My Interview with Valentina Lisitsa

Derrick and Valentina

Following her second recital in seven months at George Fox University – you can read my review of that recital here – I sat down with Valentina Lisitsa in the lobby of her hotel to conduct the interview presented below. Despite the lateness of the hour, Valentina was generous with her time, and her answers to my questions were peppered with the wit and charm which are her hallmark.

I fully intended to publish this interview soon after it took place, but human nature being what it is – my human nature, at any rate – my recording of it lay moldering in my top dresser drawer for seven-plus years, just waiting for me to step up and transcribe it for this blog.

My apologies to Valentina for the unconscionable delay. I take some solace in the thought that the relevance of her observations has not been diminished in any way by the passage of time.

DERRICK: Valentina, your website tells us that you were born in Kiev, Ukraine, and Wikipedia gives the year of your birth as 1973, but since we shouldn’t believe everything we read online, would you like to comment?

VALENTINA: How about Facebook! I think I was born, according to Facebook, in 1927, which I really like.

DERRICK: 1927?

VALENTINA: I don’t remember exactly the year, you can check it out, but it was something really ancient.

DERRICK: All right, do you remember when and where was your first recital, and what your program was?

VALENTINA: (laughing) I remember exactly, and I remember what I was doing. I was catching grasshoppers when it was my turn to play. It was a children’s recital program, and I was doing at that point – I think I was doing – yes, it was Tchaikovsky’s “Kid’s Album” or something like that, but I’m not sure if I was doing the complete thing because I missed my turn – they were looking for me – and they sent another kid onstage to play the accordion.

DERRICK: Accordion?

VALENTINA: Yes, well they had all those different instruments. I went inside while the kid was playing, and I screamed, “Oh, it’s my turn, get offstage!” and I started dragging him offstage. I was pretty competitive. (laughing)

DERRICK: How old were you at the time?

VALENTINA: I think I was exactly four years, because I started, according to my grandma, when I was three years and eight months old, so it took me at least a few months to learn those pieces.

DERRICK: When and where was your first appearance with orchestra? What concerto did you play?

VALENTINA: With orchestra it came much later. It was one of the competitions when I waited for the final to play with orchestra. It was my first time, and it was Liszt’s Concerto No. 1, and besides my first encounter with orchestra, it was also my first encounter with coffee.

DERRICK: With coffee?

VALENTINA: Yes, my mom drank lots of coffee, and of course she was such a backstage mom, she was all worried to have a kid in the final of the competition, and she drank coffee by the gallon, and somehow she thought it was a smart idea to give a child coffee. And I drank the coffee, I liked it very much, and then I went onstage. At the rehearsal I was thoroughly prepared, I knew the piece backwards, and I was very self-assured, but then things started happening when I came to play, with coffee in my blood for the first time. I remember when there was this infamous place with trills on top; the piano just plays trills and the orchestra plays something, and I remember exactly feeling like I was plugged into an outlet with electricity going through me and I cannot stop. I was so wired up! I didn’t win that time.

DERRICK: All right, who were your most important teachers? Did you learn different things from different ones?

VALENTINA: Well, my important teachers are all dead. They are, you know, great pianists of the past. Of living teachers, I didn’t have anybody of note. I always disregarded their advice.

DERRICK: Who were your heroes of the piano, and how would you describe their influence on your playing?

VALENTINA: Who were my heroes? When I was a kid, I didn’t have piano heroes, I had chess heroes and soccer heroes (laughing), but no piano heroes. But actually, the pianist whom I listened to most and who probably shaped my opinions about music, though without me knowing it, was Sofronitsky. I think his recordings were on sale, and I remember when my mom got me my first, you know, turntable, and got a whole bunch of Sofronitsky CDs, maybe like twenty or twenty-five of them. I brought them to the U.S. later. It was all those beautiful pieces which nobody plays, like Schubert-Liszt, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, not the standard repertoire. I was dreaming ever since to find those Schubert-Liszt pieces. It took me awhile because they were not published. (Note: I have linked to Valentina’s performance of the Schubert-Liszt “Ave Maria” at the end of this interview.)

DERRICK: Who was your favorite chess player?

VALENTINA: Gary Kasparov! Oh, that was a hero, you know, because I remember exactly when he was in this amazing match with Karpov, and he was such an underdog, and of course it seemed like there was absolutely no hope, poor guy…

DERRICK: The score was five to nothing at one point.

VALENTINA: …yes, yes, it was really dreadful, yet I mean he held on and then he started narrowing the gap, and then they stopped the match when it was five to three. But that was the most incredible thing. That was an example, you can do so many things in your life, and no matter how dreadful the situation is, there is always hope if you keep pushing.

DERRICK: How important were piano competitions in helping to establish your career?

VALENTINA: They did more damage than anything else, and I think they do for most people. Lots of young people think, oh, I’m going to win this competition and it’s going to launch my career, and it’s not happening. The so-called Soviet school of piano playing, or music playing, or sports, it was just basically they are taught to win in competitions, making a name for publicity. What it led to, when you went to school, you were channeled into this competition stream. You had to learn one prelude and fugue by Bach, one classical sonata, one etude by Chopin – maybe two etudes by Chopin, Opus 10 and Opus 25 – one Liszt, one other etude, one Romantic piece, one 20th century piece, and you are good to go to any competition. People will polish those things for fifteen or twenty years. There are so many examples which I don’t want to give you because, you can name one after another, people who won a competition playing a single piece better than anybody else…

DERRICK: To the detriment of their development.

VALENTINA: …yes, and then, first of all, I know lots of my colleagues who felt so insecure after they won a competition and then, okay, life begins. They have to start playing, learning things, but they have this very small repertoire which is so polished that when they try something else, it looks crude, and they don’t want to dedicate twenty more years to polishing it. I saw many pianists with shrinking repertoires. Their repertoire would get smaller and smaller because they were so insecure. This competition mentality.

Look, I was a product of this system; I went to so many little competitions. I didn’t go to study in Moscow, which is why I was precluded from participating in big competitions for a long time, but I had the same problem. I came to the U.S., and I had two concertos in my repertoire; one was Liszt, another was Tchaikovsky. Now I have close to fifty, but I had to learn everything from the beginning to the end, and I could have done it when I was a child. It would be much easier, and I would have more free time now.

DERRICK: When did you leave Ukraine for the United States?

VALENTINA: 1992.

DERRICK: And why did you decide to leave Ukraine?

VALENTINA: Ukraine was a good place to be from. I was lucky in a way to end up in the U.S. I know quite a few classmates, pretty girls, the most popular in class, who would get married, one was married to a Cuban, so she went to Cuba, and another, I think she went somewhere to Africa and she ended up being one of many wives, but basically, everybody was trying to get out by any means possible. There was no place for art, people were starving, they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

DERRICK: Why did you decide to come to the U.S.?

VALENTINA: It was an accident! There was a competition, and if we wouldn’t win this one, we will go to another one. The next one was in Italy. Whatever.

DERRICK: I know that at one time chess was one of your passions. How far did you pursue your chess ambitions?

VALENTINA: Oh, well I would pretend that I’m going to music school, which was full-time, and then I would make a U-turn and go to the chess club and I would spend days and weeks and months in the chess club without my parents knowing it until we were discovered.

DERRICK: Was there a time when your passion for chess conflicted with your passion for music, or did you give up serious chess when you decided to devote yourself to piano?

VALENTINA: Both happened simultaneously. You know what happened? I was very competitive from the very beginning, even in the way I was practicing. I was basically putting certain tasks in front of myself and trying to see how fast can I achieve this or that, or at which time mark can I learn this piece. It was a lot like sports, trying to be the fastest, loudest, the cleanest, and so on. Chess fit very neatly into that because chess was not like music competitions, where there are many things which are subjective. First of all, some members of the jury, they like you, some don’t, and also you know there are favors exchanged, there are political things, so it’s an unfair game. In chess, everything was clear. If you are stronger than your opponent, you win. If you are about equal, there is a draw, if you are a weakling, you lose. It was all clear. It was beautiful because that was something I didn’t have in music. I would go, I would play in competition, I thought I did a wonderful job, and then you don’t go anyplace, and there is somebody who you know made mistakes who would proceed to next round. That was very unfair in the eyes of a little child. Chess gave me this solution, because it was very easy, you knew what you had to do in order to win.

But then, you know, when I was growing older, I learned that, first of all, there is more than one truth. You can play the same piece different ways, so that’s why it’s art and not sport. Also, I was not looking to win a game; I was not trying to play something the fastest anymore, and in chess, I also started to change. I noticed with myself, when I was playing, if I had to think about playing a winning move, or a move that was very beautiful, I would choose the weaker move which was very beautiful. That’s when you know you are an artist and not a sportswoman anymore. That’s when the decline of chess started for me.

DERRICK: I see. In your video interview with Pieter de Rooij, you spoke about having a photographic memory. Would you explain to us what it means to have a photographic memory?

VALENTINA: It’s a disaster. I don’t wish for people to think, oh, it would be so nice to have it. It’s a terrible thing in a way, because you have to learn actually to bypass it and learn other ways around, because with a photographic memory, basically you see something, you scan it in your head, and you have it. First of all, you make many mistakes. Then, even if you are looking at the page, what you see is an image of what you originally saw. It’s very difficult to analyze and see new things. So, for now, I don’t learn anything with my photographic memory. I keep staring at the music and finding new things. Also, it’s of course a disaster when you have a different score and you cannot find the place you want. This is not the nicest memory to have, but I think it’s less of a problem than, you know, people who have perfect pitch and they’re so attuned to it that they cannot play on untuned instruments. I don’t have this problem. I have perfect pitch, but it’s very flexible.

DERRICK: Are you able to memorize a score after reading it through just once?

VALENTINA: If I need to, yes, but it’s pushing myself, and I trained myself not to do it.

DERRICK: Does having a photographic memory mean that you don’t have to worry about memory slips?

VALENTINA: Oh yes, you do, you do, absolutely, because there are many things that can distract you when you perform, and you cannot rely on one kind of memory. You can see other things, or you can forget where the page is turned. Then you have to rely on others.

DERRICK: One website says of you, “At the beginning of her career, Lisitsa announced that all—ALL—her recordings would be unedited. No cutting and splicing, no fancy mixing and remixing. What you hear is what she played that day and at that time.” Did you really say that?

VALENTINA: Well, probably, but I was young and stupid.

DERRICK: I see, well, my next question was going to be, If you did say that, did you keep that resolution? I gather that that’s not a realistic expectation.

VALENTINA: No, it’s not about expectations, it’s about what other people expect. If everybody would be playing the same game, it would be different story, but in order to level the playing field, first of all, you have to keep up with technology.

DERRICK: What is your opinion about the state of classical music composition today? Is there anyone currently writing music whom you consider a great composer? If yes, who?

VALENTINA: I have no opinion on that. That’s not my business, to play contemporary music. I mean, I’m doing this as side jobs, you know, because I play a lot of chamber music and so on, and I think that’s about enough. What I’m good at is finding pieces like Rachmaninoff’s 1st Sonata which are forgotten, with which I think I can do something worthwhile. In any business there are companies which create new stuff and companies which produce good old stuff, and they’re just as necessary. I remember how Rachmaninoff, actually he had one of his female students who came to him and she wanted to learn all of Debussy’s preludes, and he asked her, “My child, how many Beethoven sonatas have you played.” She said, “Oh, well, two or three.” He said, “Well, go back and learn all of them, and then you can do novelties like Debussy.” Debussy was a novelty for him. That’s how I feel because, look, I’m still just in the beginning of my Beethoven project, I have so many things to learn, to study, just for myself, before I can dedicate any time to new music. There are plenty of people willing and able to do it. It’s just not something I want to do.

DERRICK: If there’s nobody writing today whom you think of as a great composer, then who was the last great composer, and why have there been no great composers since?

VALENTINA: I don’t bother myself with thinking about great composers, who was great, who was not so great. It’s just if his music appeals to me, and the last composer whose music appeals to me is Shostakovich. I feel very much connected with Shostakovich’s music, and unfortunately he didn’t write nearly enough for piano, in my opinion. I’m just old-fashioned.

DERRICK: How much importance do you attach to reviews of your playing?

VALENTINA: None whatsoever.

DERRICK: What general advice would you offer to an aspiring pianist?

VALENTINA: Practice. Practice. Practice.

DERRICK: Thank you, Valentina. I know your schedule is full, and I very much appreciate your making time for this interview.

Here is Valentina’s performance of the Schubert-Liszt “Ave Maria”. In the description, she calls it, “the most beautiful and inspired melody ever written.”)

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Published in: on March 31, 2018 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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