Victor Alexeeff has never seen the movie Shine. In fact, it's hard for Alexeeff, one of the world's premier amateur pianists, to understand why the story of a Rachmaninoff-playing prodigy would be appealing. Yet when Alexeeff plays Colorado Springs' Louisa Center for Performing Arts, on Feb. 1, he will be marking another chapter in an improbable, Hollywood-esque story of his own.
The co-winner of last year's 2nd Annual Amateur Pianists International grand prize, Alexeeff could be considered the poster boy for prodigious musical talent. The son of a Russian father and Irish mother, he began studying at Toronto's Royal Conservatory at age 6, immediately demonstrating his virtuosity on the piano.
"He was obviously considered something of a wunderkind," says promoter David Sckolnik, and it was clear that Alexeeff's abilities stretched far beyond technical chops.
"I tried to interpret things how they should be," recalls Alexeeff, "I tried to let my personality reveal itself."
Realizing their pupil's tremendous stylistic potential, Alexeeff's instructors forbade him from listening to any professional recordings, hoping to cultivate his instinctive feel for the instrument. "I still don't listen to much music," says Alexeeff, "maybe just [Vladimir] Horowitz and a few others, but definitely no radio." For him, any music worth hearing must also be worth playing.
His glib denunciation of fame and his extraordinarily apt playing are what most separate Alexeeff from his peers. "Will I ever find a career in this? Probably not," he confesses. "I don't need a record label or a million dollars."
Yet his highly energetic, visceral playing style has certainly raised eyebrows. At last year's Amateur Pianists International Competition, Alexeeff stunned the audience with an emotionally cathartic performance of Rachmaninoff, raising the bar ever higher for his competitors. "The judges were really split," says Sckolnik, "half of them thought Victor's interpretation was brilliant, and the other half cared more about technical accuracy."
As it turned out, Alexeeff wound up sharing the grand prize, which was perfectly fine with him. "There's just a tremendous joy in playing; that's all that matters," he says.
As part of the reward for his brilliant performance, the Amateur Pianists International is inviting Alexeeff back to Colorado Springs for a Feb. 1 encore performance. Though it all might have never happened, says Alexeeff, if not for the patience of a little insect. While playing his final piece at the competition, a fly landed on the piano almost unnerving him. "I was hoping that it didn't land on my hand, because that could have been a disaster," recalls Alexeeff. Subjected to such a cruel twist of fate, Alexeeff fell back on his unique philosophical approach to get him through the piece. "I just tried to find that zone, and become completely absorbed not even aware what's going on," he says. The fly, after all, probably just got close for a better listen.
At home in California, Alexeeff is hoping his success as an amateur pianist can pay off, but he's not counting on it. Using his performance experience as a springboard, Alexeeff is highly involved in scoring music for commercial use. With the eventual goal of composing pieces for film and television, he's content to be utilizing his musical talent in one way or another. "I love performing and composing, but they are very different concepts. You have to love doing it for the sake of doing it, not for any other reason ... it's like flying kites," he says.
For Alexeeff and his kites, the sky's the limit.