The first thing you notice about pianist Julian Gargiulo is his wild, curly brown locks.
But even though there’s so much more to the 49-year-old man with an impressive resume — who will perform at Davenport’s St. Ambrose University Saturday, Sept. 10 — Gargiulo gleefully markets himself as the “Pianist with the Hair,” an unpretentious mash-up of “Saturday Night Live” meets Carnegie Hall.
A friend of SAU associate piano professor Marian Lee, he promises a classical concert unlike anything you’ve seen before. One reviewer has said: “He’s the only classical musician I know who could truly be regarded as a rock star as well.”
A classically trained pianist, “Julian captivates his audience not only with his technical precision but with his Jerry Seindfeld-ish wit as well,” according to his bio. He invites his audience to abandon all preconceived notions about classical concerts.
On stage, he presents a program which includes classical standards, tango transcriptions, as well as his own compositions. In between pieces, he engages the audience by sharing his personal stories, anecdotes from the lives of composers, and his home remedies for jet-lag. “Julian builds a rapport with his listeners…a formula that works.” (TimeOut Singapore).
In a recent interview, the Italy-born Gargiulo said he first got to know Marian Lee when they both studied piano at Moscow State Conservatory in the early ’90s.
“There were very few foreigners at the time; she was an amazingly generous spirit at the time,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about Russia. She was just super helpful, apart from being an amazing pianist. Our paths crossed again, when we ended up studying with same Russian teacher, at Peabody Conservatory.”
Italian dad, American mom
Gargiulo was born and raised in Italy — Naples and Verona — to a mother from New York and father from Naples, and grew up speaking both languages.
“We had a piano at home, just neither of my parents were musicians,” he recalled. “They loved music.”
Julian learned to play by ear and got into a conservatory in Verona when he was 13. “I met an inspiring teacher, and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
After studying in Rome and Moscow, he received his bachelor’s degree at Rowan University in New Jersey; his master’s at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University, and his Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of Maryland.
Gargiulo didn’t want to go the route of stiff, tuxedoed concert pianists, opting for leather jackets instead, connecting with audiences, using humor, heart and flair.
“My personality is definitely very outgoing and I love hanging out with the audience before the concert,” he said recently. “Who would want to be backstage, all alone? It’s a recipe for disaster. I guess the format, in a way it came out naturally.
“Doing concerts, presenters asked me to talk to the audience,” Gargiulo said. “I explained some stuff. Because of the way I am, people laughed. I found it really works kind of well if you’re playing serious stuff, if really into what you’re playing, if you’re a regular person, everybody can kind of relate to it. You’re making this high art form relatable, fun.
“You will learn about music, but it’s not a music lesson,” he said of his concert. “You definitely will learn about me. My bio is built into the show — you come away knowing me, hopefully knowing the composers, and I’ll come away having 500 new friends.”
Composing, film career
His music and recordings have appeared in movies and documentaries, most recently in the official trailer of Keira Knightley’s new film, “The Aftermath,” produced by Ridley Scott.
In 2015, Julian presented the first edition of “Getting to Carnegie,” an International Music Competition which features musicians from all around the world for a chance to share the stage at Carnegie Hall. An award-winning documentary based on the competition will be released later this year.
An ABC-TV review said: “He was in town last night…he’s just brilliant….there are not enough words to describe the genius behind him….because when he sits down and plays you are watching a Beethoven or Chopin …years from now your grandkids and great-grandkids will be talking about Julian. He’s just magnificent.”
This year, Gargiulo and his wife Elektra started a new online music series called “One Classical Minute” (www.oneclassicalminute.com) — described as “High Culture in Low Doses” for everything you never wanted to know about classical music, and never bothered to ask.
His original music weaves in influences of classical and jazz.
“If you’re a classical music lover, it’s too much jazz, and if you’re a jazz music music lover, unfortunately too much classical,” Gargiulo said, noting a lot of contemporary classical is very hard to listen to. Not his…
“My music is not difficult to listen to — maybe some Russian influence, having studied in Moscow,” he said. “There’s also a heavy rhythmical aspect to it.”
“It’s funny, before I went to Russia at 20, I was very shy, introverted, and I went to Russia and kind of became who I am right now,” he said. “My hair followed suit.”
Gargiulo and his wife (who works as an interpreter for the European Union) live in Brussels, Belgium, with their 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.
Demystifying the music
In his informal concert format, the pianist with the hair aims to demystify the high-falutin’ musical genre.
“It’s putting people in a frame of mind, they can be happy listening to this, not feel judged if they clap at the wrong moment,” Gargiulo said. “In today’s extremely busy existence, if you think about it, at a concert you can just forget about the world, just be in a place, in a space that is different.”
He will tell stories about the composers so people can relate to them as humans, not gods. At the Sept. 10 Ambrose concert — at 7:30 p.m. in the Galvin Fine Arts Center auditorium — he and Lee also will perform some music for four hands.