ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Pianist Alexander Paley left Russia for the United States with $200 and 20 English words 30 years ago this year.
“I was very young,” the Moldovan-born pianist said in a telephone interview from his New York home. “I did not emigrate like all normal people. I played my first concert in Italy, and went to the American Embassy and asked for asylum. It will be 30 years since I landed at JFK Airport.
“I realized if I don’t want to die as a musician, I have to go to the West.”
Paley will perform his first concert in New Mexico at Santa Fe’s First Presbyterian Church on Sunday, March 11. The Russian program includes music by Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Prokofiev and the lesser-known Nikolay Medtner.
The pianist will play Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza, Op. 38 No. 1 and will open with Tchaikovsky’s 12-piece “Seasons” (1876).
The pianist grew up as the son of two doctors. Raised by his highly educated grandmother, he began practicing piano at age 5.
“I knew always that I wanted to play the piano and the piano only,” he said. “I absolutely pushed (my parents) to buy my first piano. (My father) said, ‘Either you do it seriously or not at all.’
The Russian education system includes a music school for gifted children in every large city. Thousands apply to attend. Starting at age 6, music students are expected to practice four to five hours a day.
“After four years, you have big exam,” Paley said. “About half are selected to continue.”
Four years later, half of this group is allowed to continue.
The weeding is continual all the way to Paley’s alma mater, the Moscow Conservatory, once home to Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. The school accepts 35 of the more than 500 who apply.
“If you’re three times late for class, you’re expelled,” Paley said, “without any rights to go to school again.