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Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Richard Cionco




e regularly feature the reflections and insights of a musical artist/educator of note. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you'll find hypertext links to the interviewee's e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you're interested. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler.



The January 1997 artist/educator:

Richard Cionco, Professor of Piano, California State University, Sacramento, CA USA

Pianist Richard Cionco, praised by Donal Henahan of the New York Times for his "sensitive pianism", first performed as soloist with orchestra at age nine, and has since performed with many orchestras including the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra, the Oakland Civic Symphony, and with the Seijo Symphony of Tokyo in a Washington, D.C. concert that commemorated Japan's admission to the United Nations. A New Mexico native, he has returned to New Mexico many times to perform as soloist with the Las Cruces Symphony Orchestra and was featured with the Lawton Philharmonic Orchestra in Oklahoma as a winner in the Louise D. McMahon International Music Competition. In Europe he has performed concerti with the Czech State Chamber Orchestra and in Prague's Smetana Hall with the North Bohemian Philharmonic Orchestra as a winner in the Prague Spring International Music Competition. Most recently, he performed Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 on a seven-concert tour of Japan and Taiwan with the California Youth Symphony; the performance in Osaka is presently being produced for a LIVE and unedited CD recording which will be released in the Fall of 1996.

He has performed in recital in nearly every major U.S. city. His recent performances of Liszt's 12 Transcendental Etudes have brought him rave reviews. Ed Roberts of the Washington Post wrote: "I have rarely heard as fine a piano recital as the one Richard Cionco gave on Sunday. The program was difficult and unusual. Cionco's virtuosity was impressive and he drew beautifully varied tone colors from the instrument."

Mr. Cionco is a graduate of the University of Maryland and The Juilliard School, and his major teachers include Rudolf Firkusny, Thomas Schumacher, and Audrey Bart Brown. He studied chamber music under Albert Fuller. A scholarship and fellowship recipient at Juilliard, he was also awarded the Helen Fay Prize and the Carl M. Roeder Memorial Prize in Piano. A recipient of a Solo Recitalists Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Career Grant from the Bagby Foundation for the Musical Arts in New York City, he is also winner of many competitions including the National Masters Piano Competition in Memphis, the Piano Foundation of America Competition in Tucson, the Frinna Awerbuch International Piano Competition, and the National Arts Club Competition, both in New York City.

He has delighted audiences in major concert halls such as New York's Carnegie Recital Hall, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, Merkin Concert Hall and Steinway Hall, as well as the Chicago Cultural Center and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. He has made recent recordings for innova and Cantilena Records, and has been heard on public television and radio broadcasts such as National Public Radio, Czech National Radio, WETA in Washington, D.C. and WNCN in New York. Also in New York, he has been a frequent guest on the well-known WQXR live radio show "...from the listening room ". An enthusiastic promoter of new music, he has several premieres to his credit. As chamber musician, his many appearances include Lincoln Center's FOCUS! Festival, and two performances at the Mozart Bicentennial Celebration at Lincoln Center. As recitalist, he has been a guest artist of the Washington Chamber Society, and at the American Liszt Society Festival, as well as at numerous universities, including New York University, San Francisco State University, New Mexico State University and Memphis State University. He has also toured the U.S. as a founding member of the Juilliard Connection, which was a group of four pianists that gave 25 free concerts in 28 days in 12 cities; the tour was sponsored by The Juilliard School, Steinway & Sons, and the Presser Foundation. In addition, he has performed more than a dozen recitals in New York and New Jersey as pianist for Lincoln Center Institute.

Mr. Cionco was a Teaching Fellow and Assistant to David Dubal at The Juilliard School for four years and presently teaches on the piano faculty at California State University, Sacramento.

PEP: What made you go into music?

The answer to this is an obvious one: the music itself. Dare I say that it was not money or power! I remember when I was six years old, I heard a pianist perform the Beethoven Piano Sonata, Opus 13 "Pathetique". I was convinced at that point that I would be a pianist.

PEP: Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano and why?

The most influential persons during my student years were my teachers Rudolf Firkusny, Thomas Schumacher, and Audrey Bart Brown. Firkusny was such a positive person; I loved being around him. Schumacher freed my imagination when I needed it most. He liberated me from the page and helped me to listen. Brown laid a very strong foundation, and having known her since I was six years old, she played a key roll in helping me to love music. Other influences come from much of the listening I did and still do. The creativity of Horowitz, the rhythmic clarity and control of Rachmaninov, the lyricism of Moiseiwistch, the fantasy of Sofronitsky, can all be enjoyed on recordings. Attending concerts of Ivo Pogorelich, Radu Lupu, Eduardus Halim, and others have had a profound impact on my thinking, as well.

PEP: What do you enjoy most about making music?

I enjoy so many aspects of making music and teaching music. As a pianist, I am constantly exploring the literature, which is gigantic. I try to learn and perform as much repertoire as possible. I program the masterpieces and also enjoy digging around for repertoire that is unusual or out of print. As a teacher, I enjoy seeing students grow as pianists and musicians. I feel that it is my job to guide them in their musical decisions, and to help lay a foundation that will allow them to explore the whole of the literature after completing their studies with me.

PEP: Is there a"best" way or "method" to learn to play? Any that should be avoided?

No, I do not use any particular method. However, I do draw upon the technical exercises of Hanon, Burgmuller, Loeschorn, Phillip and Liszt, according to what the student may need. In addition, I teach the great etudes of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, et al. I feel that a comprehensive approach is best for pianists of today, which means drawing on what has been taught by the masters; this includes the composers and teachers mentioned, as well as Leschititzky, Kodaly, Orff, and Matthay. Also, the books of Heinrich Neuhaus, David Dubal, and Reginald Gerig can be instructive and informative to both student and teacher.

PEP: What "deficiency" in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano?

Many times teachers notice in their students what at one time may have been a "deficiency" in their own personality. In my case I am constantly seeing a lack of patience and long term planning. Of course it is hard to understand anything long term when the student is eight years old. But I see it in college students also. Rilke said "patience is everything!" Technical and musical training can be so varied that it is hard to pinpoint "deficiencies" across the board. Suffice it to say that we are all in the process, and that each person should by considered individually.

PEP: What would you advise students and teachers of the piano to avoid?

I would say that in my own life, I have made efforts to avoid competitiveness. Instead I focus on the ideal: "there is room for everyone."

PEP: What does it take to be a "successful" musician or music educator?

The advice I would give students and educators about success in music is simple. Love what you do and be patient. If you really love music, it will be apparent to others. It can be contagious. Be patient in allowing the student enough freedom of voice as to not stifle creativity, while guiding them with discipline and insight. This is easier said than done of course, but it is a start.

PEP: Can you give us your reflections upon music as a career?

In addition to loving music, a career in music means hard work and much sacrifice. This is true in many fields, but in the arts, especially performance art, one has to devote every ounce of energy to it. Living your life doing what you love is perhaps the greatest reason for being.

PEP: What are your views on competitions and what should teachers and students expect from that experience?

Competitions can be good for some and bad for others. One should not confuse the opinions of a jury with the reality of their potential. To be expected to perform at peak while being judged is tremendously difficult and may be against what your personality and experiences will allow. On the other hand, some pianist do well under that kind of pressure, and in doing so can further their careers a little bit. Ultimately, competitions do little for careers and nothing (at best) for art, but they may serve as short term goals for students to perform a new work or to get a program going.

PEP: What stories do you have about performing?

In 1992 I was performing all of the 12 Transcendental Etudes of Franz Liszt in recital across the country. At the recital in Bethesda, MD (Strathmore Hall), there was a tremendous storm that hit just before I began to play. It knocked all of the power out for miles, and consequently we had no lights. The audience came anyway and soon it was packed. The staff began searching for candles in the old mansion. I did not know what would happen, but I played anyway, in candlelight! Halfway through the fourth etude, Mazeppa, the lights flashed on. Thank God! The next day I read in the paper of the account, the author giving to it quite an amusing slant. It wasn't funny that night, but after the fact...

In 1985, I was to give a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Prokofiev with the Phoenix Symphony. The night before I attended the symphony concert at which Alicia de Larrocha performed the Piano Concerto No, 4 of Ludwig van Beethoven. It was glorious! I woke up the next morning thinking of her performance and decided I would phone her hotel to tell her I loved it. I still can't believe I got her on the phone, and what is worse, I asked her to come to my performance that night! And she did! She was so nice to me afterward. The hug she gave me will be remembered forever.

PEP: What kinds of things can the teacher do to maintain the interest of children in piano in the face of all the distractions modern society provides?

Parents and teachers should concentrate their efforts in convincing the child that lessons are a privilege, based on talent, hard work and progress. After that, a positive approach on the part of all involved is a must. Work to show the beauty and greatness of music. And it is important to connect the student with other young people who share the same interest, as well as to the great tradition of music making. When students gather together to hear stories about the great composers, those composers begin to seem more real, and the music takes on a new relevancy in their lives. This is very important.

PEP: Do you have a favorite pianist(s) and, if so, what attracts you to that person's performances?

I have mentioned some of my favorite pianists in my answer to question number two. What attracts me to them is that each has such a strong personal approach. To hear Pogorelich perform the Sonata in B Minor of Franz Liszt is like hearing the piece for the first time! An individual approach that is responsibly conceived, which shows attention to detail and color, which is creative, and expertly executed, is always intriguing to me.

PEP: What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in good music?

In addition to some of my previous points, I would insist that a child is likely to show interest in what the parents and teacher holds to be important. In contrast, if the child thinks that a parent or teacher doesn't really care about lessons or practice, or music in general, the student will usually have a hard time loving it themselves. Remember, these feelings can be contagious.

PEP: Pretend this is your personal soapbox. What would you like to say to students, parents, and teachers of the piano?

I have said enough, but would welcome any questions.

You can pose your own questions to Mr. Cionco by e-mail at

Page created: 11/21/96
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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