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Highway 89: Vassily Primakov

SKP: I want to ask – [Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy” Op. 15] is such a difficult piece. I mean Franz Schubert was to have said himself, “the devil may play it,” meaning, “I can’t really play it, but somebody maybe,” and here you’ve done it for us today.

VP: The reason I picked it out for you guys today – well the story is simple. A few years ago in 2002, I was competing with it in Salt Lake City, it was one of my pieces. Back then I practiced it like crazy, sort of like a maniac, and I really loved it. To begin with, I chose to play that piece because I really loved it musically. But then after the competition process was over, I actually stopped paying it and I haven’t played it – well now it’s more than ten years, it’s more like twelve or thirteen years. Now I got back to it with a different agenda because I realized that I kind of missed it. I really wanted to play because the music is gorgeous. Yes, it’s extremely hard. I’m still trying to catch my breath (laughs).

SKP: (laughs)

VP: You know, I think it’s worth it. It’s just such a joyous piece, especially if you think of Schubert and it’s one of his early compositions where I think he is so full of energy and hope and joy. It’s fun.

SKP: You knew what you were getting into at a very young age. I mean, you weren’t just taking piano because music was cool, but you had the idea from a very early age to be a professional musician.

VP: Yeah, I consider myself very lucky that way because-

SKP: The actual quote we got from you was, “I have nobody to blame but myself”.

VP: Yes, and I stand by it because the reason I say I’m lucky is because I see a lot of musicians around, me and my colleagues, who were, I don’t want to say the word “forced” but they were sort of born into becoming a musician because they are from a musical family. I’m not saying I’m not. My mother was a pianist so obviously I grew up surrounded by classical music. However, my mom was not really keen on the idea of making me a classical musician. So, when people ask me, for example, when did I start playing, technically it’s 8 years-old but the difference is I was the one who approached my mother and I said, “I want to play piano”. I was very firm in that. You see, it was really my decision and I kind of right away envisioned myself, that I would just sort of draw myself in the world of classical music and practice. I never complained when I had to practice hard and for a few hours because again, I made that choice.

SKP: So was she hesitant because she knew what the life of a musician could be?

VP: Yes, yes absolutely. It’s very hard, you know, it’s very hard for musicians and I think – well as a mother I don’t think she wanted me to go through all of those struggles and ups and downs I guess you would call it. Once she realized that I was determined, she was of course extremely helpful in my musical upbringing.

SKP: So we read that when she was trying to find a teacher for you, she didn’t tell people that she, herself, was a teacher. Why was that?

VP: Well you know it’s very interesting. It’s an interesting lie because the first school I ever [went] to, my mom took me there and there was a wonderful music teacher. So she started me and was officially my first teacher even though my mom of course gave me lessons before. My mom obviously told her that she taught in an institute and she herself was a pianist and the reaction was kind of like, “Oh, since the mother is the pianist, she’ll do all the dirty work and I’ll probably do very little”. So my mom was very upset about it because she realized that the teachers were expecting her to do most of the work. So my next teacher – I don’t think it was an easy decision for her honestly – but she basically decided that she [wasn’t] going to say that she [was] a musician, you know. So she didn’t, she just said, “I’m just a mom”.

SKP: And maybe that’s good for family relations too, to have somebody else be your teacher.

VP: Yeah and it actually worked like a charm. My next teacher was very – I still remember it. It was wonderful working with her and she was very determined to get me going.

SKP: You have such an interesting life with ebbs and flows. You’ll have periods where you’re relaxing, you’re practicing and then we read about a recent time where you had fifteen concerts in thirty days.

VP: Yeah

SKP: So it’s all on, all off, feast or famine?

VP: It’s pretty much always like that, you know? It’s either there’s a lot or there’s nothing. When people ask me, “what’s your schedule like,” I say “it’s very chaotic,” because things come, concerts come, in packs I want to say. There is suddenly five in a row and then there’s a gap of three weeks of nothing. You know, I don’t necessarily like it because – I love being on the road and doing five concerts in a row – but then that three-week [of] doing nothing, I don’t like. Because, you know, I sort of start going into a little bit of a depression honestly. It’s like, oh there’s nothing to do.

SKP: (laughing) but practice for hours and hours.

VP: Yeah, but you know we all need moderation. You practice only for a specific date and when there’s no date looming, you are just, “oh I have time”.

SKP: (laughing) “I’ll get to it”. Let me ask you about Chopin. We’re so pleased that you’ll play a couple of Mazurkas for us, you really seem to have a feeling for this. You’ve recorded all of the Mazurkas.

VP: Yeah, I think – the reason I have the feeling is mainly because- well, [it was] one of my first series works that I played. I was ten years-old and it was a waltz by Chopin. To me, back then it was sort of something of a Mt. Olympus.  It really felt so hard and so complex in terms of – not just technically but also I realized right away that there was such an emotional world behind it. I was drawn to it. I was always drawn to challenges, not things that are easy. Actually in general, I choose my repertoire not – sometimes it’s a mistake to be honest with you – I choose a repertoire that challenges me. Not necessarily - you know, there are some pieces that are extremely easy for me to play and if I play them all my life, you know, I’ll be in good shape. But I don’t like that, I like to have a challenge. So Chopin, at the end of the day, is a challenge.

SKP: Well let’s hear this piece, Mazurka in A minor.

---Song break

SKP: When you’re playing these and you’re working with dancers, how does that affect your performance or interpretation?

VP: It actually affects my performance greatly, in fact. So there are ten Mazurka’s that they’re dancing to and I play all of the Mazurka’s but of course there are certain ones that are in my repertoire more than others. Out of the ten that they dance, I want to say about five of them I played a lot, a lot, a lot. I got a tape from them, the tape that they were practicing to and I realized the performances are so different. They’re more square. Not necessarily less beautiful, they’re just more square. I found it quite difficult for myself to sort of re-do my interpretation altogether. In a way sort of strip my interpretation, just strip it to bare bones and come to the first rehearsal, which was yesterday, with sort of a fresh stake on things and just sort of follow the choreography and help them to establish their choreography. Actually it’s already established, so that’s why it’s kind of tricky but I love the process. I [had] done this before, I worked with choreographers before and I think it’s an interesting collaboration for a musician because you’re no longer in the center of attention so to speak. You are actually accommodating this group of dancers, it’s fun.

SKP: As you play the pieces, are you able to see the dancers?

VP: I don’t. I mean, I see a little bit so I have my queues and that I am able to see. I don’t really see the full picture unfortunately. So I am looking forward to the set that - they are actually taping it so I will be able to see it afterwards.

SKP: (laughing) you’ll finally be able to.

VP: Yeah

SKP: This collaboration with the Salt Lake Repertory Dance Theatre, celebrating 50 year for them. So they wanted someone good and they got someone. I have to ask – you have a great story – about playing the piano and there was something very surprising about the piano when you were a very young man. You just went in and had to play on whatever the instrument was.

VP: Yeah, well in general this is part of our profession, you know, playing on different instruments all the time. Sometimes you don’t have time to really adjust so in Russia with my teacher, we used to travel a lot. There were those evenings like – professors evenings where basically all of her students got to play. We usually played in a small hall at the Moscow Conservatory, a quite prestigious and important event. So she used to do run-throughs in smaller towns. That one I will never forget because – well we played on all sorts of bad instruments. I mean instruments that had legs falling off, and keys missing. One time we actually had a performance, we arrived very late and the piano lid was closed, the lid that closes the keys, and the girl that was starting the concert goes out to try the piano to warm up. She opens the lid and there is no mechanism. There are no keys.

SKP: (laughing) No one noticed

VP: So apparently the technician took it home to kind of fix things but then, its Russia we’re talking, he probably got drunk and forgot to put it back in. So the concert was delayed by two hours. We were waiting for the action to arrive. My story however, revolves around the so-called “red piano.” I was very young and the town was Tula I think, if I’m not mistaken. So we took a train, the train was delayed also so we didn’t really have time. We had just arrived backstage and the concert had to start. So the announcer went on stage and announced me. I was the first person at that concert because I was the youngest. I played a few short pieces and I came out and there it was. The brand – I don’t think they make it anymore, it’s a very Soviet thing – Red October. They came in different colors too. So there was a Red October that was black, then there was a white one, there was sort of a midnight blue, and then there was red. So we got lucky. We had a red Red October. We’re talking about bright red, not like burgundy or anything, just pure red. I lost it.

SKP: (laughs)

VP: I mean, I played so badly because I could not concentrate, the color was so bright. And you know, it was a stage with big lights. So it makes it even brighter. I really remember feeling like the bull because – when you spent your whole life practicing on pianos that are either black or a very nice brown. The color doesn’t irritate your eyesight. So suddenly there is something like that. I mean the reason I would never forget that is because I remember playing so poorly and was so upset by that because that stupid thing just ruined my performance.

SKP: (laughing) you have to get special glasses for the red piano

VP: I know

SKP: But you made it work, mostly.

VP: I got through it, as they say, yes.

SKP: You’ve talked a little bit about performing – a lot more than just getting through and saying, “okay there were no wrong notes so it must have been good,” but there’s something else. What are you looking for in your performance?

VP: You know, I actually was thinking about it recently. I never consider myself this kind of pianist that is like a virtuoso pianist, you know? I cannot play, for example, Long Long Way by Damien Rice super fast and super clean. Because I never actually – as I remember myself as a child, I never had that trajectory. I always tried to find something in the music that I can sort of deliver to the audience. You know, the message that is in whatever piece I’m playing. My thing – actually it’s a good and a bad thing because I get so involved emotionally and spiritually, just connecting to the piece. I sometimes actually forget that there’s the virtuosic aspect. To me, honestly that’s the most important thing. As a listener for example - I got to a lot of concerts [of] my friends and other musicians – I’m never really fully satisfied emotionally if I got to a concert to hear a very well-taught musician who plays well, who plays clean and fast. I come out of that concert kind of feeling empty. I’m not saying anything against those kind of performances. As a matter of fact, they should be out there. I just personally don’t feel a connection. I start thinking about my laundry or the fact that I forgot to pick up my dry cleaning. Performers that are not necessarily the most accurate or the most virtuosic – most people who come on stage, we call them artists, they deliver a message [and] they kind of speak to the audience. That’s something that’s been my ambition I guess. I don’t know whether I succeed in it or not but that’s my – I hate the word goal but you know what I’m saying.

SKP: (laughing) Let’s hear one of these Mazurka’s.

--- Song break

SKP: Even though these are short, there is so much packaged in to each one of them.

VP: Oh I know, they’re incredibly complex.

SKP: Van Cliburn, when you competed, he said himself after watching you perform La Valse, “prestigious technique, really wonderful with a sheer look of rapture on his face”. It seems like you really have to feel a piece personally to enjoy performing it.

VP: Yeah, that’s one of the main factors I think. That’s why earlier I was talking about the challenge. Sometimes I take pieces that maybe at first I don’t quite get and I take on that journey to be able to understand. Actually Mazurkas is one of those journeys because I remember when I first was asked to play Mazurkas it was my teacher, Vera Gornostayeva, gave me an opus of Mazurkas and I kind of hit a dead wall. I really had no idea what to do with those pieces. It was a few years before I kind of came to realize what it was about for myself. I mean, obviously my teacher helped, but it was more of a personal journey.

SKP: You know, you mentioned your teacher, Vera Gornostayeva. You actually – I think this was even perhaps a prize to her that you found some of her recordings that were of performances [that] she didn’t even know existed in the archives of Moscow radio. Do you remember playing those for her?

VP: Yes.

SKP: What was her reaction to hearing her own performances?

VP: It was a very moving moment I think, in both of our lives. Actually I did surprise her because when Natalia and I – and Natalia Lavrova is my partner in a small record label that we run, LP classics. When we started the label we kind of right away thought we wanted to bring back some of the historical recordings from Russia, from the vaults of the archives. So I kind of went and dug up those tapes of Gornostayeva. Those were live concerts that were broadcast on the radio.

SKP: Were these on quarter-inch tape reels?

VP: Reels, mostly reels.

SKP: You may have saved them just before they degraded.

VP: Well I mean, I’m actually very grateful we have this archive in Moscow that I think is doing quite a good job trying to preserve all those materials so that’s a plus. They were actually very nice about collaborating with us but she had no idea that those were in existence and Natalia and I first got the materials and we put together the first disc and she said, “well when are you going to send it to her?” and I said, “You know, honestly let’s master it let’s get it in shape and then I’ll send it to her.” So basically that’s how it happened. I sent it to her and then I called her. I was in New York and she was in Moscow and I called her and I said, “Hi how are you?” and you know, we chatted for a bit. Then I said “By the way we are starting this series of CD’s where we’re going to release your recordings and live performances.” Then there was this silence. I think as a pianist I know what went through her mind. Of course one of the first things that goes through [is], “were they good performances? Did I actually play all the notes?” and you know, things like that. Then shortly after, I traveled to Moscow and I spent a couple of weeks with her because my then I had already about 8-9 hours of music, her performances, and we just sat down and we listened because of course we wanted her input, like what she thinks is good and what is not. I mean she didn’t know, for example, that there was a recording of her playing Mussorgsky Pictures or Chopin Fantasy. So it was a revelation, especially because, for example, Mussorgsky Pictures is a recording from 1959 and she’s listening to it for the first time in 2012. We’re talking about a major moment in one’s life. Especially because by then she was about eighty-one, eighty-two and she stopped performing. She was, at that time, only concentrating on teaching. So I think it was a very special thing for her.

SKP: To hear something from herself, in her prime that she didn’t even know had been recorded. That’s quite a gift, actually. The fact that her work can now be heard outside of – for years she couldn’t travel, we understand. So she wasn’t heard live anywhere else.

VP: Over 20 years she was so-called, “blacklisted.” It was a Soviet thing, it was many things, many aspects. At the peak of her career she did get invitations but she never got to the west. So, she played Soviet countries, she played Czech Republic and places like that. Mostly of course, her career was in Soviet Union and she did play a lot of concerts and she had a huge following. But unfortunately people, for example here, only knew her name as a teacher because her wonderful students were traveling everywhere and winning prizes and competitions. We were so determined to do this, to kind of shed light – not that she’s a great teacher but she’s also a great performer.

SKP: What is it you hear in those recordings that you like? That you think, “others need to hear this”?

VP: Well it’s a little bit personal for me obviously because I studied with her for 8 years so I hear a lot of things that she taught us. Mostly, of course, it’s the quality of sound that the piano has to send when you play Chopin or Schubert. The way the interpretation is structured and phrasing and just the architecture of the piece. I truly believe that her playing, for example, represents the best in Russian school. Just as we’re listening to Kilos and Vector, she was among them. I mean, she was actually very close with both. I’m not saying they are playing similar but it’s the same tradition, all fresh and plain.

SKP: So when you go to record today, when you know you have a recording date, how is recording different now than it maybe would have been – it sounds like they were just recording to have an archival copy back then. But what kind of mindset do you have when you go into a recording, to still get that live, that fiery, emotional connection?

VP: Over the years I’ve learned one rule about the recordings: if you want to make a good recording an actually feel good about it you have to take chances. So I think, for me, I use a recording as a tool basically, almost like a rehearsal to see what I can do with the piece. You know when you go on stage, you may take chances but less so because there’s this pressure for playing for the live audience and you are sometimes being a little careful. In studio, I feel that one needs to sort of go the distance and maybe sometimes do something crazy. You do have that notion of you have another take. It’s not like there’s one take and that’s it. I am not a huge believer in making a recording that is really nice and careful. What’s the point? If you’re recording, for example, a Beethoven sonata, there are millions of recordings out there of those pieces that are great. If you’re going into a recording studio to record that same Beethoven sonata, you might as well try to do something new with it. You have to deliver a new message. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

SKP: We’ll we’ve enjoyed your one-take performances here today very much. Vassily Primakov you’re an excellent pianist, you’re collaboration with the Repertory Dance Theatre is what brought you here but we are so pleased that you would make time to play for our Highway 89 audience.

VP: It’s my pleasure, thank you

SKP: There’s information about Vassily’s upcoming tours and projects all online at Special thanks also to Joanne Rolan, the artistic lesion with the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition for helping arrange today’s performance, and congratulations to the Salt Lake’s Repertory Dance Theatre on 50 years of performance.


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