Internationally known and celebrated pianist Vladimir Feltsman will make his debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra this weekend playing the great Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1.
This is quite a coup for the orchestra, because Feltsman will replace an equally eminent pianist, Alexander Toradze, who had to withdraw because of some health-related issues.
Feltsman made a splash with the Moscow Philharmonic in 1963 when he was 11 years old. He then studied at leading conservatories in the Soviet Union and in 1971 won the Marguerite Long International Piano Competition in Paris.
By 1979, however, Feltsman was very discontented with the restrictions on artistic freedom and applied for an exit visa but was denied. Over the next eight years, the government banned him from performing in public and yanked his recordings from the airwaves and from record shops.
After Mikhail Gorbachev brought more openness to the Soviet Union through the policy of glasnost, Feltsman was granted the permission to leave.
His arrival in New York City in 1987 and debut at Carnegie Hall was a sensation. Ever since then, he has performed concerts all over the world, made 64 albums, and taught at the State University of New York, New Paltz.
In a phone interview, Feltsman mentioned that he first performed Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto when he was 17 years old. Since then, he reckons that he has played it hundreds of times.
“Now that I am 67 years old, I have been playing it for a half-century,” he joked. “I am beginning to learn the piece, you know.”
Feltsman has always enjoyed this concerto, which is one of the most beloved works for piano and orchestra in the repertoire. It is filled with beautiful melodies and lots of emotional, expressive content.
“It is a great work that is overplayed, I think, very badly,” noted Feltsman. “It is much misunderstood. It is a much more subtle work than many people realize. To me, it is a lyrical concerto first of all and very personal. It has a funky final movement. It is not bombastic and athletic like some people do, especially the young ones.”
For Feltsman, each performance of the Tchaikovsky is unique.
“Keeping the music fresh is never an issue with me,” he remarked. “I never get bored with whatever I play. If I don’t feel that special live connection to a piece, I just don’t play it. With Tchaik One that has never been an issue. I never play it the exactly the same way. The music is something special.”
The Tchaikovsky piano concerto is the first of two major Russian works on the program. The other is Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. Like Feltsman, Rachmaninoff was also internationally famous pianist who moved to the United States. In fact, Rachmaninoff toured widely and came to Portland several times to give recitals.
Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was an unmitigated disaster with the audience and critics, and it took him 12 years before he completed his Second Symphony. That effort quickly became a big success, and the composer received the Glinka Prize for his new work in December 1908.
The piece starts with low subdued tones, but it transitions to tempestuous phrases and settles into gorgeous melodic lines that can sweep you off your feet. Pop singer Eric Carmen found the lush melody of the third movement so compelling that he used it in his 1976 hit song “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.”
Although Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are famous names, it has never been easy for composers or performers of serious music to create a career. That situation has not changed all that much over the years, and Feltsman is keenly aware of it.
“We live in a technical, pragmatic time,” said Feltsman. “Young people and not so young people who are willing to dedicate their whole live to music, I applaud them no matter what the outcome, because it takes quite a bit of idealism, guts, and integrity to do that. There is in our business no guarantee for those who play the piano.”
Just last month, Feltsman published, “Piano Lesson,” a book of essays on learning, practicing, performing concerts, and making recordings that he hopes can useful for any musician. He and his wife, Haewon, established Feltsman Piano Foundation to benefit young artists. He is also the founder and artistic director of PianoSummer at New Paltz, a tuition-free festival for top-tier young pianists.
“I love to give back,” said Feltsman. “If it is not given, it is a loss.”