Alon Goldstein wants to have a conversation with the people who come to his recital at Stowe Community Church this Saturday, and he might even do some talking.
The Israeli-born pianist is stripping down the sounds of some of the world’s most legendary composers to their bare components, enough for 10 fingers and 88 keys to communicate with pews full of attentive listeners. It’s music at its most intimate.
“Sometimes, you feel like you’re making a small one-on-one conversation,” Goldstein said last week from his home in Rockland, Md. “There’s a sense of journey when you listen. It’s just you, the music and the audience. You cannot hide behind anything. Not that musicians ever want to hide.”
Saturday’s recital, presented by Stowe Performing Arts, will be bookended with Beethoven sonatas, with “some surprises in there,” including works by Leonard Bernstein, Robert Schumann and a new piece by composer — and fellow Israeli — Avner Dorman.
“I don’t do all known pieces, nor do I do all unknown pieces,” Goldstein said. "When you’re a musician, you’re also an ambassador. Your job is to bring joy, maybe also to bring curiosity, to challenge people.”
Goldstein lives in Rockland, but he’s rarely there, so last Friday was a welcome respite from touring and teaching. He spends much of his time on the West Coast, as artistic director for the Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series in Santa Cruz, Calif., and artistic director of the Mount Angel Abbey Bach Festival in Oregon.
He has played with symphonies and orchestras in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Baltimore, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Toronto and Vancouver, as well as the Israel Philharmonic and Radio France Orchestra.
Goldstein has been considered a piano prodigy, winning the Arianne Katcz Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, the Francois Shapira Competition in Israel and the Nena Wideman competition in the U.S.
Winning them gave him another few dozen shows he might not have gotten, he says. But he takes a somewhat dim view of more major competitions, and doesn’t want to have to deal with the burdens that come with being seen as the best at something. This classical pianist naturally points to Britney Spears as an example.
“You suddenly get shot into the stratosphere, and you’re not ready,” he said. “And suddenly you collapse, like a normal human being. It’s not normal to stay in that competition mode.”
Goldstein is reminded of the movie “Shine,” in which Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush portrays pianist David Helfgott and his struggle to be the best despite mental pressure. Much is made of the stress of trying to play Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concert No. 3.”
Goldstein’s white whale was Chopin’s “24 Preludes,” a set of short pieces, each one set in the 24 different keys that form Western music.
At one point, Goldstein had been practicing a whole year on the “Preludes,” and every time he was meant to perform it, he would postpone. Finally, at the end of that year, he played 12 of them and decided he was done with it.
“Then, 15 years later, I got invited to play it in China, and I couldn’t pass up a tour in China, so I went back to it,” he said. “Finally, I played it, and it was life-transforming, and for the next two years I kept playing the piece.”
Goldstein said another pianist told him he really knows a piece only when he comes back to it six times, and leaves it aside for a while every time.
Chopin’s “Preludes” pack a lot of notes into a short span of time, and require immense finger dexterity and stamina. So, that’s tough. But, you know what else is tough, Goldstein says?
“Mozart is the easiest for beginners to play, because it doesn’t have as many notes,” he said. “And it’s the hardest to play because it doesn’t have as many notes.”
That sparseness is particularly noticeably when you strip away any accompaniment.
“The miracle of music is what happens in between the notes,” he said.