Alessandro Deljavan: The Art of Joy

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, the International Herald Tribune, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 14.07.2013

A young man from provincial Italy brought style back to the recent Van Cliburn Piano Competition with unbridled displays of joy at the keyboard and a mature artist’s mastery of the music. The audience exploded in shouts and stomps after his performances and webcast viewers around the world showered him with praise. The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram dubbed the phenomenon “Deljamania”.

This extraordinary Italian, Alessandro Deljavan, was bounced out after the semifinals. 


The four photos in this article are by courtesy of St. Worth Star-Telegram

He is still recuperating at home in Pescara. “This competition took a lot out of him emotionally,” says his teacher William Naboré, director of the International Piano Academy Lake Como.

But in a series of email exchanges, Delvjavan happily recalled his experience, his career and his life at the piano for me.  He is far too generous and well-disposed, far too “nice”, say his friends, to second-guess what happened.  “Totally understandable,” he said.

Nevertheless, he has no intention of continuing in the competition world. This was his second Cliburn, and a few weeks ago he withdrew from the next major, the Cleveland International. He would have had a good shot at the finals.  


“I think the mental and physical stress can destroy a person and yet in some ways it is a superficial experience,” he said. He needs two weeks to prepare for any recital, “so can you imagine what’s involved to prepare for five hours of competition performances over 12 days? And if the principal interest in the pianist is the legs, the gown, the school or the teacher, I’m sure there will be worse and worse cases.”

He deplores the requirements of constrained pianistic style at competitions. “I want to be an old-time pianist,” he says. “All my models died many years ago. If I have to change my style to compete, I am not being honest.” 

Deljavan’s bear-like physique, designer stubble, somewhat paunchy waist and powerful arms tapering to long, fine fingers, makes him a memorable performer in any venue. At the Cliburn, his musicality merged with extreme sensitivity and an exaggerated personalized style of playing. When lost in the music, his face mirrors every emotion brought out by the composer’s chords, phrases, key changes, dynamics and shifts of mood.  When he plays, he seems in ecstasy or on the verge of tears, depending on the music.

Some critics fault him for excesses, even calling him “eccentric”.  But he knows what works best for him. “I am in love with music,” he says. “If I control my playing, I will lose my natural feel. Sometimes music makes me cry, sometimes music makes me scream. What I really hate is hearing artificial ideas, an artificial sense of phrasing.” 


He jokes about the public comments on his open emotionalism. “If the Cliburn had been a competition of facial expressions I know I would have won all the prizes, even the jury prizes!”

I will never control my style,” he said. “Here’s what a real musician is – control the brain and the heart and listen intently to what you are playing. Listen with two big ears and 20 small ears—two for each finger.” 

Naboré recalls the letter from Deljavan’s mother several years ago asking him to hear the 18-year-old Alessandro play and help decide whether he had a future at the piano. Naboré receives many such letters from hopeful mothers, and he decided to listen to him in Milan one afternoon. He had low expectations, seeing no distinguished academic achievements or prizes the boy could claim to have achieved. Alessandro chose to run through some Debussy and Schubert.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why this is quite unbelievable.’ I was flabbergasted,” Naboré told me.  “This was a blockbuster talent. What I was hearing was real musicianship and apart from that he was already a real artist. You can’t fake that.” Naboré decided on the spot to take the young Alessandro into the Academy and within a few months he was admitted. 

Much of his musical development has revolved around the academy – its master classes from visiting teachers and the ongoing support and teaching from Naboré personally.

“Music is love, and Maestro Naboré is the very image of love,” Alessandro said. “He loves every one of his students like his own children. Being a student with him is like winning 100 million dollars in the lottery. But even with that you cannot buy the richness of soul he teaches you.” 


The son of an Italian mother and an Iranian father, Alessandro was fortunate to be urged along by both parents. His mother, he says, had hoped for a musician child even during pregnancy. At the age of 4, he started piano with a young Pescara teacher, Valentina Chiola, and a Polish-Belgian composer, conductor and pianist Piiotr Lachert. He dedicated only two hours a day to practicing, quite short sessions compared to most gifted children.

He discovered that he had a gift for sight-reading, and plunged into Bach. He says he still has dreams related to Bach’s C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which he was playing at the age of 7.  “I will always remember my mother, who entered the music room applauding me.” 

After graduating from the Verdi Conservatory at 16 he was taken on by Ricardo Risaliti, then by Enrico Belli. Under Belli he worked toward his second-level degree at the Fermo Conservatory. “Belli was the person who first gave me a complex understanding of music. That’s when I started studying – studying with a capital S.” Belli helped him discover a passion for Schubert and also expanded his repertoire.

He now considers Bach and Schubert his main interests although he is working on Beethoven and the final opus of Schumann. His Bach owes much to the late Rosalyn Tureck who was a friend of Naboré’s and had been associated with the Como school in the years just before her death.  “Her sense of the phrase in Bach is something I cannot describe in words,” Alessandro said. He regrets never meeting her “except many times listening to her recordings.” 

The future seems crowded for the Cliburn semifinalist. He has seven or eight engagements in the works and will return to Cliburn territory to play the Rachmanninov Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Ft. Worth Symphony at the end of August. He has nine CD recordings on the market and is considering a new CD of Schumann’s piano works. He is currently at work on the complete Beethoven piano and violin sonatas with violinist Daniela Cammarano.  “We are working extremely hard on this and are sure we can offer something different,” he says.

Naboré will continue to help hi and progress. “Alessandro has that special x factor that others do not have,” he says. “I think he’s going to make it big, and sooner rather than later. It’s all because of the size of the talent.”

End.


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