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Yulianna Avdeeva was the First Prize winner at the prestigious International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in 2010. Trained at the Gnessin Special School of Music, Avdeeva also won top honors at the Geneva International Music Competition in 2006. Since 2008, she has studied at the International Piano Academy at Lake Como. Below is a transcript of our October 2012 conversation with Yulianna Avdeeva; a condensed version of the interview was published in the S.F. Examiner newspaper.
EH: At what age did you realize that your musical gifts were perhaps a bit unusual ? Are you from a musical family ?
Avdeeva: My parents are actually not professional musicians, but I have to say that they really are big music lovers. My father has a very large collection of recordings, and from an early age I was listening a lot to this kind of music. When I was young, we had an upright piano at home and my parents noticed how very interested I was in it. I was always playing around, trying to touch the keys of the piano, singing and dancing (laughs). They somehow got the idea to see if I had a good ear. So they brought me to the Gnessin Special Music School when I was five, and the greatest luck I’ve ever had was being introduced to my teacher, Elena Ivanova. She was a fantastic teacher for me, and I studied with her from the very beginning and stayed with her until graduation, thirteen years later.
I don’t remember if I was motivated or not at five – I think probably not (laughs) – but my parents did not force me to play the piano. They would simply remind me sometimes, ‘hey, now it’s time to practice’, and I would. My first impression of wanting to become a musician was actually at my first public concert, and I was six years old. It was at a museum in Moscow and I played two Tchaikovsky pieces. And, you know, something very funny happened: my parents and teacher told me to not be afraid when I got on stage. But I just remember that from the moment I stepped onto the stage, it was a very interesting, very new feeling. I have yet to discover another feeling quite like it. When you are sharing great music with people, there is something that connects us, even if we don’t know one another. As the years went on, I realized that sharing great music was the only thing I wanted to do in life, my only wish.
There are also many charities in Russia for gifted young children, and I actually played in San Francisco in 1997. I was only twelve, but I had the chance to play on stage regularly, all over the world, something that I think is very important. I established very early on what I was practicing for; there is a big difference between this experience and practicing for hours and hours, with no satisfaction and no results.
EH: What are your thoughts and habits with respect to practicing ?
Avdeeva: I have to say, I don’t consider practicing to be only the hours I spend at the piano. Of course, it depends on the situation – where I am, etc. – but a very important part for me is the mental practicing. Music is constantly playing in my head – almost 24 hours a day, even when I’m sleeping – so it’s difficult to say how many hours I practice per day. I often play the piece in my head, away from the piano, and solutions will come. I also like to learn sitting with the score, away from the piano, and I think of phrasing and even technical aspects. I learn exactly how to play the passage when I spend time mentally practicing like this. So it’s difficult to say how many hours I spend doing this (laughs).
EH: At what age did you begin thinking of the problem of piano technique ? Which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand ?
Avdeeva: My teacher in Moscow, Elena Ivanova, started me on little Bach pieces from very early on. Immediately, the focus here was on the proper position of the hand. You learn how to solve technical problems with these pieces and with this idea. Czerny studies were also at the very top of the list in my education. If you play the Czerny studies, you can play almost anything – Chopin, Liszt, etc. My teacher is a very creative person, always thinking and looking for different solutions for phrasing and technique. At every lesson, I learned something very different. With the Chopin studies, they’re not only technically difficult (exhales), but there are also so many demands! (laughs) Everybody has difficulties with different things, but I find the slower studies to be very difficult and very, very demanding.
EH: You’ve won one of the most prestigious prizes in music. What is your opinion on the subject of competitions and how they mold the young pianist ? Have audiences been affected by the strict demands of competition ?
Avdeeva: I think that for young pianists, it can be very useful to prepare for competitions. You learn different repertoire, you create programs, and you learn how to really focus on stage – which are all very important for a career. These are essential skills, and as long as you are not playing competitions for the sake of playing them – every week, every month or year – you will definitely learn something from them. For myself, when I prepared for the Chopin competition, or even previous competitions, I never said to myself or felt, ‘Ok, now I am playing a competition, so I must play differently,’. You know, the people who are sitting in the hall, they are only there for the music. Their experience is not about the note-perfect performance, and for me, that has never been my wish. I wanted to somehow feel normal, to not be stressed by trying for perfection and no wrong notes. It has always been about the music and not the wrong notes.
EH: On November 11, you will be performing Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto in San Francisco. About your time in Warsaw, what did you discover, being surrounded by the atmosphere of Chopin’s homeland ?
Avdeeva: It was such a beautiful time that I spent in Warsaw. You know, the city is so inspiring because every single place in the historical center reminds us of Chopin. Sometimes, you even get the feeling that he is still alive, that he is still around us. For me, it was very inspiring just to see the places that he’s been to: the church where his heart rests, the café where he used to frequent with his friends, etc. It all just smells like he was there!
Actually, the place where Chopin used to perform the F minor Concerto by himself, a private circle, it’s in the old apartment of his parents’ house. It’s in the middle of the city and you can visit the dining room where he performed this concerto for his family and friends. Can you imagine? If you are there, I don’t know, it’s just all so pretty, because it you feel like he is in the room. I was so happy to see and feel all of these things. The love of the Polish people for Chopin is another thing that is absolutely… they just adore his music. There is nothing quite like it. It was very inspiring and for me, very, very moving to be there and experience that.
EH: Out of curiosity, which edition of Chopin are you partial to ?
Avdeeva: In general, for all Chopin pieces that I play, I use the new Polish edition, by Jan Ekier (b. 1913). For me, this is a fantastic point of inspiration. You know, Ekier traveled across Europe searching for all of Chopin’s original manuscripts. So what I have in front of my eyes is actually Chopin’s will. It is so important for me to understand not only what he’s left me in the music, but to try to understand what he meant by his indications. Sometimes, in these editions, there are some very new things that appear very unusual, but I think it is very important to be faithful to the composer’s will. But of course, the moment you understand that will, it should be a personal touch that brings it all to life. At one point, you have to let it go. You know exactly what’s in the score, exactly what Chopin wrote, but you must really play it from your heart.
EH: Over the years, you must have listened to and studied many recordings. For you, which pianist do you consider the most agreeable for Chopin ?
Avdeeva: Oy! (laughs) I have to say, this is a very difficult question. Chopin’s music can be played in so many different ways. There are so many fantastic musicians that I adore, I cannot choose just one (laughs). But I do love Paderewski very much, and not only his Chopin recordings. It also depends on my mood, however. I think this makes Chopin’s music so unique, because the spectrum of possibilities is endless. You know, there are so many recordings that if you try, you can find what suits your own imagination, and you can learn so much from them!
EH: Outside of Chopin and the Romantic composers, are you equally comfortable in the classical Germanic composers ? You’ll be performing Beethoven’s Emperor concerto in San Francisco the following night.
Avdeeva: Yes! I have to say that for me, it’s very difficult to say that I am only interested in Chopin. I am naturally quite a curious person, and I love to learn about different styles and types of music. I love the Baroque and Classical repertoire. It is also very important to understand how music has developed from Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, to the Romantics and the music of the twentieth century – one has to know these things. There is a connection, even with contemporary music. My repertoire is quite wide, actually, and I am very open to the contemporary repertoire.
EH: It is difficult to not associate your name with Martha Argerich, the last woman to win the Chopin (1965). What are your impressions of this legendary musician ?
Avdeeva: I think she really is a unique and fantastic musician. It’s actually quite difficult to describe her. The energy and her approach, the way she feels the music is very unique. My first meeting with her was, of course, after the Chopin competition, and we’ve had some wonderful conversations ever since. For me, she is an inspiration, a very unique person. You know, you feel the fire she has for music, and she shares this fire and energy with you. I feel so inspired, like I’m flying, every time after I speak with her!
EH: You once mentioned that literature is essential for the understanding of a composer. Outside of music, what are the other art forms that have captured your imagination ?
Avdeeva: I think that literature is, of course, a very important part of my life. I read a lot, but it’s not only about reading. You know, Chopin was surrounded by many great artists of his time: George Sand, Eugène Delacroix, etc. When you see the works of Delacroix, they inspire you. You get an idea, a smell of what Chopin might have been thinking, the things he saw all around him at the time. It’s like being in a time-machine where you can see and feel the style, the problems that people encountered in this time. For me, it gives you a wider picture of Chopin’s life and his music. You know, I love reading and going to exhibitions, because that’s where I find the inspiration. It’s definitely not only about practicing the piano.
EH: In your opinion, what is the most important function or purpose of performance art
Avdeeva: Well, I think music is an essential part of us. It is always around us, even when we don’t notice it. Going to the concert hall, listening to classical music, it gives us power, it gives us energy to go on in difficult and sad situations. But it is also useful for when we are happy. Music is one of the great gifts, you know, a power that we can experience. There are so many great musicians who know how to use this power and energy, to touch us in a special way. I think I’ve said too much (laughs), but it is what I believe (laughs).
EH: Yulianna, thank you so much for taking the time today. Congratulations on all of your success, and we look forward to hearing you on the 11th and 12th.
Avdeeva: Thank you! It was a pleasure speaking with you!
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