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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My Interview with Nikolay Minev

I met Nikolay Minev at a chess tournament in Seattle in August, 1983.  I was a spectator at that tournament, and in one round I found myself engaged in very pleasant conversation with Nikolay’s wife Elena, who was there with her husband.  Sometime later, I began taking chess lessons from Nikolay, but before long, our time together became less formal and more friendly, and he refused to accept any further payment from me.  I was often first with the score of the most recent World Championship game, and as the two of us played through innumerable games together, I never ceased to marvel at how quickly Nikolay understood things that became clear to me only after his patient explanation.

Our friendship has continued for close to twenty-eight years now.  I recently realized that I was uniquely positioned to share Nikolay’s story and perspective on chess with a wider audience than they had known before.  First, he is my friend; and second, I have a blog!  When I spoke with him about my blog, and suggested doing this interview, he agreed immediately.  What follows is the conversation that took place in his study over the course of two afternoons.  My thanks to Nikolay for being so generous with his time, and to Elena also, both for the two pictures of her and Nikolay and for insuring that we always had plenty of mouth-watering pastries on hand, and strong Bulgarian coffee.

DERRICK: Nikolay, there has been a lot of confusion about this point, so perhaps you will clear it up for us once and for all.  Where and when were you born?

NIKOLAY: I was born in Bulgaria in the city of Russe, which is on the Danube across the Romanian border, and I was born on November 8, 1931.  There was a lot of confusion about this because fifty years ago, FIDE published in their notes for one Olympiad that I was born in January, and from that time in many publications it was written that Minev was born on the 8th of January, 1931.  It’s not true, and now the correct date is shown on the internet.

DERRICK: All right, I’m happy to publish the correct date here also.  Tell me, how were you introduced to chess?

NIKOLAY: Very interesting!  I was with my mom and my sister at the circus.  One of our old friends was with my mom because my father had died many years before, and when we returned home, he said to my mom, “Why haven’t you put this young man in the chess club in Russe?”  This was very interesting to me, but at the time we didn’t react very much.  At this time I started to play soccer for the junior team.  One day the soccer match was played in raining weather.  When I returned home I didn’t tell my mother that I had been playing soccer, because my father had died from soccer.  I began to be ill – three days with a very high temperature.  The doctor came and said, “Okay, this guy probably was somewhere in very cold weather, and this is why he is sick.”  My mother said, “Where were you?” and I confessed that I had been playing soccer.  She said, “Now, you will stop playing soccer, and start playing chess,” and she bought me a chess board.  That was the start.

DERRICK: Who was, or were, your most important teachers?

NIKOLAY: When I was sixteen or seventeen years old, a master from Russia came to Russe, a Bulgarian master named Kamen Piskov.  This guy won the Bulgarian championship in 1947.  I don’t know why, but he started to play with me every evening when I met him at the chess club.  He beat me sometimes 12, 20 games, sometimes 15 games, sometimes 10 games.  This went on for two or three months.  After that I started to take some games from him.  We played together in the 1947 championship; he won first place, I won last place.

DERRICK: Was there a particular event that made you decide to become a chess master?

NIKOLAY: The particular event was when I placed last in the Bulgarian championship of 1947.  I am a competitive person, and I said, “No, no, no, I will go ahead!”  Two years after that, in the autumn of 1949, I went to Sofia to the university to study medicine, and there I began immediately to develop.  In 1950 I participated in the semi-final, qualifying for the final, and took first through third place in the championship.

DERRICK: Were there any books that you remember as especially important or helpful to you as a student?

NIKOLAY: First of all, when I learned chess, there were no books around.  My friend Milev borrowed one book from the library, and took it home.  It was Three Hundred Games by Tarrasch.  After that, I took the book for myself, and I copied by hand half of the book.  We saw only this book; there was nothing else, not even magazines.  This was in 1946, immediately after the Second World War.  There was no information coming, not even from Russia at this time.  After that began to come Russian books, etc., but when I learned chess, there was no other information except for this book.  It was incredible!  After that, we changed this book for one other book: Five Hundred Games by Tartakower, and we also swallowed everything inside.  This is, by the way, a very good book.  You will learn everything about every opening.  I still have this, in English.

DERRICK: Of which of your chess accomplishments are you the most proud?

NIKOLAY: I think my best individual result was in the tournament in Novi Sad, 1972.  I finished in third through fifth place, but it was a very strong tournament.  There were many other tournaments in which I placed well, but I had very little opportunity to play internationally because of my work.  Until 1973, I worked as a doctor, and it was possible to go to major tournaments only twice a year.  This was why I participated mostly in team competition.  My best team result was in the World Student Team Championship, Reykjavik 1957, where I finished in first place on second board ahead of Spassky.

DERRICK: What has been your greatest disappointment in chess?

NIKOLAY: I don’t know.  I have no disappointments in chess.

DERRICK: Do you have a favorite among your own games?

NIKOLAY: My favorite from my own games was my game with Lothar Zinn from the 1967 zonal tournament in Halle, Germany.  The outcome of this game hung on just one move for probably twenty moves.  The other game was my first victory over a grandmaster, which happened against Szabo in the 1954 Olympiad.  This was the first time a Bulgarian had ever defeated a grandmaster.

DERRICK: You’ve already mentioned Three Hundred Games by Tarrasch and Tartakover’s Five Hundred Games as having been important to you.  Do you have any other favorite book or books?

NIKOLAY: I read many books, and every book I think has something to offer.  You are able to learn from every book.  Those two books made a special impression on me because they were the first chess books I ever read, but I have many other books and in every one I have found something interesting.

DERRICK: When and why did you decide to move to the United States?

NIKOLAY: This was a special situation.  In 1972, I was working as the chief of a toxicology laboratory in Sofia.  I was offered the position of Deputy Editor of the Bulgarian chess magazine, with the expectation that after three or four years, I would be the Chief Editor.  The salary was even a little bit better than I was earning as a doctor; I would only have to work fifteen days per month, and I would have time for chess.

In 1977, I was still Deputy Editor, and I began to understand that as someone who was not a Communist Party member, it was very unlikely that I would ever become Chief Editor.  At that time I began to work very closely with Chess Informant.  One day I spoke with Matanovic, and I told him what my situation was in Bulgaria.  He told me that a friend of his by the name of Siaperas, who was the Secretary of the Greek Chess Federation, was looking for a coach for the Greek national team.  I talked with Siaperas and confirmed my interest in the position, and in December 1979, accepted the position as coach of the Greek team.

In 1982, while we were living in Athens, our apartment in Sofia was taken from us, and it became clear to my wife Elena and me that we had fallen out of favor with the Bulgarian authorities.  In December, we flew to Vienna, where we were given a choice of living in Austria, Australia, or the United States.  We chose the United States because Elena had friends living in Seattle.  When we were interviewed by the U.S. immigration officials, they were not at all impressed with my credentials as a doctor or with Elena’s as a chemical engineer, but they were very interested to hear that I had played chess with Reshevsky, Lombardy, and Fischer, and our visa application was granted immediately.  After that we moved to Seattle; Elena found a temporary job and I started to have some students.  I won first prize in a tournament in Los Angeles and some other local tournaments, and continued my work for Chess Informant on the Encyclopedia of Chess Endings.  Elena soon found a permanent job in a good laboratory; I began to have many more students, and we started to be okay.

DERRICK: In the course of your career, you have faced no fewer than seven world champions, and four others who contended for the world championship.  Would you share with us your personal impressions and recollections of these giants of the chessboard?  Beginning with those who never became World Champion, what can you tell us about Paul Keres?

NIKOLAY: Keres beat me four times.  Every time, what impressed me about Keres very much was his ability of calculation.  He was already at the stage when he was very experienced, and every time somewhere in the game he out-calculated me.

DERRICK: All right, let’s move on: Sammy Reshevsky.

NIKOLAY: Sammy Reshevsky I played only one time.  The game finished in a draw, and he respected me because he offered me a draw around move 20.  He spoke many languages, including some Russian.  I didn’t know him very well.

DERRICK: David Bronstein.

NIKOLAY: David Bronstein and I played twice, and both games finished in a draw.  In both games, he tried to attack me, but he was not able to do that.  I was proud that in one game, I rejected his offer of a draw.  He was a very nice person.  I did one interview with him.  He spoke for about two hours, and after that, said, “Write what you want.”  He had many ideas that chess should be quicker, not two and a half hours, but quicker because now we know so much theory.  In his games, I am very impressed with his ideas about the game.  He was the most original player who was not able to be World Champion.  He deserved it much more than many others who were World Champion, in my opinion.

DERRICK: Viktor Korchnoi.

NIKOLAY: My record with Viktor Korchnoi is 1-2; he beat me twice, I beat him one time.  He is a very – how to say – combative person.  Everybody is a rival for him, probably because of chess.  I understood from Yasser Seirawan that it was not easy to work with him.  He was very demanding all the time.  But he played incredible chess, and I think that because of some circumstances, he was not able to be World Champion.  He also deserved to be World Champion, in my opinion.

DERRICK: With regard to the seven World Champions you faced, I think the first was Euwe.  Tell us about Euwe and your encounter with him.

NIKOLAY: I played with Euwe only one time, in 1954, in my second international tournament.  Euwe was playing in probably his 150th international tournament.  Our encounter was annotated in a book about Euwe by Teschner, in which he showed how I could have made a draw.  What was incredible to me was that I saw this continuation, but I thought my position was so good that it wasn’t necessary for me to make a draw.  After that, my decisions were bad; my assessment was bad.  This means that he beat me in one moment in the game.  I am not able to say anything else about Euwe because I didn’t know him.

DERRICK: Mikhail Botvinnik

NIKOLAY: I played Botvinnik also only one time.  It was I think one of the best endgames of Botvinnik, who showed the world for the first time that it was possible to win the endgame of queen and b-pawn vs. queen.  Before that, endgame theory said that it was not possible to win.  He showed a new way to win.  This game is annotated in many publications, including Botvinnik’s book, in which he devotes probably six pages to it.  It was an incredible game.  Twice I was two pawns down, with big counterplay for that.  In the end, history will say that I was on the losing side of this theoretically important endgame.

DERRICK: Do you have any personal reflections about Botvinnik as an individual?

NIKOLAY: As an individual, Botvinnik didn’t speak very much.  We spoke after the game, but I spoke much more than he did.  He was very polite – incredibly polite – and I was very impressed with him.  I was very young, and he was World Champion, and he made it a point to compliment my play.  This means either that he respected me or that he was very polite, I don’t know which.

DERRICK: You also played with Botvinnik’s successor, Smyslov.

NIKOLAY: I played with Smyslov twice.  The first time he beat me, in 1955, we repeated my game against Botvinnik.  I repeated the game against Botvinnik because I was young and a little bit crazy, to attempt such a thing against Smyslov, who had Botvinnik as a rival and knew all his games.  He played a big innovation against me that he had prepared after my game against Botvinnik.  After this innovation, the position was a little bit better for him, and he slowly converted it to an endgame of queen, knight, and five pawns against queen, knight, and four pawns.  This was an interesting moment for me.  After the game, he said, “Why didn’t you exchange the queens?  The game after that would have been very difficult for me to win.”  You see, I was twenty-four years old, and I said, “Mr. Smyslov, I think that with the queen I had a better chance to resist.”  He said, “No way.  With the queen, you are lost.”  This was the difference between Smyslov and me.  He understood what was good and what was not.

DERRICK: Mikhail Tal.

NIKOLAY: With Tal, I was very good friends.  I played with him one time, in Sarajevo, 1963, where he was first.  I had a very good success; I was 4th-5th in a very strong tournament.  The game is in Informant.  At one moment, I started to feel that he was beginning to take more chances.  I saw a pawn sacrifice, which was very nice, by the way, and I sacrificed the pawn.  He thought for five minutes and offered a draw, which I rejected.  After that, the game finished in a draw, but it was not easy for him.

One time, the two of us even played a soccer match, Bulgaria vs. USSR, in Reykjavik, 1957 during the World Junior Team Championship.  He was the goalkeeper of the Russian team which lost 5-0, but they reported in Shakmaty v SSR that they lost 3-0, two goals less!  After the game, Tal said, “You know what?  I think that in your training camp before this tournament, you played more soccer than chess!”

DERRICK: Tigran Petrosian.

NIKOLAY: Okay.  One time.  I lost against him one time: Havana, 1966.  I lost in the endgame, which was two pawns against one pawn, with minor pieces on the board, knight and bishop.  This was an adjourned game.  Nobody helped me, but for the Russian team, everybody helped him, and there was only one hour between the adjournment and resumption of the game.  What was the game?  I tried to attack him all the time, and all the time I ran into a wall.  I go h4, he stopped me.  I go a4, he stopped me.  I go e4, he stopped me.  All the time, he stopped me before I could start something.  This was his style.  Finally, I reached a position in which I was lost.  I was not very impressed, by the way, because my style is very different.  But this is chess; there are players here and there.  Korchnoi also was not very impressed.  He said that Petrosian sees the coming attack before you even think about attacking him.

DERRICK: Next is Boris Spassky.

NIKOLAY: I played with him one time, Reykjavik, 1957, one of the biggest successes of my life because Spassky was second board and I was second board.  Based on results, I took first place on second board.  Based on percentage, he took first place.  When we played together, the Bulgarian team had already lost on three boards, and ours was the last game.  He made an incredible sacrifice of a pawn, and gained the attack.  I took the pawn, and after that returned it and achieved the better position.  At that time, when I achieved the better position – it was around move 30 or 35 – the captain of the Russian team, who I think was Kan, offered a draw to my captain.  My captain came to me and said, “The Russians offer a draw.”  I said, “I have a better position.”  He said, “You have a better position, but the score is 3-0.  If you lose, it will be 4-0.  I don’t want to be 4-0!” he said, and I agreed.

Spassky was also very nice, but I was not very close to him.  Another Bulgarian, Milev, was very close to him.  Spassky has a practical style.  I like his style because it is an active style, all the time seeking the initiative somewhere.  At the Olympiad in 1962, I was with Milev in our room, and Spassky and Tal came to our room, asking for something.  They waited for us to get prepared to go out, and they started to play chess.  I remember that Tal said when they started to play, “You know, my result with Spassky is equal.  Until now, I make three draws, and he won three games.  Three, three!”

DERRICK: That brings us to the final World Champion that you played against, Bobby Fischer.

NIKOLAY: Okay. Olympiad, 1966.  I was in my best form.  I played in the final against Petrosian, Gligoric, Szabo, Bobby Fischer, Najdorf, Larsen, Uhlmann, and Pomar.  They gave me the day off against Johannessen of Norway, a weaker player.  Against all these guys, I drew 6, won one, and lost five.  I lost almost all my games with the black pieces, and saved two, I think.  One of these games was against Bobby Fischer.  I had prepared a rare continuation in the French Defense, and at the moment I played the characteristic move, I tried to see how Bobby would react to it.  I was not able to see his reaction because he played immediately the best move available.  This meant that he had studied that variation.  After that, it was a very interesting game.  I missed one move.  He had a bishop on g2 and a pawn on g3.  I missed the move, pawn to g4.  After g4, I was in bad shape.  I was able to make an interesting move which held some chances for him to go wrong tactically.  Even Yasser when he saw the game said, “Oh, you have this move now!”  I said, “I have this move; I made this move, but I lost immediately.”  Bobby thought a little bit, and found two or three moves in a row, very accurate moves which finished the game.  It’s possible that against anybody else, I would have had some success.  Against Bobby, it was not possible.

My impression of him was that he was interested only in chess.  Nothing else.  One evening they took the American team, the Bulgarian team, and others to the Tropicana, which is the best nightclub in Havana.  On the stage were fifty women who were almost naked.  Everybody was watching the show except Bobby Fischer, who had his pocket chess set out and was showing Benko some position from that day.

As a doctor, I will tell you that even at the Olympiad in Varna, in ’62, I started to see that something was wrong with him.  In the first round, there was a power failure for twenty minutes.  Everyone was talking, milling around, going here and there.  Bobby took his chair, went to the corner, and with his back to the wall, stayed there for twenty minutes without moving.  Clearly scared.  This is the first symptom of schizophrenia.

DERRICK: Larry Evans conducted an interview with Yuri Averbakh in Chess Life in December 1990.  Yuri Averbakh said in that interview, “I’ve seen two geniuses in my time.  One was Tal.  In short, the other was Fischer.  Maybe Kasparov also.”  What is your opinion about this?

NIKOLAY:  This was his opinion.  Different players have different styles, different approaches to chess.  Many times you will say, “This is genius, the other not” because their style doesn’t suit you.  It’s a personal preference.

DERRICK: In general, what course of study would you recommend for the serious student of chess?

NIKOLAY: No study!  You should take information.  Chess is information.  There is no magic book.  You should take information all the time.  It’s possible to take information from articles; every article has something positive to put in your mind.  When you see many games, you put in your mind much information.  This is until the end of your life.  Much more information than you are able after that to use in practice.  In short, try to absorb as much information as you can.

Let me give one example from my own life.  When I was twenty years old and not even a Bulgarian master, in one game I had a bishop on b7 and a pawn on d5.  I remembered that I had seen two or three games in which the pawn was sacrificed on d4 only to open the diagonal for the bishop, but I was at that stage where I didn’t have a great understanding of these guys, and I calculated, “Why should I give away the pawn when it’s not necessary at this moment.”  I thought about this for ten or fifteen minutes, and I decided, “Everybody says that the bishop should play,” and I sacrificed the pawn.  Incredible to me, I won after five moves, and I understood that if you have information, you must use that information.  And the information was right.

Tal made one very nice combination sometime in the seventies.  The journalists asked him, “How did you make this combination?” He said, “No, no, I didn’t make it.  I saw this from Nona Gaprindashvili.  She sacrificed in this way and won in this way against Servaty.”  You see, Tal, who was World Champion, took information about something which he used after that to his advantage.  This is the way in which chess is going.  This is the reason why there exist good players who never read books, but only see games.  Nakamura gave an interview recently in which he said, “How did I learn chess?  I saw games.  I saw games of Miles and some others.”  Every time in some article there is something positive.  The question is, will you understand it or not.  In chess, if you have more information, you are better.  The second part is to use this information over the board.

DERRICK: What is your opinion about the future of chess?  Will advances in opening theory and computer analysis make it necessary to change the game in some fundamental way, such as by adding new pieces or by randomizing the starting position?

NIKOLAY: No, I don’t think so.  You are not able to play over the board like a computer.  Your opponent is not able to play like a computer.  If you study chess by computer, do you know what will happen?  I played one guy like this.  Even Saidy came to me and said, “Be careful, because this guy has studied all the openings by computer.  He knows everything and he’s very dangerous.”  We started to play, and we played some opening with which I was also familiar.  Somewhere around move twenty or twenty-five, I won a pawn, and he resigned immediately, and said, “You know what, Mr. Minev?  You played a novelty at move 15.”  I said, “What novelty?”  He said, “This move.”  I said, “This move is very logical on the board.”  He said, “It’s not in the computer!”

This is the way.  The human brain is limited.  You are not able to learn everything.  Even sometimes when I play something which I have known for many years, but haven’t used for five years, I say, “What’s the best move here?”  Many times you make a decision in a position in which it’s not possible to say which move is the best.  You should take the direction according to your understanding of strategy.  A computer here is useless.  If there are tactics on the board, the computer will see.  It has a target.  If it has no target, it won’t know what to do after the opening.

Probably chess will start to be a little bit quicker, as Bronstein said, not two hours for forty moves, but to be, let’s say, one and a half hour or one hour.  Many tournaments now are in this way.

DERRICK: Nikolay, is there anything else you would like to say before we end this interview?

NIKOLAY: Let me tell you the most interesting moment in my life.  In 1954, when I was 22 years old and about to be champion of Bulgaria for the first time, I lived with my mother and sister.  My mother had a group of friends who came one evening every week to play Canasta.  One day, these three women came to our home with the husband of one of the women.  He was about 65 years old, and they announced that he is the best chess player in his building and his region, and because he understood that I was the best player in Bulgaria, he wanted to see how he played chess against me.  Naturally he was a weak player, practically no theory.  After two games in which I beat him, he started to be a little bit agitated.  After I beat him five games, he started to think very much, every move.  We played probably three hours, and I beat him – I don’t remember, but probably fifteen games or something like that.  And now, everyone started to leave.  All three women asked him, “What happened in your match?”   I didn’t say anything.  This guy looked at them and said, “You know, this youngster made very good resistance!”

DERRICK:  Thank you, Nikolay.  This has been very interesting and a lot of fun.  I appreciate your making time for this interview very much.

Note: The interested reader will find a great deal more information about Nikolay Minev, including a biography, bibliography, and all his known games, at http://www.thechesslibrary.com/minev.html .

Published in: on April 25, 2011 at 10:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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My Interview with Szuyu “Rachel” Su

rachelIt has twice been my privilege and pleasure to present videos of the young Chinese pianist Szuyu “Rachel” Su, in remarkable performances of Prokofiev and Liszt.  At the time, all I knew about Rachel was what I could glean from her YouTube profile, youtube.com/user/yw1935.  Not content with this, I contacted Rachel’s father, Mr. Yuwen Su, who readily agreed to an interview with Rachel, and provided much welcome information about her life and accomplishments to date.

Rachel was born on March 14, 1998, and lives in Tainan City, Taiwan.  She began taking piano lessons at age four, and is currently studying with Ms. Chaoyin Chen, Dean of the Music Department at National Kaohsiung Normal University.  Her first recital took place in May 2008, where in addition to Schumann’s “Arabesque” and Liszt’s “Un Sospiro”, she played this lovely transcription by Balakirev of Glinka’s song, “The Lark”.

Two weeks ago, Rachel took part in a competition in Hong Kong, where among other works, she played the “Tempest” sonata by Beethoven and the Ballade Op. 23 by Chopin.  In the Open Section for pianists 32 years old and younger, (where 1st and 2nd prizes were not awarded) Rachel received the Fifth Prize.  This was a great triumph for an eleven-year-old!  She is looking forward to another competition next June, where she hopes to play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

I asked Rachel what piece of music is on her piano right now.  It turns out that she is practicing Liszt’s formidable “La Campanella” and the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise by Chopin.  Because of the amount of homework she is required to do, she is able to practice piano and violin (a second instrument is required by her school) for only around one hour on school days.  Mr. Su stated that Taiwan’s education system doesn’t nourish musical talent, and that Rachel would do better if she had a special course designed for her.

As Rachel speaks limited English, Mr. Su served as translator for this short interview.

DERRICK:  Hello, Rachel!  Please accept my compliments on the many beautiful videos of your playing that are available on YouTube.  Your repertoire includes composers from Bach to Kevin Kern.  Do you have a favorite composer, or composers?

RACHEL:  I like to listen to Liszt’s compositions, and to play Chopin’s compositions.

DERRICK:  I know you have very little time to spend on YouTube, but do you have any favorite pianists?

RACHEL:  Yes, although I know very few pianists, Lang Lang, Kissin, and Horowitz are my favorites.

DERRICK:  Other than music, what are your favorite subjects in school?

RACHEL:  I like mathematics the best.

DERRICK:  What are your hobbies?  Do you play soccer?

RACHEL:  No, I have never played soccer, but I like to swim.

DERRICK:  May I ask, what is your dream or ambition for your life?

RACHEL:  I dream of being a great pianist, touring worldwide, and sharing my music with people.

DERRICK:  Rachel, it has been a pleasure getting to know you.  I look forward to more examples of your playing, and will follow your career with great interest.

I would like to conclude this short look at a remarkable talent with a beautiful performance of Kevin Kern’s “The Enchanted Garden”.  This was recorded in competition in September 2007 when Rachel was just nine years old.  Although it is a delight to watch someone so young play so well, I encourage you at least once to close your eyes while listening to this piece.  When I close mine, I would never guess that I am listening to a nine-year-old girl.  I just hear an artist.

Thank you, Rachel.

Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 11:50 pm  Comments (6)  
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My Interview with Lola Astanova

“Everything (Horowitz) did had his own individual and unmistakable stamp, which is not only desirable, but is an absolute must for an artist.”

lola astanovaThis interview had its beginnings in an email that I received last month from Lola Astanova, as one of many who registered at her website, lolaastanova.com.  The email introduced a video of Lola playing Chopin’s magnificent étude Op. 25 No. 12, together with a short message from Lola about supporting the arts during difficult economic times.  I was crazy about her Chopin, and shared her conviction about the arts, and wrote back to tell her so.

A few days later I received another email, thanking me for introducing Lola to readers of this blog through her videos of Rachmaninoff’s second sonata, and pointing out that the year of her birth as given in my comments (1981) made her a little older than she really is.  I did a little more research and found a different source that listed her year of birth as 1982, and updated my blog accordingly.  I also wrote back to suggest an interview with Lola that would address this and other questions that I thought would be of interest to her growing number of fans and admirers.  I was happily surprised to receive – just two days later – an invitation to submit my questions via email for Lola to answer in writing.

What follows are my questions and Lola’s responses.  My thanks to Natalie, Lola’s personal assistant, for facilitating this interview, and especially to Lola herself, not only for her candid, illuminating answers, but for sharing so generously of her work and talent through her many YouTube videos.  Lola, you have opened wide the treasure chest of great music for many who might otherwise never have known the riches that lie within.

All right, let’s begin!

DERRICK:  I apologize for having misstated the year of your birth on my blog.  In my desire to make you better known to my readers, I had to choose among unreliable sources for some information.  Would you like to tell us your correct birthday?

LOLA:  I never intended to hide my correct date of birth…I think it was, probably, accidentally left out from my original online bio.  But by now it’s become such a huge deal that I feel like having some fun with it and keeping everyone guessing. (Smiles)

DERRICK:  Would you mind filling in a few more biographical details?  I know that you were born in Tashkent.  Would you like to share any information about your family and early life?  Did your musical education begin at home?

LOLA:  Sure.  My mother is a music teacher.  We had an old upright at home so she used to play it from time to time, and I used to stare at her and think: “It would be so nice to play that thing!”  But it was actually my dad who convinced her to get me started with piano lessons.  He really wanted me to learn “Fur Elise” and a few other tunes to play for him after work.  I’m sure he never imagined that music would become my career.

DERRICK:  Do you remember how you were introduced to classical music, and the first piece of classical music that you were excited about?

LOLA:   I guess the first piece that I was consciously truly excited about learning was Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu”.  I was about ten years old, but I had heard and loved that piece from the early childhood.  The score looked very busy with lots of notes so in my mind playing it well somehow symbolized being a good pianist.

DERRICK:  We know that you began to study piano at the age of six with Professor Tamara Popovich.  When and where was your first solo recital?  Do you remember the details of your program?

LOLA:  My first recital was in my school.  I think I was about seven and played most of the pieces from Schumann’s album for the young Op. 68.

DERRICK:  When and where was your first performance with orchestra?  What piece did you play?

LOLA:  It was Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in F Minor.  I was 8 years old and played in the big and beautiful concert hall called “Bakhor” in Tashkent.   I had seen Ashkenazy play on that stage only a few months earlier so being on that same stage for the first time as a soloist made me very nervous.

DERRICK:  What is your personal situation?  Are you married or single?  If single, do you hope to marry someday, or are you in an exclusive, long-term relationship with your Steinway?

LOLA:   I am not married and don’t see it in my immediate future.  My relationship with my Steinway, albeit a passionate one, is strictly professional. (Smiles)  It would have been more than a little sad otherwise.  I think it’s important to have other interests besides piano, and I, certainly, do.

DERRICK:  Would you care to comment on the passing last month of Alicia de Larrocha?  Did you ever meet her, or hear her play in person?  Have you been influenced at all by Miss de Larrocha?

LOLA:  I never had a chance to hear her in concert, alas.  She was one of the very few women who had a stellar career as a concert pianist and left a wonderful legacy.  That is always inspiring and empowering to me personally.  But, I can’t say that my own pianistic style or musical preferences were influenced by her in any way.

DERRICK:  You have described what an emotional experience it was for you to play on Vladimir Horowitz’ piano.  How would you describe Horowitz’ influence on you?

LOLA:   His influence was colossal.  I think he redefined what it means to be a pianist.  Everything he did had his own individual and unmistakable stamp, which is not only desirable, but is an absolute must for an artist.  I can’t say that I like everything that he did musically, in fact, I find some of his interpretations perfectly awful, but that doesn’t matter.  He always played his Chopin, his Mozart, and his Rachmaninoff.  He had a distinct musical personality and a style like no other, and that is what I find most valuable.

Now, obviously, Horowitz’s presence is still very much felt in the piano world and, as a result, many pianists try to imitate him and critics always itch to dub someone “the new Horowitz”.  I must say that I find both rather amusing.  There may be truly astonishing pianists that share certain qualities or attributes with Horowitz, but there will never be another Horowitz, just like there will never be another Pavarotti.  So there is no point in trying.  Actually, a little anecdote comes to mind: Gershwin once asked Ravel to teach him composition, to which Ravel supposedly responded: “Why would you want to be second rate Ravel when you can be first rate Gershwin?”  I second Ravel’s opinion, and though comparisons to the immortals are flattering, I’d never want to be “the new” anybody but myself.

DERRICK:  Have you ever played any of his transcriptions?

LOLA:  No, not in public.

DERRICK:  Who among the pianists of today do you especially admire?

LOLA:  YouTube’s Nora the Cat!  She has a special touch. (Laughs)  But if you want a serious answer…well, “admire” is a very special word for me.  Talent and skills alone do not impress me at this point as I’ve been fortunate to be among talented and capable musicians all my life.  What does impress me, however, are the people behind the talents – their human qualities, their aspirations and their integrity.  I know those don’t sound like musical terms, but they are no less important in music than in life.  And from that standpoint, so far I’ve seen more disappointments than inspirations in the classical field.  You know, Rachmaninoff almost never gave interviews on this subject because as he put it: “I was brought up never to lie…and I cannot tell the truth.”  I think I understand what he meant and I’m going to leave it at that.

DERRICK:  How would you describe the current state of music composition?  Do you see anyone writing music today whom you would place on the same level as the great composers of the past?  If yes, who?  If not, why not?

LOLA:  I presume you are asking about classical composition and if that’s the case – I am not aware of any composer today that I would compare with the greats of the past.  You see, to me a great composer is synonymous with original harmonic language.  In other words, creating something that sounds good and does not sound like somebody else. And in that sense, every composer today faces two huge challenges:  Number one – a lot has already been done in terms of harmony so it is really not easy to create something that is both valuable and original.  Number two – developing and refining one’s own harmonic language and style is a very slow and painstaking process which seems in total opposition of the super fast pace of the modern life.  And don’t forget that in addition to the tremendous technical skills and knowledge, composition requires a certain creative environment or atmosphere that simply does not exist anymore in the same way as it did in the days of Mozart or Chopin.

Of course, there is an entire group of composers that do the so-called “modern classical music”.  Those are the people who chose to experiment with atonal concepts, but I refuse to call that music.  I imagine that the original creators of that style genuinely searched for something new or “modern” and that a lot of their harsh sounds stemmed from the painful history of the 20th century.  But I also think that many of the subsequent works have simply been an attempt to shock the audience and generate publicity by inviting the press to endless “world premiers” of some god-awful pieces.  In my opinion the empty concert halls are in part the result of the industry’s long infatuation with those atonal concepts.

DERRICK:  How has the internet changed life for the concert artist today?  More specifically, how has YouTube, with its extraordinary library of music and musicians, changed the concert artist’s life today?

LOLA:  I think it’s fair to say that the Internet has changed not only the lives of individual artists, but the entire entertainment and media landscapes.  It’s even a bit overwhelming to think of all the opportunities that the Internet tools have opened for the arts, education, entertainment, and cultural exchange.  You are right, of course, about YouTube being a singular library of material, but there is much more to it than that.  It’s an amazing way to communicate with the audience directly, without intermediaries and outside the sometimes intimidating atmosphere of a concert hall.  It allows for an entirely different relationship between the artist and the listener and for a much closer, much more personal experience.

Another “YouTube revelation” actually relates to the “Holy Grail” of the classical music industry – the young audience.  For years classical presenters have been trying to lure the younger crowd into concert halls and evidently without much success.  Yet, over half of my online viewers are people in their teens, twenties and thirties.  I receive daily emails from teenagers who say that they are inspired, and who subscribe to my channel along with Taylor Swift’s or Kanye’s.  These are guys and girls of very diverse backgrounds, but they all seem to have a sort of innate appreciation for this music.  And many grasp the significance of the arts much more than the classical establishment knows.  For example, my video about the arts in this economy has been passionately supported by countless young YouTubers, including such Internet stars as Ryan Higa and Iman Crosson, while traditional classical organizations have remained completely indifferent if not hostile.

DERRICK:  Have the advantages of the internet and YouTube, such as increased exposure, made up for the fact that there is less need now for people to buy records?

LOLA:  From the artistic and audience interaction standpoint – absolutely.  From the strictly commercial standpoint – not yet, but classical music is, probably, less affected by that than pop because classical record sales have been essentially non-existent for years.

DERRICK:  What do you think of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony having been arranged as a concerto for piano and orchestra?  Have you seen the score?

LOLA:  I haven’t seen the score.  I’d have to see it before I can tell you what I think.

DERRICK:  You mentioned that you hoped to play in Seattle next year.  Are you anticipating a solo recital, or an appearance with orchestra?  Has anything been confirmed yet?

LOLA:  I have a confirmed private event performance in Washington next year, but I don’t believe I’ve been invited by any classical presenters in Seattle.  Once I’m invited, sure, I’d love to come and perform.

DERRICK:  If I were to select a few pieces that I would most like to hear you play, I would choose Scriabin’s Etude Op. 42, No. 5, Prokofiev’s 6th and 8th sonatas, and the sonata by Samuel Barber.  Is there any hope for me?

LOLA:  Yes, let’s start with Scriabin’s Etude.  I haven’t played it in a long time so thanks for reminding me.

DERRICK:  Lola, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this interview.