A virtuoso pianist talks Rachmaninoff, in advance of concert

Vashon Center for the Arts will welcome pianist Asiya Korepanova in celebration of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 150th Anniversary.

Next week, Vashon Center for the Arts (VCA) will welcome pianist Asiya Korepanova in celebration of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 150th Anniversary — an event eagerly anticipated by those who last year delighted in Korepanova’s flawless technique and expression in a concert of all Liszt etudes, in another performance at VCA.

The upcoming concert, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, will include Morceaux de Fantaisie (which includes the famous C sharp Prelude), Corelli Variations, and 6 Moments Musicaux. A pre-concert lecture starts at 7 p.m. As with other concerts at VCA, families can bring their children for free (call for reservations).

Tickets are on sale now at vashoncenterforthearts.org.

Local musicologist and arts supporter Michael Tracy recently interviewed Korepanova, to learn more about her devotion to Rachmaninoff, and what she hopes islanders will experience at her concert on the Kay White Hall stage at VCA.

Tracy: This year marks the 150 anniversary of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s birth in 1873. Throughout the world, his music is loved by all audiences. Can you give us an insight on Rachmaninoff’s impact and importance in his home country and Russian culture?

Korepanova: Similar to Bach and Beethoven for Germans or Debussy and Ravel for the French, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff are symbols of the Russian soul. Their enormous range of colors, emotions, genres, and ability to make you follow every note they write is unmatched. It’s hard to describe the impact and importance of something that’s a part of your identity! Rachmaninoff has undoubtedly been one of the pillars of Russian culture and a national treasure, celebrated in many ways – as a composer and pianist, as a role model of a nobleman, husband, and father, and as a survivor of circumstances that led to his departure from his homeland.

There are some parallels between your life and career and Rachmaninoff’s. You both come from a musical family. Rachmaninoff took his first lessons from his mother and then later studied under his cousin Alexander Silotil, a former student of Franz Liszt. Do you feel a close affinity to Rachmaninoff, the pianist and composer, and with his career and life?

I didn’t perform Rachmaninoff until my early 20s at the suggestion of my composition teacher, a student of Dmitry Shostakovich Albert Leman. In 6th grade when most of my classmates at the Central Music School in Moscow already started learning his Preludes, Etudes-Tableaux (even the Second Concerto), Leman told me that I mustn’t play Rachmaninoff until I mature and be able to see beyond his attractive surface. Now, years later, I agree wholeheartedly with my late mentor. It takes time to collect experiences that make you sensitive enough to reflect the delicacy with which eternal grief is tied with ecstasy in Rachmaninoff’s music. That is not yet the right place for teenage pianists.

I have been rediscovering Rachmaninoff as if I have never heard his music before. This approach requires a special focus and a fresh view, unaffected by existing clichés. I grew completely obsessed with him when I learned his First Sonata 10 years ago and proceeded writing a solo piano transcription of his Cello Sonata. That excitement continues. I am curious what my perception will be in 20 years from now.

Rachmaninoff’s Russian contemporaries included Stravinsky, Scriabin and later Prokofiev. Their avant-garde music (which even Rachmaninoff performed) was pushing musical boundaries, while Rachmaninoff’s compositions were still steeply entrenched in the late 19th romantic style. Even in his own day, Rachmaninoff was considered of the old school. Why do you think he didn’t venture into more modern, avant-garde compositions?

Because he found things to say in the olden way. He wasn’t afraid of old style and was firm in his sincerity about it. And even though his style still changed quite drastically throughout his life (which listeners will be able to appreciate in concert on March 25!), it never went into atonality or serial technique or any of those modern realms.

His style, in a sense, is proof that there is no such thing as “old” when it comes to classical music.

Rachmaninoff as a pianist set the standard for future 20th-century pianists such as Horowitz, Richter, Hoffman, Rubenstein, and others who were some of the first recorded classical pianists. While growing up, did you often listen to recordings of these pianists, and did they have an influence on your playing?

Most definitely. The pianists of the Golden era of the 20th century are still my favorites – as each of them is so unique, you can recognize them by their sound, ideas and manner. And that’s what was the best about them – they did not try to copy each other; instead, they spent their life creating their own unbelievable. It is the biggest lesson to listen to each of them – Emil Gilels, Wilhelm Kempff, Moritz Rosenthal, Annie Fisher, Jorge Bolet, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Bruno Michelangeli – see, each of those you and I mentioned evoke an immediately recognizable style of musicianship!

Your musical career includes not only concerts, but also composing transcriptions, writing original works and also working with non-profits to promote musical education. How do you organize your typical workday to get everything done?

I don’t know! Every day is different because there are so many things to do. Add to that traveling for performances, teaching students and reminding myself that I must sleep – and you will have the perfect idea of an absolutely frantic path that takes unpredictable turns. The only thing that I can say, is that I take making time for my health (such as working out, eating very clean, fasting, reading and continuing to learn new things in life) as seriously as I take my practice, composition, and other artistic and professional activities – as one cannot work well for too long without another. But again, every day has its own schedule.

Early in his career, Rachmaninoff fell into a deep depression after family deaths and the disappointing reception of a new symphony. What is truly admirable is that Rachmaninoff admitted it and sought therapy from a psychiatrist in St. Peterburg, which in his day was extremely rare and usually hidden. Do you think his works show that emotional honesty, moods and all?

His music has this phenomenal sense of nostalgia and sadness, while also being incredibly triumphant and uplifting. I think these extremes, which he is capable of reaching, show a wide range of the states in which he has been emotionally himself. And, as a composer myself, I can say that writing music is a therapy of its own as one can bring into it everything that fills their soul at the moment of writing.

Tell us about your March 25 program and why you chose these works, a difficult decision when there are so many great compositions.

My program encapsulates the different aspects of Rachmaninoff’s writing and the genres he loved – the short pieces called morceaux, the variations, and musical moments that he brought to a completely different level from what they were before (remember Schubert!). It also features his first published solo work – Morceaux de Fantaisie op. 3, and the last – Variations on the theme by Corelli, Op. 42.

Overall, I think this program provides a very compact yet potent “overview” of the composer, featuring some of his most lyrical, most passionate, and most virtuosic works.

Most likely, some of your audience at VCA will have never heard this music before. What advice would you give someone who is hearing these works for the first time?

Rachmaninoff’s style, in my opinion, is one of the easiest to dive into as a listener – he has such an unparalleled ability to emotionally captivate you from the first notes, that I would not say one needs a special preparation or advice. But definitely be prepared to be moved, touched, stormed away in thoughts, raised to the heavens, and to leave the concert fulfilled!