Transcription of Dr. Anastasia Antonacos for the show Practicing Perfection: Music & Dance #251

Dr. Lisa: My next guest is an individual who is not only bring joy to the world through her own music but also is a teacher and bringing joy to the world through the music of others. This is Anastasia, Dr. Anastasia Antonacos who is a pianist on the faculty of the University of Southern Maine, and a frequent recitalist, chamber player, and concerto soloist. Anastasia, also called Annie, has played in Greece, Russia, France, and Belgium, as well as various places in the United States, including Washington DC where she testified for funding for the National Endowment of the Arts. Annie lives with her husband and daughter in Portland where she was named one of the 100 most influential people of Portland by a local publication. She is in the process of launching the nonprofit 240 Strings. Thanks for coming in today.

Dr. Anastasia: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Lisa: You have so many names. I can call you Dr. Antonacos. I can call you Anastasia. I call you Annie. It’s good that you have so many different identities.

Dr. Anastasia: You can call me any of those. People have used all of them. Most of my friends know me as Annie. I think on the stage often, the program will be published with Anastasia but one of the things that I’m trying to do with this nonprofit is get a little bit away from the elitism that’s been associated with classical music. I am finding that we use Annie a lot more often.

Dr. Lisa: That is a very regal name, Anastasia. Your last name, actually it’s just very, I don’t know, melodic. Is that a word?

Dr. Anastasia: Thank you. It was my grandmother’s name. There’s a tradition in Greece, I am half Greek, you name your kids after your parents. First children after the father’s parents. Next children after the mother’s parents. Then, you’re free to name them anything you want but I’m an only child so it worked out great.

Dr. Lisa: That’s good. How about your Greek heritage, how does that influence the work that you do now?

Dr. Anastasia: That’s a great question. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it as it applies to my profession specifically. I feel a lot of support, for sure, from all the things you see in My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding are true. I have a big extended family and the Greek community functions as an even bigger representation of that. For sure, when I play, the audience is full of Greek Americans which is great. I love Greek food. I love Greek dancing. I love Greek music. I have some played some settings of some Greek folk songs in concerts before. I did do some concerts in Greece in 2004 which was a great experience. It ended up to be aligned with the Euro Cup and that was the year that Greece won. It seemed like every town that I played a concert in, that concert lined up with either the quarter finals, or the semifinals, or the finals. There was a lot of spirit in the air.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, that’s interesting because there are two very different cultural entities, I would think, the music and the sports.

Dr. Anastasia: Yeah. I think it’s a small enough country so that people are interested in everything. They had a lot of national pride so I made sure to say, “Okay, we’re going to end the concert by 8:15 or whatever so you can go see most of the game. Don’t want to miss the game.”

Dr. Lisa: How did you get into being a pianist and being interested in music as a child?

Dr. Anastasia: I think I showed a lot of interest in the piano. My dad is a very accomplished pianist. He never did it professionally but he took lessons from fifth grade through college. I think I heard him playing for fun and asked for piano lessons. When I was almost six, he sat down with me and gave me some lessons. Although we have a great relationship, otherwise it did not work very well with the piano. He sent me off to some other teachers.

There were definitely times as a kid, I did not like practicing, there are very few children who will sit down and practice productively for a long time but I love performing ever since I can remember. My parents would have friends over and say, “Annie, why don’t you play something.” There were times when I wanted to quit or take some time off but I stuck with it. By the time I was a teenager, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do.

One of the things that influenced me was seeing groups of young kids playing chamber music together and they were just having so much fun. That’s one of the things that I have in common with my cofounders of 240 Strings, Ben Noyes, cellist, and Tracey Jasas-Hardel, violinist, we all love chamber music and that’s what got us really excited about it as young people.

Dr. Lisa: Tell me what is the definition of chamber music?

Dr. Anastasia: Chamber music is a small ensemble. It doesn’t need a conductor. Us as a piano trio, violin, cello, piano. A string quartet comes as chamber music. Piano quintet. Anything that’s probably under seven or eight players. A duo, I also count as chamber music. People disagree about that. Is violin and a piano a chamber music or is it a pianist accompanying a violinist? I would define it as anything between two and seven or eight players without a conductor.

Dr. Lisa: What is it about chamber music specifically that you and the cofounders of 240 Strings love so much?

Dr. Anastasia: I think it’s mostly the exchange of ideas. You can play something one way and somebody else can react to it or vice versa. The training in classical music is so intense that as you’re learning, you spend a lot of time in a room by yourself. Chamber music allows you to get out of that and share some of what you’ve done.

Dr. Lisa: That’s an interesting idea that there is a certain amount of both that you need to actually be very dedicated to your own practice and your own practice time in order to be a good member of a group but you also have to be able to be a good member of the group.

Dr. Anastasia: Right. It is not too common to find people that you can work with openly, and get inspiration from, and stick with it for a long time. I’m always in of the great string quartets who stayed together for 25-50 years. Sometimes that’s like another marriage. That’s being married in three people.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, which sometimes, for some people, being married to one person is hard enough as it is. To have that ongoing exchange of ideas in music, I would think it would be both extremely sometimes very difficult but also extremely rewarding.

Dr. Anastasia: Yes, exactly. You work on your part by yourself. You bring it together and you just see this piece grow over the weeks or months that you’re rehearsing it. Your concept of the piece can change. Everybody else’s can change. It’s just more of, I was going to say a final production, but nothing has ever final. You perform it once and then, it changes more, and you perform it again.

Dr. Lisa: I like what you said about enjoying the performance itself and knowing when you were very young that you like to perform because I don’t think everybody has that love, has that love of performance. I absolutely understand that and not everybody gets it.

Dr. Anastasia: Right. I have some adult students who will only play by themselves. They don’t want anybody to listen to them. That’s fine too. That feeds some of their part of their spirit. I don’t know that I was aware of it as a kid that I loved it but when I realized it, it had been there all along, I think. It’s a neat thing to share with people. People always like to hear music in any stage. I see it now with my daughter who’s almost seven and taking violin. We think, “Are people are going to want to support the squeaky sounds coming out of this little violin?” but they love watching people to share their skill, I guess.

Dr. Lisa: Again, and having sat through a number of children’s concerts all the way from young and squeaky to high school and college, there’s a wanting for the people that are performing to do well for most of us, at least. I guess, it depends if you’re paying a $200 ticket for a squeaky violin. Maybe that doesn’t work out but there is a buy-in. There is there’s an investment. We’re there. We want the performer to, I guess, create for us.

Dr. Anastasia: Right. That’s what I tell my students that everybody out there is on your side. Nobody is coming to watch you get nervous or mess up. They all want you to do as well as you want to do.

Dr. Lisa: Is it the sharing for you, the sharing of music? What is it about the performance itself that really appeals to you?

Dr. Anastasia: I think a big part of it is the sharing, and hearing people’s reactions afterwards, and knowing that I made a difference for those people in that day. It’s also the process of getting to know that repertoire so well over the course of those months, or that year, or whatever. This is the culmination. This is my art exhibit that’s not tangible. We can record it but it’s the culmination of not only what the composer has indicated but how it makes sense in my own head and the work that I’ve done with it.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, that’s an interesting idea because when we see a score, a musical score, and we think, “There’s certain notes that are going to sound a certain way because it was written in a certain way,” but there is that interpretative aspect that maybe we don’t think about.

Dr. Anastasia: Right. Yeah, you can hear the same piece played by ten different people ten very different ways which is great. Even for the composers who are very, very specific like Bartok who is an early 20th Century composer who wrote almost everything. This measure has to be this loud or this soft. This note has to be halfway between short and long. Even for a composer like that, there are many, many different ways that each person make sense of it.

Dr. Lisa: How has this shifted do you think in the last, I don’t know, say 40 years when recorded music, digital music, has really become so much readily available than it ever was.

Dr. Anastasia: Yeah, it’s changing so fast. I know that decades ago, it was part of conservatory classes or even people would talk about it in lessons, “Why don’t you go home and listen to … Compare an hour of recording of this Beethoven Sonata with Gilleleje’s recording,” or something. It seems there was less to keep track of, I guess. Now, you can call up anything, any performer playing any piece of music from a four-year-old to a professional and it’s just so readily available.

There are positives and negatives, I think. I’m just going through this for myself, I recorded a solo CD a couple of years ago with Bob Ludwig from Gateway Mastering Studios. I was very happy with it. We’ve been shopping it around to some labels. It’s very difficult now to get any agreement that works for everybody. There were some labels interested but they wanted me to pay them. It’s just easier to go self-publishing route, I think, but that’s all. I think part of everything being more easily accessible online and it’s not good for record companies, it’s not good for performers, maybe not good for listeners. It’s great that there’s more available but it’s also sensory overload sometimes.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, that’s a good point. I also think that there is something about doing the practice and about the refining of whatever it is. In this day and age, it’s like you can put your rough draft out there and say, “I did it and now, it’s done,” as opposed to the time that it takes, the hours and hours that it takes to actually bring something to some place of semi-completion, I would think.

Dr. Anastasia: Right. For me it’s more about this is at a stage of completion. I’d like to show it. I’d like to get it out there. It doesn’t matter how much money it makes or any of that other stuff.

Dr. Lisa: Why Portland? What is your connection to Portland?

Dr. Anastasia: I grew up in Saco from age seven on. My daughter was born in Bideford. My mom is from Oregon. It was a comeback to one of those two places. We came back to Saco. Almost everything musical for me happened in Portland as a kid. Then, I tried to leave a couple of times but the quality of life here is so great that I just kept getting pulled back. I think my cellist, Ben Noyes, would say the same thing. He grew up in Portland and I don’t think either of us imagined ourselves back here but here we are, and we love, it and I don’t think anybody has any plans to leave anytime soon. I love the cultural diversity. I love the landscape. There’s just so much to enjoy around here.

Dr. Lisa: What is it about the teaching for you that is so important? You’re doing this nonprofit. You’re in the process of launching this nonprofit, 240 Strings, and this is to make available lessons for children. Why is that so important to you?

Dr. Anastasia: I’ve always loved teaching. Another thing that took me a little bit by surprise, I thought that I wanted to be a performer, and travel around the world, and do only solo piano music. I came back to Maine for a semester to teach for Laura Kargul at University of Southern Maine and fell in love with teaching. I’ve been teaching all ages ever since.

This specific project, I think, was about nine or ten years ago, I was teaching up at Bay Chamber Concerts in Rockport, and I met some people from the Providence String Quartet who started the pilot program. Now, there are many programs like this around the country but they started community music works with a $10,000 grant. They have ten violin students. Now, it’s about 20 years later, they’ve got, I think, a million dollar budget, a MacArthur award. They’ve got so many students. They needed to hire more musicians. They’ve got a bunch of students testifying that this is the program that made the difference in our lives between being stuck in the ghetto, and coming out, and being able to attend the Ivy Leagues School.

I think classical music is so good for the brain. There’s more and more research that shows that musicians have brains that communicate really well between left and right side. There are some little videos you can see online about how that works. It’s great for brand development. I thought, “Why not Portland?” Portland has such a diverse population. There’s a high poverty rate. There are families coming here trying to get settled in a new country, can’t afford any extra activities for their kids. This is a great way to give back to the community.

Dr. Lisa: Growing up in Saco, did you have a sense of the greater world? When I look at your very extensive bio, you won first place at the International Young Music Artist Competition in Bulgaria. You hold prizes from Capdepera International Piano Competition in Mallorca in the Indianapolis Matinee Musicale Competition. In 2004, the Greek Women’s University Club of Chicago awarded you the Kanellos Award. Did you have any sense that the world was this big and that you would be out there doing this type of work all over the place?

Dr. Anastasia: Some of those things, like when I testified before Congress, I was about 15, I think. That was also because of my association with Bay Chamber. They had gotten some funding from the NEA, and wanted to show somebody who had made a difference in their life. That opened some doors for me. As well as playing at Lincoln Center in a piano trio when I was a teenager. I guess, I also attended Bowdoin International Music Festival as a kid. I guess I did. I would go through my academic year in Saco, and just be practicing piano, and doing my homework, and the normal things that kids do. Then, these other opportunities would open up in the summer. I think summer is when I got a glimpse of how the rest of the world works.

Dr. Lisa: Do you think that with your 240 String nonprofit, are you hoping that these types of doors will be open for the children that will be impacted?

Dr. Anastasia: Yeah, absolutely. I hope that they will be able to perform often for people locally. If we can set up some other exchange opportunities, that would be great. I think all of the experiences that we can bring to them will burn their horizons, for sure.

Dr. Lisa: 240 Strings is the number of strings that collectively equals your instrument and the instruments of your two cofounders of this organization?

Dr. Anastasia: That’s right.

Dr. Lisa: Are lot of people are surprised to learn that pianos have strings?

Dr. Anastasia: Probably. I haven’t heard anybody express surprise. We actually had to debate about the number because the number varies depending on whether it’s a nine-foot Steinway, or whatever. 240 Strings, we thought, sounds better than 238 or 242. I don’t know. Basically, a piano works is there’s a set of wooden hammers inside that come up and hit the strings. In the middle of the piano, there’s two strings. In a high register, there’s three. Then, the base, that is really thick, just sets of one string. It’s been called a string instrument. It’s been called a percussion instrument. It’s on its own keyboard family.

Dr. Lisa: Do you play other instruments as well?

Dr. Anastasia: As a kid, I played flute for a few years and cello. I’m glad that I got that experience to see a little bit more how a wind instrument works and a string instrument, but I don’t call myself proficient in anything other than piano.

Dr. Lisa: We have the opportunity to hear some of your work. Tell me about the piece that we will be listening to?

Dr. Anastasia: The CD that I recorded includes a premier of some work by Cecilia McDowall who’s a British Composer. She’s composed a lot of choral works. Also on the CD is a lot of other new music. Some Messiaen, some Rautavaara who’s a living Finnish composer, and some older stuff. Cecilia has been great. It’s always nice to be able to be in touch with a living composer. We’ve email back and forth about her music. She wrote a set of pieces. The CD opens with a set of pieces based on experiences she’s had. One is called Vespers in Venice. The CD closes with a piece called Color is the Keyboard which I’m naming the album for. That is the piece you’re going to hear. It is based on Kandinsky painting, and she’s thinking of all the colors that you can get out of the tamper of the instrument.

Dr. Lisa: If you’re listening to this interview, make sure that you wait until the very end because that’s where we’re going to be playing Anastasia Antoncacos’ piece. At some point in the future, you can also purchase. Make sure that you stay tuned. In the meantime, how can people find out about 240 Strings or the music that you do?

Dr. Anastasia: We have a website. That’s We post any concerts that we have coming up. We’ve gotten enough donation so far to start three students in the fall, not just recently happening. We’ll have to work very quickly to set that up. We’re really excited about that. I’m meeting later with a woman who’s been donating instruments to children all around the country. Hopefully, we can do some partnering with her. I have my own personal website which is just my full name, I try to list my upcoming concerts there too.

Dr. Lisa: We’ve been speaking with Dr. Anastasia Antonacos, also known as Annie, who is a pianist on the faculty of the University of Southern Maine, and a frequent recitalist, chamber player, and concerto soloist. Also, the cofounder of a new nonprofit in the Portland area, 240 Strings which will be educating young students in music. You’re a busy lady so I really appreciate your coming in and my having the chance to talk with you today about all of this. Thank you.

Dr. Anastasia: Thanks so much for having me.