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An Interview with Evgeny Kissin

Evgeny Kissin’s connection to Carnegie Hall is legendary. In 1990, he made his famed debut, launching the Hall’s centennial season. Now—for the Hall’s 125th anniversary—he returns as a Perspectives artist to curate a series in which he explores his artistic interests and musical discoveries. Throughout this historic series, the virtuosity, versatility, and penetrating intellect of one of the world’s greatest pianists will be on full display. In advance of his return to Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage, Kissin discussed his upcoming concerts with Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director.

Clive Gillinson: It’s going to be an extraordinary year for us, having you so much at the center of our season. It’s something really remarkable and special. You in fact made your recital debut here at Carnegie Hall in our 100th anniversary season. Tell me a little about that performance.

Evgeny Kissin: I remember that when I went on the stage and started playing, I felt very nervous and that’s why I played a number of wrong notes in the first half. And then during the intermission and in the second half, I was able to—as we say in Russian—take myself into my own hands. Fortunately, people perceived that well. In one of the reviews, the author said the few wrong notes only showed that Kissin was human after all. That was very kind of him.

CG: For the first time since Horowitz, you will be playing the same recital program at Carnegie Hall twice in one week. That is also a huge tribute. There are so many people who want to see you perform that they’ve been seated alongside you on the stage during your past recitals.

EK: When I gave my first-ever solo recital, I was only 11 years old. It took place in a smaller venue in my native Moscow, which only had 600 seats. The tickets were free, so they had to put lots of seats on the stage. In fact, the entire stage was literally covered with seats. After the concert, my teacher asked me whether the people sitting on the stage had been disturbing to me. I replied immediately the way I felt: “No, they were helping me.” I loved that from the beginning.

CG: Also as part of your series you’re doing an evening of Yiddish poetry and music by Jewish composers. Were you brought up speaking Yiddish or was this something you learned more recently?

EK: I was not brought up speaking Yiddish, although I heard it quite a lot in my childhood. When I used to spend summers with my maternal grandparents in their country house, they spoke Yiddish a lot. And then when I grew older I felt like really learning the language.

CG: What about the works you’re performing by lesser-known Jewish composers as part of this concert?

EK: A number of years ago, I heard a recording of the Bloch Sonata, which is a wonderful piece. And last year I took part in the Pro Musica Hebraica concert series in Washington, DC, organized by Charles Krauthammer and his wife, Robyn. The Krauthammers started sending me different scores of Jewish music, of which I chose the ones I thought were the best.

CG: I remember you telling me that you probably got the best reviews of your entire life for that evening. In terms of Yiddish, do you feel it’s important to keep the language alive because it relates so much to the Jewish heritage?

EK: Yes, I do indeed. Every language is a treasure. Every nation’s heritage is a treasure. Yiddish is a very rich and expressive language. Wonderful literature has been and is still being created in it. So yes, I do feel that this is something that should be kept alive.

CG: When you were a very young pianist, were there artists whom you admired, perhaps whose careers you wanted to emulate? Or were you more focused on your own music making?

EK: I don’t think I was thinking exactly in that way because I’ve never been ambitious. Once when I was being lazy, my piano teacher said to me, “If you continue practicing so badly, they won’t allow you to play piano and will make you play drums,” to which I replied, “I’ll play drums so badly that they’ll make me play piano again.”

CG: I’m amazed to hear you say you were not ambitious. So what drove you? How have you arrived where you are now? When did you really know you wanted to play the piano?

EK: I don’t think there was such a moment in my life when I consciously decided that. Nature decided for me. But I guess it’s impossible not to love music when one has a musical talent.

CG: If you were not ambitious, was it just the love of music that drove you?

EK: That’s exactly it. Since early childhood, I had a natural urge to play piano. I loved playing piano for my own pleasure—not to prepare for my piano lessons.

CG: And was there somebody who was pushing you or it was all coming from inside?

EK: Pushing me to practice? Yes, they had to push me, although during the rst few years of my music studies I could do without that because things were very easy for me. Later on as I grew older, of course, that changed. Then I realized that in order to play well I had to practice a lot. And I simply wanted to play well—not because I was ambitious, but just as an artist.

CG: Speaking beyond music, do you have any other aspirations? Are there any other things you want to do with your life?

EK: I say quite often that life brings its own surprises. For instance, only a few years ago, I never imagined—wasn’t even thinking—that I would be writing prose in Yiddish and that it would even be published. Yet that is what’s happening now.

CG: In terms of Carnegie Hall, what are the most memorable times, most memorable events you’ve been involved in here?

EK: I guess my debut was the most memorable event. Since then, I have been playing here, I think, every season. So it’s hard to single out some of those many performances. But I am aware of the fact that one never knows what may happen tomorrow or even the next moment. During each one of my concerts, I think about the fact that this may be my last one and try to do my very best.

CG: Well, those concerts are some of the greatest musical experiences any of us will ever have.

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