Californian pianist Soheil Nasseri performs regularly in some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls, including Alice Tully Hall (Lincoln Center), Weill Recital Hall (Carnegie Hall) and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, Berlin’s Philharmonie Kammermusiksaal and Konzerthaus, London’s Purcell Room, Tokyo’s Musashino Center, Théâtre Fémina in Bordeaux, Florence’s Teatro Comunale, St. Petersburg’s Philharmonia, and Palermo’s Teatro Politeama. As concerto soloist Mr. Nasseri has appeared with 10 different conductors and as a recording artist he released 6 solo discs on Naxos, Centaur, Mahoor, and 21CCC. Mr. Nasseri has premiered 25 new works and 9 composers have written pieces specifically for him.
Born in Santa Monica, California, Soheil Nasseri studied with German-born Karl Ulrich Schnabel and American Jerome Lowenthal. He divides his time between residences in New York and Berlin.
Bijan Tehrani: What motivated you to become a musician?
Soheil Nasseri: I love music and I like to be the center of attention so being a performer of music made perfect sense. Also, I have a very spiritual connection to music, that’s the only way I can truly express myself.
BT: Tell us a little bit about your background.
SN: I was born in Santa Monica, and there was a piano in my daycare center so I heard other kids playing the piano and I wanted to learn how to play. I had heard music before and really liked to listen to music, so I started taking piano lessons when I was five years old, and at some point when I was a teenager, I decided that I only wanted to play the piano, I didn’t want to do anything else. I actually remember wanting to become a concert pianist when I was seven, so it is my childhood dream. And then, as a teenager, that’s when I had to make that a reality from just a dream. That’s when I started putting more work into it and I actually left school when I was sixteen to play piano all the time.
BT: You have had a wonderful success, playing with major orchestras from around the world. Tell us a bit about how it started to get into these kinds of performances.
SN: One starts by playing for free. I volunteered when I was eighteen to play a half-dozen concerts at a retirement home, or rather a program for seniors where people would travel to a location to hear concerts and the performers are mostly young musicians who are all playing for free. I had volunteered to play twelve concerts in one particular August of 1997 and at some of those concerts was a person who would later become one of my main patrons and she would help me get other concerts and support me by giving me financial contributions to further my career. So that was the start of my career. And then, I happened to get several “lucky breaks” where I started being talked about in the press: one journalist found very interesting what I would do when I am not playing the piano, then there was another big break that I happened to be playing some music by a young composer who was from the same small hometown as the executive editor of the New York Times, and he took notice of me enough to get me into the New York Times, which is a very big break, like 1 in 10,000 shot, and I happened to benefit from this lucky random email. The composer wrote to the editor and was from the same town, and then they covered my next show. By that way, I was being supported both by the press and financially by a number of patrons, but primarily by this one patron that I met when I was eighteen. And then what came later came after quite some time of accumulating successes and being talked about in the newspaper over a period of years and having some people who knew someone else recommend me, and things of that nature.
BT: What were the latest concerts you had?
SN: I just played in Baltimore a week ago the Beethoven Fourth Concerto with an orchestra there. That was a very big success, they had their largest audience of the season and the Baltimore Sun wrote a very good review and they liked my playing very much, and so did the people. Prior to that I played in California, outside of San Francisco and that was a fun experience. Before that, the biggest concert if I am not mistaken was the one in Russia. That’s become a very popular video on YouTube. It was also a very big concert, sold-out house in the Main Hall in St Petersburg. In addition to that, many people have been watching the video on the internet. Maybe I have reached my largest crowd ever via the internet in the last couple of months since the video was made available.
BT: You have an Iranian background. You were born in Santa Monica and you are living in Germany and have been doing concerts all around the world. Have these connections to all these cultures helped you in the way that you are doing your art?
SN: Sure. As far as my personality is concerned, I am very much an Iranian and the most noticeable trait of being an Iranian in my opinion is the self-confidence. That has allowed me to try my hardest to do something that is extremely difficult to succeed at and usually fails no matter how much you do on your own. I think had I come from another culture, I just wouldn’t have tried that at all, because it’s a bit like playing the lottery: the chances are very low. I would say that’s the most important aspect. The American aspect is definitely the very social quality that I have, even if they don’t like when I’m around them. That’s helpful because in show-business, a lot of successes are done behind the scenes, with the personal connections. Also, something that’s common to many people from the Middle East and also the Mediterranean areas is the passion. And I’m a very passionate person, it’s very good for being a musician. It’s not so good in the daily life but it works out since I’ve become an artist. Then, Germany is sort of my spiritual home because of the music that I play, and I love the German composers. Beethoven is my favorite composer, he was from Germany and I mostly play German composers with supplemental music by contemporary composers, including some Iranian composers and American composers, Middle-Easters composers, people from all over… But my favorite composers are German so it made sense that I would wind up in Germany.
BT: Have you thought of composing yourself and becoming a composer as well?
SN: I tried to write music when I was a child but I didn’t really have good guidance, and did not come from a musical family so it was very difficult and it didn’t go very well. I was not happy with the things that I wrote and I didn’t get any better at it, and then I gave up. So, now it’s too late, I’m too busy performing to learn how to even compose if I wanted to, and I’m also happy just playing the music that I love by other composers. So I don’t really have a need to write a my own music. It’s definitely a skill that needs to be developed and worked at a very long period of time, like ten years or more, just to be able to write good quality music. It’s not something that one takes on lightly.
BT: Have you been involved in any way in music for films or are you interested? And when you watch films, do you pay attention to the music of a film?
SN: I have this little grudge, this love-hate relationship with the film composers because they always make me cry and I hate myself for starting to cry because the music that they write, if you just listen to it by itself, is really quite simple and musically uninteresting. However, somehow, the medium of the film is the only outlet I have to cry. When I feel that I’ve built up too much strain, I go and watch a movie intentionally with the purpose of crying. I know it has something to do with the story put together with the music that’s going to make me do that but I still haven’t figured out how they do that exactly but it’s definitely an important part of my life in that sense.
BT: In what other parts of the world have you lived?
SN: When I first decided to leave the US, I moved to Palermo, Sicily, because I fell in love with the culture, and I was really shocked in a positive way to see that the young people were so interested in high culture like classical music. They have a recital series in Palermo that is always sold-out and it always has half the audience under the age of forty. It’s also not unusual to be driving around in Palermo and have friends say “let’s go to the museum where they have a new exhibition” and to all go there and all your friends pay $5 to buy the guided audio tour and listen to the tape because they’re so interested in the works they’re seeing. And I’ve never experienced that in the United States unfortunately. That and the beautiful weather, that’s very much like the Los Angeles weather, and the wonderful food. That’s where I learned how to cook for the first time. I also learned how to relax in the ocean for the first time in the Mediterranean, which is a wonderful experience, and also to take a nap in the afternoon without feeling guilty. It was also nice to see the very close, strong relationships that one builds in Palermo. People form very tight-knit groups, that I hadn’t experienced in the US. Those were all wonderful things I experienced living in Italy and I still feel very close to Palermo. I go back every couple of years to visit everybody. I was also fortunate to perform in Florence and Palermo. In Florence, I played a very large concert in the Theatro Communale. I hope to be working more in Italy in the future. I was also very happy to learn how to speak Italian, which is such a beautiful language!
BT: What are your plans for the future?
SN: I’m going to continue to live in Germany and play concerts all over the world. In the last two years, I played for the first time in Russia, France, Ireland and Romania, and I hope I continue to expand into new areas and perform as much as possible. People from the outside may think that I’m a big success but I’m sort of respected here in L.A. so I’m like an actor who gets some of the roles some of the time but he never gets the starring film… I’m a bit like that, I had a few big shows like the one in Russia but I’m mostly like an unrespected actor in the industry who doesn’t get starring roles. I’m hoping somehow to get another big break that pushes me up. Instead of playing in Walnut Creek, California, I’d like to be playing at the Disney Center with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and that’s a big step up. I need another lucky break. I am not completely satisfied with where I am though I am happy that I’m working and I’m sort of making a living and having fun at what I do, but there ‘s still ways to go.
BT: I wish you luck and success and hope to see you and come to your concerts in the Disney Hall or the Hollywood Bowl, or places like that.
SN: My neighbor and friend pays at the Hollywood Bowl all the time and that would make me and probably some of your readers very happy if I could get a gig there too. Maybe someone who reads this knows management there and can forward my YouTube video and hopefully they can watch it. I really appreciate you interest in doing the interview.