When pianist Arnaldo Cohen strides onto stage at the Newmark Theatre Sunday for Portland Piano International’s (PPI) season finale, he will be closing one era and opening another, both for himself and for Portland’s long-running concert series.
The May 5th recital will be the Brazilian’s final performance as a soloist, marking the end of a long and celebrated international career. It will also be the platform for his first official act as PPI’s new artistic director. After the performance, he will unveil the lineup of performers he has put together for the 2013/2014 season, his first since he was appointed to the position last fall.
Cohen’s new role guiding the artistic vision of PPI promises to bring some added star power and excitement to an organization which has often flown under Portland’s cultural radar.
PPI was founded 35 years ago by Portland State music professor Harold Gray, who is retiring this season after serving as their first and only artistic director. Gray launched the program at PSU’s Lincoln Hall as a recital series devoted to solo piano performance. Over the years, PPI has brought some of the world’s most celebrated pianists to Portland audiences, growing quickly from four to six performances per season and adding master classes and an annual summer festival. But after PPI left Portland State in 2005, becoming an independent non-profit and moving to the larger Newmark Theatre, the organization experienced a long, slow slide in subscribership, according to current Board Chair Carol Edelman.
“We continued to bring great performers to the series,” says Edelman, “but the number of subscribers has been flagging.”
Although Cohen is well-known to Portland classical music audiences — he has performed multiple times with PPI and the Oregon Symphony — he was an unlikely candidate for the small arts organization.
“We never expected to attract someone with Arnaldo’s stature in the music world and level of international experience as a performer and a teacher,” says Edelman. “But Arnaldo approached us during the process and expressed his interest. He said it’s the one thing he’s never done. He wanted to lead an organization artistically.”
Cohen grew up in Rio de Janeiro and began his musical studies at the age of 5, splitting his time between piano and violin. He studied engineering and music at university before dropping out to pursue his dream of a performance career. Cohen spent five years as a professional violin player in the orchestra in Rio to support himself while practicing piano in the afternoons. Cohen’s international solo career was launched unexpectedly in 1972 when he won first prize at the Busoni International Piano Competition.
As a performer, Cohen is known for bringing both a virtuoso’s technique and a musical complexity to his instrument, which he attributes to his early experience as a violinist. “Violin taught me that the great piano playing is the one that doesn’t sound like a piano,” says Cohen. “The piano is a percussive instrument; it is not a singing instrument. Violin was always the example for me in terms of expression and what I should look for in my piano sounds.”
For his farewell recital, Cohen has chosen a program of pieces that figured prominently in his early career and musical journey. He’ll open with Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, which he performed at the Busconi competition. He’ll close the program with Chopin’s four Scherzi for piano. Cohen says he first heard the romantic and dramatic pieces in concert with his father when he was 15, long before deciding to become a professional pianist.
“I remember going home and lying in bed and thinking, ‘My God, will I ever one day be able to play this?’ I was so taken by this music. [Chopin’s Scherzi] was a planet so distant that I could not reach — it was a dream. So I decided to look back to my early inspirations at 15 years of age and say to myself with a smile, ‘Yes, I can play that.’ “
Cohen is not giving up performing entirely. He will continue to appear with orchestras around the world, including the Oregon Symphony in February 2014. But he decided to cut back on the demands of a solo career to devote himself to the new challenges of the PPI job and teaching at the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.
“My day already has 48 hours, but I can’t have 72,” Cohen says. “I always loved challenges and sometimes in life you have to choose. You cannot do everything.”
Since his appointment as PPI’s artistic director last fall, Edelmen says Cohen has brought a bundle of energy and new ideas to the planning of the 2013/14 season. One of his first challenges was to put together a lineup of world-class artists in a field where most performers are booked years in advance.
“Aligning the availability of Lincoln Hall with the schedules of the pianists was like a nightmare,” says Cohen.
He also took on the challenge of encouraging artists to stretch their programs and offer audiences new experiences. “When you get a very good artist, he already has a program that he is going to play for that season,” says Cohen. “This is very hard because you want the artist, but you also want to give the audience something they haven’t heard before, so you start negotiating and trying to convince the artist to practice something different. If it is new for the artist, then it will be new for the audience as well.”
Cohen says he hopes PPI can go back to their earlier format of offering two separate performances per appearance, which would expand the repertoire and give audiences opportunities to see different sides of the artists. “One of the magical elements of performance is that you never play the same. You can play beautifully in a different way on two different days. That is fascinating to me.”
Cohen’s addition to Portland’s music scene promises to bring a new level of excitement and anticipation for PPI’s subscribers and an opportunity for deeper engagement with the community.
“We made a commitment to hitch our wagon to Arnaldo’s star and figured if we could support him properly he would take our organization places we never imagined,” says Edelman. “He will bring a new level of international attention to Portland and will be a tremendous new resource for Portland’s artistic community.”
“I believe very much in sophistication, in excellence, in quality,” adds Cohen. “I believe in emotion and excitement. I think all of these elements together can produce a winning result.”
Correction - May 3, 2013: A previous version of this article quoted Arnaldo Cohen describing his first time hearing Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. In fact, Cohen was referring to Chopin’s four Scherzi for piano.