Q&A with music alum and Cuban-American pianist Orlay Alonso
Ohio State alumnus Orlay Alonso (DMA, 2015) is a musician in every sense of the word. As a faculty member at Capital University’s Conservatory of Music, a co-host for WOSU Radio’s Musica Cubana, and a pianist who continues to grace performance halls across the country — including a performance on Nov. 1 at the Southern Theatre with his brother and fellow virtuoso pianist Orlando Alonso — Orlay likes to keep busy.
With roots in Cuba, he plays everything from Mozart and Beethoven, to Spanish tunes, to the Cuban classics he was raised on. Below, Orlay discusses anything and everything music, the abundance of opportunities Columbus has given him, and his Ohio State experience.
When did you know you wanted to pursue music as a career?
I started playing piano when I was 7 years old. Music was always present in my house from before I was born. My brother is also a pianist, older than me, so I grew up listening to him playing and practicing all the time — and he was a superstar (wunderkind). There were always people in my house playing the piano, singing till the late hours of the night. I guess it was normal for me to want to become a pianist.
How does playing Cuban music connect you to the country and your heritage?
Playing Cuban music is not only an immense pleasure but also a way to connect with a country and a culture I have been away from for the past 20 years. I love Cuban music because it is beautiful beyond words and full of rhythms that will brighten anyone’s day, and make you want to dance wherever you are, but also because — in a way — it defines who I am through sound.
How did you and your brother, Orlando, start playing music together?
In a way, we have been playing together all of our lives, but it was not until recently that we started thinking seriously about partnering as a piano duo. We have always been very busy with our individual careers, living in different cities and focusing on finishing our music degrees. Most recently we are working together on a project — we have titled “Cuban Classics” — in order to play the music we love, to dig into our musical heritage and connect with our roots, and to move forward and build a future together as a piano duo: The Alonso Brothers.
You’ve played music with many people in concert. Is it difficult to adjust to the other person’s style to harmonize and complement each other, especially when you haven’t played with them for long?
I love playing chamber music. I have done it all my life. As musicians, we train for it; we learn how to collaborate with others. It is easy when you are playing together with people you love and respect and very challenging when you have to adapt to opposite personalities and approaches to the music you are playing. I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to play with incredible musicians here in Columbus and around the world. The best results usually come from collaborating with people who are not only great musicians, but great listeners. It is hard enough to play together, but to take the audience on a journey is another thing.
You plan and take part in a number of benefit concerts that gave back to the community. How was that experience?
Giving back to the comunity is always a great pleasure. Columbus has been very kind and supportive of my endeavours all these years. It is easy to draw great pleasure from helping underpriviledged children get musical education, or raise money for a hospital, church, synagogue, local choir, school — you name it, I am there. It is the least I can do for our community.
You co-host Musica Cubana on WOSU. Was it natural to go from playing music to curating and talking about it on the radio?
Yes. I love storytelling, talking and enjoying great company, so Christopher Purdy and the WOSU – Classical 101 family were a perfect fit. The reaserch part and finding the audio tracks that we love is the challenging part — especially for great Cuban music! Luckily, we have the Music and Dance library at Ohio State, where I can rely on the best librarians in the world and an LP and digital collection that is unsurmountable.
What should people going to see "Cuban Classics: The Alonso Brothers" expect when they go see it?
We want people to be ready to jump out of their seats and start dancing. We want them to come ready to move their hips and have a great time. We have prepared a program with the greatest Cuban tunes of all times from the Golden Era of Cuban Music, from the 1930s to 1950s. People are going to hear mambo, cha-cha, bolero and more. We have arranged all these incredible pieces of music for two pianos and at points, it will feel like there is a full orchestra on the stage. There is something very special and powerful about two pianos playing together — and two brothers. The music we have picked for the concert is full of virtuosity, Latin rhythms and beautiful melodies.
Why is music so important?
You can now read endless articles about the educational and health benefits of music, and of music education in schools or exposing children to classical music from a very early age. For me, one of the greatest things about music is that it gives you another way to communicate with others — a better way to convey your deepest thoughts and feelings that is easier for others to understand and therefore easier for us to connect with each other.
While words can express thoughts that divide us, music is always about the feelings that bring us together."
You’re now an instructor at Capital University. How was it transitioning from playing your own music to instructing others?
Wonderful. One learns so much by teaching. I get to work with wonderful pianists. When you teach something, you see it from another perspective, a different approach. It’s not just the pleasure of seeing them succeed, but learning other ways and other approaches to the same challenges I go through.
What’s your favorite Ohio State tradition?
The School of Music does the Music Celebration Concert every year, so it’s sort of become my tradition, because it features all of the department in the music school. As a student I was a part of that, too. That’s become one of my biggest joys. And of course, the football games ... the dotting of the I and the marching band! The excitement in the air when it’s game day is just great to be around.
Find details and purchase tickets for “Cuban Classics: The Alonso Brothers” here.
By fifth-year strategic communication and marketing student Emily Kapp