Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
I was born into a family of musicians: a pianist mother and a composer father. As a little child, I watched my mom practicing and grew competitive – as a three-year-old I would jump at the piano the moment she left it and wouldn’t let her back, pretending it was my time to ‘practice’. Seeing my father composing and listening to a lot of symphonic music at home with him shaped my musical demands, tastes, and desires. And attending concerts, opera and ballet performances, my mother’s recitals and rehearsals truly imprinted in my mind an idea of what life was supposed to be. Being immersed in all sorts of musical practice early on was the biggest influence. And thus I started to show my personal understanding and views in music quite early as well.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I was homeschooled until age 10, and the programme that my mother chose for me was completely her creation. As a three-year-old, I got a hold of the typewriter as a source of learning how to put letters together and create words, sentences and then stories. Later, I learned grammar and spelling through copying countless poems by the greatest Russian poets by hand into my journals. I looked through museum catalogues and albums of different artists in the same fashion kids use their cartoons and picture books. I constantly tried to create my own continuations of stories from that artworks, drawing and painting Perseus and Andromede after Rubens, and many other idols I acquired. At 6, I was given an unrestricted access to the turntable and the entire collection of LPs and soon after discovered that I always cry over Furtwängler’s interpretation of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, but the same piece conducted by Bruno Walter left me cold and unengaged. Simultaneously, my father taught me to read music in all clefs and transpositions and that opened for me the world of orchestral scores which I could sightread without any trouble. I was exposed to serious literature early on, reading the Divine Comedy at 7, thinking it is an awesome fairytale and drawing illustrations to what I read. That same year I destroyed an LP with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, simply from overplaying it, and the immense passion of that music definitely created a craving for emotional intensity in musical performance that I continued to feel throughout my life.
Such exposure to an array of arts was definitely one of the best things that happened to me, thanks to my mother’s wisdom, and all of that continues to influence me in everything I do. Besides playing piano, I compose, transcribe, write poetry both in Russian and English, draw and paint, and create original projects in which all the arts interconnect.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
It is hard to answer briefly or in any summarizing way.
I have had many obstacles on my way, which could have completely broken me and definitely delayed the development of my professional career. But they taught me to overcome anything and to always keep in mind where I am going and why.
I was born in Izhevsk, a provincial city which is a capital of the Republic of Udmurtia within Russia. When I was 9 and passing required exams to enter the Central Music School in Moscow, the first time I entered the examinations, I was given an A in piano and F in ear training with a remark that I have no musical hearing ( I have perfect pitch). It was suggested I enter a paid study programme (as opposed to a free programme). The school’s hidden assumption was that my home town would sponsor my studies.
The following year, I entered again, was given an A in ear training and F in piano performance with a remark that I have “no technical abilities and will never become a pianist”. My mother lost her pregnancy upon hearing this news and that is how I never got a brother.
At this point, the chair of composition of Moscow Conservatory, Albert Leman, being disgusted about the situation, went to the Ministry of Culture and opened a composition department at the Central Music School of which I became the first student.
A mere three years later, the same person who claimed I had no abilities as a pianist, after listening to 13-year-old me performing Liszt’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ fantasy at a winter exam, exclaimed at his impressed colleagues “what are you surprised about? It was always clear she has limitless technical abilities”.
In the 9th grade, I was thrown out of school for “excessive touring without the consent of administration”. Luckily, I was put back by Ministry of Culture and the school’s dean at the time lost his job.
As a freshman at Moscow Conservatory I soon started playing with best orchestras in the country. At the same time my mother got hit by a car on the street and I had to take care of her after her major trauma.
But my professor, who performed with same orchestras, would call those orchestras and ask them to stop inviting me to play. It was always a major fight when I told her that I had a new engagement. I wasn’t allowed to prepare for competitions. The only one she forced me to apply for was the Chopin competition in Warsaw. It was 9 months of hard work, and three days before I was to fly out to the preliminary round, she asked me “why did you decide to go there? All the jury members this year are my enemies, they won’t let you in no matter how you play, just because you are my student!..” I did not go.
In my third year, she threw me out of her class for accepting a last-minute request to stand in to perform Prokofiev’s Second Concerto with the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia (now Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra), and arranged for me to be kicked out of the Conservatory, having badmouthed me in such a fashion sggesting that I got my engagements through intimate relationships with conductors.
She made sure I was never be able to reinstate my student status at the conservatory. After several unsuccessful attempts to come back (other conservatory professors to whom I tried to transfer, were all scared of ruining their faculty relationships), I ended up completing my studies at Saint-Petersburg conservatory, thanks to maestro Mark Gorenstein who immensely helped me to find my way there.
However, in Saint-Petersburg I was presented with new surprises. I finished the conservatory in 2009 as the best piano graduate of the year, a status that has given me an opportunity to debut at the Saint-Petersburg Philharmonic Society with an orchestra. The performance was a big success, but just 8 weeks later I was given an “F” at each of the entrance exams to the post-graduate program, preventing me from entering.
I was lucky to develop amazing relationships with orchestras and concert presenters in Moscow, which allowed me to build a substantial concerto repertoire (by the end of my conservatory years I have performed over 45 different concerti). But the moment I was thrown out of the Moscow conservatory, I became an outcast and many people turned their backs to me. One of the few people that did not care about any of that was Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra’s music director Mark Gorenstein, who continued our regular collaboration.
But in 2011, maestro Gorenstein got fired from Svetlanov Symphony himself in politically-tailored circumstances and the backlash from that event hit me as well as one of his favorites – more doors got closed before me.
So in 2012 I moved to the US to enter the DMA programme at the invitation of Santiago Rodriguez and to start over in terms of building a career.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I am proud of my YouTube project ‘Midnight Pieces’ that I started in 2017, recording works that I pick for their beauty and emotional depth. I tailor them according to an inner pattern: 1 obscure piece, 1 famous piece, 1 Russian piece, 1 transcription of mine. The goal is to produce 53 works by 53 composers, and I have recorded 30 so far. I have discovered a great deal of rarely-played pieces that are to-die-for in their stunning beauty, and I keep discovering more as I develop a habit of digging into different composers’ outputs.
Playlist of Midnight Pieces here:
Another recording that I like is the live performance of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1, also available on my channel.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I think I have special connection to counterpoint and so playing Bach or any other polyphonic music feels very natural and fulfilling. With Bach, I always somehow memorize his music immediately. It feels like I know what will be going on right away, so it is definitely a special connection.
I’ve bonded with Liszt’s music very deeply, having approached it with orchestral thinking and I feel I am good at bringing many colours to it and maintaining multi-layered textures distinguished from each other.
I’ve been told many times that I am a very good Beethoven player. It is a bold thing to claim, but at the same time Beethoven attracts me immensely. There were periods of my life where I did not get to play much of his music and I felt robbed. In recent years, I’ve done much more and always felt I was doing the right thing. Right now I am totally in love with his Eroica Variations. It is such an underplayed set and I am trying to play it as much as I can so people can experience its magic.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I am highly driven by inspiration and I have a huge appetite. 99 percent of the time I play what I want to play and I combine pieces together to match or contrast each other in spirit. Another passion is complete cycles, where you are getting yourself into an imaginary journey through a composer’s life or period of life through the performance of everything written in a particular genre. For instance, this was the main attraction for me when I decided to perform complete 24 Liszt études as a recital program. Indeed, I also am driven by the idea of always posing a challenge for myself, so it was a perfect choice.
In recent years, I have also been writing piano transcriptions that have become a regular part of my programming. Two of them take a whole recital’s half each – Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata and Richard Strauss’ tone poem ‘Ein Heldenleben’. For the latter I put together a programme called ‘Heroes’, playing Beethoven’s Eroica Variations and Wagner-Liszt’s Tannhäuser overture as a first half.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
In 2016, I discovered this unbelievable space, Earl and Darielle Linehan concert hall on campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. My astonishment was so intense that I decided to start summer music festival there. It was an extremely crazy idea since I have never lived nor studied in Baltimore and creating a music series from scratch was akin to operating blindfolded. But it was all worth it – the hall is incredible in its acoustic characteristics, has amazing pianos and very powerful recording capabilities. Every note you play resonates perfectly and can be heard from any seat no matter how soft it is. Each performance in this hall is a true joy, and I am very proud that this summer I was able to pull of the third season of my series, called Festival Baltimore.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It is impossible to pick one. Concert experiences become memorable due to either the overall circumstances or the personal feeling of artistic achievement.
I will never forget my performance at a teenage prison witnessing inmates getting unbelievably moved by a Schubert sonata and the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. Or the first time I played the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier without an intermission and how on stage this 2 hour 25 minute recital felt as just half an hour long. Or my debut with an orchestra at Carnegie hall’s Stern Audithorium – this intense feeling of checking off an imaginary milestone. Or the times when I performed my music or my transcriptions for the first time.
Or any of my recitals I play for kids at schools, where I perform the most difficult and intense repertoire for them and they stop moving and get completely absorbed by the music.
Each concert experience is unique and special on its own and there are definitely no ‘regular’ ones.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
There are definitely two types of success to be considered – creative, personal success and social, public success. To me, success is first of all the ability to fully embody my vision, drive and ideas in a musical piece, combined with the ability to deeply reach my audience.
To me, music is a spiritual process. There is something very sacred in how each musical piece unfolds akin a new life, and it releases a lot of feelings in people, when you are able to truly release yours in the real time of live performance. When playing something really demanding – and potentially extremely impactful – it could be easy to get swept away with your focus on technical excellence, ‘craft’, while staying closed emotionally. When you are reaching every note with your inner self, the audience perceives music on a completely different, transcendent level. The biggest success is to be consistent in your openness while maintaining your focus and thus connecting with people on this very deep level. It may sound strange, but when I see people who can’t stop crying after the performance is over, I feel I opened just the right door and it feels like my mission is accomplished.
Indeed, social success is very important and desired as well; it opens doors of amazing venues with instruments that can convey any of your sound color demands, and brings you together with like-minded musicians, but without the first one it would not make any sense.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Never be satisfied with meeting the requirements. If you are happy with what is required, you’re dead as an artist. You have to be always in a process of jumping over your own head, doing more than you think you can do. And you have to be constantly curious. If you want to be a musician, you need to really know music and arts in general. Half of what you do in music is practice and another half – sightreading, listening, discovering, reading, exploring. And not just music for your instrument – everything.
I will give you one example. I was 19 and preparing for my first performance of the Brahms D minor concerto. In heavily tradition-oriented Russian music institutions it is hard to voice your own vision and not being scolded in “this is not Brahms” or “this is not Chopin” manner. So I felt I have to substantiate my personal ideas in this music, even though they all were based on literal and uninfluenced reading of the Brahms’ text. Most of what I had to ‘prove’ was tempi and shaping of the form.
And to support my vision with facts, I researched all Brahms’ music to find links and matching elements. The final movement of the 1st piano concerto has the tempo marking ‘Allegro non troppo’. I found all the “Allegros non troppos” throughout Brahms’ output and at certain moment discovered a piece for choir and orchestra, ‘Gesang der Parzen”, op.89, which shared not only the tempo marking but the key and time signature with the concerto’s final movement. It was a blessing, it helped me immensely.
Of course, I also found all works in D minor, all works sharing same time signatures and tempo markings with other movements of the concerto. I discovered an insane amount of vocal and choral music which most of the pianists unfortunately do not get exposed to.
By the end of my research work I truly felt that I know Brahms as a composer.
I continue conducting researches like this throughout my life and it always brings incredible discoveries and reassurance for ideas that came intuitively.
Another aspect – be supportive and be genuine in it. Support your colleagues, learn from them, help them out instead of being jealous or trying to be better than them. Be better than yourself, and you will see how much more productive it is. And the love and support that you would give to others will always come back to you, directly or indirectly.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
It has been always so difficult to me to think in these categories. Probably, because I have much more ideas and wishes than I have time to fulfill them, so setting exact goals feels somewhat limiting. Instead of 10 years’ goal, I have a list of ideas and projects that I am crossing out as I accomplish them.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
There are different aspects of happiness that I recognize for myself.
Perfect happiness is to be true to yourself. As and artist and as a human being. Life challenges us and makes this hard to achieve at times. But once you get to the point where you are true to yourself in absolutely everything you do, you are free and your soul and spirit are free and that brings peaceful happiness.
There is also happiness that can be achieved through overcoming yourself. I am really happy when I can jump over my own head and reach new a level. It could be a level of understanding, a level of performance, a level of strength, a level of ability, a level of openness – anything that makes you a better human being, the better version of yourself.
What are your current projects?
Recently, I finished two projects related to the music of Modest Mussorgsky to honor his 180-year anniversary. One is the transcription of the complete Mussorgsky’s cycle ‘Songs and Dances of Death’. I wrote a transcription of the ‘Serenade’ from it two years ago and always meant to continue with the rest of them.
The second one is the series of my own artwork for ‘Pictures at an exhibition’. Both are being premiered this week at the Rockefeller University’s Tri-I noon recital series.
It is incredible to deeply connect to Mussorgsky’s music. It is so psychedelic in a sense, it is dark and almost sacred, and provides an infinite variety of ways to interpret it. I am glad I waited so long before getting my hands on it, not playing in my teen years when there was a brief “fashion” to perform the Pictures.
Asiya was born in Izhevsk, Russia, to a musical family. She began to learn piano when she was 4 years old from her mother, her first piano teacher. She was taught to read music in orchestral clefs by her father, an exemplary composer, at the age of 6, and started composing her own music. At 9, she made her orchestral debut, playing Mozart’s Concerto No.8 with her own cadenza, and performed her first philharmonic recital.
Her love for new music has come effortlessly as a result of her early bond with composition. She was invited to premiere 3 piano concertos by Vladislav Kazenin and Shamil Timerbulatov, with the Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Capella Symphony Orchestra, the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra.
Additionally, she has presented the premiere performance of various works by Matthew Evan Taylor, Michael Daugherty, Thomas Sleeper and Orlando Garcia.
Way to go Asya!
Pretty amazing, and you’re a powerhouse Asiya, Agree enthusiastically with your musical and life goals about reaching the listener with depth and passion. Hope our musical paths cross someday. Best, Chester Brezniak