Elias-Axel Pettersson was born in Sweden, raised in New Mexico, and lived in Montreal, Canada, for 11 years before relocating to the Valley in 2018 to be with his fiancé, Jessica Yam. It was in Canada that he received his doctorate from the Université de Montréal.
He started playing the violin and piano at an early age and studied both instruments throughout college until he started focusing more on the piano for his master’s degree. He’s also taught music from a young age. His “first job” was as a teacher’s aide for the Hebrew school, which he’s sure his mom had a part in getting him the job.
“I became sort of the assistant choir director with a wonderful hazzan, Josh Perlman, in Albuquerque at Congregation B’nai Israel,” says Elias. “I would play piano with the choir and help with the kids preparing for their bar/bat mitzvah. That was what I did from age 14 to 18, and I made $2.50 an hour.”
In college, at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York, he was allowed to have a work-study program, so he did that long with teaching a few private students. For his master’s degree, he taught class piano at the university and was also a teacher’s assistant.
When he arrived in the Valley, he began teaching 9th through 12th grade piano at Arizona School for the Arts, a charter school in Phoenix with an emphasis on the performing arts. He also teaches at Rosie’s House: A Music Academy for Children, which offers free music instruction for children in inner-city Phoenix. Elias teaches class piano and has private students and co-chairs the piano department at Rosie’s House with Jessica.
“As musicians, we’re always piecemealing things together – I don’t have that coveted professorship at a university, of course, that’s what I’m aiming for,” says Elias. “As a result, I have three or four part-time jobs that I put together in addition to my performing career, which more of a career than just a job.”
Another organization that Elias is very involved in is the Arizona Piano Institute. In 2013, Snezana Krstic had the vision to create a summer festival for Arizona’s young pianists that would provide an unparalleled opportunity for enrichment. This was something near and dear to Elias’s heart because, in 2015, he founded the Southwest Piano Festival, a summer performance series dedicated to promoting the art of piano in New Mexico.
When he moved to Arizona, Jessica was already involved with the institute, so Elias joined and is now on their board as director of program development. Jessica is the artistic director.
“We launched a concerto competition last year, and this year we had a virtual solo competition which is a North American-wide competition and I’m the director of that,” says Elias. “We’ve seen a lot of virtual competitions opening up, and we thought we needed to open up something too. We’ve got a lot of applicants from across the United States and Canada.”
The Arizona Piano Institute also hosts a non-competitive Summer Festival annually. This year it will be held virtually from May 30 through June 6.
“It’s a great opportunity for young students, and even older students up to the collegiate level, in Arizona to study with really great master teachers that we bring in from across the world,” says Elias. “We’ve had professors from big-name schools in the United States like Mannes College in New York, Eastman School of Music, Indiana University and USD. We’ve also brought a professor from the Kyiv Conservatory in Ukraine. So really diverse, incredible instructors.”
The festival also offers presentations by Phoenix area professionals that have covered a variety of topics, including music as a career, musical theory and composition, the history of different composers and sight singing.
Elias talks about a unique presentation from a piano technician. “He came in and took a piano apart and showed the inner workings of it,” he says. “There are 88 keys, but a piano is made up of 10,000 moving parts, and he demonstrated how they all work together. We’ve presented a lot of different things.”
Elias has been busy in the short time he has been in Arizona, a reason why he hasn’t found his niche yet in the Jewish community. He was part of a close-knit synagogue in Montreal, and it’s been tough here because “everybody’s from everywhere – it’s a big melting pot and very spread out.”
To bring people in the Jewish community together, he performed a piano recital, “Raising Our Spirits with Jewish Artists,” on April 25 in collaboration with the East Valley Jewish Community Center, Temple Beth Shalom of the East Valley and Temple Emanuel of Tempe. The concert was free of charge, and donations were accepted to help those in the community experiencing financial hardship.
“I wanted to have a reason for them to come together and know me,” says Elias. “I’m a Jewish musician here, and nobody knows me, and I don’t know anybody. So it’s a good way to connect with people.”