Julia Zilberquit, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was born in Moscow, Russia (then still the Soviet Union). My family was a musical one—a family of pianists, I might even say.

My grandmother, Rebecca Rabinovich, now deceased, was a piano teacher and a graduate of the Odessa Conservatory, which was famous in the early 20th century. Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter graduated from there, too. Her teacher was Professor Nadezhda Chegodaeva, one of Scriabin’s students.

My father is Mark Zilberquit, also a piano teacher. When I was little, he was an assistant professor at one of the Moscow music colleges and musicologist.

For as long as I can remember, there was a piano being played in the house. In our 3-room apartment, there was an instrument in each room (a grand piano and two pianos). My grandmother and father had constant visits from their students, and I studied in the third room. I started playing at the age of 4. At the age of 6, I entered the Gnessin School for Gifted Children, where Yevgeny Kissin—we were in the same class for 12 years—as well as Konstantin Lifschitz and Daniil Trifonov also studied.

We used to have a lot of wonderful—I would even say outstanding—pianists over to visit. I had the opportunity to casually listen to them play, and talk to them as people. Among them were my father’s close friends, the late Nikolai Petrov, Lazar Berman and Vladimir Krainev. Interviews with them, as well as Mikhail Pletnev, Grigory Sokolov and others, were included in my father’s book, Great Russian Modern Pianists, published in the United States in the 1980s.

And yet I would name two people as the key figures in my development.

It was my father who was always there for me. Together, we did a lot of work on the sound of my playing and on my repertoire. To this day, we remain just as close. He is the author behind more than 100 publications, including books and essays on musical performance, and today he heads the oldest Russian music publishing house, Muzyka-P. Jurgenson. This year marks the major release of their digital platform , available for both scores and books in Russian and English.

And, of course, there was my Juilliard teacher, the outstanding pianist Bella Davidovich. A pupil of one of the “founding fathers” of Russian piano teaching, Konstantin Igumnov and, after Igumnov’s passing, Yakov Flier, Davidovich taught me both an exemplary level of performance and extraordinary subtlety in my phrasing, pedalling, piano touché and the other essential attributes of Russian piano school. Madame Davidovich has been my inspiration for many years and it was an honour to study with her and remain good friends many years after my graduation.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

There are three moments that stand out as the most important in my career.

The first was winning the International Vienna Performing Musicians’ Competition. The rules of the competition were unlike any other: young musicians competed across several disciplines, but only one first prize was awarded. And I managed to win it.

The second was my experience preparing a cycle of all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s concerti, then recording them. This also included my own arrangements of two Bach-Vivaldi concerti. All in all, the record contains nine concerti.

The third was my first appearance at Carnegie Hall, where I performed my own arrangement of Dmitry Shostakovich’s Concertino Op. 94 with Moscow’s Virtuosi chamber orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Spivakov.

All recordings are important to me. Because no matter what piece I choose to tackle, every record always features something that no other musician has played before me. But, of course, there is the Bach concerto series that I mentioned, published on Warner Music; the premiere of the Piano Concerto by Sergei Slonimsky (“Jewish Rhapsody”), dedicated to me (Harmonia Mundi); and the solo record “Three Centuries of Bagatelle,” featuring over 30 pieces in this genre—over half of which are scarcely performed today or have been altogether forgotten.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I am equally interested in and enthusiastic about working on baroque, romantic and contemporary music, but I’d like to stress two things in my answer to this question. I play a lot of Russian music, both from famous composers (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff) and lesser-known ones (Lyadov, Medtner, Tcherepnin and others). I very much like playing world premieres—and am always looking for occasions to do so!—which isn’t easy when the piano repertoire has grown more and more established over time. And yet among my premiere concertos I would include the two mentioned before Bach-Vivaldi concerti, the very rarely heard Beethoven Youth Concerto, Shostakovich’s Concertino and Slonimsky’s Jewish Rhapsody.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I can’t recreate it on demand. I know from experience that no matter how carefully I prepare for my performances at home, the atmosphere onstage alone will make a performer feel completely different. At times, something will get lost in the process, but on the whole, actual performances are infinitely interesting—and sometimes, I even find something surprising, almost magical.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

My criteria for choosing repertoire doesn’t depend on “seasons.” In general, it depends on what I want to play at any given stage in my career and what I need to prepare for concerts.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Each performance venue is beautiful and interesting in its own way, be it a large famous concert hall with its solemn atmosphere (generally speaking) or a small museum hall with its cosy, chamber feel. I love to perform at the small halls in the remote places, as you get the best and most dedicated audience and music lovers there. Among the famous halls where I have played, these ones stand out: Carnegie Hall, Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory and the Hall of Berlin Philharmonic.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

This is a very important topic, both for the whole world today and for me personally: social media presence, on YouTube in particular. Even before the pandemic, I had my own YouTube channel. But the long months without concerts last year didn’t go by without event: I split up most of my recordings (not including my concert work) into individual pieces and put them up separately. There are about 100 of them, and now all of them have lives of their own. There have been a flood of responses, many of them unexpected. Usually, each piece during the pandemic would get anywhere from 500 to 1,000 views. One of the pieces from my solo CD “Three Centuries of Bagatelles” by the Russian composer Tcherepnin was even “reposted,” and thousands of listeners fell in love with it.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There were certainly many unforgettable moments. I remember one of them. Part of my award when I won the Vienna competition was a concert in Vienna with a symphony orchestra conducted by the great Yehudi Menuhin. He chose the program himself: Beethoven’s 4th Concerto. Just imagine how intensively I prepared for the concert! I studied even more carefully than I always did—and, naturally, I listened to recordings by famous pianists before me, adjusting the tempo of each part to create my own interpretation. Finally, the day arrived for our one and only rehearsal. The first movement began, but Menuhin soon stopped the orchestra and asked me: “Why are you playing so slowly? ” I was already extremely anxious and somewhat confused but managed to go through the rehearsal at the very fast tempo, having never heard such an interpretation at any concerts or recordings. As you can imagine, being very young and at the beginning of my career, a lot was riding on such an important concert with the world famous maestro! The time between the rehearsal and the concert must have been the most stressful time in my life, as I was trying to balance my own interpretation with Menuhin’s tempo change. The day of the concert I walked on stage, took my bows, and played the piano solo. Imagine my surprise when the orchestra started playing about twice as slow as the concerto is generally played. Menuhin’s baton lent many wonderful nuances of style, and questions of tempo didn’t seem to be a priority for him in his interpretation of Beethoven. The concert was a great success and I will always remember it as a very important lesson – to always be prepared for everything and make room for the inspiration and magic on stage.

What alternative activities are you involved in as a musician?

As I mentioned before, I grew up in a family of piano teachers. Both my grandmother and my father loved teaching, regardless of their students’ skill levels. I also tried to combine performing and teaching at first, and I taught at a music school for gifted children at Kaufman Center. But later, once I started a family and had two children of my own while continuing to perform concerts, I had to stop teaching. It was only once the pandemic began that I received an offer from an English company MusicGurus to start online master classes for one of their projects. I was really excited by this form: using Tchaikovsky’s “Seasons” cycle as an example, I analyzed how students could work on the piece, then I performed the very same pieces in their entirety, as though in a concert. I did all of this in a modern, high-technology format. By the way, I’m also impressed and proud that music from my father’s publishing house, Muzyka-P.Jurgenson, were used as the source sheet music for the lessons.

How do you see the future of classical music?

I’m not in the business of predicting the future. Our field is a very conservative one. There is an established repertoire that hardly ever changes. And there is always work to do: from home lessons to concerts and recordings. Children will still learn music, and the adults in their lives will be parents and music lovers—all of whom have felt the many benefits of distance learning. At the very least, this phenomenon has partially replaced the musical experience of “live” concerts and has, in some ways, given the world something that concerts cannot give: the gift of musicianship. That’s the way it always was and that’s the way it will remain for the most part.

Yet at the same time, I can assume that the lives of performing musicians will have to change to some extent, just as all life has now irrevocably changed. For this reason, smart and creative applications of modern technology promise prospects that we have yet to realize. Take the very recent advent of “listenable” sheet music and multimedia music aids, such as the E-MUSICA mobile app that my father and his publisher have created. You can combine different versions of the same piece (like Bach’s Preludes and Fugues), listen to original recordings of pieces from Tchaikovsky’s “Seasons,” and much more.

Nevertheless, the most important things of all are the timbral beauty of the piano sound, the search for new nuances in a performer’s own interpretation of works that have been performed hundreds of times through history, overcoming stage fright , finding that magic inspiration and much, much more.

What is your most treasured possession?

My beautiful New York Steinway model B from 1930.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

“Success” is a seemingly simple concept. But if you think about it, this is not entirely true. When the performance ends on stage and the audience enthusiastically welcomes the artist, of course, such success is very rewarding. It is more difficult to achieve “long-term” or “stable” success. Our profession in this sense is very ungrateful. A pianist can play many concerts and receive a great welcome from the audience, but at the same time, after the next performance, get a cold reception, and, in addition, a harsh, and sometimes “devastating” review from the critic. As we say, every concert is like the first one. Personally, today I measure my success not only be the performances, recordings or the press quotes but when I see my growing virtual audience on YouTube, Spotify, ITunes and similar platforms. Especially during the pandemic, when I finally got time to expand my social media and find some older recordings to add to the new ones, I was both proud and astonished of the numbers of new listeners and fans that grow every day.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

As I mentioned above my musical life developed in such a way that I began to engage in pedagogy, then for a long time switched only to recordings and concerts, and now, in a new – from a technical point of view – format, I returned to teaching. I would like to say something of my own in this fields as well. And then I can proudly say that I am a “third generation pianist – teacher.” I also would like to mention that as a woman pianist , who has 2 children ( now grown) and a husband its is always challenging to combine the professional concert travels with family obligations and responsibilities. I would like to think that I am lucky enough to find a balance in this respect.

Julia Zilberquit has launched a series of online piano lessons hosted by MusicGurus.com on four movements of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons. For further information/reader discount, please click here

Russian-born American pianist Julia Zilberquit has earned critical acclaim as a recitalist, chamber musician and recording artist. She was praised by The New York Times as “an outstanding soloist” after her Carnegie Hall performance of Cesar Franck’s symphonic poem Les Djinns for piano and orchestra with Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra.

In 2014, Warner Classics released her CD Bach: Complete Solo Keyboard Concertos. This recording features the premiere of two Bach-Vivaldi Concerti Grossi arranged by Ms. Zilberquit for piano and orchestra. The recording was hailed as a “gorgeous rendition” by the prestigious Gramophone Magazine. Her arrangement of the Shostakovich Concertino for 2 Pianos, Op. 94 for piano and orchestra was premiered it at Carnegie Hall. She performed it worldwide to critical acclaim and recorded it with Vladimir Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi. Other recordings include a solo recording, The Mystery of Bagatelles, released by Naxos. The CD was praised as a “superb performance” by The Washington Post, and described as an “adventurous program, sparkling with unusual clarity and pointillistic luminescence” in London’s Piano Magazine.

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(photo: Vlad Loktev)

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