Vanessa Perez: A Rising Star From Venezuela A new star out of the El Sistema program says that her goal in playing Chopin is valuing honesty over prettiness.
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Vanessa Perez: A Rising Star From Venezuela

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Vanessa Perez: A Rising Star From Venezuela

Vanessa Perez: A Rising Star From Venezuela

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In recent years, the classical music world has owed a debt of gratitude to the country of Venezuela. Its youth orchestra program, El Sistema, has produced a host of up-and-coming talents, including of course, its most famous graduate, L.A. Philharmonic conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. Now, another Venezuelan is starting to get a lot of attention: Vanessa Perez.


RAZ: Vanessa Perez began making international appearances at the age of 8. When she was just 14 years old, she met the legendary pianist Claudio Arrau. And he was blown away. He said her technique, her musicality, her intelligent approach to the music she plays, well, it made a profound impression on him. And that praise carried Vanessa Perez to a new level. She's now a veteran pianist, and she's just released a new album of Chopin's complete preludes.

Vanessa Perez stopped by NPR on a recent visit to Washington, D.C., and we asked her to join us right in NPR's performance studio.


RAZ: Vanessa Perez, thank you so much for joining me here at NPR's grand piano in Studio 4A.


RAZ: For people who don't play piano, can you explain why Chopin's preludes are particularly worthy of the treatment that you've given them on this record, because it is a record of Chopin preludes.

PEREZ: His melodies are some of the most gorgeous melodies ever written. He was the poet of the piano. And he speaks through the piano in such an intimate way that he - it's his voice. And there's this constant longing and nostalgia that I think that's why even when I'm in the audience listening and the interpreter is allowed to play Chopin, you feel immediately a sense of - it's like you're home. It's like, ah, you are on Earth when you hear his music because of its beauty, its line of - what he touches in your heart.

RAZ: And a lot of people think of him primarily as a composer, but he was a virtuoso pianist as well.

PEREZ: Yes. Yes, he was.

RAZ: I mean, Franz Liszt wrote a biography about him.

PEREZ: Yes. Yes. He was a virtuoso in a different way than Franz Liszt. Franz Liszt was the flamboyant...

RAZ: Yeah. The rock star of his age.

PEREZ: ...extrovert. He added things to make everything even more flashy.

RAZ: Yeah.

PEREZ: And Chopin, in these preludes, he uses technique to actually - it's all in service of the music. So the difficulties that one encounters, which some are very challenging, you'll be running all over the piano, but it's in the service of that emotion that he wants to convey.

RAZ: Well, Vanessa, it would be a waste to have you here at NPR's performance studio without asking if you could perform one of those preludes. Can you tell us which one you'll start with?

PEREZ: I will start with the E Minor Sostenuto Prelude Number Four.


RAZ: Wow. That was absolutely beautiful. That's Vanessa Perez here in NPR's performance Studio 4A playing Chopin's "Sostenuto Prelude Number Four in E Minor." In the booklet...


RAZ: ...that is in the CD, Chopin is described as someone who refuses to be predictable.


RAZ: Can you explain that to me, and maybe even show me on the piano what that means?

PEREZ: Well, he goes from one atmosphere to another. He can be in - and I'll show you now. He can be in a very hopeful state, and in a matter of seconds, he goes to the underworld - the famous "Raindrop Prelude," that with just one note he goes from one harmony to another but he keeps the same note. So this is the "Raindrop."


PEREZ: So we're in hope.


PEREZ: Now we're not.


PEREZ: So we go to the darkest underworld. And then after that...


PEREZ: Then he can go...


PEREZ: prayer.


PEREZ: But there's threats.


RAZ: It is...

PEREZ: Fifteen years.

RAZ: ...incredible. It really is. And it's so powerful. I mean, you're even a bit emotional.

PEREZ: Yes. It's exciting.

RAZ: It really is. Yeah.

PEREZ: It's just that it never ceases to - I'm at home practicing, and I'm like, how did he think? How did he do this?

RAZ: It's incredible.

PEREZ: Yeah.

RAZ: I want to ask you about you, about your background...

PEREZ: Yes. Yes.

RAZ: ...because you were born in the U.S., in Miami...


RAZ: ...but you were raised in Venezuela.

PEREZ: In Venezuela. My father is Venezuelan. I'm Venezuelan-American. I have both citizenships.

RAZ: Were you one of those kids whose parents forced her to play the piano?


RAZ: No.


RAZ: They didn't sit on you and say, practice, practice, practice?

PEREZ: Well, they did.

RAZ: They did that.

PEREZ: Actually, my mom did. I think for all disciplines - because at the end, music is a discipline - you need a parent to be saying, OK, you need to practice this much because otherwise you won't see the progress. A lot of children were making music there. Our concert halls are full of young people. Some of them are - a few like rock concerts there.

RAZ: Wow.

PEREZ: So, no, I was forced to practice longer than I wanted to. But I...

RAZ: But it was you who wanted play the piano.

PEREZ: But I wanted to all the time.

RAZ: You wanted to play.

PEREZ: And actually, the threats were, if you don't practice as much as I want you to - my mother - I'm calling your piano teacher right now. And that would make me just run back.

RAZ: Were you always sort of made to play the piano for your parents' friends growing up?

PEREZ: Oh, my God.


PEREZ: Yes. I was the entertainment of the house.

RAZ: They had to show you off.

PEREZ: Yes. That part, I wasn't always crazy about, I have to say, because I felt like no, this is abuse. I'm not a monkey.


PEREZ: But it was fun too. But, yes, sometimes it was constant. Any visit that we had at home, Vanessa so...


RAZ: I was reading about an encounter you had, a person you met, when you were just 14 years old...

PEREZ: Yeah.

RAZ: of the great pianists of the 20th century.

PEREZ: Of the century. It was with Claudio Arrau. That encounter was what gave me strength throughout the years. To see somebody so great - so humble, though - and to have these conversations and see that this genius man was so approachable, so down to earth and gave me such words of inspiration and encouragement. For someone like that to believe in you, changes your life because you feel, OK, if he believes in me, I can do things. And so even if life, you know, sometimes as it does, hits you, you can go on, you know?

RAZ: He died just two years later.

PEREZ: Yes. Shortly after.

RAZ: It's amazing how those encounters can have such a profound effect on musicians. We talked to a jazz musician, Christian McBride, a couple of months ago.

PEREZ: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And he talked about meeting Wynton Marsalis, and it changed his life. Those moments and what those people say to you...


RAZ: ...can really...

PEREZ: Change everything, yes. Forever. Actually, he gave me advice, too, that I was not getting at the time. My piano teachers at the time were very like, your piano's your husband, and you don't look - and he was actually: No, enjoy. Look everywhere. This is what's going to - nurture everything, every part. And so after that, nobody could tell me that again.

RAZ: Vanessa Perez's new record is called "Chopin: The Complete Preludes." It is out now. Vanessa Perez, it has been an absolute pleasure having you come to Studio 4A. Thank you so much.

PEREZ: Thank you. Thank you so much.

RAZ: And would you be so kind as to leave us with one more performance?

PEREZ: Yes. I will play "Number 24 D Minor." This was a very fateful prelude, in a way contrasting to the "E Minor Sostenuto." There's a more desperate sentiment.


RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcasts, highlights of the show. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or And for audio outtakes from interviews on this program and previews of what's coming up, you can follow me on Twitter at nprguyraz.

We're back on the radio next weekend with more news, stories and music. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

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