Up close and personal

Alberto Urroz with Father Francés at the organ in the Basílica
del Castillo de Javier

My godmother, Amelia Urroz, who was a pianist and organist at the Mendigorría parish, had a special talent for accompanying and improvising, not only at religious services but at family dinners and gatherings as well. I had the good fortune of being introduced to music in all its glorious facets: classical and popular at home, religious at Mendigorría Parish. As a young boy, I was at the organ bench at St. Peter´s church, helping my godmother with the a variety of the organ’s sonorities. My first public performance, after only a few months studying music, would take place at that exact same colossal parish organ. I´ve always considered it a privilege to have had that early contact with such impressive dynamics and variety of sounds which in turn was a determining factor in producing my own artistic sound and pianistic flavor. Nevertheless, as grateful as I am to my aunt for being the one who introduced me to the piano and to all my school teachers who did a wonderful job educating me in harmony and music theory, in the end I was still a self-taught pianist. That would change at the age of 17 when I met Maite Ascunce, my teacher at the Conservatorio de Pamplona.
One of life´s biggest mysteries for me has been that in all my years of primary school at the Colegio de los Jesuitas de Javier, no one, not even the excellent organist that had named me his assistant, would consent to my parents´ request of allowing me to have piano lessons. Not to mention, I too had been insisting on it as well. The photo you see above is a reminder of those very years. Every Sunday, I helped kind Father Francés by conducting so that he could adjust his tempo to that of the parishioners´ singing. On some occasions I was asked to choose and even play some classical repertoire. In our era, it is difficult to understand how a child, who is especially gifted in music, could flourish on those premises, which was my case. Contrary to popular belief, to this day I still meet on all too often of an occasion, talented students with fewer opportunities than I had, which I find particularly painful. This is one of my obsessions concerning education and where I feel a greater effort must be made to include music in all of society: the detection, encouragement and development of artistic and musical talent overall.

Joaquín Soriano, Oxana Yablonskaya & Alberto Urroz

I consider myself very lucky to have had the privilege of studying under three great pianists and maestros, Joaquín Soriano in Madrid, Pnina Salzman in Tel-Aviv and Oxana Yablonskaya in New York, heirs to and teachers of the best French and Russian pianistic tradition of the 20th century. Joaquin Soriano studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Vlado Perlemuter, a great Lithuanian born pianist who lived in France and studied under Maurice Ravel and Alfred Cortot; later Soriano would work in Vienna with the much admired Alfred Brendel. Pnina Salzman moved at the age of eight from her birthplace of Palestine to Paris after having been personally invited to do so by Alfred Cortot with whom she studied at the Ecole Normal before graduating from the Paris Conservatoire under Magda Tagliaferro. Salzman periodically played for Arthur Rubinstein and other great pianists of her era such as Ignaz Friedman, Arthur Schnabel, Wanda Landowska, and the Spaniard Ricardo Viñes among others. Oxana Yablonskaya is a living example of the best tradition of Russian pianism, linked through her professors Alexander Goldenweiser and Tatiana Nikolaieva, with Anton Rubinstein and Theodor Leschetizky.
I was always enormously shy about asking my teachers to pose with me for a photo; I had and continue to have the utmost respect and admiration for them. Many years after returning from New York, I was able to get together with Joaquín Soriano and Oxana Yablonskaya in Madrid for a particularly special dinner in which the memory and spirit of Pnina Salzman, who unfortunately is no longer with us, was present as well; her strength and incredible personality and charisma could still be felt. For this reason, this has become one of my most cherished photographs. It expresses all those feelings which can only be felt, not seen.

Alberto Urroz

During the greater part of my career, I was very reluctant to record and especially enter a recording studio. My ideas about the essence of music performance were very strong. For me, music exists only at the very moment of the performance which include the atmosphere at that very moment of its dissemination. Since it is impossible to capture the atmosphere in a recording, it seemed was completely contrary to the utopia of capturing this particular sound and atmosphere of every concert. In addition, my aversion to the recording studio comes from a pressing need to perform for an audience.
However in saying this, I have to admit that one of my greatest sources of knowledge had always been listening to recordings of the maestros themselves, an activity which gave me a true sense of passion as a student. Perhaps I was a living contradiction in terms, but the truth is that not until 2011, when a personal crisis would nearly make me walk away from music, did I begin to record my recitals and concerts on a regular basis. At that time I began to think that perhaps if I didn´t go back to perform again, I wouldn´t have any of that passion left to show of which I had already devoted nearly 40 years of my life. When I decided to resume the activity after a year of sabbatical, I came back with the conviction to record my performances, which took me to a natural, although not so simple process of launching my first commercial recording in 2015, “Spain Envisioned” by the prestigious label lbs Classical. The CD was recorded in only two days at the stupendous PKO Studios in Madrid. The story that follows is filled with a number of friends and outstanding professionals who kept a tenacious grip on me. If it hadn´t been for their inspiration, devotion and generosity, it would have not been possible. Roberto, Caco, Luis, Fernando S, Paco, Natasha, Javier, María y Fernando D, a heartfelt thanks to you all.

From left to right: Joaquín Izquierdo, Rocío León, Alberto Urroz, Silvia Villamor & Jacobo Villalba

As a career progresses it is natural to have many encounters, and on occasion, inevitably some of which are disappointments. Nevertheless, in most cases, music serves to bring us closer together and more open to each other; when there´s empathy, one of the greatest pleasures of being a musician is the ability to share music with friends. Throughout my life, playing chamber music has always been a thrill. Sometimes it is not easy as the study can be arduous, even not up to par, as you may not be able to get together with the colleague until only a few short days before the concert. However, over the years, many of these musical collaborations have borne fruit, even with people with whom I had no prior relationship whatsoever. I am personally very grateful for how much they have taught me, all my colleagues with whom at some point I have performed in public; some are physically far away, others are with us no more. However, each and every one of them are ever present in my heart. On some occasions, they have given me immense support, to keep forging ahead with one of my craziest yet most tenacious endeavors, most difficult and demanding, the creation of an international music festival in my home town. The photo above is from a rehearsal for a recital at the 10th annual music festival in 2013, a photo which sums up my affection for my colleagues and peers as well as the spirit of the Mendigorría Festival, still thriving, after so many years.

Alberto Urroz teaching the Master’s student Laurence Aliganga in the Universidad Alfonso X el Sabio

A big part of my life has been devoted to teaching. If there was any one reason why I returned to Spain from New York in 1999, it was because I had been offered the opportunity to work as a piano professor at Conservatorio Pablo Sarasate de Pamplona, in Spain. For three years, while at the same time teaching a group of excellent students, I was able to really refine my technique and integrate those disparate influences from my previous 10 years of training. In 2002, I earned a teaching position in the Community of Madrid after taking the Public Service Competitive Exam. Since that time, I have been teaching at the Conservatorio Arturo Soria and have taught a good number of students who have gone on to professionally dedicate their lives to music.
Since 2015, and also in Madrid, I have had the pleasure of being part of one of the most fascinating teaching projects in Spain: the integration of undergraduate, master and doctorate programs in music performance at the Universidad Alfonso X el Sabio. Since my years as a student at the University of Tel-Aviv, one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, I´ve believed that music should be an integral part of the university, where it is supported, never lessened, by an intellectual, innovative and cosmopolitan atmosphere of the first order. Therefore I cannot hide my conviction that in the future there will be great professionals born out of this remarkable project, a project that has brought together such top notch Spanish and international performers. Additionally, it gives me great personal satisfaction to be able to continue the educational direction of my maestros at the University and have the opportunity to pass on to my own students, the great pianistic legacy that I received from them.
I have always been an advocate of accumulating teaching experience from the very start. Personally, I have enjoyed and taken away so much from elementary and advanced teaching over the years and have thereby accumulated a wealth of knowledge for my work at the University and higher education level. If the student is talented and has the capacity to work, the level at which one can reach in terms of development is inconsequential; it will always be rewarding for the teacher, no matter if the student is 7 or 20 years old. Teaching, in such a broad sense of the word, is always gratifying. It prepares the teacher to detect all of the problems and shortcomings that a young pianist can have, finding effective ways to help him overcome them. I always tell young musicians not to disregard accumulating experience from the very beginning and consider the option of a long-term teaching career. This has been my personal journey and I can assure you that this has provided me with the knowledge and something very important, patience and know how in order to measure time with your students and with oneself.

Alberto Urroz in a commercial campaign to protect the environment

In 2004 I began to embark on one of my great adventures in my life. In numerous radio and press interviews I was always asked the same question, “why have you decided to found a music festival in Mendigorría?” Mendigorría is home to an impressive heritage and surroundings; it is a special place. On top of that, I had the good fortune of growing up there. I remember, since a tender young age, admiring the splendid San Pedro church tower and façade. I recall the varied and powerful sounds of the tolling bells that accompanied every hour of the day and every phase of people’s lives. I have often thought of how significant these experiences had been on my development having had such early contact with natural architectural beauty and music. I am truly aware of the importance of the arts in the development of human sensitivities.
And so, there lies in the answer to the eternal question from the beginning: upon finishing every edition of the festival, I find an immense amount of satisfaction from bringing music close to so many music lovers, because only this restlessness, this love for the beauty of music, drives the listeners to attend each concert. Is it possible to measure the ability that art has in shaping society? The greatest festival legacy is within each and every one of these listeners, from what it has meant in the past and what it will mean to each one of them in the future, and the lasting influence in the training, values and attitudes for future generations. I have always thought that ideal beauty is in nature. Therefore, I am often inspired by it and defend doing everything that is possible to preserve and protect it. When the Mancomunidad de Valdizarbe asked me to collaborate in a campaign to raise awareness concerning the recycling of used kitchen oil, I felt a special form of happiness, so much by being surrounded by amateurs and many young promises from my hometown -among those, many relatives.

Alberto Urroz with Thea St Omer (left) and Cinta Medina (right) in Sakura Park, NYC, in 1998

In life, encounters happen often but the truly significant ones you can count on one hand. Since I was a child I have felt drawn to all forms of the arts. My first great passion, before music, was painting which I was intensely devoted to from the first years of my life to early adolescence at which time the scale began to tip toward the aforementioned.
Of all the arts, film had been the most unfamiliar to me until I met Thea St. Omer (1973-2015), a film student, in 1997 in New York. We were flat mates in the extraordinary International House, a dorm which was located on the charming Upper West side of New York, where nearly one thousand residents lived together and without exception, had brilliant conversations. In less than three years of living together, Thea would become one of my best references as an example of a true artist for me. An artist who can learn from another´s dedication, from her demands and her morals, features which Thea was extraordinary at. Besides, she had the remarkable ability to make you better and better as a person . Thea had the gift of helping you become not only more aware of your own shortcomings and prejudices but also of your values and achievements. Some she would reach without any effort, with revealing phrases, without tense conversations, always accompanied with a smile, a marvelous human being with her honesty and authenticity. From Thea St. Omer, she´s left behind a legacy, not a lengthy one, but an incredibly unique and varied legacy filled with writings, poems, paintings and above all, documentaries and movies, every single one risky, where those of us who knew her, knew her heart was present in every phrase, all of them sincere, in each scene, always far removed from snobbery or pretentions, in every look, direct and naked, and above all, immense humanity in every single one of her stories.

Kakubana by Alberto Urroz

Being a musician, or overall an artist, is a great gift and a privilege. However in saying that, we are often so submerged in the pursuit of perfection and transcendence, that we even lose the ability to appreciate the effort, the emotional toll, the ability to critique and the personal demand in which we are subjected to in an artistic career.
Since 2011, my need for silence and meditation has come from a growing interest in activities associated with Zen philosophy: the designing of Karensansui gardens, the study of nature of naturally formed rocks and its beauty, Suiseki, the delicate art of Kintsugi and above all, the Japanese art of floral arrangement, Ikebana. These art forms nurture my desire search for peace, devoting time to an activity which creates beauty in an unhurried and relaxing environment. Ikebana is now a fundamental part of my wellbeing, something I do nearly every week, and a lovely way to develop spiritual tranquility and admiration for nature. Since my childhood, getting in touch with nature has given me a special form of happiness and unique musical experiences: identifying and enjoying bird calls. Gardening is another way I spend my free time. I have a special inclination for those plants whose fragrant leaves and flowers adorn the Mediterranean afternoons: figs, jasmine, boxwood, rosemary, jimsonweed, thyme and lavender.


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