The Great Levitator 

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Ten years ago, Alexander Paley, the Russian-émigré pianist, was visiting town to perform with the Richmond Symphony. On an afternoon off, walking around downtown, he came across the old Books First on Grace Street. He left with an armload of books and an improbable plan: to stage a summer music festival in the shop.

"The acoustics were wonderful for piano," Paley recalls. The space reminded him of the salons where pianists would play for small groups of friends in 19th-century Europe. Here, he decided, was a chance to re-create the environment that nurtured Chopin, Schumann and Liszt.

The environment didn't last -- Books First closed a few months after Paley's first festival in August 1998. "But I wanted to continue," he says, "because Richmond was a special place for me. History is a big hobby for me, and in Richmond for the first time I had a taste of American history. What America really is I found out here, not in New York," where he settled after defecting from the former Soviet Union in 1988.

The festival has survived against the odds. The crowd that sustains the symphony, opera and chamber music has been only dimly aware of Paley's series. It has gone through a succession of venues — this year it's at Virginia Commonwealth University — and an ever-changing cast of local organizers and supporters. For several years, Paley kept it going through hours of phone calls from his apartment in the Bronx, trips to Richmond by overnight bus and sheer will.

Sasha, as he's known, "is the kind of personality that makes you fasten your seat belt and hang on," says Charles West, the VCU-based clarinetist who regularly performs in Paley's festival. "It's quite a ride to play with him. There are times when he gets so wound up, it's as if the piano has risen off the floor."

Listening to him is similarly levitating. Paley, 51, is a pianist of the old Russian school of romantically inclined virtuosos, heir to the tradition of Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Richter and Gilels.

He thrives on massive, technically daunting scores such as Liszt's Sonata in B minor or Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," typically adding a few more finger-busters as encores. With his wife, the Taiwan-born pianist Pei-Wen Chen, Paley has revived many pieces for piano four-hands (two pianists at one keyboard), including such rarities as Rimsky-Korsakov's keyboard arrangement of "Scheherazade." (This year, he'll double the fun with Chen and two others in a showpiece for piano eight-hands.)

The 10th anniversary edition of his festival emphasizes the piano in combination with voices and other instruments. Paley and friends will present two chamber operas, Gian-Carlo Menotti's "The Telephone" and the American premiere of Alexander Dargomyzhsky's "The Stone Guest" in its original version; Richard Strauss' setting of Tennyson's "Enoch Arden" for narrator and piano; chamber music by Mozart, Schumann, Dvorak), and Chausson; and piano works by Mendelssohn, Ravel, Bizet and Rachmaninoff.

"I'm playing quite a lot," Paley says, "but for once I don't play anything by myself." Until the encores, anyway. S

The Alexander Paley Music Festival presents concerts Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 29 at 12:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sept. 30 at 2 p.m. at VCU's Singleton Center. Tickets are $20. Call 647-3398 or visit www.paleyfest.org.

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.

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