Alexis Pia Gerlach – collaborations with the freedom of keeping one's individuality

Cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach has been lauded by the press for the “gripping emotion” and “powerful artistry” of her interpretations, qualities which have led to a striking career including a wide range of artistic collaborations. She has appeared extensively in recitals and as a soloist with orchestras across the United States, as well as in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and South America, with such conductors as Mstislav Rostropovich, James DePreist, and Peter Oundjian. As a sought-after chamber musician, Alexis Pia Gerlach has been a member of Trio Solisti since its inception in 2001. Noted Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout proclaimed the ensemble to be “the group that to my mind has now succeeded the Beaux Arts Trio as the outstanding chamber music ensemble of its kind,” and The New Yorker described it as “probably the finest American piano trio currently on the field.”

Trio Solisti, composed of violinist Maria Bachman, cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach, and pianist Fabio Bidini, performs in major venues and series across the United States. Highlights of the 2019-20 season include performances for The Gilmore Keyboard Festival, Casals Festival in Puerto Rico, Vancouver Friends of Chamber Music, Detroit and Buffalo Chamber Music Societies, many in return engagements, as well as exciting collaborations with guest artists and composers.

Meanwhile, Gerlach has also formed new collaborations, including a duo venture with the superb young American pianist Reed Tetzloff, “who enthralls audiences with his “magical tone” (The Cincinnati Enquirer), with whom she is giving several  duo performances in New York. This new partnership offers a different, perhaps more vulnerable side of the commanding cellist; with Tetzloff’s ultra-sensitive yet robust touch and distinct lyricism, the duo is a welcomed, new, and exciting formation.

“My first way of really connecting emotionally with music was dancing to it.”

In a conversation, she reminisces about how music came into her life and kept its ultimate place of artistic immediacy. As a little girl, Gerlach and her father John inspired one another’s love for classical music. “My dad and I would spend hours browsing together in the record store, building this enormous collection of historic and current performances of classical repertoire. My mom loved music as well, but it was particularly my dad who made it this substantial part of our life. The three of us went to lots of concerts together, and we usually went backstage afterwards to talk to the performers. Meeting and speaking with them gave me a real sense of them as human beings, in addition to the admiration and sometimes awe I felt towards them.” “My first way of really connecting emotionally with music was dancing to it.” She describes early memories of “coming home after ballet class and dancing for hours in the living room to records blasting from my dad’s enormous Klipschorn speakers, and my parents moving all the furniture against the walls to make space for me.”

Tri-Institutional Noon Recitals, a series of weekly concerts held in the 450-seat Caspary Auditorium at The Rockefeller University in New York City, was founded by biophysicist Alexander Mauro in 1986 and co-directed by neurobiologist John Gerlach from its inception.  John was an active musician in his youth, studying double bass with the principal bassist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and himself performed with the St. Louis Philharmonic for several years; he also learned piano as a pre-teen.  Since Dr. Mauro’s death in 1989, John has been the Tri-I Noon Recitals Series’ sole director.

“One day, at the beginning of a hiking trip in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, my parents asked me if I wanted to start learning an instrument and without any hesitation I answered, yes! The cello.” At the age of seven, Gerlach began studying cello at her school with Nancy Streetman, and soon also at the pre-college division of the Manhattan School of Music. “I loved playing the cello immediately, and I was very proud of it. I remember that on days that I brought my cello to school, my mom would sometimes help me carry it in the morning. But as soon as we got close to school, I insisted on carrying it myself, for everyone to see!”

“Growing up, even though I was serious about playing the cello and loved it, I wasn’t focused at all on what might come after being a student. I was really doing it for right then, not in preparation for something later in life. I remember being kind of surprised hearing my friends at MSM talk as though their music was all preparation for being professional, rather than its being valuable for the experience they were having right then. I was perhaps fifteen when my teacher took me to play for the famous cellist Zara Nelsova, who asked my thoughts about my future career. She laughed really hard when I told her I had not given it much thought, and I hadn’t even decided whether I wanted to be a professional musician.”

“I identify deeply with this emphasis on feeling – for me, the entire ability to play comes from an emotional impulse.”

When it was time to make up her mind, it was personal inspiration that stood out. During her last year of high school, Alexis studied with Aldo Parisot. “I was very lucky that he invited me to study with him at Yale, where he arranged for me to get a full scholarship,” she says. “I later followed him to the Juilliard School, and ended up working with him for nine years in all.” While it’s not necessarily the usual situation, and many students switch teachers often looking for a variety of approaches, there is something to be said for sticking with one mentor over a long period of time. “His music making was very instinctual,” describes Alexis, “and full of feeling. The biggest sin was to play without saying anything. The focus of his work with me was to get inside the emotion of the music and to communicate it with imagination and purpose. In lessons he would often conduct me, sometimes dancing around me to illustrate the musical gestures. He would at times demonstrate on the cello, but more often he’d sing… but he always encouraged colorful and personal interpretations.” She explains: “I identify deeply with this emphasis on feeling – for me, the entire ability to play comes from an emotional impulse.”

This emotional connection was to dominate her musical choices and partnerships throughout her busy career. “I require that— an emotional connection to the music and my colleagues—to play my best,” she explains. There is no experience quite like making music together with someone with whom it really clicks. When you play with people who thrill you, and each person is sensitive and responsive to the others’ ideas and impulses, you are creating a conversation of emotional gestures. That’s powerful and delicious; I absolutely love it.” And she says: “Taking your cues from the gestures within the music is almost like dancing, to me.”

“In the trio we are constantly collaborating, but at the same time there is a fair amount of freedom for individuality.”

In Trio Solisti, which she co-founded in 2001, she found rich partnerships. When Italian pianist Fabio Bidini joined the trio in 2016, it was the resumption of a collaboration between him and Gerlach that had begun many years earlier as a duo and in a piano quartet. “Each combination of instruments brings its own possibilities,” Gerlach explains. “In a trio, the distance in range between the two string instruments allows them each room for independence, but they also have the ability to blend seamlessly. And the piano sounds almost orchestral, with its variety of colors and sheer scale of sound. In the trio we are constantly collaborating, but at the same time there is a fair amount of freedom for individuality. This is somewhat different perhaps from a string quartet, where all the instruments are so matched; while each voice can be distinct, I think there is a greater emphasis on blending and creating a group sound. I’ve always felt that in an all-string group, the cello can play a leading role by sculpting the bottom layer of the music, from which everything else then comes. In the trio I enjoy the variety of roles I play depending on the context, ranging from merging with the left hand of the piano to create the bass line of an early Haydn trio, to being a soloist opening the epic Tchaikovsky Piano Trio!”

Check out Trio Solisti’s performance schedule here.

After some impressive debut performances last season, New Yorkers can catch Alexis Pia Gerlach with Reed Tetzloff in eight recitals presented by Cherny Concert & Artist Management Ltd. in New Haven, Connecticut, Stamford, Connecticut, Cold Spring Harbor, New York, New York City, Rumson, New Jersey, and Princeton, New Jersey in their first full season beginning this November.  They will also be heard in a live on-air performance on WRTI, Philadelphia’s Classical Music Station, next May.

The date is still pending confirmation.