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Lera Auerbach - Pianist, composer, poet, and visual artist of surreal creativity

Sure, she is a great and spirited pianist, but the piano is just one of the many outlets of her creative inspiration, part of the sheer endless facets of her artistic persona. She is widely in demand as one of today’s most convincing and versatile composers and her Russian poetry already qualifies as required reading in Russian schools and universities and has received the prestigious Pushkin Prize (1996) for Literature. She also posts an articulate blog called the trouble clef on the Best American Poetry website. And that is not all. She has lately created some impressive visual artwork, which will receive its first exhibit at Moscow’s gallery Sistema, this year. She describes her latest artistic impulse as therapeutic, especially after she had lost all personal belongings, including her beloved Grand piano to a devastating fire, two years ago on the day before her birthday. A collage of burned pieces belonging to that lost piano of hers has a dedicated, private place on her wall.

As to her music, her compositions that to some extent relate to the musical language of Shostakovich, range from the most intimate works, such as her moving 24 Preludes for Cello and Piano which I heard her perform with cellist Gautier Capuçon at the Verbier Festival this July, (she often performs her own work in the tradition of pianist- composers of the 19th and 20th century) to grand- scale works like her brand new opera Gogol. This work, performed in her native Russian language, will receive its World premiere at the Vienna Theater and der Wien, October 15th, commissioned by the Vienna Theater, with German subtitles. In Gogol, Auerbach tries to create a “dreamlike vision of {the writer’s} inner passions, madness and genius” and the 1973 Russian-born artiste, who has a definite ardor for the dramatic narrative, relates to the Russian element strongly from experiences within her own personal and cultural Russian-Jewish heritage. “Russian history is a nightmarish fairytale from which this country may never awake,” posted Auerbach on her April blog post, a belief that she artistically also explored in an earlier work of hers, Russian Requiem, in 2007.

As composer-in- residence of the Bremen Music Fest at the time (from 2006-8), in cooperation with the Bremen Gesellschaft (interestingly, once the commissioning entity for Brahm’s German Requiem), she was given the opportunity to create her dream piece. “With all the tragic events in Russian history of repression, the constant suffering,” she explains in her animated vibrant Russian accent, “I wanted to start with the dramatic effect, the sounds of bells – original bells – ringing and the orchestra joining in, not like in a normal concert performance but rather like during a mass. They dealt with all my crazy ideas, and made the impossible, possible. The great Cathedral in Bremen lets its bells ring only for a special mass or in case of emergency. So they created a special mass for the birth of my new work, finishing 20 minutes before the concert and thus letting the bells ring in the orchestra’s performance, with the doors of the orchestra hall wide open, allowing in the sound of the bells. It was quite a grand spectacle and the Russian Requiem travelled further to Cuenca (as co-commission by the Spanish festival of religious music) and to Riga.”

Lera Auerbach Photo:F.Reinhold

My meeting with Auerbach at her prewar NewYork apartment on the Upper Westside took place at a most busy time. She had just come back from giving piano recitals in Dresden and is in the middle of writing another Requiem mass for choirs, orchestra and soloists, commissioned by the Dresden Staatskapelle, where she is composer in residence this season.

The new Requiem mass is planned to premiere in February of 2012. But right now she is wanted back in Europe for another Premiere of a new A Cappella Opera – The Blind, for the Berliner Kammeroper on October 13, and her Ballet score for Cinderella, for the Finnish National Ballet in Helsinki choreographed by John Neumaier, October 14, which will receive a number of repeat performances in Moscow and Hamburg.

Cinderella : She likes to talk about the process of artistic creation, a theme she seems to constantly explore actively through her own creations as well as in her own contemplation and observation. In her works the narrative often centers on its aesthetic exploration. In Gogol, for example, the writer’s characters are torturing his existence. He feels tormenting guilt for creating bad characters which becomes a religiously haunting vision, leading him to burn his sinful work. Finally, his created characters

hold judgment over their creator.

In Auerbach’s Mermaid, based on the Hans Christian Andersson fairytale, she also explores the relationship between creator and creation. Hans Christian Andersson, who wants to protect his creation, has to admit that the Mermaid has a life of her own, that she is free. That reflects Auerbach’s general attitude to art:”It is irrelevant how you feel, what matters is the work itself. You tune yourself to be the instrument of your creation, the work writes itself. I make a grand plan, but then I let it go, and very often the work turns out differently than I had originally perceived it and I allow it to be…” she says about her creativity. In a recent interview with the German press Auerbach confessed:” I believe that art has much power by creating an image of our presence, for future generations. Art can relate to the most difficult subjects, in the most personal and direct ways. If necessary, it can be on a completely abstract level. And it has the potential of reaching people’s emotions, of making them cry even without them realizing why.”


In her young life, Auerbach has gotten used to making hard decisions on her own. When she was only seventeen years old she had to make the choice of whether to stay on alone in the United States – following her Russian concert tour to America, an incredible opportunity for the young Russian pianist – or to return home to her family, but maybe miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

During the decisive telephone call home, her mother, who, in Russia would have protected her every step, encouraged her to decide for herself despite the unknown outcome of any results. It was the time of the Soviet regime’s restricted travel permissions, and this decision involved the selflessness of essentially giving up the hope of spending any time together any time soon, a hard task for the typically Jewish-Russian parents from a provincial region, who had especially guarded their child’s course of life every step of the way. Until her sudden arrival in New York, the sheltered Auerbach had never travelled without being picked up by her parents from the train station. Growing up in the rather isolated Russian Chelyabinsk, near the Siberian border, Auerbach was strongly connected with her parent’s world of books and music. Her mother, a piano teacher at the local music school, remains her strongest inspiration. It took Auerbach five years, after receiving an artist visa, before she was able to travel back home with a guaranteed return to continue her studies abroad. Only upon the decline of Soviet communism, were her parents finally able to join her in New York, having essentially missed the ten most important years in the young artist’s development. Auerbach was especially happy that her mom was able to attend her Carnegie Hall debut recital in 2002, the only dream she had shared with many of her Western pianist peers. In fact, it was a double debut for her – she performed as a pianist and was the composer of her Suite Concertante for Piano and Violin performed by her with renowned violinist Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica.

The double sided activities of composer/musician are what create the biggest challenges in the logistics of planning out her life.  “As much as it’s always important for me to have a piano close to me – and I compose partly at the piano, partly without it – I had to cut down concertizing significantly within the last three years. I have to have longer stretches in between concertizing, to concentrate on composing. The biggest conflict comes, when I am on tour and have deadlines of new works to meet.”

Lera Auerbach at Verbier

How does her composing influence her piano performance? “I do perform standard repertoire, but I do hear it in a different way and I play only pieces, where I feel I have something new to say. For example I have a very personal way of playing Pictures of an Exhibition by Mussorgsky; I like to take a lot of liberties, typically like the performer- composers of previous generations. There is no such thing as a good piano sound. There is only the magic of making the piano sing in another voice, taking on the characteristics of other instruments. In the hand of a great performer it becomes a psychological means to hypnotize an audience into accessing their imagination in the best possible way.”

Auerbach does not experience her being a woman as a decisive factor in her career. “It is a question of perception. I for myself see no difference, and you choose to be above those limitations, “says Auerbach, acknowledging that double standards still do exist to a certain extent. But she feels as though “she doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody,” and the young, married artist, who does not see children in her life, simply replies: “My opuses!” to that question.

Besides her studies at the Manhattan School of Music and at Juilliard, where she studied piano with Joseph Kalichstein and composition with Milton Babbitt and Robert Beaser, she also spend time with Beethoven specialist, the Norwegian Einar Steen-Nokleberg in Hannover, reporting it to be a very worthwhile experience. Essentially she views a truly engaged self examination, the willingness and curiosity of wanting to continually grow, as the conditions for any successful outcome in the learning process. “When the student is ready, the right teacher will appear” she smiles knowingly.

Named “Young Global leader” by the World Economic Forum in 2007, Auerbach’s Renaissance-style Omni creative presence is fully recognized by her contemporary artistic environment internationally. In Germany she was awarded the prestigious Hindemith Prize and, at the Pacific Music Festival, the Tokyo String Quartet and Sapporo Symphony joined forces to perform her Fragile Solitudes. New York’s Chamber Music Wu Han and David Finckel brought Auerbach’s work to Lincoln Center.  Auerbach relies on long time colleagues to keep her works alive, beyond the works’ premieres, such as the Borromeo String Quartet who have performed her entire selection of string quartets and recorded them on an archival recording.  She also recognizes the efficiency of the Music Accord Organization, which was formed by different concert organizers, who work together to extend the life of a Lincoln Center premiered work, by taking work on to tour different concert venues.

In the near future, the composer plans to concertize with an artist she admires and has performed with at the Verbier Music Festival recently, Boston based violist Kim Kashkashian, for who she wrote a transcription of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes for Cello and Piano, arranged for Viola.

On November 15th, violinist Leonidas Kavakos will bring a selection of Lera Auerbach’s Preludes for Violin and Piano, Op. 46a, to Carnegie Hall. Audio and Video: Her website: Her blog:



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