Jason Solounias is a classical pianist in Washington, D.C. A graduate of Shepherd University, he also has both a Master of Music and a Doctorate of Musical Arts from The Catholic University of America. I was very excited to get in touch with Solounias because he is quite splendid and adroit at the piano. In addition, his résumé boasts an impressive array of venues including the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Theater, St. Paul’s Covent Garden in London, and the Steinway Society of Puerto Rico to name a few. Solounias’ talents extend beyond being a pianist, in fact, with his roles as Executive Director for the Puerto Rico International Piano Festival and co-artistic director of the Kosciusko Foundation Chopin Competition for Young Pianists.
His first commercial album release in March 2019 will feature the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos, a brilliant Brazilian composer. If you’re interested in seeing Solounias play in person, he will be performing a recital of masterworks at All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, Virginia, on Friday, January 25.
Do you practice every day? What sort of regiment do you keep?
I try to practice about four hours a day. With my teaching schedule and other things, it’s the maximum on average. When I have something coming up, it can go even more to six, seven, or eight hours. Especially if you have the whole day, you can be at it all day.
How old were you when you started playing?
I was five or six maybe. My older brother also played the piano. There was a piano in the house right by the front door. Some of my earliest memories from when I was three – you could look out from the piano into the front yard and where the street was. I didn’t start taking lessons until I was six.
Can you play other instruments?
For a long time, I played the oboe actually. Weird, of all of the instruments to choose! I played it all through grade school, high school, and one or two years in college. I was getting little scholarships playing in the prep orchestra. To practice two instruments seriously is almost impossible. I tried guitar once but that was too hard. Something about how you have to hold your hand on the fret board, but I couldn’t get used to it. I loved the idea of being able to take your instrument somewhere, like to a party. With the piano, you’re stuck. If there’s one there, then you’re lucky. You can never just bring it with you. (laughs)
Were there a couple of composers that really drew you in early on?
Hard to say whether it was the composer or if it was what I had access to. We had a couple of records of Wilhelm Kempff playing Beethoven’s Sonatas. I remember I was obsessed listening to those records. We had one of Van Cliburn who had a disc playing favorites like Mozart and Brahms. Those are pieces I love, but I don’t know if it’s because that’s all I listened to as a kid. I loved listening to Beethoven’s Sonatas as a kid.
There was other music – not just piano music – that I couldn’t stop listening to, like The Planets orchestral pieces of [Gustav] Holst. It’s amazing music! I remember I also had the CD of Martha Agerich playing Rachmaninov’s Third Concierto and Tchaikovsky. That CD was like my prized possession. Early on, it’s hard to say on composers because there was no YouTube then. It was whatever you had hanging around the house as a kid. Luckily, my parents listened to music a lot.
Of the many venues you’ve played, were there any special ones?
I played in Italy, which was amazing because they parked the piano in one of those old cathedrals. From one of the big windows, you could see the sea and you’re thinking, “Wow, this building is 1000 years old.” It’s magical that you could play music there. It has a sort of energy to it.
Also, there was this little village in the countryside. All the people who lived there were coming to the concerts. They were so thrilled to be there, listening to the music. I remember I shared one of the concerts with somebody who was singing opera arias – Italian arias. There was one lady in the back that knew all the words to the arias. You know how you go to a concert and they’ll be singing along with Britney Spears? For her, that’s what it was like singing Verdi and Puccini. To see the music of her country and what she’s heard all her life, to me something about that was very special.
Why did you want to make a CD on the music of Villa-Lobos?
When I was approached by this record label three years ago, I was playing a lot of music from Latin America. It was a Latin American themed recital. This is an interesting repertoire. It’s nice music. It doesn’t get played very much. I like to think that I’m a good musician and piano player, but if I recorded Beethoven’s Sonatas or something like that, how interesting would that be? It’s been done so many times. It’s one thing to play live. The field of comparison is so frightening if you record standard repertoire, you already have people like Horowitz and Rubinstein. I was thinking I could do a Pan American themed disc. But the more I thought about it, I thought it would be a stronger statement to focus on one composer rather than to do a “buffet” of countries and eras.
Villa-Lobos is a composer that I knew about, but I’d never played anything of his. I’ve always loved his music hearing it a lot in concerts. My roommate one year was a guitar player studying famous preludes and I loved hearing the music he practiced. But I never sat down and said, “I’ll learn a piece by [Villa-Lobos].” I [finally] had a chance to do that two years ago with a couple of pieces. I was really taken with it and thought, “Okay, maybe this is really what I should do.”
I pitched the idea to the record company. They thought it was great. There’s also nothing of it in their catalog. That’s how I decided to make the recording. It’s something more original, you know? If you’re investing all your time, energy, and money into making a CD recording, you want to do something that is memorable and appealing. You play concerts and wonder, “Well, do people like it?” In general, people liked it.
You wear different hats. You’re also a music teacher in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. What’s a lesson you like imparting to your students?
None or few of my students are going on to have a career in music, but that isn’t to say that I go easy on them. I have high expectations for my students. I recognize that many of them are here [for lessons] because they really like music. The biggest thing I try to teach them is be open to the music they study and to learn how to interact, play and listen to it with their intellect and emotions. You want to be able to do both.
I think kids who like music respond to it instinctually. It’s sort of an innate response. They like it. It makes them feel happy, excited, or really sad. Hopefully you encourage those sides to it, but also teach them how to enjoy the music on an intellectual level. Then that’s a lesson that can hold true in the years later as they become an adult. If they don’t take lessons later, they can still play the piano, go to concerts, and remember those things so they can enjoy music to the fullest.
What’s been really essential for you to bear in mind when you direct these big music events?
Time management. (laughs) Be aware of how long things take. A friend of mine went to Westminster College in London, where he did an exchange thing. Every year, students there sign up and come to the States for a week. They prowl around somewhere and do sightseeing, but they also meet professionals in fields like architecture, business, and reporters. Those people give little presentations about their careers. My friend helped organize that as an alumni for a group in the fall. He wanted a day of music and asked me to play for them and talk. They asked me a similar question on the biggest challenge on doing these different things. My answer is the same.
Next to money, time is the most valuable commodity because things take time to learn and execute. You can’t make up for time. If a project takes three months to prepare, you can’t fake that, just like a baby takes nine months. I’ve recognized that in how I prioritize all the moving parts and figure out executing those things. It’s easy to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of each task you want to do.
Have these other projects made an impact on your music?
When it comes to music, no. In some ways, I would hope that it’s enhanced something. Playing music is so different. I would say it helps in managing time and planning farther in advance, like pieces I need to learn. For the CD project, I would have had a harder time in other things like communicating with people and planning had I not had a few years of running a festival and the competition. It makes me think more of what I do and how to put it out there into the world.
At music school, conservatory, and playing, you aren’t trained in thinking through those aspects like marketing, presentations, and pitching your ideas. Those weren’t things we’ve valued in the music world as training. Musicians now rely less and less on agents to do that work for them. It’s something the player has to do themselves.