Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
When I was 7 years old my mother told me that she’d signed me up for music school and that I’d be playing piano. I had no idea what that really meant or what I’d have to do. One thing I was sure about was that something difficult awaited me, but little did I know it was going to become something that I am, rather than something I merely do.
I made the conscious decision to become a professional musician aged 14 whilst on stage playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. I was hypnotised by the harmonies and the colours; it was as if I wasn’t really performing. Ever since then, I’ve had this strange addiction to music.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
It’s difficult to trace the things that influence you the most. All the great composers, musicians, writers, and scientists that I’ve encountered have shaped my personality in some way. Without doubt, pianists like Martha Argerich, Arkadi Volodos, Grigory Sokolov, Michail Pletnev, Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein have had a huge impact on my development; in fact, I know their recordings so well that I’d dare to call them my “teachers”, despite never meeting them. But it isn’t just musicians who influence and inspire me: I have to mention scientists like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. I’ve always had a huge fascination and curiosity for Science and for some reason thinking about it makes me dive into music more deeply. I feel like the questions we can never truly answer can only be answered by something like music, which is to me an unanswered question in itself.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Performing concertos by Mozart and Salieri, in the same evening. In addition, I’d never played either of them before and I only had two weeks to prepare. However, once I’d learned them, it was a lot of fun, but preparing them was a nightmare – I had to practice eleven hours a day!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m never really very proud of my recordings or performances. There’s always room to improve, which I like; I always know I can do better. One of my most cherished performances was of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in Sweden with the Lund Symphony Orchestra under Roger Andersson. It was one of those performances where all the pieces fell into place: the orchestra were extremely supportive, the audience were incredibly enthusiastic, the acoustic was perfect, and the piano felt like a close friend. I ended up receiving a standing ovation, which is always so uplifting, especially because my parents, who’d travelled from another country, were among the crowd. I’m most proud when I’m able to connect with people as we listen to the stories written by the greatest composers.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I don’t believe there is better or worse in music. Musicians just play differently.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I always have an endless list of pieces I want to learn, so making choices for my next program is always a huge challenge. Sometimes it takes me months to put a program together. I want my performances to be a story, full of contrasts and different atmospheres. I want my audience to feel the sense of a journey, to feel curious and involved, to be touched by the music of the brightest people, and after the concert, to be inspired and brave to do whatever makes them better. I know that these are hardly modest aims and I’ll never know whether I’ve achieved this in a performance, but I believe that this is the purpose of Art and I am trying my best to achieve it.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
There are many great halls that I like playing in, but for me it really depends on the people present; sometimes the conditions might not be ideal, but the people can make it. I always love performing in the Lithuanian National Filharmony because I get to play at home, to my friends and family. There’s a special atmosphere in the Milano Societa Umanitaria concert hall, a breath-taking hall with beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceiling. I have great memories of playing in Shonaday concert hall in Fujisawa, Japan, which is a huge hall with a great acoustic and a great piano. But really for me, it’s the audience that makes a hall special.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The first memory that comes to mind is of when I was playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto and in the quietest episode, a little girl in one of the first few rows shouted: “I still don’t find this interesting”. I played the rest of the performance to that little girl, hoping that I would change her mind!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think success for a musician is finding a way to evoke emotions in your listeners. If you’re able to connect with yourself and your audience, in my opinion, you’re a successful artist.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I really like the saying “don’t search for yourself in music but search for music in yourself’’. That is the only thing I would recommend.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Playing a recital to the moon colony (there’ll be one!) and to be the first musician to perform on another planet.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I think you can only achieve perfect happiness if you’re not always perfect and not always happy.
What is your most treasured possession?
My grand piano, because I won it in a competition. It’s a reminder of a great period in my life.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Not doing the things I don’t like doing.
What is your present state of mind?
Relaxed and curious, but it will change as soon as I’m next backstage.
Rokas Valuntonis will give a recital at The Wallace Collection on 26th July as part of City Music Foundation’s Summer Residency (5 lunchtime concerts from 23-27 July). Further information here
Rokas began his formal training at the Panevėžys Conservatory of Music, before studying at the National M. K. Čiurlionis School of Arts and the Lithuanian Music and Theatre Academy. He subsequently left Lithuania to continue his development, first at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and then with renowned pianist Eugen Indjic in Paris. He also received masterclasses from Jerome Lowenthal, Konstantin Papadaki, Denis Pascal, Petras Geniušas, and Mūza Rubackytė, and as of 2015, Rokas was invited to give an annual masterclass himself in Portugal.
Rokas has performed in all the major Lithuanian concert halls, as well as with orchestras such as the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra and Lund Symphony Orchestra, and with conductors including Olivier Grangean, Juozas Domarkas, and Vidmantas Kapučinskas. He has also performed in many other Baltic Countries, as well as in Spain, Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden, German, Portugal, Belgium, Austria, and Japan.
Amongst many competition awards, Rokas has won First Prize at both the Nordic Piano Competition in Malmö, Sweden (2010) and the International Music Competition “Societa Umanitaria” in Milan, Italy (2013).
For his achievements Rokas has been rewarded by the prestigious Queen Morta Award as well as acknowledgements by two Lithuanian Presidents.
(photo: Benjamin Ealovega)