Flirting with perfection

Charlie Albright makes magnificent music—and has fun!

Charlie Albright

Photo courtesy of Charlie Albright
Pianist Charlie Albright is a Steinway artist, who performs in the great concert halls of the world and small towns across America.

LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American

He climbed up on a piano bench for the first time when he was only 3 years old. He banged out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and his mother recognized that he had an ear for music. Today, he’s at the top of his game, performing with stars the likes of Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma. That’s Charlie Albright, the musical wunderkind from the sleepy town of Centralia, Wash., who became a piano virtuoso extraordinaire. Recently, he took the time to join a production at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle to pay tribute to his fans and friends in Bergen and support his local community.

I sat down with Charlie before filming our production that day to talk to him about his musical journey and his experience in Bergen. We were on a first-name basis, and the conversation to follow was lively, relaxed, and friendly. When I mentioned Norway, his eyes immediately lit up with enthusiasm.

“Norway is so beautiful,” he said. “And I can’t wait to go back.”  He remembers everyone in Bergen being so friendly, describing the natives as “super nice.” For Charlie, being there was like being immersed in a fairy tale, with the picturesque old buildings surrounded by mountains and sea. But most of all, the musical life there left a deep impression on him.

The first time Charlie came to Bergen in 2017, it was on extremely short notice when Lang Lang, one of the most famous pianists in the world, had to cancel his appearance at the Bergen International Festival because of an injury. No small shoes to fill—but the energetic and enthusiastic pianist was up to the task. He arrived in Bergen and almost immediately headed over to Grieg Hall. To his amazement, a giant picture of his face was projected on the wall as he approached the entrance.

But what followed was even more amazing, as Charlie won the hearts of the people of Bergen. He opened his own handpicked program with Chopin etudes, and it was magic from there on out.  When Charlie plays, he flirts with perfection. But most of all, he wants to reach out to his audience. The technical mastery is always there, but it never overtakes the playful or fun element in his music. The pianist is perhaps at his very best when he is improvising. He loves the excitement that an audience feels when they don’t know exactly what’s coming, and he often incorporates his polished improvisations into his classical performances.

“I try to make it fun,” said Charlie. “I like to talk to my audience.” He enjoys crossing over genres within the framework of a classical program. In fact, one of his favorite encores is “Great Balls of Fire” by the legendary rock ’n’ roll king Jerry Lee Lewis. “In Mozart’s day, people used to clap in the middle of pieces,” he said. “You can have fun without getting scuffy.”

It was perhaps Charlie’s unconventional path to classical music that has given him this unique outlook and approach. He grew up a small-town boy in Centralia, Wash., midway between Seattle and Portland. He learned to play by ear on a beat-up old upright piano purchased at a garage sale. Recognizing his talent, his mother got him to a neighborhood teacher, who also played by ear. With time, he continued with another teacher to develop his skills as a jazz pianist. 

To progress in his musical development, classical training was the next step, and Charlie approached this new challenge with zest. He excelled in music throughout high school, giving many concerts. He knew that music was his passion and dreamed of becoming a professional musician, but he also understood the realities of making a living. He relocated to Massachusetts to enroll in a five-year joint program offered by Harvard College in Cambridge and the New England Conservatory in Boston, which enabled him to study economics, pre-med, and piano performance—all at the same time.

It was a rigorous enough course of study, but all the while, Charlie gave concerts and went on to win many competitions. He often did his homework at hotels. When he graduated, he knew he had to make a choice. By this time it was clear: music was his destiny. He went on to study at Juilliard in New York City to earn the prestigious Artist Diploma, and the rest is history. Charlie Albright is a rock star of the classical music scene, who performs in the great concert halls of the world.

I asked Charlie what it was like to go back to Bergen in 2019 to perform at the Bergen International Festival that year at the historic Haakonshall. “It was quite a night,” he said. “It was fun!” The building was “something else; buildings like that don’t exist here.” Charlie was thrilled to enter the hall via the king’s staircase. He described the acoustics in the hall as “amazing.”

There was also a performance at Grieg Hall. Performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A-minor with the Bergen Philharmonic is a daunting task, considering that it’s the one orchestra that knows the piece better than any other in the world. But the concerto was not unfamiliar to Charlie either: he remembers being only 12 or 13 when he first performed it. With Berit Cardas conducting, he was able to bring his own personal interpretation to the beloved masterpiece, and the reception was astounding. Charlie was brought back for no less than five encores—including, of course, “Great Balls of Fire.”

On this second trip to Bergen, he was able to travel with his wife, Stella, and he had more time to take in some of the sights. Like all visitors, they found the view from Mount Fløyen to be beautiful, and again, they remembered how friendly everyone was. There were also small things that Charlie remembered, like trying a reindeer hot dog for the first time. 

In Seattle, we were lucky that Bergen was so good to Charlie, because I am certain that it was his time there that convinced him to jump on board the project at the National Nordic Museum this summer, our musical tribute to Bergen for its 950th jubilee. These days, I follow his career with intense interest on social media—Facebook and YouTube—and someday in the future, I expect he will return to Norway for yet another musical triumph. I am sure Bergen is waiting for him.

To learn more about Charlie Albright, visit his website at charliealbright.com.

You can also follow him on social media:

See also “Happy Birthday, Bergen!” by Lori Ann Reinhall, The Norwegian American, Oct. 23, 2020.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.

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