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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 7

Alexander Tselyakov: Dazzling and Sensitive [Web Only]

by Lucie Renaud / April 1, 2001

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Alexander Tselyakov will be the Ladies' Morning Musical Club's guest on April 22. Prizewinner at the Tokyo (in 1983) and Tchaikovsky (in 1986) competitions, this Russian pianist, member of a musical family, now makes his home in Toronto. Called by critics "phenomenal," "a brilliant virtuoso," but also "a fine original colorist," he still retains the influence of the Russian tradition of virtuosity and lushness of sound. He has recorded CDs, done several radio broadcasts and performs regularly here and abroad. Despite his grueling touring schedule — he spends 10 to 12 hours practicing, but still finds it is not enough! — he was able to spare a few moments and granted La Scena Musicale this interview.

La Scena Musicale: Why did you choose the piano?

Alexander Tselyakov: I started piano when I was four years old. My mother was my first teacher. Being very creative, she tried to find different ways to make piano lessons interesting and enjoyable. For example, she drew pictures and asked me to draw as well, told me stories and asked me create stories about what I played. More importantly she taught me to work hard.

Like any kid, I wanted to play outside with my friends instead of spending hour after hour playing the piano. However, she was strict with me and I am thankful for that. I had my first recital when I was six years old, playing Tchaikovsky's Seasons.

I came from a family of musicians: everyone in my family plays at least one musical instrument and sings, so everyone in my family taught me music. It wasn't easy, especially when they criticized me. Nobody asked me if I liked music. My family decided: Alexander should be a pianist. I had no choice.

LSM: What kind of teaching did you receive as a youngster and how were you influenced by your teachers?

AT: I was really lucky. I always had great teachers and I am forever grateful to them. When I was six I went to the music school for gifted children. The school was sponsored by the government and one had to get a scholarship to get in. I had music lessons on a daily basis for 11 years.

The lessons included solfege, music theory, harmony, music form analyses, music history, chamber music, ensembles, piano, and others subjects. Every semester, we had exams. It was similar to a regular Russian music school, but a lot more intensive. I had a great teacher, Mme. Giazanova. She continued what my mom had started. She spent hours with me. Sometimes she would make me work on just one phrase, on a detail or two for hours, again and again, asking me to play the same phrase with different sound, different touch, different articulation. When I was nine I played with Haydn's Concerto with the State Symphony Orchestra. I started entering and winning different national competitions.

After one of those competitions, I was accepted as a student at the Moscow Conservatory without any exams (which is unbelievable and extremely rare for Moscow Conservatory). As a future participant of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition, I could choose any professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Of course I chose the legendary and great Professor Lev Naumov (custodian of the Heinrich Neuhaus methods that are credited with producing the extraordinary strain of twentieth century Russian keyboard masters such as Gilels and Richter).

It was absolutely amazing to find out how many ideas Professor Naumov could bring to the music. He worked very hard. He never played one empty note and his interpretations were always very deep and natural. I was very fortunate to be his student. He had a rule: all his students had to play only by memory and always use their own interpretations. There was never a lesson with just you and the professor, there were always many listeners —and very educated listeners at that!

LSM: How and when did you choose the career, was there a moment when you just knew?

AT: It sounds like a cliché, but I feel that I didn't choose the career, it chose me. From a very early age there was never any doubt in anyone's mind that I would be a musician. I guess you can say that I always knew that this was something I should be pursuing. There were never really any other serious career considerations. Music school led to recitals and competitions, which led to the Conservatory.

After the Tchaikovsky Competition, I was appointed as a soloist with the Belorussia Philharmonic Orchestra. As a result, my yearly schedule had 3-5 concerts each month in different Russian Philharmonic Halls, as a soloist with orchestras and recitalist. Unfortunately for all Russian musicians, it was almost impossible to travel and perform abroad.

After the Japan International Competition and Tchaikovsky International Competition, I had a number of great offers for solo and concertos concerts. However, due to the political and social situation in the former Soviet Union, I wasn't allowed to accept these offers. Unless you had connections, you couldn't do a lot of things you wanted to do. Russian Culture ministers changed a lot of lives.

LSM : You recorded a Russian music CD? Are these the composers closest to your heart?

AT: Of course, as a Russian I'm delighted to bring the genius of Russian music to audiences around the world. Scriabin is one of my favorite composers. I like his mystery, his very specific harmony, so I find it very unfortunate that he is not very popular in North America. However, I am sure that in the future, if performed more often, his music will win the hearts and ears of the North American audience. I also really enjoy Prokofiev. His Sonata No. 5 is one of my favorites. And of course, who can forget Tchaikovsky? I really enjoyed working on Tchaikovsky's Variations. This composition is very rarely played, so it is very important to bring it to life, to try to find a way to show its beauty, to show the audience how colorful and interesting it is. Rachmaninoff does not need any introductions. People like his passion. In the near future I would like to record Rachmaninoff's Sonata, which I will be performing at my upcoming concert for Ladies' Morning Musical Club in Montreal on April 22.

However, my new home is Canada, and it is a great country. I enjoy playing Canadian music. Just recently I recorded music by Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick (Angel's Kiss) on CBC Radio. The composer dedicated this piece to me, and I am very honored by it. There is also a project on the way to record Canadian music on CD.

LSM : What are your favorite piano works? Have some of these works been part of your life for a long time?

It is very hard for me to tell which ones are my favorites. When you work with music, you feel it at that moment, you live in it, you become one with it and it becomes your favorite. But can you play and perform without these feelings? I have been performing on stage for more than 30 years now. Currently I am working on four different concertos: Chopin's Concerto No 2, Rachmaninoff's Concerto No 2, which I will play with the Nova Scotia Symphony, Tchaikovsky's Concerto No 1, which I will play with the Toronto Symphony, and Beethoven's Concerto No. 4. I am also working on a number of solo programs by different composers such as Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff. They all are my favorites. They are all my life.

LSM: Do you have time for teaching? What are the things you would find essential to transmit to the younger generation of pianists?

AT: I teach a bit, but mostly I am very busy preparing for concerts. I practice 10 to 12 hours a day , but I still feel that it is not enough. On a day of a concert I work less, but it is still 4 to 5 hours but I enjoy teaching. I feel it is very important to pass on to the future generation of pianists the love and passion for music as well as the deep understanding of it. I want the younger generation of pianists to be able to communicate with their audience through music, to make their audience feel the emotions and feelings of each musical piece. And I think it is the most important thing that I can pass to my students. Currently, I am preparing one of my students for the Toronto Symphony Competition. I give master classes in various universities and I enjoy doing this. But it's always a question of time.

LSM: Who are the pianists you admire the most (dead or alive) and why?

AT: Horowitz, Richter, Gilels.... It is not easy to explain why in one or two sentences, because they are bigger than life. But in short: most pianists are great performing one or two composers, but these three can perform music by any composer magnificently. Amazing!

LSM: Do you feel classical music is in danger?

AT: Yes and no. First of all, unfortunately, historically, classical music was not for everybody. In the times of Chopin and Liszt, concerts were mostly given in salons. Now the situation has changed—we have beautiful, great halls. When I perform in these halls full of enthusiastic and appreciative audiences, I feel energized and I continue to work even harder.

There are a lot of people who work very hard to ensure that these concerts come to life: producers, critics, journalists in radio and print, and CD producers. These people make sure classical music stays alive, but I'm sure even more can be done. For instance, very rarely do we see classical music on TV, very few movies are made about composers and classical musicians. TV and movies can help bring new audiences to classical music. For instance, in the past when music became recordable, the audience grew immediately.

LSM: Tell us about upcoming projects: concerts, recordings, etc.

AT: So far this year was very exciting for me and is promising to get even more exciting. I recorded a new Russian CD Germany, in one of the most beautiful halls in the world, at Bad Kissingen. Of course I would like to continue the trend and record more Russian music. I am looking forward to the concert for the Ladies' Morning Musical Club in Montreal, then I am off to Halifax to play Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2 with the Nova Scotia Symphony Orchestra. After that, I'll be returning to play in Germany, in Bad Kissingen, then at the International Portland State University Festival in the U.S.A., also with the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, the International Festival in Istanbul, as soloist with the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra, (Beethoven Concerto No.4), with the International Seiler Klavier festival in Germany. I will give recitals at Boston University, in Shostakovich Hall in St. Petersburg with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, with the Warszawa Philharmonic, at Wigmore Hall (in London), at Oxford and Leicester universities in England, at the Gaming Festival in Der Kartause Gaming in Vienna, and will appear in concerts in New Zealand, Malaysia, and Japan. A very busy life as you can see!

Alexander Tselyakov will be performing works by Mozart, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff in Montreal on April 22. For information, call 514-932-6796.




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