Nothing invigorates the soul like a trip to the wonderfully romantic city of Paris. It’s always a good idea to take time out from our daily routines and do something completely different, but the main reason for my three-day trip last week was to visit friend and the first pianist I interviewed as part of my Classical Conversations Series, Valentina Lisitsa. She had very kindly invited me to hear her first ever performance in this magical city.
The last time I set foot in Paris was about twenty years ago, so there had inevitably been lots of changes although the main tourist attractions remain essentially the same. For me, the city has a shabby-chic ‘quality’ imbued with charm, character and a wispy, fairy-tale feel. I loved it. A friend who composes, says she simply has to go to Paris to write music – after exploring for a few days, I can now see why. It really does feed the soul.
The Yellow Lounge is a clever concept set up in Berlin seven years ago to bring classical music to a much younger audience (will we ever really convince ‘younger’ audiences to like classical music?!). The concerts, promoted by Decca, take place mainly in nightclubs and to quote the Yellow Lounge website: ‘Yellow Lounge fuses the greatest international performers with cutting-edge DJ and VJ sets in urban spaces’. Ukrainian pianist, Valentina Lisitsa, has performed at Yellow Lounge events before and they are now being rolled out across the world such is their popularity.
So with all this in mind, I duly arrived at the venue which itself was novel; a boat on the river. The Batofar is situated in a modern, urban corner of the city along the vibrant and busy Seine. Bright red with what appeared to be a lighthouse on top (in place of a funnel?), I was led to the ‘dungeons’ downstairs. The bowels of this seemingly innocuous vessel had been transformed into a nightclub; all very dark with a novelty bar in one corner, a very small stage set with a rather underwhelming Yamaha grand, an area in front of the stage set-up with DJ ‘gear’ and very little else. I soon realised I wouldn’t be sitting down for this recital (chairs were in short supply) and as I arrived, Valentina was rehearsing. The piano was set with microphones which were necessary because this boat had a strange acoustic.
The room was almost deserted and we were actually wondering if anyone would turn up, then literally five minutes before the start, it was deluged. In fact many had to be turned away. I managed to sneakily find a chair and an elevated position in which to view the concert perfectly (I don’t ‘do’ stand up concerts!) and then Valentina graced the stage resplendent in a striking bright orange dress for the first half. She did have to make her way through the predominantly young and very excited crowd to get to the stage but once there, seemed perfectly at home with the less than desirable set-up. That’s the thing about Valentina; she relishes the opportunity to get ‘out there’ and meet those fans who have assisted her spectacular rise to stardom via her YouTube channel (she has received about 70 million hits in all).
The first half of the concert consisted of Rachmaninov Preludes, some Chopin Nocturnes and the final movement of Prokofiev’s hard-hitting Sonata No. 7, Op. 83. Valentina possesses a natural virtuosity and the crowd really responded to this; I was surprised at their powers of concentration – there was total silence as she played. She chatted about each piece and was not too disturbed by the rather bizarre strobe lighting that tended to oscillate around the piano. I know all about this from my time as a concert pianist on cruise ships. I would often arrive for a sound check to find that the keyboard had turned pink!
After the first half, the DJ’s plied us with rather ‘different’ music (I say this because I have no idea what it was!) and then Valentina returned for the second half (she had managed to persuade one of the press photographers to light the keyboard properly this time with his camera). A black evening gown was the perfect attire for the last movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata Op. 57 and Liszt’s Totentanz or Dance of Death. For me, the Liszt was the highlight, it was performed with total technical elasticity and aplomb, and with a real feel for the rather surreal, dark qualities that pervade this work. Black lipstick was a nice touch too, although it was sadly lost on some members of the audience (several young women turned to me and asked why Valentina was wearing it!). La Campanella and Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Ave Maria were lovely encores. Valentina gave her all as ever, and demonstrated her professionalism in transforming a less than ideal situation (for a classical concert) into an evening of enjoyable piano playing.
Here’s our interview:
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.