Interview by Tanya Levy (MGBH)
Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): Why did you choose piano as your profession?
Asiya Korepanova (AK): I was born into a family of musicians – a composer and a pianist. With me being the only child, they did not want me to become a musician considering how hard it is to be one. Watching my mother practice piano when I was barely 3 years old, I was trying to take her seat and “practice” as soon as she would leave the piano. My dad, a composer himself, would listen to a lot of music. I grew up in that environment watching him get emotional over different pieces, analyze them, and fall in love with them. So, later on, when I was 6, I became obsessed with listening to symphonic music on LPs and successfully destroyed many records due to overuse! At that point it was clear that music was something that I could not imagine myself without. That was the beginning of my musical life.
PPM: Do you have siblings? Please, tell our readers about your family.
AK: I am the only child, and I wish I had a sibling. But I have two wonderful cousins, and there are people among my friends who are like family to me.
PPM: Do you compose your own music?
AK: I do. I was a double major in piano and composition back at the Central Music School in Moscow, where I was lucky to study with Moscow Conservatory’s legendary head of composition, Albert Leman (OBM). Composing from the early age helped me immensely as a performer and formed my views on a musical text in a very particular way. It made me aware much more about the structure and inner details of a musical composition, and also gave me much more freedom in interpreting those details. I haven’t written anything for the full orchestra yet, but have explored different chamber groups and solo instruments.
I am also fond of writing transcriptions. It is in a sense a very specific way of interpretation, you are putting a piece through your mind, adopting it for piano, and becoming a co-composer, which brings this incredible feeling of belonging. I am putting up my shorter transcriptions regularly as a part of my series “Midnight Pieces” on my YouTube channel, but my main works in this field are complete Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata and Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.
PPM: Please, tell us about the festival that you organize.
AK: Festival Baltimore is a wild dream coming true. I was always extremely interested in how composers’ styles evolve during their lifetime, and because of that it feels very special to me to hear or play a complete cycle of works of a composer, let’s say, complete Beethoven’s cello sonatas or Liszt’s 24 etudes. During the performance, you witness this composer’s lifetime passing through their music before your ears and your imagination. It was my dream to create a festival, where each concert would present such journey, and this dream came through.
The festival is based in a state-of-the-art Linehan Concert Hall on UMBC’s campus in Baltimore. Performing at this venue is a true joy – gorgeous acoustics and beautiful architecture along with comfortable practice and rehearsal spaces are very inspiring, and I am very grateful for the partnership with the UMBC Music Department.
This year, which is our second season, we presented programs such as Richard Strauss’ complete chamber works with piano; complete Robert Schumann works for viola, clarinet, and piano; complete Mendelssohn’ piano trios and sextet, and many more. There were incredible collaborations with great artists such as violinist Gary Levinson (MGBH), clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein (MGBH) and violist Michael Klotz (MGBH). We also included one-of-a-kind works, such as Bartok’s sonata for two pianos and percussion and George Crumb’s Makrokosmos III. What is even more important, Festival Baltimore also includes an academy where students come for intensive workshops on pieces within a cycle. Academy culminates in a filmed and recorded performance, and students can use the recordings any way they want. This year’s students performed complete Tchaikovsky string quartets and complete Rachmaninoff piano duos. I could not be happier about this endeavor.
PPM: Is there a piano piece that you can play and listen to every day and not get tired of?
AK: There are definitely many symphonic pieces like that – Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius, and Brahms symphonies, works by Richard Strauss.
And, of course, I never grow tired of the Well-Tempered Clavier.
PPM: Please, name 3 living musicians that you would like to share a stage with in the future?
AK: Bernard Haitink (MGBH), Herbert Blomstedt (MGBH), and Andris Nelsons (MGBH).
PPM: What was your most memorable performance?
AK: I would say, debuting in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium with orchestra or performing solo on stage of the Chatelet Theatre in Paris were the most memorable. However, my experiences of performing in a prison, in public schools or with the State Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra on the street during the City Day in Moscow were as intense and fulfilling as those in the best concert halls. But also, I think the most memorable performance for a musician is the one where he is able to fulfill his idea and say what he wanted to say at its maximum, without losing anything. It is very hard to achieve, and so these performances stay in your memory forever, no matter what circumstances were surrounding them.
PPM: What was it like for you to work with Vladimir Spivakov (MGBH)?
AK: It was a wonderful time being able to step onto professional stage and travel to different countries to perform at a young age as part of maestro Spivakov’s Charity Foundation and later on, as a soloist with his orchestras “Moscow Virtuosi” and National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Through that orchestral collaboration I also was lucky to work with conductors such as Ion Marin, Hans Graf and Enrique Mazzola.
PPM: You have worked in collaboration with many prominent artists. What is your advise to those who are just starting to think of collaborating with others?
AK: I think it is really important to be able to listen and understand what your partner tries to express through music. Sometimes the ideas may be the opposite of yours, sometimes they match. In each case you need to have flexibility to adjust while still staying true to your own voice. Sometimes you also need to be able to convince your partners to adopt your ideas, and it takes sensitivity, ability to inspire and spark interest.
PPM: You have developed and performed several multimedia projects with your own poetry and drawings. Please, tell our readers about them: what was your inspiration and what they were all about?
AK: I have been drawing and writing poetry since a very early age, and it was always a happy activity for me. I would usually get inspired towards the late night, and my parents would let me stay up seeing I was in the “zone.”
I have drawn some pictures for Divine Comedy, which I read at 7, wrote poems dedicated to some artworks of great masters that I loved, wrote romances to my own poetry, wrote poetry for Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons” that the studio of my music school professor was performing. But it was only during my late teens that I thought of writing and drawing at the same time for something I played.
My first project, Euphoria after Liszt, is based on 12 transcendental Etudes (and I am actually about to expand it to 24 etudes, since last year I started to play the whole set in recitals). It includes a set of 12 poems and 12 drawings – one for each of the Transcendental Etudes. It has been an incredible experience performing Liszt with projections of my drawings and narrating my poems before each etude. That project was created in 2007, and since then I also treated the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Tchaikovsky’s 18 pieces, op. 72 the same way. Bringing different art forms together benefits each of the arts and inspires each other.
PPM: Your first performance with orchestra was when you were 9 years old, wasn’t it? Please, tell us what you remember from that experience?
AK: It was definitely the most exciting day in my life at that moment. It brought a very strong sense of purpose as I also was performing my own cadenza in the first movement. At the dress rehearsal, I was so mesmerized by the orchestral introduction in the second movement that forgot to enter my part! Thankfully, at the concert everything went smoothly, and I just thoroughly enjoyed the process of what would become one of the most intense parts of my musical upbringing. By now, I have performed over 55 different concerti with the orchestra and still have my dream list not completely fulfilled.
PPM: Are there any funny/interesting stories that you would like to share that happened during your performance?
AK: Once I had a balloon from a graduation party the day before descent on stage from the ceiling right above the piano, while I was playing a very poetic piece by Tchaikovsky! It looked like it was staged, when it wasn’t.
Another time I had a stage light explode above the stage right at the last chord of the second movement of Prokofiev’s Second Concerto – it was so dramatic.
PPM: Please, tell our readers about the non-profit organization? What inspired you? When did you started? What is it all about?
AK: After winning the Nina Wideman (MGBH) Competition in Shreveport in 2012 I’ve got a line of performances throughout the country in 2013-2014 season. That’s when I was first asked to perform at one of the art schools during my tour, just as a visit. I was performing a challenging solo program at a time and seeing a huge crowd of kids thought that playing a highly energetic final movement of Rachmaninoff’s First Sonata would be fun for them to watch and hear. It turned out, they were absolutely stunned with the music and so I kept playing other serious pieces for them -–Ravel’s Ondine, Bach-Busoni’s Chaconne and such. The kids were coming up to me after this little performance telling me how there were bored at their piano lessons before because they did not find their study pieces interesting and how they now want to get back to playing. That was a turning point for me – I started asking organizers of my concerts at different places to let me play at local schools and continued playing “grown-up” music for them with invariably excited response. Last year, I started a non-profit “Music for Minds” to help me not only play for kids more, but also involve my colleagues in that. The non-profit also has a second role in running classical music festivals with unusual programming, open for children to listen to. At Festival Baltimore, each of our concerts is free for kids up to 18 years old.
PPM: Please, tell our readers about your upcoming DVD release where you perform at Tchaikovsky birthplace.
AK: I performed 18 pieces, Op.72 at Tchaikovsky’s birthplace on his memory day, November 6 on the year of his 175’th anniversary. The live recording of this recital is coming out as DVD. I almost share the birthplace with Tchaikovsky, I was born just 25 miles away, so this connection means the world to me!
PPM: What does your performance schedule look like for this year?
AK: Overall, next season I am bringing Liszt’s 24 etudes back on tour through several cities in the US and working on editing and releasing my recording of the three Rachmaninoff piano sonatas featuring my transcription of the Cello Sonata. There will be a tour supporting the release as well.
Also, I will be returning to Miami Piano Festival with a program called “Heroes”: Beethoven’s Eroica variations, Wagner-Liszt’s Tannhäuser Overture and my transcription of “Ein Heldenleben” symphonic poem by R. Strauss. Besides that, there will be other recitals and performances with orchestras in the US, Canada and Russia and several chamber music projects, including the third season of Festival Baltimore.
For me, the season starts on August 17 at the Bargemusic Series in New York city. Full schedule is regularly updated on my website.
PPM: What do you enjoy doing during your down time when you are not in your work mode?
AK: I am often sleep deprived, so I love to catch up with sleep when I can. Reading is amazing, too, when you are not in a rush or on a way somewhere. I love making things by hand, all sorts of DIYs – bead jewelry, knitting, sewing, and embroidery. Drawing is a passion, of course. And I love cooking for friends!
PPM: What is your teaching philosophy and what methods do you employ in teaching?
AK: One of the hardest things is to teach a person how to listen to himself and understand what is missing/needs improvement. In masterclasses, I often find musical and passionate people with completely wrong physical habits on the keyboard and the opposite – perfect technique with no artistic vision. I have discovered for myself that if you play a piece, it helps to know all the works that were written by that composer within five years of that work’s creation, and, preferably, all other works of the same key, and same genre. That knowledge sometimes can teach you more than hours of tutoring – it informs your understanding of the style, phrasing, gives you interpretational insights, flexibility and ideas. Diving into composer’s output also makes you feel like you almost know them, and you start making better musical choices intuitively.
I strongly believe musicians need to know music broadly and specifically. Unfortunately, it happens more often than we want to think, that record collectors know music better than us.
When I teach, I make students aware of their body and the way different muscles work, help them build independence of fingers and guide them in being attentive to the author’s text. After the basics are done, we proceed with working on the structure of the piece, understanding its shape and direction of different episodes. That work eventually shapes the interpretation.
PPM: What is your dream as an artist?
AK: My dream is to mesmerize as many people by classical music as humanly possible. Classical music has unparalleled properties, most of them quite far from the sense of just “entertainment” – healing, inspiring, energizing, exciting, uplifting, fulfilling, and – bringing wisdom, sense of time and beauty into one’s life. I want to make sure these things not to fade behind the newly acquired show business values adopted by the classical music world.
PPM: What is your favorite food?
AK: Oh, I love so many things! I love complex baked multilayered pies, where you make your own dough. I enjoy doing it when I have time. When run short on time but still feel like baking something, I enjoy making oatmeal cookies, which I have a special recipe for. I smash a banana into a puree, add 4 tablespoons of oatmeal, a tablespoon of flax seeds, a tablespoon of chia seeds, 2 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds, 4 dried figs cut in small pieces, 4 dried apricots cut in small pieces, some raisins, mush all that together, form little cookies and bake for 20 min at 350 degrees. The cookies turn out sweet and fulfilling.
PPM: Can you share an interesting story from the times that you travelled?
AK: Once, after my performance of Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody in Sarasota, Fl 7 years ago, an old gentleman who came up to me and told me that he was 98 years old and as a boy heard Mr. Rachmaninoff premiere this piece himself! I was fascinated!
PPM: What personal and professional qualities do you value in a person the most?
AK: I value curiosity, willingness and ability to learn and grow, ability to see situations from different perspectives, and consistency. I value when people do what they do with love and dedication and cannot stand formality and attitudes like “I do not need to know/learn/try more, this is not necessary for me to be able to be okay.” I guess I am a perfectionist!
PPM: What does your first and last name mean?
AK: Asiya is a Persian name and means “one who tends to the weak and heals them.” But also, Asiyah is a Hebrew word that represents the physical dimension of the world in Kabbalah. Korepanova is just a popular last name from the region I am coming from – Udmurtia.