I am delighted to introduce my new series of interviews with established classical artists. They will appear on my YouTube channel as well as on this blog, and are informal conversations with some really fabulous musicians. The series starts with Ukrainian pianist, Valentina Lisitsa.
Valentina was born in Kiev and began playing the piano aged just three. Whilst studying at the Kiev Conservatory she met her husband, pianist Alexei Kuznetsoff, and the couple performed regularly as a duo winning the Murray Dranoff Two Piano Competition in 1991.
As a soloist Valentina has performed in all the major concert venues around the world including Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Musikverein and the Wigmore Hall, and she has performed with many of the world’s greatest orchestras.
Valentina is the most popular classical pianist on YouTube; her channel has received millions of ‘hits’ or views.
Valentina in action:
And the transcript for those who prefer to read the interview:
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Ukrainian concert pianist, Valentina Lisitsa, is the most popular classical pianist on YouTube. Her channel has received almost 50 million hits. And she is in demand as a pianist all over the world. So I’m delighted that she has taken some time out of her very, very busy schedule, to join me here today, for a classical conversation in Cardiff. Welcome Valentina, thank you so much.
VALENTINA LISITSA: Thank you Melanie, I’m so delighted to talk with you, on camera.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Well, I want to start by asking you a little bit about your musical education, because you’ve started at age 3.
VALENTINA LISITSA: Three and eight months. Which is a huge difference, huge difference. It’s a quarter of a life.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: But you come from a non-musical family, so, what attracted you to the piano? How did you start?
VALENTINA LISITSA: You know, many counties, for example now that China is experiencing the same. Millions of parents have dreams for their children, which they will go and become pianists, so there are thousands, or hundreds of thousands of pianos built, purchased. Kids study on them. And it was the same back when I was growing up in the Soviet Union. My parents they were dreaming at a better future for their children. So by 3 years old they’ve already pushed me towards anything they can think about like pushy parents, except tennis, which is strange. They tried to push me towards figure skating, ballet, and swimming. And I was such a miserable failure in all of those, you know, I was discarded. There were very though teachers, coaches, because everything was so professional, so competitive. Everything was so competitive including music. I would come in front of a very famous teacher of ballet, and she would just give one look to a 3 year old and discard you. But music somehow was not offensive or intimidating. It was safe.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: But you were very, very good at this, so obviously…
VALENTINA LISITSA: Yes, and I had my older brother to compete against, because he was quite an accomplished pianist. So basically I started piano to prove to him that I could do it too. Because there were 10-11 years of difference, so I was always the subject of every kind of abuse.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, did you go straight away to a conservatory, as a young girl, or did you start with private lessons. How does it work in Kiev?
VALENTINA LISITSA: The system of education was such, because most people who go to music school, they can’t expect to become concert pianists. So to be realistic most of the college kids who went to music, they wanted to become music teachers. Since music was taught in schools, it was a nice way to do it. That was actually my mothers dream. At least, that if I was a total failure, I might get to be a regular music teacher in a regular primary school. And I would have 3 months vacation, and at the beginning of September all parents bring you flowers and chocolates, so it was nice.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Nice profession.
VALENTINA LISITSA: Because she was at the giving end, as a parent, bringing chocolates and flowers to teachers. But most of kids were actually going into teaching career. So, to better understand education, a lot of the young kids were given to those beginning students, like guinea pigs. So my first lesson was with a very young girl. Of course that she seemed like a very grown up lady to be, but I think she was only 16 or 17. And that was my first musical experience, being taught about a piano student.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, let’s talk about technique. I hope you don’t mind me saying but it’s not traditional Russian schooling, is it?
VALENTINA LISITSA: No.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: It’s quite different, you appear to stroke the notes, rather than, how they use their body in quite a different way.
VALENTINA LISITSA: Yes, body, lower body actually. You know, I always joke about Russian, so called Russian big music school, piano school actually. Because people put you in that boxes where, if you come from Russia, you must belong to the school. I joke about that, what is Russian school, that there are usually big muscular men, pounding at the piano, braking strings and everything. So I was joking that you have to play with your lower body, put weight into the keys. And I’m totally opposite to that.
I don’t actually know how my technique came to be. I guess it was as a huge protest. Because I was contrary, even at three years old. After I studied with this young girl, because I was a promising student, I was given to this teacher who actually taught in the conservatory, so he was quite famous. And then the struggles began. Because I was an exemplary student, so I was taken to all the lectures he was giving around Ukraine. They were exhibition lessons that he was giving. So of course I would always spoil the fun, because I would do everything opposite, or I would do something that my teacher would ask in such a way to make a caricature out of it. So because Russian teachers are not very encouraging, I remember this one time when he was complaining that I was playing with my hands hanging down, and my elbows hanging down. And he said that my elbows have to be in position, so next time I come and I play with my elbows lifted up and was playing with a grin on my face. And of course it made him terribly mad. But I think I was finding always a comfortable way to do it, whatever it takes, even if it looks strange. If it was comfortable there is no effort in technique, because there is enough effort that goes into the mental and emotional part of it. But if you don’t think at technique at the beginning in the end, it’s just a physiological thing.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Means to an end.
VALENTINA LISITSA: We breathe in and out when we talk, when we walk. Of course, some people walk faster than others. Some people are having trouble. But still, it’s only a function.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, I can understand that. So, did you do a lot of competitions as a young girl or how did you get your practice?
VALENTINA LISITSA: Yes, I played on a lot of stages. That was my favourite part. But of course it also came the competition part, which was not such a favourite thing. I love competitions, I was very competitive, but it’s not about music at all. And for a young child it’s difficult to understand. There are kind of sports where everything is very clear, you have a stopwatch, you have height, how high people jump, and you can goals in soccer. But in music, you cannot measure it. Even in figure skating or gymnastics, there are so many controversial decisions. Once you are talking about art or expressive part, it’s impossible to measure. But with the music, there are thousands of styles. And then the judges, they were teachers, who knew each other, who had to do each other favours. There was a certain pecking order. Who wins or who wins next time. And for a child, that is impossible to comprehend. That was a very frustrating part of competitions.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I can imagine. So when did you decide, what was that light bulb moment when you thought: “I’ve got to be a pianist!”?
VALENTINA LISITSA: Look, I always loved to play for people. To share my joy. When I would discover new pieces, when I learned something, to share it with someone. It was absolutely separate from competition. For me, music was divided into the competition part but also just sheer pleasure of music making, which was taking place not in the piano class but in accompaniment class, and chamber music class. When you just sight-read something with my teacher. When my accompaniment teacher, who went through all Schubert songs, or Rachmaninov songs, or Tchaikovsky songs. I loved playing Rachmaninov songs and but I hated the Rachmaninov of the concertos when I had to compete, where I had to play a certain way.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.
VALENTINA LISITSA: So it was like a split personality. But eventually my artistic personality took over and I was less and less successful in competitions because I did not comply, I did not do what I was supposed to do. And I was happy in a way, because I was disturbing people.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: [Laugh]. I can imagine, yes. Well, next thing I want to ask you, is about your composers, which one do you really love to play, or which ones. Do you feel more at home with one than others?
VALENTINA LISITSA: There are so many composers.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, I know
VALENTINA LISITSA: It is so difficult to choose. But I don’t look for particular composers, or I don’t specialize in a particular repertoire, or époque, or style. But every time when it is a lot of emotional cherish. It’s not about purely relaxing music. And I abhore music, which is just for the surface. When there is nothing behind the music, I lose interest very quickly. I played my fair share of those arrangements, transcriptions, and things that excite a young pianist but then you get bored very quickly.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So you want something of real substance. And you started off with your husband, Alexei, playing two pianos, a duet. How is that different from playing solo, or do you prefer playing solo?
VALENTINA LISITSA: Well I like playing solo so much. But life is of such a nature that we have to communicate with other people as we live, we are social creatures, and it’s the same with music. We are social creatures in music. I am playing tonight, Rach 2, and you can’t be a prima donna and ignore everybody. All musicians, and the conductor have to play with you. It’s collaboration. And collaboration its great when you know that the sum is greater than the parts. And I cannot really say that it’s not my favourite part. But collaboration is the secret.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yeah, ok. And I got to talk to you about your YouTube channel. It is amazing how it took off. What was the idea when you first started, I mean you had a MySpace channel when you first started. So what was the moment when you said, I’ve got to put myself on the Internet. Did it happen naturally or was it a conscious decision?
VALENTINA LISITSA: It was so recent. Now we think that MySpace was such a long time ago, but it was very recent. And I had this page on MySpace with a big following and then I started with YouTube. But the biggest difference is that on MySpace you talk with people and on YouTube you play for people. Because playing is the most important part. Communication is nice and people enjoy when you answer them directly or your team answers. But being able to play something for people. There are so many people everyday, who follow your clips. Everywhere in the world. People from places you never think about. You have people from Iran, where I’ve read news of how they banned the symphony orchestra, so it’s so difficult but people manage to get around the firewall, which is put by governments. The firewall is the same as the wall we used to have between the west and the east. Now there are these artificial walls on the Internet erected by people who shouldn’t be doing it. But still, people are coming there and they enjoy music. And when you do a YouTube clip and you know that so many people will watch it later, it gives any clip a special meaning.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, and you moved on to live streaming, and your live streaming some of your concerts, and your practice sessions. And this is great for your fans but I guess it disciplines you to practice as well, because you go for hours practicing, I’m amazed, it’s fantastic.
VALENTINA LISITSA: I spend a lot of time at the piano, but sometimes the Internet life take the best part of me. And sometimes I see it, and I practice, and I do e-mails. And of course, I hate Mondays when all the e-mails start coming in, and all of them are urgent. But at least when I’m doing it in public, and people see it and they want to see me play rather than answer my e-mail it’s better. So at least I can keep my computer away.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’ve recorded all of Rachmaninov’s piano and orchestral works, I think you’ve recorded them last year. And what is it that draws you to Rachmaninov specifically, because you play his pieces a lot, don’t you?
VALENTINA LISITSA: Yes, you know, people say there are stereotypes about Rachmaninov. It was gloomy Russia, there were depressed and yet his music was so emotional, so sentimental. I agree and I disagree with this. Yes, it is a very emotional music but he also talks to us, in a very direct way. He is not using strange phrases and construction. He talks to you in such a way that we understand him, he almost lives with us. And I also played so many of his concertos, there are so much different. There are few composers who wrote so many but so different. Beethoven is really the only equivalent. The difference between number one and number four is like there are so many different lives between those pieces. So it’s not just the same beautiful melodies over and over with lots of popular notes. They are so different and have such different characters.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So what could we look forward to hearing next year, what are you plans for 2013? Recordings and concerts.
VALENTINA LISITSA: Concerts, concerts, more concerts. I have a backlog of recordings coming out because Rachmaninov set will be coming in March. In a physical set on CD’s.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’ve released the second concerto already.
VALENTINA LISITSA: The second one came out, yes, number three is on the way, probably in four weeks. Then there will be the first and fourth, and the rhapsody. And then they will yes; on shinny CDs.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Box sets.
VALENTINA LISITSA: Box sets, beautiful box sets with pictures. And actually the picture, which is on digital now with those wings, actually like everything, it’s not fake! That version is actually a wind blown dress in a cold, miserably cold place in Paris. And running from the police on the same time. We were on the run and the photographer took the picture at the same time.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: It’s a good picture, it’s fantastic. What does playing the piano mean to you?
VALENTINA LISITSA: Everything?
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Everything.
VALENTINA LISITSA: Yes, that pretty much sums it up. That’s my life and everything is around it. I have my family and they are inside this life, because they are constantly on the road with me.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Thank you so much for joining me here, today.
VALENTINA LISITSA: My pleasure, thank you.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: It was wonderful talking to you.
VALENTINA LISITSA: Thanks.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.