Living a musical life: Serving up music, teaching and tennis with piano star David Jalbert

David Jalbert

The JUNO-nominated pianist David Jalbert has another passion. He’s a confirmed tennis fanatic. In fact, just before this interview he had booked a game.

“I haven’t been playing that long. I learned as an adult and then understood the woes of all adult piano learners.”

He’s careful about not injuring himself but even that concern won’t stop him. 

“I love it too much,” he said with a laugh. He is also an admirer of the Swiss star Roger Federer, who, at age 37, has returned to the top of the tennis rankings. “Being a fan of Federer is a gift that keeps on giving. He’s had an amazing career.”

Jalbert hasn’t done too badly for himself in his chosen profession. He’s won numerous competitions and has been hailed one of the finest pianists of his generation. He’s got four JUNO nominations under his belt, two for his chamber work and two as a soloist. The latest is for his recent solo recording: Stravinsky & Prokofiev: Transcriptions for Piano. It features music from the ballets Petrushka, The Firebird and Romeo and Juliet.

Jalbert started playing at age four when his businessman father suggested lessons.

“I don’t think it was clear to me then what a piano was. I just remember saying ‘Yes’ and that was it.

“I don’t know if I showed anything. I was pretty young. My parents listened to classical music. It was certainly around the house. I remember the Amadeus soundtrack playing a lot and some Russian piano concertos, including Rachmaninoff No. 2 and Tchaikovsky. (That Russian through line in his music started early).

Jalbert’s interests are more complex than a few composers however. He admits to a fascination generally with the years leading up to the First World War when modern music was taking shape and the pace of creative change was staggering. This is the era, after all, of The Rite of Spring.

For Jalbert the attraction is the imagination that was on display then and the expanding concept of what art, including music,  could be.

“I find that to be a fascinating time. It’s also a time that I find fascinating for art. I was quite into art history for a time. I started a degree in art history just for kicks when I was doing my Masters” in music at the Université de Montréal.

“It was only 20th century art that appealed to me then from Cézanne onwards, when there was a play on the form, that’s when it became really interesting to me. (This is) when artists started experimenting with different ways of looking at a picture and what a picture can be.”

The displacement that was taking place in classical music is also appealing, he says, starting with French composers such as Fauré, Debussy and Ravel.

“With Debussy there was a real shift in how music could be thought of and listened to. That triggered an explosion of creativity.”

When Jalbert started playing he was living in a small village on the Baie de Chaleur. Eventually the Jalberts moved to Rimouski where he studied at conservatoire. He graduated early and headed to Montreal to complete a Masters before moving to the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto and finally to The Juilliard School in New York.

It became “clear to me what I wanted to do as a teenager. I wasn’t a wunderkind, but by 14, I became very strong and started to win competitions.”

Jalbert could have gone in any direction but he really couldn’t imagine another profession, even the one suggested by a guidance counsellor in high school. “I remember walking out of there quite bemused” after being told he could be a star as an air traffic controller.

His professional career has been centred on solo and chamber work. Both have an appeal for Jalbert.

“If you are a good soloist, somehow chamber opportunities arise.”

His latest CD is built on the piano transcriptions made by the composers themselves except for The Firebird which was done by the Italian Guido Agosti. It was a challenging project.

“Technically, these are some of the most difficult pieces there are. Bu that’s not what I find appealing. It’s the music that I find utterly fascinating. Petruschka is a touchstone. It is a pivot piece in this period. It brings on The Rite of Spring which is produced in the following year.

“It makes it possible in a way. At same time, Petrushka is more charming than The Rite of Spring. It has a delightful story; there is more humour and lightness in it.  It’s also the piece that made Debussy fall in love with Stravinsky and anoint him as his successor. I find it immensely vital. It is music that I love to practice.”

Jalbert says he likes to inhabit that world.

“It is very stimulating intellectually. The music is based on Russian folk melodies but the writing and the style is so French. I find that connection very appealing.

Jalbert also has an affinity for another Russian composer … Shostakovich. In fact a recording of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes & Fugues Opus 87, caught an earlier JUNO nomination.

“I love his music. One of best experiences in my life was working on those 24 preludes and fugues at same time. My head was going to explode in a good way.

“I find myself feeling close to Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Somehow they have always spoken to me. When I was 11, I fell in love hard with Prokofiev way before I got into Beethoven. There is this tremendous energy. When you are young this is appealing. The sound of the industrial revolution is chugging along but is combined with lyricism and a purity of expression. combined more violent emotions rhetoric or piano writing. There are extremes but also enormous beauty and delicacy. I find him very complete.”

His first big win at a competition was with a Shostakovich concerto. His second was with a Prokofiev piece.

This is a good year for classical musicians at the JUNOs. Along with Jalbert, singers Gerald Finley and Philippe Sly have been nominated as has Daniel Taylor for his choral work. Jalbert is wishing all his colleagues good luck this JUNO award year, but, frankly, he’d like to win this time.

One of the other passions in his life is also something he discovered as an adult. That is teaching at the University of Ottawa.

“I would never have thought that when I was a 21 year old arrogant whiz kid pianist. It didn’t appeal to me one bit. Now I can’t imagine living without it.”

As they say teaching teaches the teacher and Jalbert says he believes it has made him a better player.

He started after about a decade as a soloist and “once I tried it, my life felt fuller.”

He does want his students to experience more than Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin when they approach their keyboards.

“Some will have an interest. Some are closed. But I make a point of it at beginning.” This means making them do it.

“You kind of have to get them to play repertoire that is beyond the diet they are used to. For some students it can be a revelation.”

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.