Melbourne pianist and composer Stefan Cassomenos is one of Australia’s most vibrant and versatile musicians. He has been performing internationally since the age of 10, and is now established as one of Australia’s leading pianists. As the recipient of multiple prizes including the Second Grand Prize in the prestigious International Telekom Beethoven Competition Bonn 2013, Cassomenos has performed throughout Europe and Asia, and now performs regularly in Australia, Germany and the UK. He has performed concertos with several major Australian symphony orchestras, as well as orchestras overseas. Cassomenos is a founding member of chamber ensemble PLEXUS, which since launching in 2014 has commissioned and premiered over 100 new works. Cassomenos’ own compositions are regularly commissioned and performed throughout Australia. Cassomenos and violinist Monica Curro have recently been announced as Artistic Directors of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival from 2019. Cassomenos is generously supported by Kawai Australia.
When did you realise you wanted to be a performing artist?
From an early age, and then frequently throughout my life, I’ve repeatedly realised that I’m deeply drawn to performance, and to composition. I feel compelled to keep performing and composing, and I think I’ve felt this way since I was about 11 years old.
How would you describe your creative process when you begin a new work?
When I encounter a new work, either a work written by someone else or an idea for a new piece which I’d like to compose, my creative process revolves around identifying the narrative. I’m interested in discovering what the music has the capacity to say, and my task is then to bring the narrative to life.
What is an average day like for you?
An average day for me usually includes a bit of practice, a bit of composing, and a lot of emailing. At the moment I’m balancing my time between performances, finishing off compositions, and working together with Monica Curro on the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, for which we’re the Artistic Directors.
Is there any repertoire that you stay away from?
I’ve discovered that my taste in music is quite broad, compared with some of my musician friends. I don’t really steer clear of any repertoire, except that I do try not to perform repertoire which I know I haven’t spent enough time practicing (for everybody’s sake). In general, I’m open to playing music from a variety of styles and genres.
Have you ever dealt with performance anxiety, and how did you overcome it?
I’m often asked whether I’ve ever dealt with performance anxiety. As a child I didn’t feel anxious about concerts, but then in my 20s I did begin to feel nervous, in particular when performing for colleagues and when performing in competitions. But a few years ago, I discovered that by focusing on the music itself, and treating the act of performance as an opportunity to serve the composer and to communicate the narrative to the audience, I no longer felt fearful while on stage.
Did you consider any other potential career paths?
I did consider some other career pathways. I started a law degree at university, and I was deeply interested (and still am) in many liberal arts subjects. Once I started getting regular solo engagements and commissions for new works, I had to abandon aspirations to study anything else apart from music. A few years later, I received a great deal of encouragement to explore some other career pathways within music. I was lucky enough to do conductor training with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and spent a couple of years of conducting youth orchestras and various other ensembles.
More recently I was the recipient of a Melba Opera Trust scholarship to study opera, languages and repetiteuring, which was very interesting for me from the perspectives of composition and programming. I am now writing an opera for Victorian Opera, and so I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to engage so deeply with the artform. While I still love working with opera singers and enjoy the occasional opportunity to conduct for smaller projects, my day-to-day jobs as a concert pianist, composer and artistic director are keeping me busy, and I guess I can return to my other interests in the future.
If you could have dinner with any composer, who would it be?
If we could turn back time, I’d love to have dinner with a pre-historic composer, from a time when music and language weren’t written down. As a person with European ancestry, I’m particularly interested in what the music of the earliest indigenous Europeans sounded like – not to mention their language! There are attempted reconstructions of both music and language from a very long time ago, but to sit down with someone who played their own music tens of thousands of years ago would be a life changing experience.
What do you consider most important when programming a concert?
For me, the most important factor when programming a concert is the relationship between each piece and the piece which immediately precedes it, and which immediately follows it. We have an obligation to program music in such a way which presents it in the most effective and communicative context.
How far in advance do you plan your recitals or collaborations?
The planning for recitals and collaborations varies depending on a few different factors. Sometimes I start planning a year or two in advance, and other times I keep changing my mind about repertoire or program order until a few days before a performance.