To Remain Astonished: Interview with Concert Pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi

“Pianos, unlike people, sing when you give them your every growl. They know how to dive into the pit of your stomach and harmonize with your roars when you’ve split yourself open. And when they see you, guts shining, brain pulsing, heart right there exposed in a rhythm that beats need need, need need, need need, pianos do not run. And so she plays.”

~ Francesca Lia Block, Love Magick

Antonio Pompa-Baldi
Antonio Pompa-Baldi

Antonio Pompa-Baldi is holding a master class before his evening performance with the Eugene Symphony at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon, and much to Susane Reis‘ bemusement, the concert pianist is telling her students and their families that structure is secondary to the soul and feel of the music. (Later, her students will use what they glean from this talk to try to get out of practicing with a metronome. But that’s another story…) What Pompa-Baldi is describing is a method of playing where the emotion and color of a piece is so enrapturing that the audience cannot even tell when one note is ending and another beginning. “It’s like your DNA,” the pianist tells us in his rich Italian accent, “you know it’s always there but you don’t ever think about it. It supports your every movement without demanding your attention.” Indeed, as with the enchantment Pompa-Baldi’s creates with his heart and soul and fingers, the point is simply to be fully and gloriously, and yes, gratefully, alive.


Antonio Pompa-Baldi
Antonio Pompa-Baldi

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What was it about the piano, Antonio, that initially drew you? Do you come from a family of musicians? Was there a precise moment when you realized this was your calling?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: No one in my family played any instrument. My parents didn’t even listen to classical music. One day, I was about three and a half, my parents were watching TV, channel surfing, and I was not even paying attention. They stumbled upon a broadcast of a piano concerto. I have no idea who was playing what, but I was mesmerized. I listened to the whole thing without blinking, my parents watching me, surprised. Afterwards, I asked for a piano. I got a toy piano to start with, and taught myself to play by ear some songs I knew. At four, my parents took me to a local piano teacher and I started lessons then. Things just progressed from there, and I never thought of doing anything else.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What was it that you think your very first piano teacher recognized in you, at even that young age?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: I think it was just the love of music. I had always loved music and I sang ever since I can remember. My mother tells me that I started singing, quite in tune, even before I talked.

My first piano teacher’s name was Vittorio Sannoner. Because I was only four years old, he at 66 was older than my grandparents, and looked so old to me as to be very intimidating. On top of that, when he asked how old I was and realized I was four, he told me that I was too young to start piano lessons, and then maybe I should wait another year. I started crying so much that he said, “Okay, I will put you to the test.” He started beating very complicated rhythms that I should imitate, then he went to the piano and played a few notes, then chords, while I was turned around, looking in the other direction. I was able to go back to the piano and play exactly what he had played. When he realized I had perfect pitch, and after seeing how I had a good sense of rhythm, to my delight, he changed his mind and said, “You can start Monday.”

Antonio Pompa-Baldi:  The moment when I realized I could be successful as a concert artist came when I was nineteen years old. I entered a piano competition in northern Italy. On the jury was a great Italian pianist and pedagogue, Annamaria Pennella

She immediately sensed I could soon be on the verge of a breakthrough in my career, with the right help. She became my teacher. She provided me with the all-important guidance I needed, especially in developing my own sound, which is the vehicle through which all emotions are expressed in music. She helped me see that I was too caught up with the mechanical aspects of playing, and since I was extremely proficient in that department, I was showing it off and making it the focus of all my performances. She helped me in making Art and Interpretation, along with communicativeness and singing tone, the only real important elements of music-making.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What do you believe Annamaria sensed in you?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: I think she saw that I had extremely proficient mechanical skills at the keyboard, but she was able to sense that I hadn’t yet found my sound, probably and most likely because I wasn’t thinking about it too much. She saw that I performed well on stage, under pressure, but also that I hadn’t even begun to tap into a wealth of emotions and imagination, let alone colors. Yet she sensed that there was an inner world inside me that just needed to be let out. That’s why she became interested in helping me, and became a mentor and an amazing teacher to me.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Now as Distinguished Professor of Piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music, you see quite a few accomplished students come through your doors with visions of becoming great musicians. Which qualities do you see most serving these young men and women in their pursuit? What distinguishes simply a fine technician from what you might term a true artist?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: Many young pianists who worked with me have a high level of proficiency. I distinguish between mechanical proficiency and technique. Dexterity, strength, ability to play fast octaves or double notes, these are all important tools of this trade, but they are only the mechanical part of piano technique. Piano technique of the highest level implies great tonal control of the instrument, meaning the ability to create any dynamics and shades of colors, any timbrically precise soundscapes, and the ability to layer them so as to create prospective effects. It also implies mastering the use of pedal, an all important, and often not mastered, skill. All of this then needs to be put to the service of the interpretive concept with which one approaches a piece, a composer, a style. Few people have this beautifully developed, comprehensive piano technique. Finally, it is a true fact that in music we are not all created equal. [quote]The intangibles, the innate musicianship, the artistic soul, the imagination, not everybody possesses those, or not in equal measure, anyway. One can immediately hear when the performer does possess those innate qualities, even if the playing is technically imperfect, still developing. [/quote]The teacher must tailor his teaching to each student, the goal being to develop their skills to the fullest, but the path to that goal having to be necessarily different for each of the students. Artistically, students can be guided, influenced, helped along the way, but those intangibles, honestly, cannot be taught.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What drives you to still sit down every day at the piano? What questions do you still seek? What more do you hope to discover?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi
Antonio Pompa-Baldi

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: There is nothing more astonishing, and rewarding, than to play through a work you’ve played hundreds of times, and all of a sudden discover a new hidden line, a melodic strain that’s part of the piece’s DNA but you overlooked till then. You always played it, but your brain was focused on something else in the music, and now this line stares at you, talks to you, or sings to you. This is only possible if you let the music take over, when you are not overly preoccupied with proficiency and technical cleanliness. You can also discover a new shade or nuance in the character or mood of a passage, a new sound effect obtained through different pedaling, and countless other ways. Then there is the matter of piano repertoire being absolutely immense. There’s always new music, or just new to me, to be discovered, explored, learned and loved. That’s why I keep doing what I do.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your definition of a perfect performance? Is this even achievable?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi
: The perfect performance is always the next one. Seriously, perfection does not exist, and I thank God for that. Perfection is boring to me. Music is a reflection of real life, or a sublimation of it, but it is real. As such, it cannot be perfect. To me, a “perfect” performance is not one where the player doesn’t miss a note. I’d say a “perfect” performance is one that leaves you totally fulfilled, emotionally, spiritually, and, especially if you are playing, even physically.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How important is humility for a musician?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: The greatest talent a performer can have is to understand we are doing this to serve the Music, not ourselves. We are imperfect, soul-searching people who need to elevate ourselves through Music, to better serve it and to inspire others.

Antonio Pompa-Baldi at an In-Home Piano Recital last weekend.ekend
Antonio Pompa-Baldi at an in-home piano recital last weekend.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What do you imagine in your mind as you are playing? Do you conjure up your own stories? And if so, do they change slightly with each performance?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: Imagery, extramusical inputs, are important. It depends on the music, though. Some music lends itself to specific stories and images, and these contribute in forming the interpretive idea at the base of my approach. In general, while I am performing, after having formed those stories and images, I don’t need to constantly be thinking about them. I just want to plunge into the world that I created, and just live in it, otherwise the process would become very academic. Once I have a landscape, world, or situation in mind, it’s nice to stroll through it every time with fresh eyes, instead of trying to photograph it and reproduce it identically every time. I try to live in it in the moment, so that the general aspects would be the same, but the details will be different each time, just like in real life.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: The greatest compliment you have ever received?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: There have been many meaningful ones.

The greatest moments to me are always the ones when I realized I’ve truly touched someone’s soul. Complimentary words are always very pleasant to hear, but when you touch someone’s soul, you see it in their eyes, there are tears and they cannot speak. The music was too powerful for them to talk right after it’s over. This has happened a few times and it made me realize once more how strongly music can affect listeners.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Where do you see the direction of classical music going? Are you pleased with what you see? How important is it to a healthy society to keep this genre vibrant and thriving?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: Obviously, as a musician and music lover, it is difficult for me to comprehend how not every human being on the planet loves classical music. I do believe that if exposed to it, most people do fall in love with it. We live in a difficult era, with so many distractions and shortened attention span. Many people choose to be passive and allow to be spoon-fed. They listen to “music” that doesn’t require any type of engagement. When people are willing to be engaged mentally, spiritually, emotionally, great music never fails to deliver the greatest rewards. I see it as every musician’s mission to be a force in the spreading of the word, through outreach events, going into schools, showing younger generations how rich and rewarding classical music is. Many organizations are doing this, as they recognize it is the most important way forward.

Antonio Pompa-Baldi
Antonio Pompa-Baldi

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Advice for someone who might feel intimidated by classical music? What’s the best way to approach familiarizing oneself with this complex art form? What composers are the most accessible to begin with?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: As I said, classical music isn’t something you can listen to as you would elevator or background music. It requires a little effort from the listener, but it gives back way more than it takes.

I think Mozart may be the best composer to start with, but one could also start from Rachmaninoff. If that doesn’t grab your heart, I don’t know what will!

Deanna Phoenix Selene: The greatest gift music has given you? What do you wish to pass on to your students?

Antonio Pompa-Baldi: Music has given me…itself. That’s already an incredible gift. It fulfills me and it’s enough of a reward. Of course, through music I also have the privilege to travel all over the world, and meet many wonderful people.

I’d like for my students to always see how much their life is enriched by music, to be always aware of Music not as a business, a career, nor a mere pathway to a comfortable living. Regardless of weather they will become concert artists, or professional musicians, they are lucky because they spend most of their time in close physical and spiritual proximity with some of the highest expression of the human mind and soul. I think the rewards are in the lifelong journey of learning. And they are more than enough.

Further Notes

Born and raised in Foggia, Italy, Antonio Pompa-Baldi won the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 1999 and embarked on a career that continues to extend across five continents. A top prize winner at the 1998 Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition of Paris, France, Antonio Pompa-Baldi also won a silver medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Mr. Pompa-Baldi appears regularly at the world’s major concert venues including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Cleveland’s Severance Hall, Milan’s Sala Verdi, Boston’s Symphony Hall, and Paris’ Salle Pleyel.

He has collaborated with leading conductors including Hans Graf, James Conlon, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and Keith Lockhart, performing with the Houston Symphony, Colorado Symphony, Berliner Symphoniker, Orchestre National de Paris-Radio France, National Orchestra of Ukraine, Fort Worth Symphony, among many others.

Mr. Pompa-Baldi has recorded 17 CDs for Centaur Records: the Josef Rheinberger Piano Sonatas; the entire piano output of Edward Grieg, in 12 volumes; an all-Rachmaninoff CD; an all-Schumann album; a live recital in Cleveland; and the first volume of the Hummel Piano Sonatas. Soon-to-be-released by Centaur is the second volume of the Hummel Sonatas.

Mr. Pompa-Baldi was recently recorded live in recital at the Stellenbosch Conservatory, South Africa, in a program including, among others, the complete set of Chopin’s Etudes Op.10. This CD will soon be released by the TwoPianists label.

For the Steinway label, Pompa-Baldi recorded a disc of songs by Francis Poulenc and Edith Piaf, arranged for solo piano, to commemorate the 50th year of the passing of both French musical icons. The album, titled “The Rascal and the Sparrow: Poulenc meets Piaf”, released in September 2013, received unanimous praise in Classical Music’s most esteemed review sites.

Mr. Pompa-Baldi has been seen and heard many times on French National Television, Radio-France, Ukrainian National Television, Cleveland’s WCLV, Boston’s WGBH, and National Public Radio’s “Performance Today”. He was featured in the PBS documentary on the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition “Playing on the Edge”, which premiered in October 2001 in USA and Canada.

Mr. Pompa-Baldi appeared again on PBS in the documentary “Concerto: A sense of Self“, featuring his performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and James Conlon. This performance was also seen on French National Television in May, 2003, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Prokofiev’s death, as well as throughout Europe.

Antonio Pompa-Baldi is a Steinway Artist. He serves as Distinguished Professor of Piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and gives master-classes around the world.

He is often invited to judge international piano competitions, and has served as president of the jury for the San Jose International Piano Competition, CA since 2006. His students have been prizewinners in important competitions such as Marguerite Long, Hilton Head, José Iturbi, Isang Yun, and Gina Bachauer.

For more information about his concerts and recordings, please visit his website.

Mr. Pompa-Baldi also invites his audience to interact with him on his Facebook page.

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My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

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