Vanessa Perez: It Takes a Village

A happy follow-up to my last post (thank you, everyone, for so many good comments, tweets, etc)...

I recently had a chance talk with Venezuelan pianist Vanessa Perez, and our conversation was a perfect example about what I love most about my encounters here On the Bench. For pianists, bred in the solitude of the practice studio, raised on a steady diet of self-examination, self-obsession, and self-doubt, the ability to reach out and connect with our equally self-absorbed colleagues is priceless. It’s why these conversations are important to me, and why talking with someone like Vanessa opens up interesting connections in experiences and perspectives, exposing the common ground between very different lives.

Vanessa grew up in the incredibly rich and nurturing musical community of Venezuela, a country with a unique musical history, where the slogan “There is no culture without musical culture” defines the central importance of music in the collective consciousness. There, in the birthplace of El Sistema, Vanessa’s early years were spent with “so many children making music”, shaping her identity as a musician and building lasting friendships with her fellow youngsters coming up in El Sistema’s many orchestras, incubators which produced not only a generation of tremendously gifted young conductors – Dudamel among others - but also provided abundant opportunities for young soloists to perform with those orchestras. She talks with deep affection about those early opportunities, about the impact of young years spent in such nurturing surroundings.

This is a musician who depends on other musicians - the theme of community and friendship came up time and again in our conversation. Even in the recording studio - the most private and vulnerable arena, the place where most of us withdraw to commune on the most intimate level with our artistic  intentions, to examine every musical pore and wrinkle in the most magnifying of mirrors, and to do battle as best we can with our full spectrum of neuroses (See Jeremy Denk’s most excellent account of these horrors in a recent New Yorker piece) - Vanessa has found a way to create a support system of musical colleagues and friends. Most of us treat the studio as an inner sanctum, impenetrable except for the trusted troika of engineer, producer and artist. Vanessa, in contrast, opened up her recent studio sessions to a group of trusted friends and colleagues, creating a hybrid of live performance and recording session that, she says, helped her keep her playing "real and honest". 
The result, a disc of the complete Chopin Preludes, was recently released on Telarc and will be celebrated with a NYC release concert this Thursday, May 31 at the Americas Society, 680 Park Avenue.

Listening to the album, you hear the same humanity and honesty that comes across in conversation. Vanessa's connection to Chopin's music is almost primal, sometimes bypassing the surround of exquisite beauty in favor of the raw emotion at its core. Her relationship with Chopin is life-long. She remembers the thrill of discovering her first Chopin Nocturne as a child in Venezuela – the momentous feeling of entering into the world of “grown-up music”, as she puts it “I felt for the first time that now I was really a pianist”.  When she played for the legendary Claudio Arrau at age 14, he sensed the potential in her natural affinity and encouraged her to “play more Chopin”, putting her to work right away on the E Minor Concerto. Arrau took a pivotal mentoring role in her musical life, sending her to study in the U.S. with his former students Ena Bronstein and Rosalina Sackstein .

Leaving Venezuela for the States (first Miami, then New Jersey), being transplanted into the relatively arid musical landscape of the American suburbs, took its toll. Her response was to dig deeper into her music, to find there the sustenance and communication that had always been critical to her musical identity. At 17 she went to the Royal Academy of Music in London, and was able to connect again with a community of musicians who provided a environment of support and community. Studies in Italy followed, then some post-grad finishing back in New York. The friendships Vanessa has made at every point in her musical life have remained central to her musical life. She makes music with those friends - fellow Venezuelans Dudamel and Gabriela Montero are friends from childhood and have both been musical collaborators. She joined Joshua Bell for a performance of Piazzolla's Oblivion on Bell's At Home with Friends album. The musicians in Vanessa's life serve as mentors, role models, touchstones - as it should be.

The Chopin album may be a breakthrough to a new level of visibility as a soloist. Even alone on the bench, though, Vanessa Perez' music is full of the spirit of all the musicians who surround her - from her childhood friends in the musical sandbox of Venezuela, to her trusted advisors in her recording session, to the very tangible presence of M. Chopin himself. 

The ON THE BENCH Questionnaire
(with apologies to Proust and Vanity Fair)

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice?

It varies all the time...I don't have a specific routine.  
What's the last thing you do before you go on stage?

I look obsessively at the first few measures of what I will begin my program with.

If your piano could speak, what secrets would it tell about you?

My piano wouldn't tell on me ... :)
If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which would it be?

 I would attend one of those beautiful soiree salon concerts in 19th century Paris, with Liszt or Chopin playing.  
If you didn’t play the piano, what would you do?

Chef, specializing in Japanese and northern Italian cuisine.


  1. It’s why these conversations are important to me, and why talking with someone like Vanessa opens up interesting connections in experiences and perspectives, exposing the common ground between very different lives. music saves lives