It’s always comforting, as a mere arm-chair viewer with no axe to grind, to find oneself in full accord with the jury. Alexandra Segal’s dazzling performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C major, Op.26 at the Grand Final of the Enescu International Competition for the Piano Section, left us in little doubt as to the eventual winner. Hers was an extraordinarily virtuosic, buoyant rendition, impressing with both its intelligence and power, showing her to be flawlessly in command not only of her instrument but of her relationship with the orchestra.

Alexandra Segal, Kensho Watanabe and the George Enescu Philharmonic
© Alex Damian

When we talk a few days later, she’s clearly both delighted by the achievement, and naturally somewhat overwhelmed by all the attention. Ahead of her are the excitements of engagements and the exposure that comes with winning; behind her is a lifetime spent making music. Born into a family of musicians, her mother a pianist, her father a guitarist, Alexandra confesses to never having known a way of life that didn’t involve music. It was a culture of complete immersion, a “classical music bubble”, she says lightly. Briefly, as a teenager, she flirted with the idea of pursuing her other passion – art, because she dearly loves to draw – but then it was back to music again.

Why did she choose to apply to the 2022 George Enescu Competition? The reputation of the competition and the glittering list of previous winners from Radu Lupu to Elisabeth Leonskaja spoke for itself, she acknowledged, and preparing the repertoire in itself was such a “motivational boost”. “I didn’t make it easy for myself,” she adds, thinking about the kind of repertoire she performed throughout the competition. She moves from there into revealing that one of her big discoveries through this competition was the work of George Enescu himself. Why, she found herself asking, is his work not played more 

I ask her own question back to her: “So why not?” “It’s not the most accessible at first hearing,” she admits. “I would like in the future to bring his music to the stage more often.” The sonata of his that she chose to perform in the semi-finals was the first one in F sharp minor (Op.24). This required digging deep, she confesses, it was not the sort of work she could rustle up in two weeks. “You start with this piece, and you don’t know where you are going to find yourself. There’s so much inside it – there are these folk and jazz elements, drama, lyricism, as well as philosophical and spiritual dimensions… it’s very dense. You have to find your way through the maze.”

Density. Maze. The thickets of musical space. Music as spatial poetry, as Enescu himself said. Music as journey where you don’t know where you will end up. I’m reminded of these images later in our conversation when I ask her about her broader musical vision. Who are you as an artiste? “Oh wow…” The breadth of the question gives her sudden pause. Then she says slowly. “I tend to be more connected to music on a darker side – the tragic element. These are the challenges I enjoy the most.” Perhaps, as she later elaborates, this is attributable in part to her Slavic sensibility, a feel for the anguish of existence: She was born and raised in the Ukraine before moving to Israel at age 19. She is drawn particularly to Eastern European composers: Shostakovich she wants to explore above all. “He has such a dark, hopeless side. I can express myself through that quite well.”

Alexandra Segal
© Alex Damian

At the final itself, she chose to perform the work of another Russian, Prokofiev’s Concerto no. 3. Why the Prokofiev then? “It’s been a dream since I was a teenager, ever since I heard the Yuja Wang and Claudio Abbado recording. Playing it in the final, with the Enescu Philharmonic orchestra, under the baton of conductor Kensho Watanabe, in the majestic setting of the Romanian Athenaeum was a real milestone. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Marvellous, I agree. I tell her again how much we enjoyed it. I tell her also that it looked as if she was up there enjoying it too. “I was having such fun. I forgot I was in a competition.” Her enthusiasm bubbles over in the memory of it. The gravity and polite restraint vanish. I told her that my 8-year old-daughter, herself a brand new piano learner, was watching with me and said, “She’s just so fizzy.”. Alexandra laughs. I then mention to her something that jury member, pianist and former winner, Josu de Solaun, had said at the interview in the intermission that had struck me as worth attending to. Leading off with the idea that “music is about being frail and vulnerable”, he then went on to quote Oscar Wilde’s line about Chopin’s music being the music of the losing team. A keen Irish litterateur, I thought I knew all of Wilde’s bon mots, but I’d never heard this. It seemed to be new to her too.

She nods the truth of it. Prokofiev, I put to her slightly provocatively, didn’t necessarily show off her vulnerable side. Her stage presence on Sunday seemed flawlessly invulnerable, in fact. All that incandescent finger work, the coruscating power of those infamous octaves, the dazzling self-assurance, the nerves of steel… She pushes back gently but firmly, reminding me that just by being on stage, one makes oneself vulnerable. “In the end, you’re very exposed. In order to convey a message on stage, and touch the public, you have to be emotionally pretty much naked. And not just that, but at a competition, you know you’re being judged in this vulnerable state… But also in the Prokofiev, there are definitely places you can show your more lyrical side, your interiority.”

I let her words sink in. We don’t typically think vulnerability, I reflect, in relation to first-rate performers. We think of the showmanship of their public persona; we think of people who’ve triumphed over the stage fright felt by us ordinary mortals; we see soloists as cultural gods, up there in a pool of golden spotlight. And yet, her words provide a timely counterpoint, indeed a corrective. Performance itself is a kind of vulnerability, an opening up of one’s expressive self. The stage-altar is but an illusion of invulnerability. Even our gods are mortal, like ourselves. It’s typical of her honesty that she owns it.

Now living in Graz, Austria, there’s clearly little time to rest on her laurels. Alexandra is already half-way through a third Master’s degree, this time in vocal accompaniment, specializing particularly in lied, a genre she loves. “You can never have too many Masters,” she jokes. With a commitment to perform at the Enescu festival in 2023, and some concerts already lined up in Romania, her schedule will open up to new engagements and commitments, and all the exposure that comes with such a win. Desirous of a career that involves chamber music and accompaniment as well as solo performance, she acknowledges that a solo career alone can be lonely. Her honesty on the subject hits the mark. “Of course, I enjoy it all tremendously, but there can be this Cinderella moment. You arrive at this beautiful venue, play this great concert in this beautiful sparkly dress, receive the warm feedback… then you find yourself sitting alone in some McDonald’s catching your late meal. The magic is gone and you’re back to being alone.”

Alexandra Segal
© Alex Damian

My mind immediately goes to that enigmatic Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks, in the Art Institute of Chicago; nothing conveys more poignantly the loneliness of individuals in a large city. It occurs to me suddenly that maybe Hopper’s figures are left-over entertainers. Our entertainment is their job, our after-hours are their work hours, and then there’s all that dark time to fill. Chamber music with its more intimate connections and relationships appeals greatly as an antidote to this sort of isolation.

Before we close, we return to the news of her week, achieving first place at this prestigious competition. What have been the benefits so far, I ask. She’s been moved, most of all, by the warmth of the support she has received in the aftermath of the win. There have been so many messages from people who heard her perform, people whom she doesn’t even know. “Musicians are usually people that come with certain sensitivities; our self-esteem can be quite fragile, so it’s very important to receive the feedback from the public because, in the end, that’s why we are doing this, for the public to enjoy.”

And enjoy it they certainly did. Alexandra Segal opens up a new chapter in her musical journey, and, as she would say herself, even if you don’t know where you will end up, the way itself will be a most enjoyable challenge.

This article was sponsored by the George Enescu International Competition.