Reluctant rock star: Pianist Alexandra Streliski on being a Junos outlier

Forgive pianist Alexandra Streliski if she bristles over being called a “rock star” for the classical music community.

It’s a label the Montreal composer has noticed is coming up more often these days as she prepares for the Juno Awards taking place this weekend in Saskatoon. At the event, she’ll be toasted as a rising star of the Canadian music scene, with three nominations for instrumental album, breakthrough artist and album of the year.

The last two categories carry significant weight. Streliski is the first purely instrumental artist to be nominated for either of the awards in Junos history, so in a sense, she’s carrying the torch for the classical music community — even if she doesn’t subscribe to its rigid definitions.

“I don’t even identify with classical music so much,” Streliski, 35, explains near the outset of a phone conversation.

“I want to call myself more of a neo-romantic, if I could, because I very much identify with the romantic period.”

Seemingly harmless comments like these can get you branded a rebel in some classical music circles, but Streliski’s Juno-nominated Inscape doesn’t seem interested in playing by the rules.

The album comes alive in ways piano compositions rarely do on tape. At times, you can hear the instrument squeaking as Streliski taps at the keys, evoking the weariness of creaky bones and a life that’s survived many headwinds.

She points to celebrated Toronto pianist Glenn Gould for inspiring her to capture humanity in a performance, which she says can make the music “all the more emotionally profound.”

Streliski, who was born in Montreal, began learning piano after her family moved to Paris when she was six years old. Her parents introduced her to the sounds of Bach, Chopin and Liszt, but it wasn’t until they bought her an upright piano that she found an outlet for her emotions.

“It became an essential part of how I expressed myself,” she said.

When her family returned home a few years later, they shipped her piano back to Canada. Streliski has kept it nearby ever since, working on her own projects and as a composer in the advertising world.

She recorded portions of Inscape on the old gem, which became a confidant of sorts as she spiralled into a depression in her late 20s. A confluence of events pushed her to burn out and leave her job, while the dissolution of a romantic relationship only made it worse.

“My life became a mess,” she said. “I guess it was sort of a mid-life crisis… I deconstructed everything, which I don’t recommend people doing because it’s a little bit absolute.”

She named her album Inscape, a nod to the “inner landscapes” she tread while rediscovering herself. She used improvisation and spontaneity to extract her feelings and turn them into music.

“You can’t get a more direct relationship to the emotions,” she said of working on her familiar piano.

“It feels like an extension of yourself. Instruments have their own characteristics — for instance, some keys are going to be heavier, some keys are going to be lighter… It becomes a personality you get to know.”

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