The piano man

Stefan Cassomenos has been tickling the ivories since the age of four. Here he tells Neos Kosmos his story of living behind the keys of a piano

“It’s like an extension of myself,” says pianist, conductor and composer Stefan Cassomenos of the piano. The keys of a piano are,to Stefan, another part of him, another way to express himself. He speaks another language – a musical language – that allows him to talk of love, loss, fear and joy.
And that’s what it’s been like since the age of four for this Greek Australian prodigy.
Stefan remembers at an early age his father Nicholas’ electric keyboard. The self-taught musician would play his favourite music by ear and when he and his wife Jenny – Stefan’s mum – noticed their young son’s interest, they encouraged his interest and sent him off to Yamaha Music School.
I was lucky to go to Yamaha Music School, and have some wonderful tutors who helped me develop my interest in writing my own music,” says Stefan of his introduction to the world of music.
But at the same time, he says he was just like every other kid at school – he played with his mates but confesses he was “probably a bit of a music nerd”.
A bit may be a slight understatement; he has been composing since the age of seven, and his compositions have been played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
He has performed internationally since the age of 10, and performed the premiere of his own first piano concerto with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at the age of 16. His London performance in 2007 was reviewed as ‘a prodigious London debut by a formidable talent’ (Musical Opinion, April 2007). His recent performance of Beethoven’s Sonata Op 110 was acclaimed as ‘a model of clarity, depth of expression and irrefutable musical logic’ (West Australian, April 2013).
“It was awesome fun – I’ve always loved travelling, and it was a particularly great feeling to share my own compositions with audiences in another country,” says Stefan of his early travels.
“And this recognition of my piano-playing and composing was encouraging and inspiring – it really inspired me to continue doing it, to strive to play better, and to explore new territory as a composer.”
As well as having compositions played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Stefan was Composer-in-Residence at Creative Universe’s Creative Innovation Conference from 2010-2012. In 2010, as part of his role as Composer-in-Residence, he was commissioned to write his Third Piano Concerto which he led and directed from the keyboard at its Melbourne Recital Centre premiere with musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music. In 2012, he was awarded the Lyrebird Music Society’s Annual Commission, and had his works premiered by the Curro Quartet, Orchestra 21, and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir. His Double Violin Concerto was recently performed at Federation Square by an orchestra of musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra Victoria, soloists Monica and Sarah Curro, and conducted by Fabian Russell.
But with so many accolades and achievements, I had to ask Stefan, what’s been the highlight of his career for him thus far.
“Performing Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – as part of the finals of the Vlassenko competition – is definitely a professional highlight.
“I’m 28-years-old, and I have to say that thinking back, there are occasionally performances that are very special, where the audience is totally synchronised emotionally with the music I’m performing – it’s like the stars align, and everything seems to be perfect. It doesn’t happen all that often, but for me, those are the best highlights. The Prokofiev Concerto with Queensland Symphony Orchestra was one of them, but there have been others, some at festivals, some at performances in private homes.”
Stefan draws on many famous composers for inspiration. He loves the symphonies of Mahler, Brahms and Beethoven, the solo piano music of Rachmaninoff, the choral music of Bach and Faure, and virtually everything by Prokofiev, Adams, Ligeti and Schubert. Yet he also listens to several Greek composers, as well as Greek Americans and Greek Australians.
“Nikos Skalkottas is one of Greece’s most interesting composers, I am very drawn to his work. I also love the music of Zambetas very much, his music always puts a smile on my face.”
As a young man he grew up listening to Greek music alongside his parents, and he says that the music of his heritage has affected his tastes and influenced his understanding of music.
“Greek music is strongly bound to the folk tradition, and classical music from all over Europe has its origins in folk music, particularly the spirit of the dance.
“As a performer, I am grateful for having Greek music early in my life – it was somewhat like a window into the European psyche. It also influenced the music that I’ve written – not necessarily by choice, but certainly you can hear in my music that my harmonic and rhythmic language is often driven by the memory of the music I grew up listening to.”
“I’ve performed in Greece a couple of times,” he says. “I gave a concert in Athens at the University when I was on tour with the Chamber Strings of Melbourne. I also played several times in Rhodes when I went there for the Arte con Anima Rhodes International Piano Competition – and I was lucky enough to be a finalist.
“It is wonderful to perform in a country that you love, and I would be so excited to play there again.”
Yet what is life like for this professional musician? He says a top priority for him is practicing; which can range to a few hours each day to more if preparing for a big performance. The rest of the time is preparing for the future, “making sure there is a healthy balance between performances and preparation, selecting the pieces that one is going to play, and writing lots and lots of emails”.
For this year, Stefan has been selected for a few more competitions including the Young Performer Awards, to be held in Melbourne in October, and then in December he’s headed off to Germany to compete in the International Telekom Beethoven Competition Bonn.
“I feel very lucky to be in the Beethoven competition – following auditions, they only took 28 pianists from around the world, and I am the only Australian.”
Just last month, Stefan came runner up in the Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition.
“It was a very exciting competition, and I was thrilled to be involved,” says the pianist.
“The Vlassenko is a major national piano competition, and every two years invites pianists from Australia and New Zealand to audition to participate. The last time I was involved was eight years ago, when I was a semi-finalist and prize-winner.
“It was a huge thrill performing with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, they are wonderful musicians, and the conductor Nicholas Braithwaite was a joy to work with.”
As a composer, conductor and pianist, one must ask, which does he prefer?
“Difficult to say,” he answers diplomatically, “probably the piano at the moment, although composing is also very important to me. I only compose occasionally, and it only ever comes from a deep need to express my own musical ideas.
“I love the piano very much, because I feel really comfortable with it.
“It’s a very flexible instrument – I love that one can play almost anything on the piano, unlike most other instruments where you can only play a single line.”
The Cultural Section of EEAMA (League of Greeks from Egypt and the Middle East) will present a concert by Stefan Cassomenos on Sunday 22 September at 3.00 pm, 1c Bell Street, Preston, Victoria. For bookings, contact Nick Chalas on 9563 8089 or 0409 174 933; Dimi Vavlitis on 0408 055 609; or Minas Costaras on 0410 613 438.