A version of this article was published on BlogCritics (Nov.31,2017)
Currently enrolled in the Artist Diploma program at Yale University, Slava, as he is called by his friends, speaks freely about the experiences that brought him to America from his native Russia.
Dissatisfied with the trend in Russian politics toward entangling career with ideology, Slava was keen to follow his fascination with the “land of the free,” and search for new opportunities. Many of his friends and former colleagues from the music world had made the move from Moscow to the US, but leaving one’s home is always a very personal passage. For Slava, it may not have been quite as dramatic a journey as the one of his compatriot and musical hero Sergei Rachmaninoff, who, fleeing political turmoil in his homeland was never to return, but one requires great personal impulse and initiative to make such a significant change nevertheless.
Slava still commutes between Connecticut and his Alma Mater, the Moscow Conservatory, where he holds an assistant associate position and presides over a large piano studio. All the while he performs in both the US and Europe, but has increasingly spent time in the Metropolitan area, making a new home for himself at Yale with his wife Julia and their eleven-year-old son, Alexander. “Last year I still split my time between Moscow and the United States evenly,” he remarks, “but now my visits there are decreasing. I sometimes feel a bit guilty for leaving my students, whom I have been connected to so closely for the past eight years. There is an encompassing friendship that connects me to all of my students there. I love to teach and my only reconciliation with leaving is that my efforts always went way beyond the expected routine and duties. In our many shared hours of mutually exploring music, I always gave my fullest commitment to finding some hidden sights and a fresh way to look at music, asking questions and getting answers, which in turn makes every performance unique,” he says.
This personal commitment – going beyond the text and beyond the duration of a lesson – is something he holds up to a very high standard from a pedagogical standpoint. “Coming to Yale, I was taken with the high level of musicianship and creativity, while coming from the so-called ‘Russian School,’ which is in such high regard in the West. I find that there is tremendously prolific talent around here. What strikes me as odd – at least in my short time here – is the seeming lack of interest in furthering this talent pool beyond their absolved programs. A good student in Russia will be welcomed into the next level of studies, while for example at Yale, it is really difficult for students to advance, let’s say into a doctoral program.” This lack of accessibility to opportunities for growth and recognition seems foreign in concept to the Russian-trained musician, who himself had advanced through each stage of musical training at the Moscow Conservatory.
Perhaps the interest in this general outreach effort, rather than continuing their efforts on behalf of their original set of students, stems from a different prevailing attitude about what it means to teach a musician. Of course one should not generalize too much, yet it is interesting to share some of the impressions that seem to be bound by specific cultures.
Becoming a student in the US again, studying with Boris Berman, also a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, Slava has some interesting notions when comparing the customary approaches to pedagogy in both cultures, at least at first glance: “In Russia, students are often discouraged from going to extremes: in sound level, in ideas, in everything actually…this is typical training for competitions, which is ‘polite,’ and polished, suitable for a jury and to satisfy everybody. It has nothing to do with artistic bravery, taking risks and never compromising,” he states.
“This goes against all traditions! But that goes for competition training everywhere, these days. Here, [in the US] there seems to be more freedom. Kind of a ‘do what you want,’ approach, ‘I don’t really care how you get there…’ yet, students don’t seem to offer extremes. They often stay ‘polite,’ one could call it boring, to begin with. No exceptional bravery here, with exceptions of course. Students are working very hard, but lessons here are more general, and not too concentrated on technical solutions being offered from the teacher’s side.”
In terms of differences in approach, Slava tells that in Russia, a lot of “the work” is done by the teacher:”Even if a lazy student comes like a blank sheet of paper, with perhaps some musical ideas but no means of expressing them, the teacher’s job is to achieve a “nice” performance. To the contrary, in American pedagogical situations, most of the work has to be done by the student with a minimal amount of influence from the teacher.” If a performance is already satisfactory, making it truly great could require a lot of work by the teacher, and while Slava’s impression is by no means comprehensive due to the short time he had spent here, the notion that the Russian pedagogical culture could be producing lazy students while the United States’ could be producing lazy teachers, may not be so far fetched.
Again, generalizations are never completely accurate, but it is certainly an interesting notion of a cultural approach to “teaching genius.” Could it have to do with the calling to the profession, which may be a much more individually-driven effort in the US than in Russia? Is it the highly seeded-out talent pool that arrives at US conservatories, whose faculties only expect the next wunderkind to show up and impress?
“I don’t think the so-called ‘Russian school’ of training exists anymore,” Slava says. “Everything depends on the person who teaches. Maybe in US it’s more general; in Russia it’s still a little more concrete. I think [in Russia] we are training our pianists in a more competitive way, like in sports. China is out of everyone’s league here. In the US it’s more relaxed. But being trained to win [piano competitions] does not speak to the nurture it takes to make a musician.”
“Yet competitions are important,” Slava says, and perhaps not winning the New York Concert Artist (NYCA) competition in 2015, the first competition he entered in the US, was an important lesson: “I am learning what to do, and what not to do. That is part of the experience,” he says. “I made the mistake of playing my own Romeo and Juliet transcription,” he mentions, “but in an eight-minute excerpt, within a round of only fifteen minutes, I did not come across properly….but perhaps it had just not been the right moment in time for me… and I decided to try once more, the following year,” he says.
Of course, as we know, some of the musicians who did not win competitions are some of the most extraordinary ones, as time has proven. Some careers have been forged on failed competition results, yet for most of the young artists, who are not yet renowned to a wider audience, they are still a means to achieve performance opportunities and international recognition. They still represent a significant mechanism by which young artists are introduced to new audiences and brought managerial attention.
On a personal note, Slava presents himself as an artist, who, beneath his modesty shows a nonchalant and humorous side, especially when talking about his own beginnings as a nurtured talent, not self-aware of any special skills. About his first meeting with the dean of the famed Moskow Central Music School, he laughingly remarks: “He suggested I should pick up percussion instead of piano, which I loved, and truth be told, my level of piano was not that strong since I did not play any serious repertoire, so to make me a drummer sounded quite reasonable.” After Slava was paired with Manana Kandelaki, a new graduate of the school, as a piano teacher, Slava’s mother, convinced of her son’s talent, took on a janitorial position at the school to allow for her son’s attendance. They came a great distance from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to Moscow with 9-year-old Slava, in order for him to attend the specialized school. Slava credits Manana’s attention and unique perspective on questioning musical interpretation, the most important tool to craft a successful performance, with his success in the field; only knowing why one chooses a certain way gives rise to true independence as a musician.
Determined to broaden his horizons, Slava, who won the first Russian Presidential Award and numerous international competitions, returned in the 2015/16 season to play auditions for several American universities. He gave several performances for the New York-based Impromptu! Classical Music Recital Series produced by the Drozdoff Society, devoted to the dissemination of music by its namesake composer, whose work Slava admires. He also gave NYCA another try. This time he offered shorter pieces, among them one of his favorites, Rachmaninoff’s Etude Tableau No.5, Op. 59.
“I feel very confident with this piece,” he says, and it appears – among other virtuoso Rachmaninoff works, including the exciting Sonata No2, op. 36, beautifully rendered on a CD, live recorded at an educational and charitable concert in Ivanovka, Rachmaninoff’s estate museum in 2007. Throughout the recording, the artist proves his virtuosic chops while exercising extraordinary control over the melodic storyline of these most challenging pieces, which are all about achieving a perfect pianistic balance between the strong emotional tension and intellectual coherent interpretation of the text.
NYCA’s first prize offering made his Carnegie Hall Weill Recital Hall concert in 2016 (photo) happen and also brought about a performance at the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as a recital in Paris with Sirena Huang, another recent winner of NYCA. Klara Min, founder of NYCA, is thrilled that Slava won the competition; she describes him showing: “a true artist’s spirit combined with warm humanity, in all his multi-faceted musical activities, not only in his performances.”
Other recitals in New York City followed inevitably. This October, Slava performed in the Eurasia Festival, founded by Aza Sydykov and his wife Nikoleta – both also alumni of the Moscow Conservatory.
Here I was finally able to hear Slava perform live for the first time in the concert hall of Opera America; his performance left a lasting impression on me, confirming whispers about his reputation I had heard beforehand. His performance of Liszt’s Études d’éxecution transcendante, S.139 was masterful, convincing and stimulating, and the second half of the recital’s introduction to his own arrangements of works by Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Glinka was a prolific proof of his individual talent and prowess. This spring, as part of the NYCA award, a Steinway recording will be released under the title: “The Century of Russian Music,” showcasing a whole set of Slava’s transcriptions of works by Glinka and Prokofiev.
Russian music, especially the glorious romantic compositions has swamped the US since the Cold War, and we have been inundated with performances of this virtuosic palette of repertoire, featured in recitals by almost every graduate of Juilliard, and any other American conservatory.
While the generation of pianists before Slava’s – let’s say Kissin’s age, especially in Russia – mainly concentrated on the study of the German classical canon of composers, the sweeping virtuosity and the emotion-stirring beauty of the Russian Romantics has reached an all-time high in popularity with the younger generation of performers who immigrated to the West. What better way, especially for young Russians, to identify with their cultural heritage – music full of temperament and emotion, filled with testimonials to their enormous technical dexterity at the instrument?
Yet, the art of refinement in performance, especially in music that innately “colors with a big brush,” requires an even deeper, complete intellectual capacity to find the music’s convincing plot without falling under the spell of its storm. It seems to me that the younger generation has grappled with this concept, and as a result, exhibits a style that is both freely expressive and not an exposition of virtuosic skill for the sake of virtuosity. Slava’s approach is a remarkable illustration of this trend.
Minute variations, which arrive from intimate anticipation, humorous details and fiendishly hidden elements exposed only through an utmost fine-tuned understanding of the composer’s score are also characteristics present in his own arrangements, several of which are already published by Schott, one of the oldest established German music publishers. Arranging and composing are very important components of Slava’s art. The time necessary to devote to these aspects would not allow for an all-encompassing concert performance career, he thinks. Ideally, he would like to devote an equal amount of time to performing, arranging and composing, for which he has not enough time at the moment.
His first original work was his Rhapsody in Black, written for Nikolai Petrov for piano duo. Based on the some of the famed works by Gershwin, (not his Rhapsody in Blue), especially Porgy and Bess, Slava describes the three-month composing process as one the most exciting periods of his life. “I had this idea for the style, with different medleys for piano and violin, and orchestral suites. But my goal was to create something of my own, a complex composition with its own story line.” He had brooded with an idea for two years without finding the right starting point, but when the actual deadline arrived, it catapulted the creative process. “My storyline was about starting where Gershwin had left of, with Porgy travelling to New York, and motives of the legendary ‘Summertime’ representing Bess.” While there were no plans of coming to the US in 2011, when the idea for his rhapsody evolved, in hindsight, perhaps the spark of inspiration represented a preview of things to come for the artist. Earlier on he performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in Moscow, at the conservatory’s Tschaikovsky Hall. He was enthused with his own music, and did not stop exploring different performances and scores. When Petrov called, things got intense: “Petrov called me almost every day, it was a big rush. I sent some material to him and he right away began learning it. Some fragments got changed a few times; they threw the old parts away and learned a new. When the piece was finished, Petrov laughingly remarked: ‘You deserve a state premium now, as did Rachmaninoff!’”
“I am proud of my piece, as a composer but also as a performer. My next plan is to give it its American premiere here, performing it myself,” he adds. “It’s not a-tonal music, it’s easy to listen to and that’s what music is to me: I need to have an underlying story line, a process in time, call it story or an emotional line that connects the episodes. My goal and obligation is to create it, an adventure where my audience can follow. Creating that story makes the music play, technical problems disappear when you concentrate on the center of our craft, propelling music.”