Pianist Alyona Aksyonova and cellist James Waldo might never have become husband and wife were it not for Schenectady.
These superb musicians were studying at the same New York City college and had been playing together for two years, “but we only looked at our music, not at each other” says the Russian-born Alyona.
Then came an offer to play outside of New York City. They were headed north to Schenectady when their car broke down. It was their first chance to get to know each other away from the instruments, and both saw what they had been missing.
Today they are husband and wife, parents of a dog, a cat, and fish, expecting their first child, and excited about coming to Davidson to share their love of Felix Mendelssohn’s works and those of other 19th century composers. The concert will have special meaning: They will share with the St, Alban’s audience a selection from Mendelssohn’s Sonata for piano and cello in D major -- the first piece they ever played together.
But first some background. James Waldo grew up in Shorewood, Minnesota, the son of Baroque musicians. He was playing the harpsichord by age 5, and experimented with other instruments but settled on the cello by age 7 – “a love affair that has never faltered,” he says. After earning an undergraduate degree in Madison, Wisconsin, he moved to New York for advanced study.
Alyona Aksyonova is from Voronezh, Russia. The daughter of a pianist, Alyona began her musical studies not on piano, but on the domra, a Russian folk instrument similar to the mandolin. From age 7, this instrument was her main focus, until Alyona decided that she did not want to tour Russia in a child prodigy domra orchestra. At age 10, she switched to piano and did not look back. She advanced quickly and by her early teens was playing with orchestras.
She began to win prizes at piano competitions across Russia, and at one where she won the top prize, one of the judges invited Alyona to come study with her at the various institutions where she held faculty positions. The first stop was a festival in Portland, Maine, where she made such a dazzling impression that she was invited back as a guest artist the two subsequent summers -- then on to a festival in the Netherlands, and finally to the Long Island Conservatory to begin college-level music education..
“I always had a dream to go somewhere abroad,” she says. “It didn’t have to be the U.S., but I had the desire for a new life experience – different language, different culture.”
So at the age of 19, she packed up and moved to New York, first to study at Long Island Conservatory and then at Mannes. Last summer marked ten years since Alyona’s arrival from Russia to the Portland International Piano Festival, and she returned there, this time not as a student, but as a member of the faculty. She was, in a word, thrilled.
James and Alyona live in the Inwood neighborhood on the northern tip of Manhattan. It has become a musicians’ enclave because “you can get enough space to hold a piano without sleeping on it or under it,” says James. Alyona plays the organ at a nearby Episcopal church, and both have students.
They tour frequently as the A.W. Duo and last year won extraordinary praise with their performance at Piccolo Spoleto of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Piano and Cello. “Their interpretation was absolutely ravishing,” said Piccolo Spoleto founder Ellen Dressler Moryl. “They elevated the music to such heights of intensity and tenderness, evoking tears among many members of the audience.”
A.W. Duo performs in New York City regularly, and has made appearances on such stages as Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The duo is deeply committed to classical music evangelism, and no more so than within their own community of Inwood. Here, they have started the Listen Closely chamber music initiative, designed to connect local musicians with music lovers of all ages who share the neighborhood. One of their favorite venues is the local Dichter Pharmacy and Soda Shoppe. “It’s where kids go after baseball games, where artists display their works, and where poets come to share their musings... so it’s a sort of crossroads in the neighborhood---a truly unique pharmacy!” says James.. “We try to make contact so they will begin to appreciate music in an informal and accessible setting.”
Joining them at St. Alban’s will be friend and colleague Alex Fortes, a fellow Mannes College graduate and an acclaimed violinist. He stepped in when the violinist they had planned to bring had some unforeseen complications and had to bow out this time around.
The concert is titled “Mendelssohn's Persuasions” and begins at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 15. Tickets will be available at the door at a cost of $15 for adults and $10 for seniors and students. Children under age 12 are admitted at no charge.