The woman who sees the world through her piano

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MY ‘black sailing ship’ and I: Lithuanian-born pianist Muza Rubackyte only needs to touch a piano to feel at peace with the world. Photograph by Christine de Lanoe (Geneva).

YOU MIGHT BE forgiven for thinking the Johannesburg Musical Society in association with the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival has somehow managed to bring out Meryl Streep to perform its first concert of the year. You’d be mistaken; Lithuanian pianist Mūza Rubackytė brings not only her classic facial features to South Africa, and she is, indeed, a bit of a Streep dead-ringer, but she also brings her flawless technique, which will dazzle you completely. Last week, she took the time to chat to My View, from her home in Paris.

Hers is a story of piano love and the need to earn an international reputation not once, but twice. It’s about the privilege of working with beautiful music, and above all, of being at home in the world.

“I was born into a family of musicians,” she says, explaining that her first name, Mūza, is a derivation of the Greek term ‘muse’: it’s like her family knew her talents before she was born. “The challenge was to find out which instrument to put into my hands. My mother and her sister were pianists and my father, an opera singer.”

They put a violin into her toddler hands. They got her to sing. She smiles. “I played a lot of instruments as a child; my preference was always piano. I grew up in a house full of pianos. My aunt taught students in the house. For me it was fantastic to be a part of that world. I asked my aunt to add me to the list of her students, so that I could be like the ‘big’ people.”

She wasn’t that big when she debuted: She first played in public with the national philharmonic orchestra of Lithuania when she was seven. And the die, it seems, was cast for a brilliant career.

But growing up under a Communist regime, even after 19 very serious and focused years of music study, she was still a big fish in a small pond. Or was she? She didn’t know. She was not allowed to leave the Communist Bloc to spread her wings.

By the time Gorbachev came into power, in the 1990s, the draconian laws had softened a bit and there was a possibility that she could travel to the west if it was with a plan to study.

“It felt like nonsense to me at the time, as I had studied for so long and achieved so much, already. The Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Moscow, which is still considered among the best in the world, was where I had learned my skills, but the one thing I felt was lacking in their teaching programme was French music.”

So in 1991, with a bid to spend 10 months studying French music, she left the Communist Bloc for the first time. “So, this was my beginning in the West,” she says. “It wasn’t difficult to integrate into western culture, because music is a universal language. But it was difficult to start my career again. In the West, no one knew my successes. I had to start again from nothing. It took me almost 10 years. I met the good people, step by step, but it was a tough time.”

She mentions how her win of the Grand Prix at the Liszt-Bartók International Piano Competition in Budapest in 1981 was not recognised by the music fraternity of the West. It took time, and hard work, but eventually, she won First Prize in the Concours International Les Grand Maîtres Français and she was back on track.

These days, Mūza commutes between Paris, Vilnius and Geneva, when she’s not travelling further afield for concert performances. What’s it like to be on the go all the time? “You need to like it,” she’s frank. “I like to escape from the routine, but being on the move has become a part of who I am. I cannot be at the same place more than three or five days. I get restless. To travel to faraway countries is extremely exciting for me. It’s snowing in Vilnius right now. Here – in Paris – it’s raining. And next, week I will be in hot South Africa.”

But it’s more than just weather. “I like to see the world,” she says. “I am like a shipman or a gypsy. I see the world through my piano. And it’s the happiest of careers for me: I get to travel to the big halls to meet new audiences. I get to live in high level music, and to touch fantastic composers – to understand them and transmit … it’s extremely exciting.”

“Nevertheless,” she adds, “I also adore ‘home sweet home’, where my beloved husband and I dance together, cook together and write together. We are writing an autobiography at the moment about my enchanted life. Often my husband joins me in my tours to live the strong moments in art and see the world together. It’s a real joy for us. The nature is also something that we both really need,” she says, anticipating South Africa’s warm climes and magnificent landscapes.

Acknowledging the complexity of a musician’s career – you may have the ability but what happens next: do you teach or compose? Record or travel? When do you practice? – Mūza composed prolifically until she was about 18-years-old. “There were lots of compositions for piano, for violin, for small ensembles. Doing this was part of my education, but finally, you must choose.

“Being a performer, you need lots of hours of music. It’s not only about playing the piano. It’s about travelling, organising, recording, publicity.” Rubackytė gives master classes wherever she goes. She’s a piano professor at Lithuania’s National Academy of Music and organises a big piano festival in Lithuania, now in its fifth year.

Next week, she performs works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann in Johannesburg. “The programme is my choice, but it complies with JIMF’s theme this year of opposites. Schumann’s Carnaval and his Arabesque illustrate a dual personality,” she adds.

With a life’s repertoire of about 40 concert programmes concertos, over 40 piano concertos and 30 recordings, Mūza remains hungry to learn more. At the beginning of the year, she went to her library and took out all the scores she would need for her concert fixtures. “It’s a pile like this,” she indicates a lot. “I cannot take scores in my luggage; they’re too heavy. I have to carry them in my head,” she grins.

She baulks at the idea of choosing a ‘favourite’ composer. “It’s all about the piano. I cannot be ‘vegetarian’ and choose one over another. The privilege of touching the piano is everything.”

Two years ago she was a jury member for the Unisa piano competition, in Pretoria. “It was marvellous. I invited the winner, Daniel Ciobanu, to this year’s Vilnius festival, so I have good souvenirs of your country.”

  • Mūza Rubackytė performs in a piano recital for the Johannesburg Musical Society and the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival at the Linder Auditorium, Parktown on February 3 at 8pm. Visit jms.org.za or www.join-mozart-festival.org for more details.
  • She also performs in Pretoria, on February 1, Knysna on February 6 and Cape Town on February 8. Visit muza.fr.
  • CDs of the programme she will perform in South Africa – recorded in Tokyo – will be on sale at her performances.
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Olga Kern and the love for music that stays

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GOLDEN FINGERS: Russian-born pianist Olga Kern performs with the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra. Photograph by Ivan Korč, courtesy http://www.olgakern.com

SHE’S BEAUTIFUL, SHE’S blond and, on a certain physical level, she fits a Hollywood stereotype, but Moscow-born concert pianist Olga Kern is not just a pretty face. The product of “many generations” of classical music, Kern won the prestigious Texas-based Van Cliburn International Piano competition in 2001 – the first woman to do so in more than 30 years – and she is today recognised as one of her generation’s finest performers. On Saturday she will play for the Johannesburg Music Society, as part of a three-week long South African tour. Last night, she spoke from Cape Town to My View about her history, her career and her irrepressible love for music.

“After Johannesburg, I play in Pretoria, then Knysna, then Durban,” she rattles off. “On March 1, I’m accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, before I go to California, South Carolina and St Louis.”

She explains that up to 150 engagements a year all over the world for a concert pianist of her calibre is fairly commonplace. “That is why winning the Van Cliburn at 25 was really perfect for me. I was not too young, and not too old. The management and recognition that winning such competitions brings a performer are very important, but what comes with the opportunity is a big responsibility to perform consistently and frequently. If you are not up to it, it can break you.” The winner of 11 international piano competitions (including that presented by Unisa, in 1996), she acknowledges how important fitness is for the lifestyle.

But it’s not only about keeping to a tight itinerary. Kern’s ancestry is rich with music: her great-grandmother Vera Fedorovna Pushechnikova was a mezzo soprano and a great friend of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), and he would often accompany her. But that’s not all: one generation earlier, Vera’s mother and Kern’s great-great-grandmother, Palageya Safronovna Pushechnikova was a good friend of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and the family owns many unique letters and photographs of the composer.

But in spite of these illustrious roots, New York-based Kern, who grew up in Communist-torn Russia at the time of the Perestroika remains humble as she speaks of the magic of performing. “The first time I played with an orchestra onstage I was seven years old. The energy that comes from the audience made me realise that this was my place.” The recipient of an honorary scholarship from the President of Russia in 1996, Kern studied under Professor Sergei Dorensky at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory and Professor Boris Petrushansky at the Accademia Pinistica Incontri col Maestro in Italy.

It is unthinkable, she says, for her to have pursued any career but music: “I started hearing music while I was in my mother’s belly,” she speaks of the mysterious ease with which she learned Rachmaninoff’s notoriously difficult third concerto. “My mother told me she was  always playing this work when she was pregnant with me.”

She, in turn, used to play Schubert and Brahms whilst she was pregnant with her now 16-year-old son, Vladislav, who has just won the recital section of the Tureck International Bach Competition for young pianists. “Today, Schubert and Brahms are his favourite composers. That love for music stays.”

Currently in the process of launching a music competition in her own name, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Kern speaks of the thrill of finding “rising stars”. “Winning the Olga Kern award will come with lots of opportunities for engagements and recordings,” she says. She will serve as artistic director of the competition and president of its jury.

Kern, with her brother, the trumpeter, conductor and composer Vladimir, has set up the Aspiration Foundation, to assist young concert performers financially and artistically with instruments and even clothes for concert performance. “A young performer needs to wear something extraordinary onstage; many can’t afford to,” she says.

But speaking of dresses, she considers what it means to her, to be a top woman concert pianist, given that the piano is historically considered “male”.

“I was taught how to make a big, round sound on this huge grand instrument,” she says, acknowledging that it takes great physical fitness and emotional robustness to make the piano sing, and  generally the world of concert pianists is still traditionally a man’s terrain, but she ponders a moment and reconsiders: “Whilst I was at the school and the conservatory, it was not about being a man or a woman that fed my love for the instrument.

“But being a woman concert pianist comes with its own challenges. My suitcase is heavier and bigger than that of any man in my job,” she speaks of her New York dress designer and how she selects her gowns depending on the music she will play. “The big gowns are very heavy. But, challenges aside, I am so lucky I do this. If you love what you do, everything is equal.”

Her current SA tour is arguably the dying wish of music impresario Schalk Visser. “He asked me to do an extended South African tour in February this year; it took a bit of haggling for us to agree on three weeks, not more. But sadly Schalk passed away suddenly in December.” Kern has dedicated her Johannesburg concert to the memory of Visser. “He was such an important person for me and for many other artists,” she said.

Digressing from her usual repertoire of traditional Russian music, for her Johannesburg concert, Kern plays Classic and Romantic pieces, including one contemporary Russian piece, by Boris Frenksteyn that was composed for her.

“I begin with several Scarlatti sonatas which I first heard in a life-changing performance when I was eight years old. The pianist was the great Vladimir Horowitz. It was in Moscow and my grandfather had one extra ticket and he asked me to come with.”

She’s played Schumann’s Kinderzenen – which features in the recital’s second half  – “since my son was a baby. The work offers such a moment of peace.”

The recital is long, she says, but “so exciting.”

  • Olga Kern’s concert at the Linder Auditorium in Parktown is on February 20, for the Johannesburg Music Society. Visit www.jms.org.za for further details.