On October 26, 2016 Ukranian pianist Liana Paniyeva performed at the weekly Dame Myra Hess concert in the Chicago Cultural Center, also simulcast on WFMT. Her program included works by Gluck, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel.
In a word—sensitivity.
For those of us lucky enough to see her perform live in Preston Bradley Hall, the delicacy with which Liana handled the music was all the more apparent by watching her light strokes on the keys and especially during the up and down the keyboard flourishes in her finale, “La Valse”, by Ravel. Curled over the keyboard as she played, at times she seemed to be inhaling the gentle zephyrs she so aptly summoned from the keyboard. When the music called for contrast, her fingers lightly danced as if to underline that there was no need to pound for the piano to shout.
Having had the chance to talk a bit with Liana before the performance, her choice of opening with Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice” struck this reviewer as especially apt. Here is music so achingly gentle, that is actually the score of the lead character marching to hell. And here is Liana, a pianist with a touch so exquisitely light, that nobody in the audience would suspect how this music helps her escape the terrifying hells of war.
Liana had only moved to the US two years earlier when war broke out in the Ukraine. She recounts, “It was incredibly hard. All my family—my mother, father, sister, uncle, everyone—were in the war zone…They were in a bad location. During the bombing I couldn’t get information. There was no Internet, no electricity.
“Finally, after a few weeks I got a call. My sister—a nurse, five years older than me—called. She was crying. She couldn’t really talk- she was just crying. I learned that they were okay. They had been inside the house when it was bombed. It had only been luck. If my mother had moved the house would have crashed down on her.
“Every day, I never knew if they were still alive. In September it was especially difficult. People would say to me, ‘How was your summer?’ They thought I had gone to see my family. They had no idea.
“My family is still alive. But everyday they have no idea what they will face that night. This is now normal for them. War isn’t everywhere. But they are in the center of Donetsk, and this is where the bombs come….”
Actually, Liana’s family is not originally from Ukraine. Ethnic Armenians, they had fled there from Baku during the war, when Liana was four years old. In Baku her mother had been a ballet dancer, and then became a math teacher when the family moved to Ukraine. Her father continued his work as an engineer. It was her aunt who noted that Liana had a keen interest in music when she was only five, who then urged her parents to send her to music school.
Liana has been so immersed in music since that age that she draws a total blank if you ask her if there is another career beyond pianist that lures her. As an adult, she has won competition after completion—from Italy, to Israel, to the US. Her performance calendar has taken her from Carnegie Hall to Scotland, to South Africa and across the United States.
Most of the time, Liana is all about practice at the University of Hartford from where she received an Artist Diploma and where Liana continues her studies under the mentorship of Anastasia Seifetdinova.
Most of Liana’s friends are fellow musicians who have similarly driven rehearsal schedules. The difference is that for Liana a part of her attention is always on the war she has left behind.
Take a good look at Liana enjoying the aerial view at the Sears Tower or the monkeys she met during her concert tour of South Africa. How can you not, like this writer, hope she finds many many more moments of joy such as these to counter the pains and anguish of war-born worries?
Inspiring and talented musicians such as Liana Paniyeva are the stars of the weekly free Dame Myra Hess concerts, simulcast on WFMT. To hear Liana’s performance visit this podcast on WFMT’s website. To meet other similarly inspiring Dame Myra Hess musicians visit Picture This Post’s growing story, “Meet Dame Myra Hess Musicians — and Hear More”.