Because pianist Alexander Paley is from the southern portion of the former Soviet Union, he believes he has an affinity for the southern part of any country.
“All people from the south have something in common. I am absolutely in my element in the [southern] United States, South America [and] the South of France,” he said.
While debates have raged for years about where in the United States the North and the South actually divide, Paley will perform a “border-line” concert at the Washington Conservatory of Music in Bethesda on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 5. The concert, which has become an annual tradition for the musician, will feature Chopin’s “Preludes” and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with Paley front and center at the keys of a Büttner piano.
Paley, who also has performed with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, has appeared at the Washington Conservatory at the beginning of every new year, and credits the annual event to his ongoing relationship with the conservatory’s Artistic Director Kathy Judd.
“We met at one of the [music] festivals…and she invited me” to perform at the Washington Conservatory, Paley said. “Since then, it became every January, and every year is a different program. I like this series very much.”
Since he has performed at the Washington Conservatory so many times, Paley starts to program the annual concert as soon as the last one is completed — even a year in advance.
“Usually after the concert, we discuss the program for the next year, because around Christmas and New Year’s, I am usually in the States,” said Paley, who divides his time between New York and Paris. “We discuss the program because I play so many different styles and programs in Washington that it’s important to bring something new and interesting and beautiful.”
Paley, 62, was born in the small country of Moldova, a former Soviet republic, where he began playing the piano as a child. His talents earned him acceptance to the prestigious Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Bella Davidovich and Vera Gornostayeva. In 1988, just three years before the fall of the Soviet Union, he defected to the United States.
In the years since the end of the Cold War, Paley has been able to return frequently to his home country, both to visit friends and to play in Moldova’s esteemed halls.
“Unfortunately, my heart is [heavy] because you cannot imagine the corruption,” Paley said of his homeland, which consistently ranks high on Transparency.org’s list of the world’s most unscrupulous nations. “I never take any fee there because this is my ‘thank you’ to the country I was born in.”
“My country is still great, the traditions are still great, but it is a big problem,” he said of the corruption. “My intention is to make their cultural life as [vibrant] as it was in my childhood.”
Paley has played not just around the capital region, but all over the world, from Europe to China and with most of the most prestigious orchestras in the United States. He said he maintains his apartment in Paris to be closer to his European engagements, which number a great many in 2019.
“I used to stay with friends, and you stay with friends until they become your enemies,” he said, somewhat grimly, of the need to have his own address. “I play a lot in Europe, so the reason I live in Paris is not to stay in hotels all the time.”
Although Paley was privileged to study under Russian greats like Davidovich and Gornostayeva, he says his busy performance schedule keeps him from seriously considering passing on his knowledge in a formal setting — for now. “I see teaching as a great responsibility because in my hands are the lives of young people, and I give them [knowledge] for them to continue after,” Paley said, adding that he will eventually teach “officially somewhere.”
Meanwhile, aspiring musicians can find his lessons on YouTube, although the pianist decries the phenomenon of online master classes. “This is mostly showy, you know,” he said. “People come to hear what I have to say, not to [see] poor students [treated] like guinea pigs.”
Furthermore, Paley said that when he does teach students, “in their mistakes I see my own,” thus imparting the immense pressure to do right by his charges.
At the same time, Paley said he himself remains a lifelong student and continues to discover new things whenever seated at his piano. “I practice a lot every day not because I am afraid not to learn, but because I cannot live without it,” he said of his relationship to his instrument. “Sometimes I go back to the pieces I played many years ago, and I try to start again like I never played it [before] because I’ve changed, and my mentality has changed, and I know more.
“When you are young, everything is very easy, and when you are older, you know more, you want to express more, and it takes more of your energy to express it.”
After his Washington Conservatory performance on Jan. 5, Paley will head back to Europe for a tour of Lithuania as well as more dates in France, where he will repeat the same Chopin-Prokofiev program he will play in Bethesda.
Playing for an audience, he believes, is about communing with others — sharing something that words alone cannot convey. “You go to the stage to express something which is yours, and to make this as important for everybody in the hall as it is for you. This is the goal,” Paley said. “You want everybody in the hall to be with you and to be touched as you are touched.”
The Washington Conservatory of Music presents Alexander Paley performing Chopin’s “Preludes” and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 5, at Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ, 1 Westmoreland Circle, Bethesda. Admission is free. For information, call 301-320-2770 or visit www.washingtonconservatory.org.