel we’ve been successful at bringing the exciting performers using the revenues generated directly from the ticket sales but, in order to bring in internationally established artist — the ones that have Berlin, Paris, and Amsterdam competing for them — we need a hero or a magic fairy … I am sometimes able to secure an artist en route from, say, NYC to Paris just due to my personal connection, but to bring someone like Ashkenazy or Garrik Ohlson to SOU would require a sponsor for that particular event. I invite sponsors to bring their “dream name” — the sky is the limit. The sky is the floor, really, and you can decide on the ceiling! Dream big — I do call for dreamers.
JG: What do you think can be done to encourage young people, especially children, to continue to attend live classical music performances over the coming decades? What is the responsibility of classical music lovers to the community, in terms of spreading their love for the work?
AT: Of course it is important that young people become interested in this art, and we invite every young person to join us in the recital hall — I’d visit schools and ask all of my fans to spread the word. But it is a responsibility of public education institutions to instill the love of music into the new generation. We strive to inspire, but the formal evening concerts, in my opinion, should serve more as a reward than as an educational venue.
JG: Tell us about your lineup is for the new season.
AT: I'm very excited about the next season lineup. Here it is: Friday, Oct. 27, is Chen Sifan; Nov. 9 is Alexander Ghindin from Russia; Jan. 25 is Alon Goldshtein from Israel; Feb. 17 is local favorite Jodi French; April 21 is Luís Meireles and Maria José Souza Guedes from Portugal; and May 12 is the Tutunov Season Finale.
JG: It looks like a feast of music, Alex. Thanks for taking some time with us!
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.