Kunal Lahiry, 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 changed piano teachers when I was 13, and that was the moment when I really fell in love with classical music. Our lessons would always be 2+ hours with most of the time being spent listening to different recordings and talking about what we liked or, as it often was in her case, what we didn’t like. She would sometimes take me to New York to have a lesson with her teacher, Walter Hautzig, himself a pupil of Arthur Schnabel, and after the lesson, she would take me to her favourite addresses in the city before taking the last flight that night back home. She helped me discover a world that I would not have been able to discover on my own. I remember learning my first piece by Rachmaninoff and knowing then that I wanted to play the piano for the rest of my life.

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

Time management! Especially as a song pianist, there is so much repertoire to master. Some months, I have 4+ hours of music to perform, so the challenge is not to just prepare concert to concert but to simultaneously work on all the programmes, gauging which songs need more time than others. Another challenge is keeping physically calm and grounded at the piano at all times, even when I haven’t had as much time as I would like to prepare the music and integrate it into my body. I have been practicing Feldenkrais for years and that has been fundamental to my body awareness at the piano.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am most proud of a 45-minute music film I made in 2020 with the soprano Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir, called Homescapes. Three chapters of the film are available on YouTube to watch, but we are hoping to have a proper screening of it in Berlin soon. We performed a live version of the programme at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik in April 2022 and that was definitely a highlight of my career so far.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I feel especially close to Debussy and Rachmaninoff, but I also love performing J.S. Bach, Haydn, Brahms, Sibelius, and George Crumb, among so many others.

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

Long walks, sometimes running, listening to or playing music with my friends in our living rooms after a few drinks, going to different galleries or events around the city, and browsing the internet!

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

There’s no science to it, really. I usually figure it out from concert to concert with the singers I’m working with. Sometimes there is a specially curated program that I want to give more air time, so I’ll suggest them when it feels appropriate. Otherwise, I think of composers I’d like to commission works from and then look for opportunities in the upcoming season.

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

The Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin is really special. It opened in 2017 and was designed by Frank Gehry. It has a 360-degree concept with the audience sitting around the stage rather than in front of it, which creates an incredible sense of intimacy and ‘Umarmung’ [hug] that is so unique.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I think classical music’s PR and marketing needs a facelift. Repackaging classical music so that it doesn’t feel so far removed from the neoclassical and pop scenes would make it more appealing to those audiences, who already love hearing acoustic instruments! I also think we need to engage more with different communities, giving leaders in other disciplines the agency to create something in tandem with our music. That way, we have two communities merging together and two different audiences, both experiencing something they normally wouldn’t.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It was earlier this year when I was asked to perform at a charity event for queer refugees in Berlin. There were a plethora of queer performers from all different disciplines— drag, pole dancing, voguing, and myself…! I decided to partner with my dear friend Frederick Ballantine and perform an abridged version of a concert we gave at the Kennedy Center in 2021. It’s entitled ‘My People’ and explores the journey of Black and LGBT people of America, with four chapters— Otherness, Oppression, Reflection, and Revolution. It was so powerful to see a space filled with young Queer people, many of whom have never heard classical music performed live, and have them so completely enraptured in the music we were sharing with them. It was so affirming to know that this music speaks to them just as strongly as anyone else, and it made me that much more dedicated to bringing more classical music to a queer audience.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Performing the music I want with collaborators I admire in places which inspire me for an audience filled with people whom I’d want to have a beer with afterwards!

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Get to know as many different artists in your community and find ways to build each other up. Fashion designers, visual artists, dancers, musicians of different styles etc. and support them!

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

Making classical music venues a safe space for the queer community.

You’re going to be performing at Cheltenham Music Festival this summer. Tell us a little about what what we can expect to hear at your concert?

I’m so looking forward to playing a recital with the lovely Helen Charlston. There will be lots of birds!

Kunal Lahiry will be performing with the soprano Helen Charlston at Cheltenham Music Festival on 12 July at Pittville Pump Room. Their programme celebrates the thrilling songs all around us in nature, and our conversations with the world around us – from Judith Weir’s evocative set of songs The Voice of Desire to a cornucopia of birdsong from Purcell to Mahler, Messiaen, Britten and Dring.

Tickets and more information are available here: https://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music/whats-on/2022/bbc-new-generation-artists-i

Indian-American pianist Kunal Lahiry is a current BBC New Generation Artist and recipient of the 2021 Carl Bechstein Foundation scholarship. Recent performance highlights include at the Wigmore Hall, Kennedy Center, Pierre Boulez Saal, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Carnegie Hall Weill Recital Room, Musée d’Orsay, Ludwigsburg Festival, Life Victoria de Los Angeles Festival, and at the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute. He has been broadcasted on BBC Radio 3, Icelandic National Public Radio RÁS1, Austrian Radio Ö1, and RBB Kultur, and was featured twice on ARTE’s ‘Hope@Home’ and ‘Europe@Home’ series hosted by violinist Daniel Hope. This season includes appearances at Stoller Hall, Bristol St. George’s, Aldeburgh Festival, Opera Holland Park, Cheltenham Music Festival, Harpa Concert Hall, Schubertíada Vilabertran, Hugo Wolf Academy, Heidelberg Neulied Festival, Philharmonie de Paris, and more.

Read more at https://www.kunallahiry.com/