Fall 2009 Issue

The Piano Men

Both members of Barry’s fine arts faculty, both renowned concert pianists with a recent performance at Carnegie Hall under their belts - yet these two brothers couldn’t be more different

By Dmitry Rashnitsov

Dr. Martin Camacho stood at the stage door of Carnegie Hall with butterflies in his stomach and sweaty palms. The gifted pianist and assistant professor of music couldn’t work up the nerve to step into the spotlight.

“What am I doing here?” Martin recalled asking a stagehand whose job it was to usher him on.

The man had clearly encountered many a nervous performer, anxious about appearing at the most well-known concert venue in the country.

“You are here because this is what you love to do,” Martin remembers the man telling him.

With just that little bit of reassurance the 38-year-old native of Mexico City stared at the sold-out New York crowd and reminisced about the last three decades of sacrifice, hard work and practice he has put into his craft, and the joy he receives when an audience gets pleasure from his music.

Martin took the leap, entered the arena, sat down at his finely tuned Steinway piano and began playing “Five Cuban Dances” by Mario Ruiz Armengol, the first piece in his 55-minute set.

Just one hour earlier, Martin’s younger brother, Barry Adjunct Lecturer Dionisio Camacho, had stood in the exact same spot, but the 33-year-old did not have similar hesitations at the stage entrance. “The concert only lasts 45 minutes, I wanted to get out there as soon as possible, enjoy the music, and get back to hanging out with my family and friends,” Dionisio said.

Two brothers - born and raised in the same Mexico City household, studying under the same tutelage of world-renowned piano expert Sergei Babayan, and now both teachers at the same university - yet about as different as “noche” and “dia.”

The dust collector

In a middle-class suburb of Mexico City, 6-year-old Martin is excited to see a new “toy” in the living room of the small apartment he shares with his parents, grandparents and uncles. The “toy” was in fact a Yamaha electric organ that his grandfather had bought for the elders in his family to play. However, Martin’s uncles showed no interest in learning to play the instrument, and, as the weeks went by, it continued to sit untouched collecting dust.

Tired of listening to their son nag, Martin’s parents eventually enrolled their then-only child in private piano lessons to give him an after-school activity.

“I had no clue what I was doing at first, but this instrument intrigued me and I had the determination to conquer the music lessons and please my parents,” Martin said.

By age 8, young Martin showed considerable talent and auditioned for one of the national conservatories in Mexico City. Initially rejected, his mother begged the school’s headmaster to let her son attend on a probationary basis. Martin spent the next 10 years at four-hour after-school practice sessions mastering what would later turn into his life’s work.

“If you wanted to be a professional, [that] was the place you had to be,” he said. “The conservatory setting is more bonding than the regular school. I am now very good friends with many of my former teachers. These are the professional connections that keep you alive in Mexico City.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in music at Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, Cuba, Martin entered the first InterAmerican Piano festival, a competition that brings young pianists from North, Central and South America together to celebrate their craft. Martin took first place and won a full scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Music where he earned graduate degrees in piano performance and in professional studies.

“Piano is a very demanding career because it requires everything that a normal career requires plus an additional talent,” he explained. “You can decide later in life if you want to be an engineer or a computer major, but if you want to become a professional musician in the classical arena, it requires a lot of consistency and discipline and talent at a very young age.”

The upstart

While Martin is calm, straightforward and focused on his goals, younger brother Dionisio, whose name translates to “God of Wine” in Greek, is more of the showman wild child who is always looking to conquer something new.

Months before Martin left to study in Cuba, 11-year-old Dionisio had already tried his hand at acting, singing and football and finally decided that piano would also be part of his future. In 1987, he entered the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City and spent the next seven years trying to live up to or live with his brother’s stellar reputation and practice habits.

“My brother has amazing dedication,” said Dionisio, who describes himself as more of a bohemian free spirit. “I always looked up to him like a mentor; he’s very responsible, very mature. A lot of teachers at the conservatory would compare us and tell me that my brother was the better student, but between us there is no comparison.”

Yet, despite Dionisio’s more relaxed attitude, his accomplishments are every bit as impressive as his brother’s. He followed in Martin’s footsteps by also winning the InterAmerican Piano competition and completed a graduate degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He received a master’s degree from Arizona State University, and then reunited with Martin, who serves as assistant chair of the fine arts department, at Barry.

Birds of different feathers

In fact, friends, colleagues and contemporaries all say the same thing about the siblings: They are both uniquely gifted, but on completely different wavelengths, a reality that manifested itself early in their careers and even in the most intimate settings.

In the family’s living room, for example, Martin hated showing off his talents. “I really didn’t like to be put in the spotlight as the monkey show. I felt that people didn’t understand what I was doing. They would get the show part of it but not the artistic part of it, so I would rather not play for them.”

While Dionisio, on the other hand, enjoyed playing for a crowd and reveled in the accompanying festivities. “I always liked playing for family and friends because we would throw a party after I played and I like to party,” Dionisio said with a smile.

The differences in personality and in artistry are also evident in their individual teaching styles, according to Barry University Department of Fine Arts Chair Silvia Lizama.

“Martin is intense, he knows his piano pieces like you and I know how to breathe. He’s very imposing on his students to help undo their bad habits,” Lizama said. “Dionisio is a lot looser and the students love him too. Both can bring so much out of their pupils. We are lucky to have both at the school.”

Carnegie or Bust

It was the Camacho brothers’ ties with the InterAmerican Piano festival that led to the invitation to play at Carnegie Hall. MidAmerica Productions President and Executive Director Norman Dunafee put on the show and said he was very impressed with the distinctive performances.

“There are many, many talented pianists as far as technique is concerned, which Martin obviously has, but it is rare to find a combination of that technique with the intelligent playing that Martin does deeply well,” Dunafee said. “Dionisio also did a great job. It was very interesting to hear two brothers who have studied with the same teacher have such different approaches.”

A glowing endorsement by New York Concert Review magazine reporter Rorianne Schrade noted how each brother played to their strengths and had the audience mesmerized, while also giving voice to the unmet desire of many of their fans.

“If one had one unfulfilled wish about the evening it was that the brothers would have played just one thing together,” she wrote.

Though many siblings have teamed up to play four hands or two pianos at the same time, neither Camacho is willing to make a commitment to such a performance in the future. “It really hasn’t been our thing; the piano is such an individual instrument to start out with,” Martin said.

That sentiment is also echoed by Dionisio, who would rather just enjoy his brother’s music, the same as anyone else in the audience. “My brother and I love each other very much, and we don’t want to play together because we don’t want to argue,” Dionisio said. “You know, I would rather just listen to the quality of his sound.”