Liszt and Scriabin: Two Etudes for Piano Performed by Lola Astanova

It can be no secret to readers of this blog that Lola Astanova is one of my favorite contemporary pianists.  We have already seen her in performances of Rachmaninoff’s second sonata, three works by Chopin, and her own dazzling transcriptions of three popular songs, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her again.  She combines a virtuoso technique with an extraordinary feeling and passion for the music, and brings a welcome individuality to everything she plays.

As a subscriber to Lola’s YouTube channel, I’m notified whenever she uploads a new video.  Most recently, she added an impromptu recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F-minor.  For me, the unplanned nature of this video only adds to its impact.  It is as if Lola has invited us into her dressing room without her makeup on, and allowed us to see even more deeply into the heart and soul of an artist.

Regular readers of this blog will remember that last October, I conducted an interview with Lola that covered subjects as diverse as her early musical training, her views on modern music, and the importance of the internet to musicians today.  The following exchange took place at the end of that interview.

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.

Imagine how excited I was last February to discover that Lola had indeed recorded the etude I mentioned.  What an inspired, glorious piece of music, full of a brooding, impassioned yearning sweetened with flights of unbounded joy.  It has been a favorite of mine for over 40 years, ever since I became familiar with Victor Merzhanov’s recording of it.

And how beautifully Lola plays it, how it sings under her fingers!  How fortunate we are that she shares her gift so unsparingly.  Now that she has recorded the Scriabin, do I dare hope that she will one day record the sonatas by Prokofiev and Barber?

The Lighter Side of Lola

Lola Astanova is one of the very few classical musicians today who has publicly embraced pop music.  In fact, she has written piano transcriptions of three popular songs, and posted videos of all of them on YouTube.  No one but a classically trained pianist could have written or played these arrangements – they all bristle with technical difficulties – but in each case, Lola has remained true to the spirit of the original.

Concerning the first video, Lola writes on her website, http://www.lolaastanova.com:  “Several months ago, while dancing to Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music” in the club, I thought that it would be fun to turn it into a virtuoso piano piece.  So a couple of nights at the keyboard later, I came up with my version of it.  I haven’t done anything like that before, and it was a bit of a challenge to capture the original rhythmic pattern on the piano.  But I gave it a good try.”

When she recorded the following transcription of Madonna’s “Music”, Lola gave us some fascinating insights into the differences between pop and classical music.  Here are a few of the highlights:

“Having been both surprised and amused by the comment, ‘This does not sound like the original,’ that some people posted to my ‘Don’t Stop The Music’ video, this time I decided to give a fair upfront warning: my arrangement is NOT supposed to be the exact repetition of the original song!  For my taste, playing a pop song such as ‘Music’ note for note would be among the most boring, unoriginal and unpleasant things to hear, and I would never waste your attention or my time on such tediousness.  With that said, my arrangement is, in fact, very closely linked with the original (though, I’ll admit that connecting all the dots may require some musical prowess).  So here are a few trivia points about my ‘Music’…

“Pop music and classical music are two polar opposites in the sense that while the richness and variety of electronic sounds allow pop compositions to easily dwell on the same motif over and over again, in classical – it’s all about developing and growing your musical idea.  Additionally, the sound of a single instrument (like the piano) is very “thin” compared to the multitude of electronic sounds in a pop song.  For these reasons, taking a bare pop theme and playing it on the piano unchanged would be utterly ridiculous.  As the original song offered little melodic material, I had to sneak in new motifs (that were still derived from the original) in order to give my ‘Music’ some shape and texture.”

Finally, in the spirit of the holidays, Lola composed the following arrangement of “Jingle Bells”.  In this, as in all of these pieces, I hear the clear influence of Franz Liszt, who wrote hundreds of piano transcriptions himself, and who – like Lola – introduced music written for other instruments to a new and vastly wider audience.

In closing, I cannot do better than to echo the comment posted by Steven Mento after the interview with Lola featured on this blog in October: “Brava! Thank you for your extraordinary part in keeping the pianist-composer legacy alive in the 21st century!”

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 12:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lola Astanova Plays Chopin

lola astanova2Lola Astanova is no stranger to readers of this blog.  In September, we saw her electrifying performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Sonata.  October featured my extended interview with Lola, which touched on her early life in Tashkent, the influence of Vladimir Horowitz, and her views about contemporary classical music composition, among other subjects.

This month, we hear Lola perform three pieces by Frederic Chopin.  Lola is a passionate interpreter of Chopin; her longtime instructor and legendary piano professor Lev Naumov said of her, “Lola Astanova possesses a rare and truly ingenious intuitive ability.  Chopin performed by Lola is simply outstanding…” – an opinion I think you will share after watching these videos.

For our first video, Lola plays Chopin’s famous Nocturne Op. 27, No 2.  Many musicologists rank the two Nocturnes of Opus 27 among Chopin’s greatest compositions, and Robert Schumann referred to them as “the most heartfelt and transfigured creations evolved in music.”

In our interview last month, Lola spoke about the next piece as follows:  “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.”

In our final video, Lola gives an impassioned performance of one of Chopin’s most dramatic études (and one of my personal favorites), Op. 25, No. 12.  She also delivers a short message on a subject close to her heart: the need for all of us to continue to support the arts despite a difficult economic climate.

I encourage you to visit http://lolaastanova.com, where you can learn more about Lola and watch additional videos.  You can also purchase her CD, which is entitled “Debut” and features the music of Liszt, Beethoven, and much more by Chopin.

Published in: on November 14, 2009 at 3:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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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.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata No. 2 Pianist: Lola Astanova

Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Lola Astanova was born in 1982 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan  in the former Soviet Union.  She began studying piano at age 6 and performing in public at 8.  She emigrated to the United States in 2003, and in 2004 made her U.S. debut at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

Lola has a special affinity for the Russian composers Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff.  Watching her videos, I am impressed by her virtuosity, certainly, but even more by her passion for this music.  In sports parlance, she leaves it all on the field.

While some pianists and critics insist on the greatest possible fidelity to the score, Lola is not shy about making changes when she feels they’re warranted.  We have an example of that in this sonata by Rachmaninoff, about which Lola writes, “After carefully listening to Rachmaninoff’s original and revised versions of the first movement, I put together my own version that combined the two.  Although there was plenty of material in the original version that was simply too beautiful to leave out, I forced myself to do that as some of its elements were interfering with the structure of the movement. I felt a bit like a painter who has a palette of rich and vibrant colors, but cannot use all of them because the canvas is just too small.”

This performance demonstrates the passion and technical command that typify Ms. Astanova’s playing.  I, for one, have become a new fan, and look forward with great anticipation to additional examples of her artistry.

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 4:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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