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?
The great composers, pianists and my teachers, they all have a strong influence and have inspired my musical life. I was lucky to grow up in a home where classical music, and all music for that matter, was appreciated and where my parents supported music lessons. We listened to recordings and radio broadcasts and attended many concerts in the greater-New Haven area, and occasionally in New York. Arthur Rubinstein, Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Mauricio Pollini, these were all household names and I saved up to buy their recordings and attend as many concerts and recitals as possible. I have been fortunate to study with a number of excellent artist-teachers. Robert Spillman was my teacher at the Eastman School of Music and he was active as a soloist, collaborative artist, teacher and conductor. A consummate artist-teacher, Bob always emphasized the importance of being well-rounded, of gaining experience in the many areas of collaboration: in chamber and collaborative playing with vocalists and instrumentalists. Bob is living proof that the professional collaborative pianist makes a living, for starters, by having all of the skills of a soloist, while also learning an enormous repertoire of chamber and collaborative works; studying musical style, form and analysis, but also poetry, literature and art. Anthony di Bonaventura was for many years a student of Isabelle Vengerova at Curtis. He played traditional repertoire brilliantly and also commissioned and premiered a number of new works during his career (piano works by Luciano Berio, Witold Lutoslawsky and Gyorgy Ligeti). He was a warm but very strict pedagogue, Professor of Music at Boston University, who insisted on an absolutely thorough preparation for lessons. He shared a practice method with his students, informed by his own training with Vengerova, a method that stressed an impeccable sense of timing, tonal control and clarity. In many ways he focused on the art of practice. I studied with Alvin Chow at University of Colorado – Boulder and he was an excellent teacher, musician and mentor and he went to great lengths to help me transition from the life of a student to the profession world, applying for university teaching jobs and finding performing opportunities. He is a most gifted teacher, really an absolute natural at helping to solve musical and technical challenges. He continues to be a steadfast guide and always a positive influence. I was fortunate to finish my doctoral studies with him before his move to Oberlin Conservatory.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Pianists all face the challenge of making a career in a profession filled with a large number of exceptional artists, all vying for a small number of performance opportunities. Post-pandemic, I hope to see an increase in live performances; it’s just not the same listening to video recordings online. I’ve been lucky to face the ongoing challenge of teaching very full-time, I am Professor of Music at Western Connecticut State University, and still pursuing a career as an active pianist / performer: some days my best hours are spent teaching, others are better devoted to my own practicing. The two pursuits complement each other very well; it’s just a particular challenge during the age of Covid, with virtual instruction, online recitals and streaming. I guess it’s annoying hearing about pianists that always claim that there isn’t enough time to practice!
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I’d like to say that I’m equally proud of all of them but my most recent, Early Works – Alexander Scriabin, was a long-time in the making and my first recording of traditional repertoire. So, I feel close to it but also the weight of history; there’s a different sort of responsibility when considering standard repertoire. My earlier recordings are all of contemporary music.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
Contemporary works. I’ve had the good fortune of commissioning, premiering and recording music by a number of contemporaries, most recently solo and chamber works by Welsh composer Rhian Samuel, and Belgian composer Piet Swerts. But I also feel at home with the piano music of Olivier Messiaen and Johannes Brahms. I’d love to play, and record, the late piano works (Opus 116- 119), maybe in time for his 200th birthday in 2033. That will give me time. But I feel close to contemporary music and enjoy the satisfaction of working with composers to bring new works to the public. There is an exciting new generation of young Americans writing for the piano: Timo Andres, Missy Mazzoli, and Nico Muhly, to name a few, and I’m looking forward to programming their works in 2022. Timo has just been commissioned to write a piece for me. I’m looking forward to it.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Mostly, practice. I enjoy the outdoors and travelling.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Most often I am able to choose my own solo programmes. In collaborative situations I plan chamber programs with colleagues. Programming can be challenging … but all the more interesting when set to a theme, a particular historical period, or a group of composers that share a connection in some way.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I love the acoustics in Veronica Hagman Concert Hall at Western Connecticut State University! There is a warmth and clarity to the sound. And the sound on stage is surprisingly close to what projects throughout the house, to the audience. It also makes a difference that I have had time to get to know concert grand pianos in the hall. There is something special about playing and recording at my university ‘home.’
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
Young people need to have a chance to hear live music. Kids should be given the chance to learn to read music, and to play in school ensembles and combos. Many kids are busy creating music and composing on their computers. Classical musicians and institutions have begun (slowly) to diversify and to shed the high-minded exclusivity from past times. Audiences will grow when live music is more inviting, more inclusive and when opportunities exist for younger musicians. The boundaries between styles of music, between disciplines, are gradually blurring and this might help to draw young people to concert music.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Recitals in small towns somehow have left a strong impression, places like Natchitoches, Louisiana, Bačka Palanka, Serbia, Bragança Paulista, Brazil, and Hermanus, South Africa. I felt more of a connection with the music and the occasion; it’s not every day that live music is presented in more remote places… maybe that makes the event more important, more meaningful. These audiences seemed to appreciate the programs.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Finding happiness in the process of learning new pieces and collaborating with friends and colleagues. I enjoy the livelihood, the daily pursuit of learning and practicing new and familiar rep. Of course, success also implies making a living a musician. I am fortunate to have a job at a university. The life of musician / teacher has become more and more challenging during the age of Covid and economic challenges have compounded during the pandemic. Cultural life, music study and academia are likely to see a resurgence post-pandemic and my hope is that this includes a greater appreciation for live music.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To be well-rounded as a pianist and flexible enough to collaborate in many different musical settings. This leads to more opportunities and to a better chance of making a living as a musician. Learn as much repertoire as possible when younger. The university / conservatory years are the best time and place to build a wide selection of rep but also to establish a life-long network of colleagues and friends in the music field. A well-rounded education and musical training will pay-off in the long run. Take courses in digital media, website design, audio production, marketing … areas that will help you manage your own career.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
At home practicing for my next programme.
Russell Hirshfield has appeared in recital throughout the United States, and in Brazil, China, Belgium, England, Serbia, Costa Rica, and South Africa, programming traditional and contemporary music. His recent programs include concerts at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford and the Royal Flemish Academy in Brussels.
In 2020 Parma Recordings released his CD program Alexander Scriabin – Early Works, identified as “a beautiful disc that introduces an intelligent, musically mature pianist into the upper echelons of Scriabin interpretation.” (Fanfare Magazine). Phaedra Records released Seeker – The Piano Music of Piet Swerts in 2017. The recording has been featured on Belgian Radio Klara and well-received by critics in Holland (Opusklassiek), Belgium (Flanders Art Magazine) and the United States (American Record Guide).