Vijay Venkatesh, a Sacramento, California-based pianist, has become a worldwide classical Western music sensation. He is busy throughout the year, with concerts and performances across the US, Europe, and Asia. It was an exciting conversation when I met him for a short interview recently.
Being the fourth child in his family and doctor’s parents, Venkatesh started to play piano at the precocious age of 4, training in the Suzuki method. He started showing his talent as a pianist in elementary school concerts and talent shows. In 1996, he gave his first big performance in Sacramento, and still takes pride and honor in being selected as an artist at that stage of life.
Music became a pivotal role in his life, and his entire family is very supportive of that. His siblings played violin and other musical instruments, according to him, “which only filled the house with music.” Yes, there was always a regular push to do well in academics for him as well. He did all kinds of AP courses in High school. At the age of 16, he was much more dedicated to music. He studied at the University of Southern California, where he majored in music.
“My family, especially my mom, plays such an important role in me choosing music as a career,” said Venkatesh.
The Suzuki method of teaching piano is like a “mother tongue” approach. Children learn music by listening to the piece before any attempt at reproducing the song. Venkatesh started going in-depth with piano learning teachers from Bulgaria and Moscow. He started taking private lessons from prof Norman Krieger at USC while studying for graduation there. He later pursued a master’s in music from Indiana University.
Each teacher helped him to set a specific goal which inspired him to explore him to be a musician. His Russian teacher Leonid Levitsky exposed him to open music, listening to it, and making music immediately. “I can open the score and make the music and play it and know the intricacies of the music immediately,” said Venkatesh. Another Bulgarian teacher: Sarkis Baltaian helped him to mesh all kinds of world music. Even now, he is learning from an Italian teacher Fabio Bidini who is helping to build the network and more professional development.
His recent work at Steamboat opera in Colorado with Hungarian dances and playing iconic classical pieces was beyond many musical notes and rehearsals; it also helped him expand his versatility as a musician. He always loves to collaborate with other musicians and dancers.
Venkatesh will embark on a concert tour in India towards the end of this year. When we hear him playing piano as a soloist, duo, or a chamber musician in a symphony, concert, or opera, it is not only about profound technique; it is a refined, effortless sense of poetry in our ears.
One of his favorite experiences is playing with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall in 2015 with conductor Ludovic Morlot. “This was probably the best orchestra I’ve ever played with,” said Venkatesh. He played his favorite “the Second Piano Concerto” by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, a French composer.
A piano duo is an entertaining concept when two pianists sometimes play one piano with four hands, or two players can play two pianos. Venkatesh sometimes pairs with his talented and beautiful wife, Eva Schaumkell. The pair, known as “The Vieness Piano Duo,” has excellent synchronization and timing to enthrall the audience. Moreover, the prize-winning couple has the technical command, precision, and power to display the immersive experience of a musical journey. This duo did nearly 40 impressive recitals together. For them, “it is a lot of notes and lots of fun.”
In fact, this duo’s most recent performance was on May 1st at Lagerquist Concert Hall, Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Washington. This event was in partnership with Pacific Lutheran University. The dynamic duo did a fantastic job of creating a cyclone of music on two pianos, and four hands!
The message from Venkatesh to all budding young kids who want to take Classical western music or art as a career choice rather than a traditional conventional path: “Always look up to some iconic person we can follow or get the motivation to do so better.” He feels blessed to have supportive parents, siblings, teachers, friends to build a network in the Western Classical music industry. “Don’t be afraid to ask a question or seek help when you’ve doubts.”