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.

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Baba Yaga by Asiya Korepanova

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.

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

My mother sent my father to the American G.I. flea market to buy a western suit in order to attend a cousin’s wedding. My father came home without a suit; instead, he returned with an old turntable and a stack of LP records. In the stack of LPs were all of the most important works from Mozart’s violin sonatas, to Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, Beethoven’s piano concerti and symphonies, as well as Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade. My father wanted all of his children to learn how to make music, so he forced me to take up the piano. He took me to live concerts where I found the experience took me to the most beautiful world that humans can experience. I remember those blissful hours in concert halls watching artists strive to achieve something that seemed so impossible from a child’s point of view, and that inspired me to want to be one of them. I am always trying to achieve something that is beautiful and inspiring. 

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

I have to say it is my husband David Finckel, who is one of the most disciplined and imaginative musicians. To have a lifetime partner that is committed so deeply to an unwavering belief in the power of music, is so determined to uphold the highest standard, and is in constant quest for excellence in his musical life has influenced and affected me every single day. It is a blessing to have a lifetime partner who is in the same pursuit as a musician and artist.

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

I am a very optimistic person. I love to be challenged, so I don’t really remember meeting any challenges, I only remember seeing opportunities. 

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My recordings are like my children, I cannot possibly tell you which one I like more than the others. And I rarely have a performance that I am completely satisfied with, but I am always proud of the concert as long as my audience seems happy. 

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love Schubert, Chopin, Dvorak and Beethoven. That doesn’t mean I play them best, but I know that I always try my best when I perform any works.

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

I carry a large repertoire each season, between 40 to 60 pieces. My repertoire choice usually comes from the design of specific program. In the program, you need to find balance and variety. It is a combination of my passion that particular season and my program design where I find that magic formula that provides audiences with the most satisfying musical experience. 

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

Alice Tully Hall in New York City, one of the greatest halls, with its warmth and beauty of sound, as well as its complete silence. Alice Tully Hall also has the greatest piano in the world. It is an oasis for any musician to make music in such a beautiful space with such perfect acoustics. The color of the wood is modeled after the most gorgeous Italian string instruments, and the intimacy between the audience and the performers provides all the inspiration one would need. 

Who are your favourite musicians?

My favorite musicians are Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich, Mstislav Rostropovich, Jascha Heifetz…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I played three concerts the week after September 11, 2001 for the most attentive audience. In all of the slow movements I could hear the sobs of the audience, as well as my own. Those were the most important concerts that I ever played in my life. 

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

My definition of success is that I improve everyday, I try my best all of the time, and I make music that hopefully touches people’s hearts. 

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

I tell young musicians to be truthful to the score, always work hard, and be ready to be a strong advocate on behalf of great music, the music you truly believe in. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My idea of perfect happiness is to play a great concert, have a great martini and a great meal afterwards, get a good night’s sleep, and wake up in time to catch my next flight.

 

Wu Han LIVE III is the third collaborative release between the ArtistLed and Music@Menlo LIVE labels, featuring pianist Wu Han’s recordings of Fauré’s magnificent piano quartets from past Music@Menlo festivals.

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Wu Han is a Taiwanese-American pianist and influential figure in the classical music world. Leading an unusually multifaceted career, she has risen to international prominence through her wide-ranging activities as a concert performer, recording artist, educator, arts administrator, and cultural entrepreneur

 

(Artist photo: Liza-Marie Mazzucco)

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I had played the piano for some years, and was playing occasional concerts by my early-teens, but for me the epiphanic moment was watching Jorge Bolet giving masterclasses and performing on BBC television. I suppose it came at just the right point in my musical and personal development, but suddenly I was obsessed, and pretty much every waking moment became about playing, listening to and reading about music – rather to the detriment of my school work.

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

Here I have to mention my first teacher, June Luck (who died recently). She was my local piano teacher in Ipswich, and had certainly never had a performing career, but she instilled one truly great maxim that has shaped my life and career: you can be anything you want as long as you’re willing to work hard enough. Then there were two teachers at the Royal College where I studied for my undergraduate and master’s degrees – John Barstow, who was really responsible not only for teaching me how to really control the instrument but also how to make friends with it, and the composer Edwin Roxburgh, who really opened my ears to contemporary music for the first time. After college, of course, there were many other teachers and mentors including Lev Naumov in Moscow, David Dubal in New York and Martino Tirimo in London, but special mention must be made of Ronald Stevenson. By the time we met at the end of my 20s I had established a performing and academic/lecturing career and was fairly well-known for my passion for Busoni. Ronald, who was the preeminent authority on Busoni and his circle made me understand the much larger perspective around early Modernism and its relationship to the piano, and led me along so many ‘paths less travelled’ in our epically long days in his music room and library which he called his den of musiquity!

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

Of course, the early years, establishing a career are always difficult, but my particular career as a pianist-lecturer seemed to baffle friends, colleagues and promoters alike – I suppose, back then before the internet and the portfolio career as a norm, it seemed strange that I didn’t fit into an easy pigeon-hole. Fortunately, the Royal College of Music awarded me a fellowship for two years during which time I was able to show how such a career could and did work, and indeed it set me on my third, rather unexpected path as an academic professor.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m soon to be performing the Busoni piano concerto in London. I’ll never forget the day when I discovered John Ogdon’s recording of it in a second-hand record shop, and then a few weeks later, listened through to it with a score borrowed from Westminster Library. It was simply overwhelming, and as I started to pick my way through the score’s complexities, I couldn’t really begin to imagine how I could ever learn it. Eventually, about ten years ago, I gave a series of performances of it in the UK and New York with my amazing friend and colleague, Aleksander Szram playing the orchestral parts at a second piano (although we also had a live choir for the last movement). A couple of those performances are up on YouTube and although I certainly play it differently now, I am inordinately proud of the journey I made with that music.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’m very influenced by the idea of ‘Sprezzatura’ which was a term used by 16th-century courtiers to refer to a noble disdain. The idea is that you have to study every detail of your task, and then throw away the rulebook. I think I probably perform best those compositions which respond to such an approach – certainly Liszt, Busoni and Enescu amongst them.

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

Of course, I’m still influenced by promoters and venues, so for instance I recently gave some Medtner recitals in Bengaluru to celebrate the life of the Maharajah of Mysore, and a little while back was asked to give the premiere of the Edwin Roxburgh Piano Concerto. However, for the last few years I have also ensured that each season I include a work or two from my ‘bucket list’ which I’ve kept since my teens. This year it was the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube, whilst previous offerings have included the Godowsky Passacaglia and Sorabji’s Jardin Parfumée. I realise I’ll never complete the list, but it’s really important to still treat myself to works I’ve always wanted to learn.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

For the last few years I have been living in India (my family home) for a few months each year, partly trying to offer educational opportunities to young musicians and teachers and partly giving concerts in my capacity as the first Indian Steinway artist. The concerts are sometimes quite traditional, but the really memorable ones have been where audiences have literally never seen a piano or knowingly heard Western music before. That’s a real privilege and responsibility, but it also sometimes reminds me of the memoirs I’ve read of the early years of the piano recital – the piano circus life as Liszt called it. So, I’ve headlined music festivals (even had a review in Rolling Stone magazine for performing Liszt!), given recitals to with brand tie-ins from wine to sports cars, and played for royalty (and was given the snuff-box to prove it!).

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Leading others (students and audiences) away from the increasing mundanity of our everyday lives to see the truly extraordinary in our world, ourselves and one another – whether just for a few minutes in a concert, or as an inspiration for future living.

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

To have an imagination, and then to work hard in order to turn into a reality both for themselves and their audiences, whilst at the same time trying to avoid the perils of narcissism (especially in the age of the selfie).

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I’d like to have helped to create the first degree-awarding conservatoire in India, and have my own den of musicquity by the sea on the south coast of England, with a Great Dane by my side.

Karl Lutchmayer performs Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C at St John’s Smith Square on 30 November, with Seraphin Orchestra, conducted by Joy Lisney. This concert is the culmination of his 3-day concert series ‘Busoni – The Romantic Modernist’ which explores Busoni’s music beyond his well-known transcriptions of J S Bach.

Further details and booking


Karl Lutchmayer is equally renowned as a concert pianist and a lecturer. A Steinway Artist, Karl performs across the globe, and has worked with conductors including Lorin Maazel and Sir Andrew Davis, and performed at all the major London concert halls. He has broadcast on BBC Radio 3, All India Radio and Classic FM, and is a regular chamber performer. A passionate advocate of contemporary music, Karl has also given over 90 world premieres and had many works written especially for him.

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Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

There was always music being heard at home because both my parents are music lovers but actually playing the piano was introduced relatively late to me. I had many friends my age (8 at the time) who were playing an instrument and so my parents simply thought, why not?

It wasn’t until much later that I realised just what it might mean to be a concert pianist which was when I went to hear the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto at the Royal Festival Hall. The concerto captures your attention from start to finish and you can imagine how impressive it was to a child aged eleven. Of course my reaction then and what thoughts whirled in my head would not be how I hear the concerto now, but I learnt at that moment about the communication of music.

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

My many professors, of course, have all had an impact to my music making. One of my first professors was Christopher Elton. I was at the Purcell School and searching for a new teacher. I was introduced to Christopher and he accepted me in his class but I was this incredibly shy child who didn’t talk much to adults but was determined to make efforts through playing. Christopher was incredibly patient with me, and has, in in a way, been a musical father to me, as he has seen through all my career phases. Many, many years later, we still keep in touch and a friendship has developed since, which is always one of the nicer aspects of a musical relationship.

Then there is Maria Curcio-Diamond, who transmitted so many pearls of wisdom but I was too young to fully appreciate when I studied with her and now refer back to constantly today.

Lev Naumov was just a brilliant mind and musician and I was immensely fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate regularly in his classes.

John Lill has also been influential but I would say that however, it was the years I spent alongside Ruggiero Ricci that has had the most impact with my approach to music making today. He was heralded as a prodigy as a youth, a virtuoso as an adult violinist (a term he disliked) and the first violinist to have recorded all the Paganini Caprices. He was so modest and lived through so many experiences. I would often accompany his students in masterclasses and I learnt so much from watching him teach and from when we played together. There was something so natural and straightforward in his music making. It’s something I have tried to transmit in my own performances. It was also these years spent with Ricci that opened many doors for me, notably by meeting other musicians, some very well known, others less, as well as non-musicians but music lovers who have all had an influence into my approach to performing and life today on and off the concert circuit.

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

Juggling between raising two small children and keeping up with the rhythm of giving concerts have been challenging but extremely rewarding. Before my children, my focus before and during performances would hinge entirely around the concert, but today, now with my children, I am somewhere in the back of mind, thinking, “I hope they had a good day at school, I hope they have eaten well, I hope they are sleeping well”. The usual worries all parents have!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Always wanting to improve on the last performance/recording is a common trait in performers and I share this!

Of course there have been certain performances that have been more satisfying than others, not only in terms of my particular performance, but also when the audience is so reactive and appreciative, it is a very special moment. I really appreciate also when sometimes members of the public write to me following a performance to let me know how much they enjoyed that particular concert or how much they enjoyed the last album.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

In giving an interpretation to any one work, I really try to show what might be new to discover in the piece. In this sense, I think I convey Beethoven quite well. The French composers also seem to suit me; maybe it’s being married to someone French!

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

What’s great about mixing chamber, duo and solo repertoire in a season is that there is an abundance of choice! It’s common these days to link a theme to a programme so that gives me a certain guideline. Otherwise for concerto dates, it’s quite often what the promoter has in mind for the season alongside the choice from the conductor so I need to be quite flexible for these dates.

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

Of the more well known venues, like many other performers, I would have to say the Wigmore Hall. Its reputation precedes it and the hall doesn’t disappoint. That said, there is a venue in France called Prieuré Sainte-Marie du Vilar that has to be included. It is a restored Romanian Orthodox Church, lost in the middle of the Pyrénées Orientales, and each year the monks and nuns organise a music festival for the community. The rawness of the venue and being surrounded by the stones impregnated with history gives a very unique atmosphere.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I gave a series of concerts in Greece and one of the venues was in Patras. What was most striking about the make-up of this audience was that it was treated as a family outing. The children were all placed in the front rows, some not abiding by the ‘silence code’ of a concert, but it didn’t matter. At the end of each work, they applauded enthusiastically and seemed to enjoy the concert as much as the adults. It reminded me of my first impressions of attending performances and I hope I was able to communicate something to them with the Mozart concerto that I performed at the time.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When you feel you have found your voice and you have the opportunities to express this.

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

Never be afraid to be wrong and learn from everyone. Watch and watch and listen and listen again. There is so much archive available on the internet today. It’s important, I think, to be open to all interpretations and techniques of playing before creating and defining your own.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Two answers to this question. It would be either to find the time between concerts and practice for a good dance session with my husband and children because we always end up by collapsing in laughter. Otherwise it would be to take time out from playing to be by the sea with the family and catch up reading and a good glass of wine to hand.


Min-Jung Kym’s debut recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto is available now. Further information

Min-Jung Kym is establishing herself as an artist bringing fresh quality and musicianship to her performances. Since her London solo concert debut at the age of just 12, she has performed at the Barbican Centre, Wigmore Hall, Cadogan Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, UNESCO in Paris, the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, South Korea and many, many other venues.

www.minjungkym.com


(artist photo: Arno MiseEnavant)

FFGuy for F&AGuest interview by Michael Johnson

François-Frédéric Guy was just finishing his 20th performance at the piano festival of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. The 2200-seat outdoor amphitheatre was almost full as Guy displayed his love of Beethoven – playing two of his greatest sonatas, No. 16 and No. 26 (“Les Adieux”). After the interval, Guy took his place at the Steinway grand again and shook up the audience with the stormy opening bars of the Hammerklavier sonata. It was like a thunderclap, as Beethoven intended. The audience sat up straight and listened in stunned silence. Monsieur Guy joined me and a colleague after his concert for a question-and-answer session about his playing, the role of the piano in his life, and his future as a conductor of Beethoven symphonies.

Question: Can you describe your technique for creating such a stormy opening for Hammerklavier? The audience was thrilled.

Answer: I try to achieve several things at once with those opening bars – signaling immediately the dimension of the complete work, its conquering majesty, and the vital energy that begins to build from those enormous, outsized chords. I try to give it weight and pace, as Beethoven wanted. It is as if Beethoven was saying, “Let’s go conquer the universe!”

Q. And your surprising low-key encore? What were you thinking?

A. I enjoy the idea behind this little piece which is probably the best-known and simplest work of Beethoven. I chose it to come immediately after the most dense and complex of Beethoven’s work, one that is relatively little known to the general public. But “Elise” is also Beethoven and can, as you say, touch people to the point of tears.

Q. What does music mean to you, as a career pianist. Since we have known each other – nearly 25 years – you have dedicated yourself entirely to music.

A. Music fills my life, my existence. Even when I am not at the instrument, even when I am speaking of other things…. Through music, one can express things that words cannot.

Q. I see you are busy – 50 concerts and recitals per year.

A. Yes, now it’s closer to 60, apportioned among concertos, chamber music and solo recitals. I try to maintain a balance of about one-third for each format.

Q. Your new career seems to be taking off – now you are an orchestral conductor …

A. Yes, I am doing some conducting. I started by conducting from the keyboard, the so-called “play and conduct” format. Seven or eight years ago I started doing the Beethoven piano concertos that way, and it’s becoming more a part of my life. Now I have booked about ten play-and-conduct engagements in which I add a performance on the podium, conducting the full orchestra.

Q. Alone on the podium? What drove you to undertake this new challenge?

A. Actually it’s an old dream dating back to adolescence. I started conducting from the keyboard, and gravitated to the podium. My conducting has been well-received so I am continuing. For the moment, I conduct only Beethoven.

Q. Only the symphonies?

A. Yes, I have already done the Fourth and Fifth at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and will conduct the Seventh in October at the Opéra de Limoges, with its very good orchestra that I have worked with frequently. I enjoy it very much, and will conduct Beethoven’s “Fidélio” there in 2022.

Q. Will you do what Rudolf Buchbiner did in Aix recently, all five piano concertos in one day?

A. Yes, I am scheduled to do just that in January, again at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. We will start at 7 p.m. with Nos. 1 and 3, then a break, returning for Nos. 2 and 4, and finally at 10 p.m. the Fifth.

Q. This sounds like a major exploit!

A. That’s not at all why I am doing it. I merely want to take the public on a journey with me to better understand the evolution of these concertos. I find this idea very exciting and I think the public will as well. In addition, these concertos are all works of genius and so individual – each one has its own character. They do not encroach on each other. It’s like a great crossing of seas on an ocean liner. I will be taking the public with me.

Q. I was also thinking of it as a physical marathon.

A. Yes, both musically and intellectually. It’s even more true in a play-and-conduct format because I have to control what’s going on around the piano. We must remember, though, that in Beethoven’s time all concertos were performed like this. There were no conductors. Same goes for Mozart.

Q. So you are putting yourself in Beethoven’s and Mozart’s shoes, so to speak?

A. Well yes, somewhat, a bit. It’s a return to the concertos as they were intended. The piano is not king – it’s there for a dialogue with the instrumentalists, like a big family.

Q. Do you like the feeling of disappearing into the orchestra when you play-and-conduct?

A. Yes indeed. The pianist turns his or her back on the audience and is encircled by the other players. So there is a sort of fraternity – no rivalry – but it’s not easy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, there is a kind of unity, and that’s what is so interesting.

Q. You have said that keyboard conducting gives you a new understanding of the music. What do you mean? Does it really change your perspective?

A. Absolutely. When you play traditionally with a conductor, one must be familiar with the orchestral parts while concentrating essentially on the piano part – that’s our role. But when the pianist and the conductor are the same person, it becomes clear how completely the piano is integrated into Beethoven’s concept, and Mozart too, and then later Brahms and Schumann.

Q. How did you go about studying for your role as a conductor?

A. Well I am largely self-taught, an autodidact. But I have been counseled by some eminent conductors, notably Philippe Jordan, conductor of the Bastille Opera and soon to direct the Vienna Staatsoper, when he leaves the Bastille next year. He is a fabulous conductor, an extraordinary talent. He has helped me tremendously. And another one is Pascal Rophé, conductor of the Orchestre des Pays de Loire – Nantes and Angers. He has been a big help with the Beethoven symphonies. But I am essentially self-taught and I have no ambitions to become a full-time conductor.

Q. Ah no? That was my question – isn’t there a temptation to leave the piano behind? Solti, Bernstein and many others abandoned the piano to conduct.

A. No, no, that’s not my plan. Conducting is an extension of my interests in music. For example, I have played practically all of Beethoven’s piano music, all his chamber music, all his important piano works. And it seemed natural to try conducting. I could not imagine NOT conducting one of the symphonies. So I had to learn how to do it.

Q. Contemporary music in one of your big interests. You have collaborated with the composer Tristan Murail, I believe, and others?

A. Yes, I am currently on a concerto Tristan Murail is composing for me. What matters for me is new ideas in composition that still retain traditional structures. I want innovation, ideas that change the piano and the orchestra. Sounds we have never heard before. That’s what interests me with Tristan Murail.

Q. Are you spending your life focused solely on the piano to the exclusion of all other activities? Some pianists wear blinkers.

A. I am not wrapped up in a bubble. Nothing stops me from following important events, such as Korea, or the relations between the two Koreas.

Q. You are in touch with people outside the world of music?

A. Yes, I am very involved in astronomy, for example. I study mushrooms!

Q. Mushrooms?

A. Yes. The other day I found ten kilos of cepes on my property in the Dordogne. I have always had a passion for mushrooms of all types.

Q. John Cage was also a mushroom enthusiast. He wrote books about them. He even created the New York Mycological Society for the study of mushrooms.

A. I am a specialist too. I know all the names of different species in Latin.

Q. Tell us about your tenth Beethoven cycle planned for Tokyo. What does it consist of?

A. What it means is that I will play all of the 32 Beethoven sonatas from memory over a ten-day period, about three weekends, for the tenth time. Almost twelve hours of music.

Q. Do you have a loyal fan base in Japan?

A. Yes, yes. I usually play in a very beautiful hall in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Two years ago I played there with the Dresden orchestra conducted by Michael Sanderling. And last year I played all the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas there.

Q. If you give 60 recitals and concerts a year, as you said at the start of this interview, can you still find time to develop new repertoire?

A. Yes, I try to master one or two important works every year. I recently accepted to learn and play a concerto by Enescu. I always try to put aside time for new works.

Q. But at your age, don’t you find you learn more slowly?

A. Yes, I am 50 years old. But I have many things I want to do in music. I am not stopping.

 

Artist portrait by Michael Johnson


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux. He is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

(This article first appeared on the Facts & Arts site. Illustrations by the author.)

 

 

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

I must say, I don’t know… My parents, although not musicians, are very musical. My father composed some songs for my mother to sing with his guitar accompaniment. There was always much music in the house, mostly classical and what in Russia is called ‘bard song’.

There also was an upright piano and I well remember I was fascinated, enchanted by the sound of major third.

But in the end it all might be even simpler and a bit embarrassing. I was about 6 years old and I went to a symphonic concert to hear a violinist playing. She was wearing a purple velvet dress, a rather unbelievable hue of purple. I thought I’d never seen a colour more sumptuous…and I decided I wanted to play violin. That’s how my path in music started – I am afraid, because of a velvet dress!

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

I am easily influenced in the sense that I am easily fascinated, easily enthused about things. In a way, this can be a disruptive quality sometimes – one needs, perhaps, some distance with the subject to get to the core of it. Inevitably, the list of musicians who left their imprint on my playing is long and eclectic.

My first great musical idol was Sviatoslav Richter. Of course, I heard his recordings very early on, but I “discovered” him in my teens. I then first understood what a word “musician” means, or should mean. A few years later I was struck by Theodor Currentzis who came to my home town in 2004 to start Musica Aeterna. I never knew before how hard one can work and how far one can go in carving ideas and reaching one’s vision. Yet later on I subsequently worshipped Mikhail Pletnev, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, then Maria João Pires with whom I studied, and Graham Johnson. During my years at the Moscow Conservatory I was very much under the spell of one of my mentors, Pavel Nersessian, a formidable personality and a very unique musician. Lately, however, I feel more and more that I am influenced, inspired or fuelled by things outside music, be it painting, photography, dance or fashion.

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

The challenge which perhaps is quite specific for the time we live in is to pace oneself and allow the music enough space and time to grow naturally. It is extremely important, but it takes quite some effort to avoid temptations and sometimes work hard against the flow.

Yet a greater challenge is to always try and see – artistically – things as they are, not what you expect them to be. It’s hard work overcoming your own knowledge and experience. It is a paradoxical but, I believe, a necessary task for any artist at some point.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Perhaps, the Louis Couperin disc was altogether the most ambitious and challenging recording project to date. In Russian we say: “To push a camel through an eye of a needle”. That’s what it was.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

The ones that I am deeply in love with at the given moment.

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

The repertoire choices are painful…. I have big appetite for repertoire, but a pianist has to set the priorities clear early enough as Alfred Brendel once said to me. You learn to live with the thought that you won’t be able to play everything you want, in a lifetime.

Usually, there emerges a certain theme, or a composer, or a piece which attracts me. I then start searching for a concept that would be strong enough to construct a program around it. It is curious that at a certain point there is always an element of surprise, a moment of spontaneity when you suddenly see the possibilities that you didn’t expect at all at first. It’s important not to miss that moment.

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

Perhaps I enjoy the most playing at places that are not regular concert venues. When they sound good, of course.

Who are your favourite musicians?

My most favourite musicians are those that are fearless, selfless and inquisitive.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

When I was 16 years old I went to a music festival in Casalmaggiore. At one point with few friends we went on a day trip to Venice. As we were walking past La Fenice a friend from St Petersburg noticed that Grigory Sokolov was playing that very night. We went in and bought last tickets. I had not a slightest idea who he was. He went on stage and the instant before he started playing I knew I was about to hear something I’d never forget.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is like food: the quantity and quality of it shapes you in a certain way over the time, whether you want it or not. Have too little or too much of it – and you will die, metaphorically speaking of course.

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

Funnily, my deep conviction is that no idea or concept of true artistic importance can be imparted or transferred. The real things are those that you grow yourself in your own garden, without anyone overseeing. In that sense art is the land of absolute sole responsibility. There is nothing that cannot be challenged, but in fact there is nothing that has to be challenged at all – quite simply, there really is nothing that is impossible, unless you’ve decided so.

Pavel Kolesnikov performs Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Britten Shostakovich Festival Orchestra who reach the UK next week for their inaugural UK tour from 17 to 25 September in Birmingham (17th September), Leeds (19th), Manchester (21st) and Cadogan Hall, London (25th September).

Pavel makes his debut at The Tetbury Music Festival on 5 October 2019. The festival runs between 28 September and 6 October – please visit www.tetburymusicfestival.org for more information and tickets


Since becoming Prize Laureate of the Honens Prize for Piano in 2012, Pavel Kolesnikov has performed around the world.  Significant recital and festival appearances include Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, Berlin’s Konzerthaus, the Louvre (Paris), Vancouver Recital Society, La Jolla Music Society, Spoleto Festival USA, Canada’s Ottawa ChamberFest and Banff Summer Festival, Plush Music Festival, and the BBC Proms.  Recent and upcoming orchestral appearances include London Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra, Russia’s National Philharmonic, Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira and Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Pavel is also a member of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists for 2014 to 2016 and RCM Benjamin Britten Piano Fellow for 2015 to 2016.

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(artist photo: Eva Vermandel)