Meet the Artist – Olga Stezhko, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

When I was 3 years old, I joined an experimental folk theatre called ‘Gostsitsa’ as a singer and performer in my native town of Minsk. In the early 1990s, amidst all the uncertainty and volatility caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus experienced a remarkable cultural renaissance. It was a wonderful time to grow up as a child, although it was definitely not an easy period for adults. My identity and personality were hugely influenced by the Belarusian language, mythology and rich history, all of which are little known to most of the world. I have vivid memories of Gostsitsa’s powerful and, at times, quite avant-garde performances that showcased our cultural heritage. The group also gave me the first taste of travelling as we went on tour to places like Denmark and the Russian town of Salekhard on the Polar Circle. Cargo planes, deer sledges, the northern lights – we experienced true adventures! The musical part of our shows was very elaborate and often included complex polyphonic arrangements of folk songs. In fact, many of the artists in the company were classically educated and at some point, one of the artistic directors suggested to my parents that I should try to enrol into the Republican Music College – a national school for musically gifted children. I passed the entry exams when I was about five and went on to study there for the next 12 years.

I already played a bit of piano by that point. I actually started to play before I can even recall my first memory, so the piano was just always there. My parents had a studio apartment above a music shop, so they were able to purchase an instrument on credit. The school I went to combined both the national and intensive music curriculums. We were there pretty much all the time – often 6 days a week, sometimes for more than 10 hours a day, unless we were travelling for concerts or competitions. It was a wonderful place, almost a self-contained world, quite liberal for the post-Soviet era and bursting with talent and energy. It set me up with a very solid foundation for life.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Creative evolution is a never-ending process and influences come from all sorts of sources. Books, films, world cultures, science, history, my childhood in Belarus and formative years in Italy, friends and relationships – they are all intertwined with my personal development and therefore the music I play.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think one of the greatest challenges in any profession is being able to separate the good advice from the bad and decide when to listen and when to ignore.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am proud of both of my albums, which were the result of two deeply personal journeys: one looking outwards into space and the other directed inwards and putting the spotlight on my own experiences.

The first recording ‘Eta Carinae’ combined my passion for astrophysics with music of Scriabin and Busoni and explored one of the most fascinating periods in history: 1912-1920. It was an extraordinary time not only culturally and politically but also in terms of scientific advancements and our understanding of the natural world such as the structure of an atom, the first notions of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. The album has a narrative and if you listen to it as a whole, it tells a story that can be seen as the timeline of the physical transformation of matter, which in turn serves as an allegory for the progression of human reason itself.

In the second album ‘Et la lune descend’ I looked into my own life experiences through the musical lens of Debussy’s five piano suites. I also wanted to move away from the weight of academia which accumulated over the past hundred years since the composer’s death and just approach this music for what it is – with fresh ears, an open heart and the excitement of discovery. Behind the evocative titles and beautiful imagery in Debussy’s music, there are multiple layers of introspection and palpable enthusiasm for a new age of modernity that was meant to propel the world into the future.

Thinking of my live performances, I am and always will be my biggest critic. But there are, of course, plenty of happy moments and great memories. For my favourites, I would single out two solo recitals at Wigmore Hall, my performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at Barbican Hall and Rachmaninov’s No. 3 in Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, when I was still a student there. Those were intensely exhilarating experiences that went in one breath once I was on stage.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

At the moment, I am very fond of French and Russian music of the early and mid 20th century and the two composers to whom I feel a special connection are Debussy and Scriabin.

For many people, Debussy is the composer of the moon and the sea and beautiful escapism. But he is also firmly rooted in the fast-paced urban environment of the turn of 20th century Paris, which was the melting pot of contemporary ideas and the avant-garde. And that is what makes his music relevant to our modern experiences, in my opinion.

If I had to select a composition that would be the last ever piece I would play in my life, it is Scriabin’s Vers la flamme. If I am in the right state of mind when playing it, I feel like I’m in touch with the truest essence of myself while reaching out to the stars.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Ever so often I discover a piece that I become obsessed with. These form the core around which the theme and the rest of the programme will develop. As I accumulate a deeper knowledge of the topic over time, it gradually begins to morph into a different theme altogether. Some pieces will remain, some will go and the new repertoire will evolve to reflect the change – it is a very organic process.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I love playing late evening concerts in open-air venues in Southern Europe in summer. Why? The starry sky, the gentle breeze, the murmurs of the night merging with the music, the colourful audience and boozy post-concert dinners going on well past midnight.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Whenever I have a musical block of any sort, I have a simple method I call ‘Ask Richter’ where I listen to his recordings from various years. Richter’s playing has a unique quality that distils the essence of music and reveals a version of fundamental musical truth, transcending the performer.

I love Sokolov, Ashkenazy and de Larrocha. My favourite young chamber ensemble is the Heath Quartet. I admire their passion, superb musicianship and attention to the smallest musical detail. For them, every note matters.

From time to time, my partner introduces me to various progressive metal bands. It is a great genre to discover incredibly impressive musicians in terms of skill and creativity. My latest introduction is a French metal band called Gojira.

I am a long-term fan of James Braddell (aka Funki Porcini). His music has been the soundtrack to my formative years since the age of 13. I highly respect his integrity as a musician and eagerly await each new release.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of the most memorable performing experiences was the recent launch of my all-Debussy album ‘Et la lune descend”. It was a wonderful project where I collaborated with some of London’s brightest talents in jazz, craft beer and illustration. Debussy’s groundbreaking explorations in rhythm, colour and tonality were originally inspired by traditional Indonesian gamelan music that he heard during the World Fair in Paris in 1889. I thought it would be great to include gamelan into a performance and reached out to Byron Wallen, one of the most innovative and versatile trumpeters in the world, who over the years assembled a beautiful gamelan set. I proposed to collaborate on a piano / gamelan / trumpet arrangement of some of the pieces from the album and he agreed to my delight. On the evening, us performers could literally feel how the music was created in that very moment when we touched our instruments, emerging from silence and dissolving into nothing. It was a magical experience.

The event was hosted by one of Shoreditch’s original clubs: Zigfrid’s, which is run by our friends. It had a wonderfully intimate atmosphere without any segregation between the musicians and audience. The energy was bouncing freely between all of us. At the beginning, when the gamelan sound blended into the piano opening of Debussy’s Cloches à travers les feuilles and at the end when Byron and I were improvising on Pour l’égyptienne, I was literally in music nirvana. None of us wanted it to end.

It was also very exciting to collaborate with our good friends at Partizan Brewing and create a limited-edition beer named ‘Doctor Gradus’ (after ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ from Children’s Corner). Craft beer is an old passion of mine and in our Debussy beer we fused French and Indonesian flavours, reflecting musical influences in the taste. The label and artwork featured the distinctive artwork of award-winning illustrator Alec Doherty with whom we encoded many symbols and themes from the album. It was a true feast for the senses and a labour of love between many friends, each of them supremely talented in their respective field.

My other very moving experience is also connected to jazz. It wasn’t actually a concert per se. Last Christmas Eve I was walking back home after practice and next to a grocery store on Portobello Road I heard an incredible young jazz clarinettist. I thought: ‘Wow, those are some amazing sounds’ and kept on walking. But the music was just too irresistible, so I turned back and hid behind a corner. He was playing his soul out and no one was stopping to listen. He could have been playing at Carnegie Hall or on a deserted island – for him it did not matter. In this moment, nothing existed apart from his clarinet and his music. A few angry residents began to hassle him, one of them politely and another one quite rudely. I started to negotiate with them and defend the musician so I could hear ‘just one more piece’. At that point the clarinettist finally saw me, smiled and played his last tune for his sole listener. There was solitude, hope and empathy in his playing that spoke directly to my heart. It was a beautiful moment of understanding not only because I was on the same wavelength with him as a musician but also because through music he was able to create a human connection between two complete strangers. I cried my eyes out on my way home.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A successful performance unites physical control and emotional abandonment. The magic happens when the sound manages to trigger a deeply personal response in each listener in what is otherwise a communal experience. For me, a successful performance comes with having a lump in the throat.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think the most important factor is to know yourself and to understand your true passions. And when you do, not to compromise. The best music emerges from deep soul-searching. It is a tough and time-consuming process with inevitable disappointments along the way. It might translate into fewer opportunities at the start of one’s career but I believe it is a risk worth taking. The experience will ultimately help an aspiring musician to mature into an artist of true quality and integrity and lay the foundations for a fulfilling and sustainable career.

Olga Stezhko’s CD ‘Et la lune descend’ is available now. Comprising of five suites, the album marks the centenary of Debussy’s death and charts the development of his writing for piano solo from the very first ‘Suite bergamasque’ to the much lesser known last suite ‘Six epigraphes antiques’. Further information

Olga Stezhko is an award-winning concert pianist, recording artist and leading interpreter of early and mid-20th century piano repertoire. Acclaimed by Classical Source in a Wigmore Hall review as ‘a supremely delicate master of her instrument’ who possesses ‘an extraordinary presence’, she has performed worldwide at venues including the Barbican Hall, Salle Cortot and the Carnegie Hall. Recent highlights include performances in St Martin-in-the-Fields, Wigmore Hall, the National Gallery, Palermo Classica Festival, Leeds International Concert Season and the ‘Belarusians of the World’ Arts Festival in Minsk, where Olga was awarded a special recognition by the Ministry of Culture.

Born in Minsk, Olga was educated in Belarus, Italy and the UK where she completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees with distinction at the Royal Academy of Music. Her successes on the international competition circuit include the Grand Prix at the ‘Halina Czerny-Stefanska In Memoriam’ International Piano Competition in Poland, First Prize at the Nikolai Rubinstein International Piano Competition in France and Third Prize at the Prix Amadèo de Piano International Piano Competition in Germany.

Olga’s specialism is early and mid-20th century repertoire and she is particularly distinguished in Scriabin and Debussy. Her debut album ‘Eta Carinae’ (Luminum Records) combined her passion for astronomy with music by Scriabin and Busoni and was hailed by the Gramophone Magazine as ‘an outstanding debut’ and ‘not a record for the faint-hearted but rather for those who enjoy dark and menacing regions of the mind’. Olga’s second all-Debussy album ‘Et la lune descend’ was released on Palermo Classica in 2018 to mark the centenary of the composer’s death.