OC Register – Just 24, Laguna Niguel man is already a noteworthy performer
BY DAVID WHITING / STAFF COLUMNIST
As seen in the <a href="http://www you could try here.ocregister.com/articles/venkatesh-678717-piano-says.html” target=”_blank”>OC Register, Aug. 20, 2015
ANA VENEGAS, OC Register Staff Photographer
Vijay Venkatesh’s fingers flutter over two white keys on a grand piano with the apparent speed of hummingbird wings. High notes trill so fast they seem to defy human ability.
With his eyes closed, the 24-year-old award-winning pianist’s forearms rise and fall with grace as the tempo slows. His head tilts down, just enough to cement the connection between body and instrument.
Yet it’s also this USC student’s hands that command attention. They dance a ballet over the keyboard. Notes – and, yes, the silence between notes – create a magic that raises the human spirit.
Realize, this is not a concert where an international performer such as Venkatesh feeds off the audience and if all goes well returns that a thousandfold. On this day, Venkatesh is simply practicing in his parents’ Laguna Niguel living room.
Already, Venkatesh is ahead of most professional pianists his age. He took four years off from school to fulfill all the invitations for him to perform, traveling to Turkey, Italy and Vienna.
But rising to the top of his profession means winning more international awards, and in some respects the real competition barely has begun.
Practicing six hours a day
Venkatesh was born in Orange County, went to Moulton Elementary and graduated from Dana Hills High. But his education to unlocking a piano’s potential started before he can remember.
His older brother would come home from his own piano lessons and teach his little brother when Venkatesh still a toddler. Still, the little guy took to the piano like, well, a prodigy.
“I was always hooked,” Venkatesh says. “I loved playing. I loved performing.”
When he was 6 years old, Venkatesh performed his first recital. By the time he was 7, his father, a physician, realized his son needed something far better than a stand-up piano.
The doctor shelled out $35,000 for a piano. But a concert Steinway goes for more than six figures. Venkatesh likens his home piano to driving a Honda Accord compared to a Steinway, which he likens to a high-end Mercedes-Benz.
In elementary school, Venkatesh typically practiced an hour a day.
“It’s hard,” he says with a laugh, “for a kid that age to sit still for longer.”
Venkatesh grew up swimming, playing soccer and carefully avoiding contact in sports. He holds up his hands, glancing at his fingers. “These are very delicate.”
The message is clear. His hands are worth protecting. But, he points out, so is his core. Wiry, Venkatesh reports he works out four days a week for an hour so he can perform with vigor. Before going onstage, he warms up with a series of crunches and push-ups.
“The torso,” he says, “is the gateway to the arms.”
When Venkatesh was 14 years old, he performed with the South Coast Symphony. By then, he was practicing five to six hours a day.
Two years later, he captured second place in the Virginia Waring competition, his first international contest.
One of the judges, University of Montreal professor Marc Durand, leaned down and told the teenager his playing “was like magic.”
It was then and there that Venkatesh knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life: become the best pianist he could and explore ways to express music and move souls.
Canceled flights, taxing competitions
Dressed in black socks, blue jeans and black shirt, Venkatesh sits down on a piano bench. He pauses for a minute, gathers his thoughts and transforms from regular guy to professional pianist. Hands hover over ebony and ivory. A Brahms waltz fills the air.
First it is good. Then it is very good. Then it is exquisite.
Venkatesh describes his sound: “It’s deep, luscious. It’s blood red. It’s fleshy meat.”
He confides his secret is dropping his body weight toward the keyboard. He says his technique reaches to the early 20th century, which he calls the golden age of pianists.
“I wanted to discover,” he says of his decision to delay college, “who I was as a person and as a musician.”
In Vienna, Venkatesh played in the same hall where Mozart played. Still, the toughest part about performing in foreign lands wasn’t the pressure of playing. “The adrenalin kicks in,” he explains, “and you feel like an animal with the fierceness of a lion.”
The toughest part was canceled flights and worrying about getting to concerts on time. Was the journey worth it?
Pull up a chair.
Venkatesh plays French composer Maurice Ravel’s “Oiseaux Tristes,” “Sad Birds.” It one of five movements and is known as both rambunctious and melancholy. But under Venkatesh’s guidance, it becomes a full story of loss and hope.
The pianist’s feet gently press pedals; his forearms cross and uncross with ease and elegance. I applaud. Venkatesh beams.
“My job is finding the inner messages to a piece of music,” he explains. “My role is helping the audience transcend their struggles, to inspire others to find their inner spirit in life.”
Later this month, Venkatesh will play at Soka Performing Arts Center. In September, he will fly to Seattle for a major weeklong international competition. And, somehow, he will keep up his USC studies.
If he wins, more concert hall doors will open.
“Stressful?” Venkatesh says, repeating a question. “Absolutely. We all adore music and we hope to win.”
At the piano, Venkatesh plays Spanish composer Enrique Granados’ “The Maiden and the Nightingale.” Inspired by the artist Goya, it is considered an especially demanding piece, requiring both power and agility.
Listening, I write down one word – serenity.
BY DAVID WHITING / STAFF COLUMNIST
As seen in the OC Register, Aug. 20, 2015