A Servant of Music

The legendary pianist Evgeny Kissin will perform the only solo recital on January 8th 2011, for the first time ever in Jerusalem. The recital will be devoted entirely to works by Frantz Liszt, to mark his 200th birthday. The concert launches Kissin’s world-tour with this special program, which he will perform in the most distinguished venues in the world, including La Scala, Concertgebouw and Carnegie Hall.

This special event was initiated by Kissin together with the President of the Jerusalem Music Centre Murray Perahia, Lady Annabelle Weidenfeld, member of the Centre’s advisory board, and the Jerusalem Foundation. Their main goal is raising funds for the encouragement and nurturing of outstanding young pianists at the Jerusalem Music Centre.

Born in Moscow in 1971, Evgeny Kissin began playing the piano at the age of two. He entered the Moscow Gnessin School of Music when he was six, and came to international recognition at the age of 12, performing Chopin’s Piano Concertos in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the Moscow State Philharmonic, under the baton of Dmitri Kitaenko.

Since his first appearance outside Russia in 1985, Kissin has played with leading orchestras and conductors, performing in the world’s greatest halls and winning numerous honorary awards for his contribution to the classical music.

A few days before the concert, Evgeny Kissin, who prefers written interviews to those made over the phone, answers the Jerusalem Post questions.

You have delved into the world of professional music at a very tender age, how did it feel? I imagine you were such a homely Russian/Jewish child, and suddenly a lot of adult people were around you, reacting excitedly to your performance. Do you remember how did you feel about it, what did you think?

It felt completely natural, because playing music was my most favourite activity since early childhood. I don’t think I cared much about the “excited reaction” of my listeners, but I always loved playing for other people. At my very first solo recital which I gave at the so-called Composers’ House in Moscow when I was 11 and half years old, lots of seats had to be put on stage, because there were only 600 seats in the hall, and many more people came. When my piano teacher Anna Kantor asked me afterwards whether the audience member who were sitting on stage around me were disturbing me, I immediately replied the way I felt: “No, they were helping me!”. A few years ago, when I started reflecting upon those things, I realized that my love for playing in public was caused by a natural desire to share with other people things I loved, things which were important and dear to me.

Is the audience important for you?

Yes, they are of vital importance for me. It is for them that I do what I do. I can’t understand it when some journalists ask me: “When you start playing a concert, do you try to forget about the audience?” How can I possibly and why on earth should I try to forget about the audience when it is for them that I go on stage and play?!

Has your attitude to the audience changed over the years?

No, I haven’t noticed any changes in myself in this respect.

Was there any transition from the state of a prodigy child to that of a mature musician?

You know … when I was a child, many of my listeners, professional musicians, used to say that the term “child prodigy” didn’t fit me, because I was playing like a mature musician.

You’ve been studying for your entire life with the same teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor. What is her secret?

Besides her natural talent and skills, she is a person of truly amazing integrity who has devoted her whole life to teaching piano. She has never had a family of her own, but she rightly calls herself “a mother of many children”.

What is that thing she knows as a teacher that attracts you?

It’s not something she knows, it goes far beyond that … I think that our personalities simply matched extremely well. Thinking back, I realize how lucky I was in that respect, because this is extremely important.

Aside of your teacher, what is the driving force behind your advancement in music?

Music itself.

Is there any advancement, development in music at all?

Music, like all arts, is developing all the time. And this applies not only to art: if there is no development, there is no life.

Has your understanding of music, of its drama, changed since you were a child?

Of course, it has: when I was a child, it was not really understanding, but rather feeling of music (or one could say: intuitive understanding). Of course, it’s impossible to play well without the natural feeling of music at any age, but as a child grows older, feeling alone can no longer be enough.

How do your preferences in repertoire change over the years?

I don’t think they do: my tastes have always, for as long as I remember myself, been very broad, and I have always been trying to expand my repertoire in all possible directions. On the other hand, I never bring a piece to public unless I feel that I am able to play it well.

How do you choose new pieces?

This is very easy: from the pieces I love – of which there many! We pianists are extremely lucky: the piano repertoire is so vast that I only hope to live long enough to learn everything I want to play.

How do you prepare a new work?

There is no special method: I just sit down and start working – and then the music itself tells me what to do. Then, at a certain stage, after I have formed my own conception and am able to execute it, I start listening to other people’s performances of the piece and learn from them. Even if I don’t like someone else’s performance, that also helps, because then I know even better what I want to do.

Are the composer’s life circumstances of any importance when you work on the new piece?

For certain pieces they are: if they had a direct influence on the piece (like Beethoven’s so-called “Moonlight” Sonata, for example). However, the most important thing is the music itself.

What is important for you in the performance?

To approach the level of the music performed as closely as possible. Of course, only the greatest performance can REACH it sometimes – but nevertheless, we should all try to APPROACH it as closely as our modest capabilities allow us.

(Now it really comes). I suggest that you were told more than once that you are a genius, what do you think about it?

I don’t.

What are your interests outside music?

Life itself. Different aspects of it. Of course, some of those don’t interest me at all; as Socrates said, “there are so many things in the world which I don’t need”. In my free time, I like reading, sightseeing and spending time with other people: with my friends or with people whom I may not necessarily be able to call friends, but whom I like and find interesting. Once I went to an astrologist who, having made my natal chart, said to me: “Of the 10 planets, you’ve got 7 in air and none on earth. That’s why you don’t care about material things at all, but you are interested in ideas, and you like spending time with people who provide you with interesting ideas.” I could not describe myself better…

I somehow suggest that you are coming from an assimilated Russian/Jewish background, so probably being Jewish was not in the center of your Universe.

Yes, it was – since an early age. In spite of the fact that I, indeed, grew up in an assimilated family and knew nothing about the Jewish history, let alone religion. When I was a child, I wrote a will (yes!) the content of which, I believe, tells a lot; it read as follows: “When I die, bury me in a forest outside Moscow, so that the stone under which my ashes will be lying, would hardly be seen in the grass and look like this …” – and then I drew a rectangle with five lines and a G clef on them and the following inscription: “HERE LIES EVGENY KISSIN, A SON OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE, A SERVANT OF MUSIC.” – and my life years. See, that’s how I indentified myself already as a child (at that time I couldn’t imagine that I would live anywhere else than Moscow and I didn’t know any Jewish symbols, only musical ones)!

This upcoming concert clearly is a statement. Does it mean that now you feel more identified with the Jewish people, than it was in the past? What has caused this change?

The only thing that has changed is that I started speaking about my Jewish identity in public. I never did it before: not because I, G-d forbid, was ashamed of it in any way, but on the contrary, for the simple reason that it was always something extremely special for me, and therefore not to be talked about in public – like love, for example (that’s, by the way, why I hate talking about music, as well). But about a little over a year ago, I felt that I had to do it in order to counter the raging anti-Israel hysteria in much of the world. Since I was well-known and hundreds thousands of people all over the world were coming to my concerts and buying my recordings, I felt that I had to tell them: if you like my art – this is who I am, who I represent and what I stand for.

What is that you as a person can do to advance the Israeli cause?

I am trying to do what I can: putting pro-Israel materials (whose authors are mainly non-Jews, many of them are Arabs) on my Fan Club site, giving interviews in support of Israel.

Do you believe that an individual has power to change things in the world order?

Each one of us can only do so much, so the more good people are active – the better.

The concert takes place Saturday, 8th January 2011 at 8:30pm at Binyanei Hauma
The program features the following pieces by Franz Liszt:
Ricordanza (Etude d’Execution Transcendante No. 9), Sonata in B-Minor, Funerailles, Vallee d’Obermann, Venezia e Napoli

The Jerusalem Post, 7.01.11

Evgeny Kissin’s photo is by Boston University alum Sheila Rock.

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One thought on “A Servant of Music

  1. Pingback: GetClassical.org / My Voice » Blog Archive » Evgeny Kissin: Jerusalem at Heart

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