The Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa will appear March 15 at Festival of the Arts Boca, where she'll perform Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" with Miami Beach's New World Symphony and conductor Peter Oundjian. It's a safe bet many people in the audience that night will have first seen Lisitsa in an entirely different context, crushing the keys in splashy Liszt etudes or hyper-romantic Rachmaninoff concertos in YouTube videos that have been viewed more than 50 million times.
In a recent phone interview from Paris, Lisitsa, 42, spoke about her early life in Russia, her career in the United States and her online stardom.
At age 5, you started playing the piano in Kiev. Your technique is impressive. Does it belong to a special school or a teacher, or is it just a gift?
Actually, I started when I was 3 years and 8 months old. No, it wasn't a Russian school or teacher. I get puzzled when asked about this, because we have Rachmaninoff from the golden age of pianists and the newer school with all the competitions — very athletic, very clean, a nondenominational type of playing to please the jurors and the audience. If that's what you mean, no, I don't belong to that. But for the Rachmaninoff school, yes, absolutely.
In 1991, you and your husband, Alexei Kuznetsoff, won the Murray Dranoff Two Piano Competition in Miami. You could have taken up a two-piano career, but instead you decided to be a soloist.
The choice was difficult, but for different reasons. Yes, we came to the U.S. as wide-eyed youngsters, all excited, ready for this two-piano career. We had been taught once we got to the West and made a name, everyone would embrace us, and if we worked hard, everything would come by itself. In U.S. business schools, they teach about success by "whomever makes the best mousetrap." That was never taught in Russia. When we won the Dranoff two decades ago, we thought we would live happily ever after. We believed we could play serious music, but our promoters wanted to market us on the circuit as entertainers playing popular tunes, and we refused.
You have had huge success with your YouTube videos. How did this come about?
YouTube turned out to be a lucky medium for me. This week, I think I have 55 million views, which is kind of meaningless because it is so big. Every day, there are about 50,000 people around the world who listen to me play. When I stop and think about it, I get a little chill. It's like playing every night to a full sports stadium.
Rachmaninoff spoke about zolotaya serefina or the “golden mean” as a key to his music. How do you interpret his music?
It really does not mean much to me, because Rachmaninoff is all about extremes: extreme emotions and feelings. Not only was he a great composer, but he was arguably the best player of his piano works. Some people said he played too fast. Richter and Evgeny Kissin play his works slower. The golden mean was really a rule to break.
Your upcoming concert at Festival of the Arts Boca programs Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" with conductor Peter Oundjian and the New World Symphony. It's called a concerto, but is it really?
It is not really a concerto, because there is more orchestra actually at the beginning than piano. The parts are spread out. There is no traditional form like a slow or fast movement. The piano is part of the orchestra. But there is something about this music, especially with the notion that Rachmaninoff is some sort of "Romantic dinosaur" living in the 20th century. I once spoke to an elderly gentleman who played in the orchestra while Rachmaninoff played the "Paganini Rhapsody." He liked the piece so much that after the concert, he said, "Maestro Rachmaninoff, this is the best piece of 20th century music." And Rachmaninoff, with his heavy Russian accent, replied, "Young man, this is not a piece of 20th century music. It is my commentary on 20th century music."
In January, you became an artist on Decca Classics with downloads of Rachmaninoff.
In fact, Decca will be releasing the complete set of Rachmaninoff's concertos and the "Rhapsody" on March 11, just before my concert at Boca March 15. That's part of my big Rachmaninoff project with them. Then, in the pipeline, there should be Beethoven and Chopin and some secret projects. [Laughs] But it's fun.
Valentina Lisitsa will perform 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 15, at the Mizner Park Amphitheater and the Cultural Arts Center, 433 Plaza Real, Suite 339, in Boca Raton. Call 561-368-8445 or go to FestivalOfTheArtsBoca.org.