Codifying what it takes for superior musicianship is the central concern of the Golandsky Institute’s Princeton residency, which returns to the university campus for the eighth time from Sunday, July 10, to Saturday, July 16. A daytime symposium delivers insights about the intersections between technical comfort and interpretive power. Six evening concerts, the International Piano Festival, allow audiences to savor performances by world-class pianists on the concert stage.
Russian pianist Pavel Nersessian opens the concert series on Sunday, July 10, at 8 p.m. at Taplin Auditorium in Fine Hall. His program includes Waltzes and Mazurkas by Frederic Chopin, as well as Chopin’s Fourth Ballade; Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons, Op. 37; and Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12.”
The year 2011 is the bicentennial of Liszt’s birth, and the symposium includes special events honoring Liszt. A lecture by Elena Sorokina, professor of Russian music history and piano at the Moscow Conservatory, includes rare recordings from the early 20th century of pianists who studied with Liszt or with his pupils. Sorokina’s presentation takes place Saturday, July 16, at 11 a.m. Princeton University’s Scott Burnham explores Liszt’s response to specific works of poetry and visual art in his “Annees de Pelerinage” in a presentation on Wednesday, July 13, at 1:15 p.m.
Non-Liszt events are included in the symposium. Among them is Princeton University composer Steve Mackey’s discussion of his compositional process for a new piano concerto before its upcoming premier by pianist Orli Shaham. Mackey explains his process in a joint presentation with Shahan on Sunday, July 10, at 4:30 p.m. All symposium events and concerts are open to the public.
Edna Golandsky, a New York City-based pianist, founded the Golandsky Institute in 2003. Her work is based on Dorothy Taubman’s discoveries about playing piano in the 1940s. The Taubman/Golandsky approach develops technical proficiency without physical tension. Remarkably, Golandsky and her associates retain the freshness needed to identify musicians gifted with a free approach to their instrument, whatever its source.
Pianist Pavel Nersessian has no Taubman/Golandsky background. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory since his childhood and graduated in 1987. Invited to teach at the school immediately after his graduation, he is now a professor at the Conservatory. An active performer, his trajectory includes Tokyo and Osaka, Caracas and Rio de Janeiro, Cairo and London. In the United States he has performed in Los Angeles, New York, and other cities.
“I have an Armenian name,” Nersessian writes via E-mail from Moscow, “but I can track at least four nationalities and cultures in me — Armenian, Finnish, Belorussian, and Jewish. I could have inherited names from any of these backgrounds.” Having adjusted radio receivers as a profession, his father is now retired. His 81-year-old mother is a doctor in a clinic. “My parents are musical, but they don’t play any instruments. They simply listen to classical music and enjoy it. My mother started to learn piano, but in 1941 she had to stop because of World War II.”
Nersessian reveals a sunny view of music. What did his teachers stress in his training as a pianist? “That music is a pleasure,” he says, “for a player, as well as for a listener. Starting with pleasure, you can go deeper into many other things — emotional, spiritual, educational, and so forth.”
Describing himself accurately as a gifted child, Nersessian notes that his pleasure in music developed gradually. “When I was nine or ten, I had been taught music for three or four years,” he says. “At that time I started to feel something remotely pleasant, not before. Still, I enjoyed my education a lot, even at the very beginning. It seems to me that inborn musicality and musical education help each other.”
Before completing his studies at the Moscow Conservatory, Nersessian began teaching. “We had a wonderful assistant professor who died in a car crash when I was doing my third year of graduate work. My professor asked me to listen to other students.” His advisees were roughly his contemporaries. “It was not too difficult to help friends. Not long after, they became my students.”
Nersessian likes to dissolve the barrier between teacher and student. In his earliest days as a teacher, he played for students and sought their opinions. “I still do it now when I need some advice with a new program. It narrows the gap between students and teacher.”
Although he tends to be chatty, Nersessian can also be terse — in a good way. When I ask, “If you had to give a piano student one piece of advice, what would it be?” he answers with a single word: “Enjoy!”
Nersessian has won every one of the fistful of competitions that he has entered: a Beethoven competition in Vienna the year he finished at the Conservatory, competitions in Santander, Spain, and Tokyo, Japan; and the G.P.A. Dublin competition. His American debut at New York’s Alice Tully Hall in 1993 came shortly after his Dublin success.
Invited to compare competitions and performing as a concert artist, he declines. “There are too many differences for a short article. It’s like the difference between reading books and selling books. But the most important core element, the genius of music, is there in both.”
Nersessian sees American audiences as “usually very friendly compared to other countries.” American listeners please him because they are “warm and welcoming.”
He says: “Romantic music of the 19th century might be my favorite repertoire, but I feel extremely happy that piano repertoire is huge and that the choice is enormous.”
Princeton’s Adrienne Sirken, executive director of the Piano Festival, reveals that actually Neressian was not originally slated to open the concert series. “As originally planned, Josu De Solaun, who opened the festival last year, was scheduled again this year. Everything seemed to be in order, but then, rumblings of visa problems started.” De Solaun is a Spanish native.
“Early in May it became clear that Josu would not be able to stay in the United States beyond May 31,” Sirken says. For a concert presenter the gap between May and early July is close to infinitesimally small. What to do with so little notice? Without taking a breath, Sirken began the search for a replacement for De Solaun.
“I was very lathered up about this,” Sirken says. “I looked through lists of pianists I had heard, I listened to them again, and I spoke to everybody I know, whose judgment I really trust, about the possibilities for a substitute. Late into the night I was on YouTube tracking down references.”
Since April, Sirken had been in touch with Ilya Itin, a repeat performer at the Piano Festival. She was especially concerned about Itin, who had arrived in Tokyo within weeks of the tsunami to teach at the Musashino Academy. When Sirken mentioned the dilemma of De Solaun’s cancellation to him, he said “I may have a pianist for you.” Itin was enthusiastic about a concert played in Tokyo by a long-time friend from Moscow — Pavel Nersessian — and sent Sirken a link to Nersessian’s performance of Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse” on YouTube.
“After about 10 seconds of listening, I thought ‘This man creates a world!’” Sirken remembers. Turning to Nersessian’s primarily Russian website, she used her limited language skills. “I knew what the letter ‘R’ looks like in Russian,” she says, “and I figured that the long name was Rachmaninoff. The opus numbers helped because numbers are the same in Russian and in English. I found recordings of Nersessian’s Schubert and Rachmaninoff. I tracked down an interview made after the Irish competition.”
Happily, there would be no logistics problem about Nersessian getting to Princeton. As a member of the piano faculty for the Summit Music Festival at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, he would have to be in the United States in any event. The Summit Festival, which is devoted to chamber music and instrumental training, runs from July 24 to August 14.
Golandsky approved and the invitation went out. Sirken pursued the matter by E-mail, Skype, and telephone. She remembered that in his interview from Ireland Nersessian had described his passion for architecture. “When Pavel said that Princeton had been a dream for him since he was a child, I told him about the Frank Gehry building at Princeton [the Lewis Science Library].”
Nersessian was delighted with the invitation. He says in his E-mail, “Princeton is a mythic name for me. It thrills me to be invited to the Golandsky Symposium. I expect that the morning after my recital I’ll be able to walk around and see the beautiful campus with its famous chapel, and so on.”
Piano Festival, Golandsky Institute, Taplin Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, July 10, 8 p.m. Pavel Nersessian, a Russian pianist, presents a program featuring works of Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Liszt. $30. 877-343-3434 or www.golandskyinstitute.org. Visit website for full schedule of symposium and concerts.