Classical music

Valentina Lisitsa: international woman of mystery

The Globe and Mail

Valentina Lisitsa

For one week during the World Cup, Valentina Lisitsa put a webcam in her practice studio in North Carolina. For 12 to 14 hours a day (her usual practice time), anyone could go to Ustream and watch the Ukrainian pianist labour over Beethoven sonatas and Rachmaninoff preludes. She thought maybe a handful of people would watch, but in the end her practice sessions were seen by 16,000 - the equivalent of nearly six sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall.

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I found out about Lisitsa by seeing one of her videos on YouTube, a hair-raising tear through a Rachmaninoff etude ( Op. 39, No. 6, "Little Red Riding Hood"). The video has been seen by nearly 900,000 people, many of whom must have wondered, as I did, where this blazing virtuoso has been hiding. Lisitsa plays the piece as if the outcome were a matter of life or death. She may be the most exciting pianist you've never heard of.

Unlike most people who put videos of their classical performances online, Lisitsa has a real concert career. She has played Wigmore Hall in London and the Musikverein in Vienna, has recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and toured widely last year with violinist Hilary Hahn. Lisitsa has two Chopin recitals at this year's Festival de Lanaudiere (the second is Thursday) near Montreal, and a new recital disc on Naxos (out digitally on naxos.com, and on CD this fall).

She went on YouTube five years ago, because her life was in turmoil and every other channel was failing her. Her manager died, she became a mother and she and her partner Alexei Kuznetsoff moved to rural North Carolina to restore a ramshackle mansion big enough for her four concert grands (her specialty, she said, is Venetian plaster). She had too much of everything to do, except concerts to play. The steady stream of dates she had had since she and Kuznetsoff won the Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition in 1991 trickled to a halt.

"I used to think if I just give it my best, everything will work out," Lisitsa told me on the phone last week in fluent, heavily accented English. "It was the fallacy of the better mousetrap, and it didn't work.

"I thought, 'Am I just going to perform for myself, or do something useful?' I was ready to go work as a translator for the CIA. I filled out the application online, but I didn't have the heart to press the Send button."

Instead, she began promoting herself, both online and in her community. She played free concerts and launched her YouTube career as classical music's international woman of mystery.

Eventually she got a new manager (at the same agency, Columbia Artists Management in New York) and her concert life revived. But the lesson of self-reliance she learned was not to be forgotten.

"One piece of luck was to hook up with Hilary [Hahn, the violinist]" she said. "I learned a lot about the business from her. At first I was kind of appalled. I was a real practice rat, just sitting practising for hours. I would see Hilary on the phone, talking to publicity people, and think, 'When is she going to practise?' "

Following Hahn's example, she pruned down her own abundant recital repertoire to a single program she could play in 40 or 50 places. It's the program on her Naxos disc, minus a few Rachmaninoff preludes she used as a kind of opening salvo.

"People have certain prejudices about how a tall, blonde, female pianist will play," she said. "For me, those preludes were like a slap in the face - like, 'Okay, listen to me, and stop looking.' " More shocks were in store, during the high drama of her performance of Beethoven's ' Appassionata' Sonata (which is on the disc), the sudden swerve into the reflective sweetness of Schumann's Kinderszenen, and the eruption into flashy showpieces by Liszt and Sigismund Thalberg. Lisitsa wrote her own program notes, not the usual stuff about sonata form, but ironic mini-essays that linked the pieces to the social and personal upheavals going on when they were written.

She likes pianos of dark, dramatic character (in Lanaudiere, she's playing a rare Steingraeber, made by the Bavarian company whose roster of past clients includes Franz Liszt) and emotionally resonant pieces of whatever vintage, though her contemporary repertoire is slim. She would love to play more Mozart, but plans to steer clear of Bach "till later in my life, when I grow up. For now, my brain is running around too much in all directions."

She's planning to record all the Beethoven sonatas, as well as Chopin's etudes, which she'll tackle at a studio in Hamburg on Aug. 18 and 19. The Ustream webcam will be running, "so people can see all the dirty business that goes on, wrong notes and everything."

Lisitsa has several recordings in the bag already, waiting for some company to agree to release them. She's not convinced that the record business as such will last much longer. From her secluded North Carolina mansion, built on a wide river in the salad days just before the market crash of 1929, Lisitsa has a good berth to ponder the ruin of expectations. But she also knows, better than ever, how to break through to an audience, one computer screen at a time.

Valentina Lisitsa plays Chopin at the Festival de Lanaudiere Thursday night. For full details, check lanaudiere.org. Hilary Hahn and Lisitsa play Koerner Hall in Toronto on March 1.