Charlie Albright Wows With Spot On Technique, On The Spot Composition

Oct 20, 2015

Charlie Albright in recital.

A late venue change for the Tuesday Musical Club’s most recent concert led to a 15-minute delay in showtime, but it was worth the wait. Pianist Charlie Albright breathed life into old standards and even created a fully-formed composition on the spot, using four notes suggested to him by the audience. The impromptu composition was just one highlight of many on the program, which Albright capped with two encores.

Albright began the program with two Impromptus by Franz Schubert, a sunny opener that was followed by Beethoven’s famous “Moonlight” Sonata. Beethoven’s moody piano work is known by practically every music fan in the Western world. Albright said he programmed the piece because of its eternal beauty. “All of it is,” he said in an interview following the concert, “even the ferocious last movement, in its own way, is beautiful. What I attempt to do is get to the core of the piece,” he explained, characterizing the music as “melancholy.”

Albright also took the opportunity to share a performance philosophy that keeps familiar music fresh for him. “I’d rather miss half [the notes] and say something with the music.” Listeners needn’t have worried on that count. Albright’s technique held up, even has he appeared to be physically struggling under the weight of performing twelve Chopin etudes in a row on the second half of the program. Hey, that’s hard work!

A musical highlight of the afternoon was Albright’s scheduled “Improvisation.” He asked the audience to call out four notes.

“D flat,” shouted one audience member. “F sharp,” said another. I chimed in by suggesting E flat, and then the curveball came from a woman on the front row.

“A,” she added with a grin.

Albright sat down at the Steinway piano and played all four notes in order, cocking his head and smiling at the almost bluesy sound. He paused for a few seconds, and then began playing a set of variations on the motif that lasted about six minutes and never felt without direction. 

“When I start something like that, when I get four random notes,” Albright explained later, “I first try to put it into some kind of coherent key. Then I kind of think about what I want the piece to be, the core of it. What is the emotion? Is it going to be joyous and exuberant? Sorrowful or mournful? What’s the reason [for being]?”

He went on to add, “I kind of have a mental sketch of how long I want to play. And I have a general structure, I’ll develop a theme, maybe do something different in the middle, and then come to a climactic end of some kind.”

Albright began playing piano at an early age, and always knew he had an ear for music. At 3 and a half, he was picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by himself. He played for ear for many years beyond that. If his teacher showed him “Great Balls of Fire,” he could play it back.

The teacher that introduced him to notes on the page and classical music was Nancy Adsit. From then on, it was classical all the way, although entering college, he made sure to have something to fall back on. 

“Coming from a non-trust fund family, I knew I had to pay the bills someday,” Albright said. “I was interested in these new joint programs that were popping up everywhere. One of them was between Harvard and the New England Conservatory in Boston.” And that’s how Albright ended up with a bachelor’s degree in Pre-Med and Economics and a master’s degree in Piano Performance.

Charlie Albright signs an autograph for a young fan after his concert.
Credit Don Hessenflow

“Business and medicine were interests,” Albright explained. “[But] music is something that I was passionate about.”

Over the past decade, Albright has played with Yo-Yo Ma, and released an album, Vivace, that features music of Haydn, Chopin, and Giancarlo Menotti, as well as his own composition, “Touch the Peace.” He has won or placed in numerous piano competitions and is an official Steinway artist. The crowd at St. Luke’s Episcopal for his afternoon recital could hear why.