It has been three years now that Stefan Cassomenos has been immersed in the world of Ludwig Van Beethoven. It’s something the Melbourne pianist and composer never anticipated when he applied for the prestigious International Telekom Beethoven Piano Competition Bonn in 2013.
“I sent a DVD, having no expectations to be accepted,” he recalls. Not only was he accepted to be one of the 24 pianists from around the world competing, but he managed to win both the Second Grand Prize and the Chamber Music Prize.
“This was amazing to me,” he says. “When I was accepted I was forced to spend a lot of time preparing, because each contestant had to prepare almost four hours of mostly Beethoven’s work. Being the only Australian in the competition, combined with the fact that it was taking place in Beethoven’s birthplace, made me want to play very well, so I tried really hard to reach the deeper meaning of his music and what he has to say. From then on, I realised that Beethoven’s music will always be a part of my work.”
A piano prodigy with a long list of credentials, Stefan Cassomenos has been performing internationally since the age of 10. He famously wrote his first composition at the age of seven and premiered his Piano Concerto No. 1: Aegean Odyssey with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at age 16. As a member of the Plexus chamber music ensemble, he has been exploring contemporary music, but it is his skill in appreciating and performing Beethoven’s music that he will present at the Wood, Metal & Vibrating Air series of concerts, organised by the Monash University Academy of Performing Arts (MAPA).
Cassomenos plays Beethoven is the second recital of the series, that sees a small audience of no more than 160 people sitting in close proximity to the participating pianists. Cassomenos is set to perform two of Beethoven’s compositions for piano, as well as Franz Liszt’s piano transcription of the seminal Symphony No. 5. Barely hiding his excitement, he seems very eager to share his passion for Beethoven’s music with the audience.
“He is one of the composers who changed the world,” he says. “His music is one of the cornerstones of our culture, but his impact goes far beyond that. Before him, the role of artists was confined to certain situations – even his teacher, Joseph Haynd, was a court composer. He emerged at a time in history when the artist was about to become an individual entity.”
Spearheading the romantic movement, Beethoven influenced this transition and the result is the concept of an artist who more or less remains unchanged up to the present day.
DISCOVERING THE GREEK IDENTITY
Cassomenos is the first to admit that his preoccupation with Beethoven has prevented him from exploring other composers, not least among them Nikos Skalkotas.
“He’s one of Greece’s more undervalued composers,” he says, attributing this neglect to the composer’s own modesty that saw him keep a low profile while he was alive, but also to the fact that his music, more inclined to the German tradition, is not very close to the Greek culture and the kind of music Greeks tend to listen to.
Expressing his admiration of the way another Greek pianist, France-based Nikos Samaltanos, has treated Skalkotas’ work, he laments the fact that this music is seldom heard in the world’s concert halls, stating the need for artists to discover his compositions.
“I could do that,” he says, going on to explain how he loves the work of other seminal Greek composers such as Manos Hadjidakis, Mikis Theodorakis and Yannis Markopoulos.
“It is part of my identity. The issue of identity is a question for any artist, it is something to discover. I am a classical musician of Greek descent. It is how I fit in the world of classical music. As such, I’m very interested in the Greek artistic spirit becoming more present in the concert hall.”
But what is this ‘Greek spirit’?
“I don’t know what it is,” he laughs, “but I know there needs to be a voice. There are a lot of wonderful Greek composers, others well-known, such as Ianis Xenakis, others not so much, such as (New York-based) George Tsontakis and it would be interesting to see this progression and have top-level orchestras and musicians playing Greek music and engaging younger generations of Greek composers writing music.”
That is the goal that he has set on his own as a composer, to engage younger people into writing music, just as he did himself.
“As a composer, I still need to find what I’m trying to say,” he says, admitting that he’s always learning. “Everything I created I learned from playing other people’s music,” he concludes, once again mentioning the name of a certain Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Cassomenos plays Beethoven will be performed on Tuesday 7 June at Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Clayton. For tickets or further information visit www.monash.edu/mapa or phone (03) 9905 1111.