JONATHAN LOWE) You're a wonderful Chopin interpreter, and also Rachmaninoff and Liszt. I've been trying to find the program you played for your Carnegie Hall concert earlier this year. Was wondering if you played Scriabin, who was a Horowitz favorite, and if Scriabin or other great Russian composers like Prokofiev are in your repertoire.
LOLA ASTANOVA) First of all, thank you for the kind words. My Carnegie Hall concert was a tribute to Horowitz and, of course, I chose my program with that in mind. I had to perform Scriabin's Etude Op. 8 No 12 as an encore because a tribute to Horowitz would simply not be complete without it. Growing up Horowitz was a big influence, and being from Russia myself I do feel especially strong connection to Russian composers. Perhaps, now even stronger than ever. In a way it is my chance to go back in time and revisit my homeland, and I think I can relate to how Horowitz and Rachmaninoff must have felt. So, of course, Scriabin and Prokofiev are in my repertoire.
JL) With Byron Janis as a mentor, do you have a favorite recording of his?
LA) I grew up listening to his records and have many favorites. I’m completely in love with his Chopin interpretations and currently listening to his Chopin album. Etude Op 25 No. 7 is my absolute favorite – it’s simply breathtaking. Maestro Janis is a true Chopin expert and listening to him speak of Chopin and hearing him play is a unique experience.
JL) How often do you practice, and do you go to Russia on vacation now? What do you do for fun?
LA) I practice daily for about three or four hours, unless I am on the road, in which case my schedule changes a bit. My family and friends live in the United States, therefore I don't go back to Russia often. As for fun, I always enjoy spending time with my loved ones and close friends, especially when we travel together somewhere exciting like Lake Como in Italy. People often ask me what kind of music I listen to, and sometimes I enjoy things that are opposite from what I normally play on the piano. For example, I love listening to electronic and house music because it gives me energy. I work out three times a week and love being active. Sometimes, I can go to Soho and spend an entire afternoon on a 'date' with New York City. I rarely watch television, but I love to watch make-up gurus on YouTube (laughs). Still at the end of the day, playing music is when I have the most fun.
JL) You share an opinion in common with pianist Yuja Wang regarding fashion. She sees dressing like she does as no big deal, something the press has overblown. She says, and I agree, that one should dress according to their age, meaning she won't be dressing in miniskirts at age fifty. The point is to enjoy life, and if you have a fashion sense there's no reason to force yourself into conforming to stereotype. After all, the classical music world needs some shaking up, as a boost to flagging attendance and record sales. Any thoughts to add?
LA) The fashion question almost always comes up these days, and I see many pianists trying to look sexier, each according to their taste. Whatever their reasons, in the end I think it is good for the industry. As for me, I never tried to shake anything up or put on a certain dress hoping that it might boost attendance, record sales or get a few extra headlines. I have always loved fashion and viewed it as an art form. Beyond that I choose my outfits based on the music I play on any given night and how it makes me feel. One is a continuation of the other.
JL) I've noticed on YouTube performances of pianists that, besides the silly or stupid comments many immature people make, others love to criticize and compare pianists to their favorites. Is this just par for the course, as they say...part of the job that has to be accepted?
LA) People will always compare, judge and state their opinions. It's just the fact of life, and I actually don’t see anything wrong with that. Art is also very subjective and everybody view, understand and interpret things based on their intellect, experience and taste…or, in some cases, lack of those. I've learned that very early on, and I’m completely indifferent to comparisons or any sort of “skin-deep” criticism. Regardless of whether those comments are positive or negative. What's important, in my view, is to know who you are inside, to constantly grow, to set your own standards very high and work hard to satisfy them. Everything else is, quite literally, just noise.
JL) Bravo. That's interesting you also enjoy electronic music. What also shows an adventurous originality is the short film you made featuring the infamous Op. 3 Rachmaninoff prelude. I love the idea of a mannequin come to life, and what it implies symbolically. What inspired the film, and why that particular prelude?
LA) Every piece I choose to play is deeply personal to me. I have to relate to it with every cell of my body and be obsessed with it. If there is no such strong connection, I won't touch it at all. This Rachmaninoff prelude is one of my most favorite pieces. It strikes me as grandiose, dramatic, mysterious and in some ways despondent. So it felt like a natural “soundtrack” for this short film: a piece of music that captures the many emotional states that an artist goes through. As for the film, the idea was to give every viewer the freedom to think and interpret it for him or herself. To me, it is about finding one’s voice and not letting anything or anyone break you. I hope it also gets people to think about the life of an artist and what happens after the music stops. It was dedicated to the memory of Alexei Sultanov.
JL) What's next for you? Any concerts or new programs upcoming?
LA) I am constantly working on something new. At the moment I am drawn to Schumann, Liszt and Prokofiev. I am also very excited about a film series project that we are contemplating with Byron Janis. I don’t want to give away too much, but I think it will be very honest, personal and captivating. This summer's highlights will also include Palermo Classica Festival in Italy where I will perform Rachmaninoff concerto No. 2 as well as a performances in California with the San Diego Symphony and Maestro Jahja Ling. More interviews HERE.
An interesting audiobook on the subject of the romantic era of music (including performance illustrations), is DISCOVER: MUSIC OF THE ROMANTIC ERA by David McCleery, narrated by Jeremy Siepmann. It's a broad history starting with Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, and moving through Liszt and Chopin, giving listeners a feel of how classical composers worked and lived, and most of all how music evolved into showing more emotion.