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In Concert

What: Santa Rosa Symphony under Bruno Ferrandis with pianist Alessio Bax

When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park

Admission: $20-$85

Tickets: 707-546-8742, www.srsymphony.org


Italian pianist Alessio Bax was last heard in Santa Rosa in 2014, when he accompanied violinist Joshua Bell during a recital to benefit the Santa Rosa Symphony.

When Bax and Bell go on tours together, they spend most of their time trying to decide on where they are going to eat rather than on tempos or dynamics.

“Food brought us together, even before music,” Bax said in a phone interview from his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which he shares with his wife, Canadian pianist Lucille Chang and their 2-year-old daughter. “I think we’ve probably eaten together more than we’ve played together.”

Bax will return to Sonoma County this weekend to perform Brahms’ beefy Concerto No. 2 with the Santa Rosa Symphony under Music Director Bruno Ferrandis. As a prelude to Valentine’s Day, the “Tales of Love” concert will also feature two tributes to Shakespeare’s famous love story: Berlioz’ Introduction to “Roméo et Juliette” and selections from Suites Nos. 1 and 2 from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” based on the composer’s famous ballet score.

“That’s my theatrical touch, to do Shakespeare,” Ferrandis said at the beginning of the season. “It’s Shakespeare, from two opposites in style, and two of the best orchestrators in the world.”

Meanwhile, Bax will tackle Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, a sprawling work that was written in 1881, 23 years after the composer penned his youthful Piano Concerto No. 1.

“The piano has a huge part, but it’s more like a symphony, with four big movements,” Bax said of the 50-minute concerto. “You need to know your role at all times. It’s chamber music on a huge scale.”

At 39, Bax is nicely maturing into his role as a rising pianist constantly in demand as a soloist and an accompanist and chamber musician.

“Alessio Bax is clearly among the most remarkable young pianists now before the public,” Gramophone magazine wrote in its 2014 “Editor’s Choice” review of the CD, “Alessio Bax plays Beethoven.”

Born in Bari, Italy, Bax attended the Bari Conservatory of Music from age 9 to 14, then left the port city in Puglia at age 16 to study in France and Italy. After that, he went to Southern Methodist University near Dallas, where he studied with Spanish pianist Joaquín Achúcarro.

Bax won the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in Japan in 1997 — that’s where he first met his wife — and the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition in 2000. He also won a 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant.

We talked to Bax in late January, before the Steinway artist headed to the Bay Area for a Steinway Society recital on Feb. 5 in San Jose.

Q: How many languages do you speak?

A: I speak three — Italian, English and Spanish. My wife speaks seven, and my 2-year-old daughter speaks three.

Q: What was it like growing up in Bari?

A: It was a great music environment. When I was in junior high, I attended the school attached to the conservatory, and every Saturday we would go to see rehearsals of the orchestra. My dad got us tickets every week to hear the orchestra. There is also a major opera theater in Bari ... I heard many pianists come through. I missed (Anton) Rubenstein, he was 10 years before my time, but I still got to hear the older generation.

In Concert

What: Santa Rosa Symphony under Bruno Ferrandis with pianist Alessio Bax

When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park

Admission: $20-$85

Tickets: 707-546-8742, www.srsymphony.org

Q: What drew you to the piano?

A: I wanted to be an organist. First I got a little electric keyboard, which became larger and larger. I got a real piano when I was 9 or so. When it was time to enter the conservatory, you have to take five years of piano before you switch to the organ, and I’m still waiting to switch. I love the versatility of the piano — the chamber music and all the repertoire.

Q: What’s it like being married to another professional musician?

A: I think it’s a lot easier, except for scheduling. We know each other’s playing, and we like to play together. There’s always an extra pair of ears in the house. I just played at Lincoln Center last night, and she hadn’t heard me in a while, and it was great to get her feedback. Scheduling is not so easy, but my daughter has traveled a lot.

Q: How does Concerto No. 2 compare with Brahms’ first concerto?

A: The first concerto is a masterpiece but is much rougher and youthful, and you are always fighting to be heard. This concerto requires a lot of energy and strength and power, but he had refined his compositional skills to an incredible degree ... the piano in the crucial parts is never overwhelmed by the orchestra. There are really high trills and octaves, and he cleverly doubles that with the flutes.

Q: Can you talk about some of the challenges in Concerto No. 2?

A: Brahms doesn’t really think too much about technical aspects. He doesn’t sacrifice music to make it easier to play. That’s quite extreme in this concerto — what was Brahms thinking?

To make great music with such clarity that the music deserves, that’s not easy, for starters. It’s a big piece, too, and requires planning. It has a big architecture, and it has to make sense. Then, because it really is a symphonic work, it really helps to know everybody’s part and to study the score very much like a conductor would.

In Brahms more than anything else, the orchestra is important and an equal partner, and it’s really hard for the orchestra to keep the flow going. In the slow movement, there’s a beautiful cello solo that could almost be a cello concerto.

This concerto has a range of emotions, from the symphonic sweep of the first movement to the end of the slow movement, which is one of the most intimate, quiet moments in all classical music. It creates a world of its own. It’s the kind of piece that needs every ingredient to be the freshest and the highest quality for it to work — the orchestra, the piano, the conductor and the hall.

Q: Speaking of ingredients, how did you become fascinated by food?

A: My mother was an English teacher at the Culinary Institute in Bari, and there was always great food around. Food, for me, is a great way to see the culture. When you’re touring, there’s not much time to go to a museum or see a play. I’ve been known to do some research before each trip, and I try not to compromise on food. I also love to cook, so whenever I’m home for a few days, I try to make nice meals and have friends over.

Q: Is there a link between music and food?

A: I definitely see a similarity between cooking and making music, especially at a very high level. There are traditions, and you have to know how to innovate while keeping those traditions in mind. You want to have your own voice, but not to use the recipe for your own glory. You want to showcase the music and composers and not your own personality.

But there’s also a social aspect, which is so important ... the best moment of a concert is when you sit down with friends afterwards and have a drink and order food.

When I was interviewed for the dining section of the New York Times, I called it the carrot at the end of the stick. It’s a little reward that we all need.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.