Getting to Know: Albanian-American pianist Iris Elezi

03 February 2023
By Ellie Palmer
The classical pianist chats to us about her new album, Beethoven, and what piano education is like in her home country...
Tell us a bit about the programme of your debut album. The mixture of repertoire is very exciting! What made you choose these pieces?

My recent debut album is titled 'Rachmaninoff-Chopin-Bach-Beethoven-Ginastera-Liszt''. It takes the listener on a journey of self-discovery, inspiration and illumination. The album starts with the Moment Musicaux Op 16, No 4 by Rachmaninoff. The broken Em chord along with the restless sextuplets on the left hand create an immediate effect in the opening measures of the composition.

Rachmaninoff was a pianist and a great composer. I feel that as a performer, he has given me a opportunity to showcase my musicality and virtuosity in this composition.

The next recording on the album is the Ballade No 1 in G minor, Op 23 by Chopin which speaks for itself! This is a monumental composition where one feels expressive, in sync, sometimes lost in thoughts, and sometimes in a revelation. I feel that this composition speaks to me on a deep and personal level. It draws out emotions that are not apparent on the surface. The singing melodic lines, the texture, the range of the dynamics and the fast passages only lead you to a rediscovery that makes this composition unforgettable, a place in which your heart can always return.

I have also included works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin , Ginastera and Liszt in the CD, but I would like to talk a bit more about Danzas Argentinas Op 2 by Ginastera. I am intrigued by the bitonality in this composition and the modern approach to the piece. It requires one to be fearless when playing the Danza del Viejo Boyero and Danza del Gaucho Matrero but tender when playing the Danza de la Moza Donosa.

However, there is an unpredictability in this piece which takes you by surprise. You find yourself bursting in loud dissonance chords that require your attention, and afterwards they culminate in a climax which feels forceful before coming back to the opening measures that are filled with melancholia.

The last composition on the album is my recording of Liszt's Liebesträume, S.541:III, which
translates into “Dreams of Love”. It's based on the poem written by Ferdinad Freiligrath. So
many pianists have performed this composition, and it is a testament of love.


Iris Elezi plays Chopin Ballade No 4 in F minor Op 52


Is the Beethoven Op 31 No 2, featured on the album, one of your favourite Beethoven sonatas?

Absolutely. It has a gorgeous second movement, a stormy and a temperamental first movement and an exciting third movement. It was an absolute delight to perform and record this great sonata.

I must say that the Rachmaninov Op 23 No 4 Prelude is heavenly! Have you been performing it for a while?

I agree with you! The melodic line over the triplets, as if one is walking alone, longing for more and accepting fate, is wrapped up with diminished chords that require answers, but they are not

Rachmaninov is able to paint this piece with the most intimate and deep emotions through the use of dynamics, texture and harmonic structure. It takes a lot for me to perform this piece and I need stillness to bring out the longing and the continuous struggle throughout the performance.

I have performed this piece for a while and each time I perform it, I always find something new that speaks to me and changes my perspective on this composition.

Iris Elezi's debut album features works by Rachmaninov, Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Ginastera and Liszt


Has your interpretation of these pieces varied over time?

My interpretations of the same pieces do vary over the years. Music has the power to allow us to connect to ourselves and others and express everything that cannot be fully put into words. As time goes by, we find more things about ourselves, how we react and respond to circumstances, what motivates us, what causes us to change something, what inspires us etc., so I am trying to say that it is impossible to interpret a composition the same way each time you play it.


We notice you play jazz too. Not many classical pianists play jazz successfully. How did you learn to play jazz?

I wish I would have been exposed to jazz earlier in my life. I love the emphasis on improvisation, active listening and the many different ways of voicing chords. It is also a lot of fun when you start embracing new ideas and still are able to communicate while playing jazz.

I was given a score that required jazz comping and I went to consult with a friend of mine (Levi Barcourt) who started to share with me the altered chords, and the melodic contour as well as the approach to rhythm.

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Of course, I also had to do a lot of research and in doing so, I came to find out about Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and so many others. I find that playing jazz is an incredible experience and without a doubt a huge influence on American and world music.

Do you improvise?

We improvise all the time throughout the day, for example: when someone asks a question, we do not always have an answer ready. We may have to improvise to get there. All the great composers improvised and I can compare improvisation to creative writing. I think musicians have to be introduced to improvisation early on in their training.

We hear that you are an arranger. Tell us more about that.

For the past few years, I have been composing and arranging my own music which I would like to record in the near future with Mr. Joseph Patrych. I love the combinations of sounds and it is great to see the possibilities of how an idea develops over time.

I also have played many musicals as well as many different genres of music: rock, blues, hip-hop, etc. to allow myself the opportunity to grow as a person, as a musician and as an artist. I feel that music is a powerful intrinsic force that shapes cultures and humanity.

Do that experience help with your understanding and performance of classical repertoire?

Keyboard skills help my understanding and performance of not only classical repertoire but music in general. I feel that the use of keyboard skills have been present throughout the evolution of music. When looking at Bach’s works, I am amazed at how futuristic he was in his approach to music and how his innovative ideas have influenced other genres of music.

What was musical education like in Albania? Tell us a bit about it.

Caring, rigorous and competitive! I started my piano studies in my home town of Lushnje and then continued my studies at the high school of Jordan Misja. I am grateful to each of my teachers (Elsa Veizi, Anita Tartari, Enika Gjokoreci among others) who have taken the time to help me grow as a musician.

When I moved to the USA, I started taking lessons with Mr. Douglas Buys who was a student of Firkusny and Nadia Boulanger. He shared with me a lot of information about Nadia Boulager and her influence on musicians and composers.

Afterwards, I went to study at UMass/ Amherst ( Mrs. Estela Olevsky and Mr. Nigel Coxe), and then at the Boston Conservatory ( M.M and B.M with Dr. Jonathan Bass) followed by a second masters from CUNY ( MAT-Dr. Mittler-Battipaliga). I am grateful to all of my teachers and especially Dr. Battipaglia-Mittler who has been an influential professor/teacher in my life.


Iris getting ready to record in Klavierhaus, New York


On average, how many hours a day do you practise?

Ideally, I like to practise for a minimum of three hours and a maximum of five hours. When it is not possible, I try to play at least 15 minutes to at least warm up my hands. I also place value in practising away from the instrument which includes: harmonic analysis, auditory exercises, reading articles on music, conducting, singing, and active listening applied to music scores and performances.

What would be your advice to an amateur pianist about how to improve?

1. Have a clear goal of what you want to accomplish for that day or for that week. Music is a very complex art and one needs to invest effort, time, and money so as to improve and to maintain consistency in your musical journey.

Also, one would gain more knowledge in expanding the repertoire, working on a technical passage, producing a singing sound, working on the voicing of the chords, working on how to memorise a piece, working on how to manage nerves while off or on the stage, working on how to be expressive while playing a composition, and working on popular chord progressions. The list can go on and on and that is why I see music education as a life journey and not a
temporary stop.

Main image: ©Fadil Berisha

You can stream Iris Elezi's debut album below