Meet Chicago-based classical pianist Yana Reznik, one of today’s stars of the piano world. Yana’s concert performances take her all over the world. She has been compared by some music critics with such famous pianists as Vladimir Horowitz, and the great American pianist William Kapell.
From Russia to California to Chicago
Born in Moscow, Russia, Yana took her first piano lessons, Raisa Bekerman, who became a major influence in her life. An early teen, she then moved with her family to the USA. Today it is Raisa Bekerman who now attends Yana’s concerts, with great pride in being of of her early mentors. Coincidentally, Bekerman now also lives in Chicago.
Yana is now quite at home in the USA and Chicago in particular. She says that when she first got here it immediately felt like home. She loves the feel of the city— the buildings, the parks, the trees, the streets, the people, and even the smells, (with spring lilacs and lilies of the valley reminding her of her childhood in Russia). Yana feels that the people living here are so down to earth and genuine. She now has been in Chicago for three years. She loves living here.
To this writer, Yana’s attitudes about life seem to reflect both Russian and American aspects, with a brightness and unpretentious that is very American but also with a strain of deep philosophical thought that seems entirely Russian. Her wide ranging piano repertoire seems to reflect this—she is quite at home with Rachmaninoff and Gershwin, both of whom are specialties of hers, among others.
Classical Music Advocate
Most of all, Yana is a fervent advocate of trying to build a bigger audience for classical music. In recent years she hosted an online video program in which she had extended conversations with noted classical musicians. Her thought is that as people get to know classical musicians as people, as well as performers, they will find a kinship with classical music they might not suspect. (See her website for examples of her playing and her PLAYFUL TALK interview shows.)
In person Yana is a stylish, highly attractive woman with a wonderful sense of humor, an infectious laugh and warm smile. Her English has only the slightest trace of an accent and she could easily pass for the girl next door from Chicago.
On May 20, she will be playing Robert Schumann’s concerto with the orchestra of the Music Institute of Chicago’s Academy, which trains gifted pre-college musicians who will go on to study at places like Juilliard School, Curtis Institute, etc. She has just been appointed instructor of piano studies at the Music Institute of Chicago.
The following are excerpts from an extended interview done in her lovely south loop apartment.
RK: What is your feeling about the state of Classical Music today in terms of audience and growth of interest in Classical Music?
YR: "It is an important thing to me, a kind of mission, to expand the audience for classical music, especially to the younger generation. I’ve always been fighting the idea that classical music is dying, and want to let people know that classical music is alive and kicking.
“For example, this particular concert coming up of Schumann’s concerto is done with high school age kids who are determined to devote their lives to music. When I see this young generation so passionate and dedicated about music it makes me really excited about the collaboration. I get inspired by them.
“I should say I don’t think classical music in on the wane, People take a lot of statistics to mean that—, like the fact that people don’t go to symphony hall as much as they used to, and we are losing ticket sales. This is true, but there are a lot of small organizations and musicians, that do smaller concerts. This is a whole new direction for audiences. Artists used to wait for the larger venues to pick you up and promote your career. That is no longer exclusively how it works. These days lot of musicians feel empowered to take their artistic lives in their own hands and build unique career paths. There are really a lot of fascinating independent projects which are not dictated by the management of major venues like big symphonies.”
RK: Do you think the internet is a new way people are now experiencing classical music?
YR: “I think the Internet is a powerful new forum to promote classical music. One can see that sales of classical CDs are down. On the other hand, interest in listening to classical music on places like YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora, is way up. People don’t even need to download it. They can just play it off the Web or subscribe to a music service. You can find just about anything you want to hear on the Web these days.
“In preparing for this upcoming Schumann concerto concert I listened to practically every great pianist doing this concerto on YouTube. You can hear things you have never heard before. Whether it is happening in Switzerland or Paris, newly recorded or in the past, you can have access to it. Honestly, I think what’s rapidly emerging is that instead of paying for subscriptions to a major venue like a symphony, people these days would rather pay a bit and go to concert in a private home. They get to listen to music up close and personal, have a great time, drink beer or wine and have a chat with the artist after the concert. This is entirely different matter than being distanced from the stage in a large auditorium or concert hall. Unfortunately, there are no statistics about how many people organize or attend these private events. But from my experience, there is a lot of this going on today, and this is a change in the way classical music is listened to.
“My whole career has been built on organizing these type of unique more personal concerts, sometimes organized by other people and sometimes organized by me. These are done in all sorts of places: in houses, art galleries, studios, stores, industrial buildings. In some ways, the cooler and crazier the place the better. Young people don’t really like to go to mansions and hang out with rich people they can’t relate to.”
RK: What sort of music do you find is popular with young people in Chicago?
YR: “I find a lot of classical ensembles here are actively exploring new composers. By this I don’t necessarily mean only living contemporary composers but composers of the past who write first-rate music but are not as well known as they deserve.
"I think part of the reason there sometimes seems to be less excitement in classical music venues is that so many people have heard so many of the famous classical warhorse pieces by so many great composers and performers over and over again. Sometimes they are a bit jaded with them, marvelous though they are, because they are still the same pieces over and over again.
“There is so much to hear beyond these warhorses. How many times can one hear Beethoven’s fifth symphony and feel as if you are experiencing something fresh and new? People can get a little enervated with the same programs.
“There can be a kind of catch-22 situation in classical music circles. Sometimes venues are afraid to program less familiar works because they are afraid they won’t sell tickets. I feel many people don’t come because it is ‘the same old Chopin.’ One solution is that orchestras sometimes adapt. For instance the L.A. Philharmonic, does one standard classical and some unfamiliar works on practically every program and it seems to work to grow interest and add some fresh excitement to concerts.”
RK: Speaking of standard classics, let’s talk a little about the Schumann concerto that you will be performing with the Music Institute of Chicago on May 20th.
YR: “You know I have known this piece practically all my life, but only as a listener. I have not performed it before and so I have never really studied it closely. After one starts studying a piece in great detail one discovers new things about it. When one actually performs it, it becomes, in some important ways, a new piece. I have listened to a lot of live performances as well as recordings through the years. But as a performer I find myself trying to dig into what Schumann really had to say instead of what other performers bring to their interpretations. Subconsciously, of course, what you have heard in other performances is there engraved in your mind and your ear. That makes getting that fresh approach to it very difficult.
“There are such glorious things in this Schumann piece. The last movement is this wonderful non-stop dance that just keeps going and going and turning around, exuberantly stomping about… Matching the energy in the music is difficult. The last movement of the Schumann is almost exactly the same material twice in two different keys, and yet this whole movement is meant to be sweeping and exciting for the listener. Making the second part even more exciting than the first part of essentially the same music is the challenge for the pianist. That pretty much happens in the first movement too. There are two parts that are very similar. Then this very beautiful melody comes in the middle and everything just stops for this lovely moment and then starts up again keeps going with power and energy. The structure of it is quite challenging to bring off with the proper build up and momentum.”
RK: How do you approach learning a piece?
YR: “I keep practicing and as I practice I take the whole thing apart, harmony by harmony, the fingering and hands, understanding what is happening where, and how to manage the different voices. I usually start slowly then gradually get it up to tempo, then I slow down again, rethink and do it over until I get myself familiar with everything. Then I run through it a couple of times to get the arch of the entire structure. One also has to judge the flow of energy— one might get tired in certain places and one has to relax and save energy and then know when to let it all out and go for it. One has to find the right way to get the arc of the music dramatically balanced, which involves knowing the moods and the character of what Schumann had in mind.”
RK: Is there something you feel is particular about Schumann’s concerto versus other concertos you play?
YR: “Well, it makes me feel a bit naked onstage as there isn’t necessarily a lot of pianistic pyrotechnics in the orchestra to hide behind. It is very soulful and intimate and the piano part is very exposed. I am right in the center of things and there are very few times when the orchestra is full on and you are behind it The pianist is really exposed for most of the piece. Most of the time it is just piano, piano, piano and when the orchestra really does come in I am not playing. There are some lovely wind obligatos but they are as accompaniment to the piano. It is also technically difficult—it doesn’t lay well under the fingers.
“One has to keep in mind this is a very personal piece for Schumann as it is about the deep love between he and his pianist wife, Clara,who first performed it. The beautiful second movement is actually a kind of love conversation between Robert and Clara, absolutely.”
RK: Can you comment about the lifestyle of a classical pianist? Is it a hard sort of life?
YR: “I think the lifestyle can be somewhat difficult in some ways. If you decide to be a concert pianist and travel all the time that is not an easy lifestyle, of course. You travel from one place to another, do your concert,then move on to the next place. I had fun and saw a lot of interesting places and people. After a time though I found it a bit enervating. I felt I had lost something of my inner passion and motivation on some level, as I didn’t feel I had anything permanent.
“So I did that for six years but longed for something aside from constant travel. Now I mix travel and having my roots with my husband in Chicago. Not that I am really complaining.
“On the other hand, I can be my own boss and decide what sort of life I want to have. As an independent performer you actually have a lot of freedom. If I decide that I want to take the summer off, or play at a festival in Europe, or travel at leisure, I can just do that. Whereas several of my friends who are not musicians maybe get two weeks vacation the entire year that they have to plan with their families, and that is a tough life too— a very difficult lifestyle in a different way.”
RK: I understand you will be doing a lot of teaching. Can you give me some perspectives on your feelings about teaching?
YR: "l focused for many years on myself and my personal growth as a performer. At some point you look back and see what you have accomplished. Even though I connect with people through my music it is a different thing having a relationship in depth and personal with a student. Somewhere along the line I found in teaching a new kind of fulfillment in having an effect on another person’s life. I never expected to fall in love with teaching as much as I have. I find a great joy in sharing what I know and having an effect on a student’s life. As a teacher you don’t only have an effect musically, but you actually change another person’s attitude to life when you really work closely with them. I want to teach them everything I know including a broad range human —how to deal with life, how to build the skills and confidence, about life and passion, and everything else that is behind being a first rate musician.”
RK: What’s coming up for you in the near future? What is upcoming next for you? I understand you will be traveling to Europe for some concerts.
YR: “I am heading off to Europe for a bit of a rest and to see some sights with my dear husband, Andrey, who is my best critic and I might say the person who most inspires me. He challenges me because, to be honest, I want to impress him as he impresses me all the time; his personality, his passion, his drive for life. He is finishing his long residency at University of Chicago Hospital.
“In Europe I will also doing some concerts, most notably at the Gopesberger Festival in Spiz, Switzerland. There are performers there from all over the world, doing solo performances and chamber music, and it is very exciting to be working with such talent. I really like to get my “Europe Fix” once a year as there is so much to see and do there. The audiences are also different—for one thing they show up! This is not always the case with American audiences, it can be like pulling teeth sometimes to get them to come out.
“Of course, a lot depends where the concert is being held. However, there is also great support here from musicians and also I find there is a certain curiosity about classical musicians, as people are not really that familiar with them like they are with movie stars. I once had dinner with actor Pierce Brosnan, who is a very nice man, and though I was a bit star struck sitting next to him and chatting he was full of intelligent questions about what being a musician is like. I often find that people don’t know that many classical musicians and so they are curious about our life and attitudes. It made me realize people are interested in musicians on a human level not just as performers. Though the Internet there is more and more access to the personal lives of musicians showing what interesting and multi-faceted people they often are. One sees blogs and interviews online where people get to know the artist as a person, which develops interest in classical music from another angle. That is a very positive thing.
"Another project I want to pursue is continuing my program of interviewing classical musicians that I started at Pianoforte Studios. You can still see episodes on my website. I would like to find more backing and do that program again, only have it produced by someone, instead of doing the entire work myself It was an enormous amount of work to do all the background work and host the show too. Another thing I might like to do is professional theater, as an actress. I used to do some of that when I was younger and I think it would be wonderful to do something in that realm again.
“… But for now…it is the Schumann concerto, a marvelous piece, and trying to do the piece the in a way that brings it to life again in a fresh way.”
Photos: Robert Kameczura
About the Author:
Robert Kameczura is an artist, photographer, critic, curator and arts writer. He has done work for Big Shoulders Magazine, Chicago Artists News and many other publications. He is active as an arts organizer and has worked at passing several pieces of legislation that support the arts, including the City of Chicago Public Art Program, Chicago Artists Month, and more. His work is represented in many museums and private collections. His art and photography can be seen at his website at www.kameczura.com