Evgeny  Kissin
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A servant of music
by Maxim Reider, January 7, 2011

Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin launches a world tour with a concert in Jerusalem.

Accomplished pianist Evgeny Kissin will perform a solo recital on January 8, for the first time in Jerusalem.
The recital will be devoted entirely to works by Franz Liszt, to mark the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The concert launches Kissin’s world tour with this special program, which he will perform in the most distinguished venues in the world, including La Scala, Concertgebouw and Carnegie Hall.

This special event was initiated by Kissin, together with the president of the Jerusalem Music Center Murray Perahia, Lady Annabelle Weidenfeld, a member of the center’s advisory board, and the Jerusalem Foundation. Their main objective is to raise funds for the encouragement and nurturing of outstanding young pianists at the Jerusalem Music Center.

Born in Moscow in 1971, Kissin began playing the piano at the age of two. He entered the Moscow Gnessin School of Music when he was six and came to international recognition at the age of 12, performing Chopin’s piano concertos in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the Moscow State Philharmonic, under the baton of Dmitri Kitaenko.

Since his first appearance outside Russia in 1985, Kissin has played with leading orchestras and conductors, performing in the world’s greatest concert halls and winning numerous awards for his contribution to classical music.

A few days before the concert in Jerusalem, Kissin, who prefers written interviews to those done over the phone, responded to some questions posed by The Jerusalem Post.

You delved into the world of professional music at a very young age. How did it feel as a child to suddenly have a lot of adults around you, reacting excitedly to your performance?

It felt completely natural because playing music was my favorite activity since early childhood. I don’t think I cared much about the “excited reaction” of my listeners, but I always loved playing for other people. At my very first solo recital, which I gave at the Composers’ House in Moscow when I was 11 and a half years old, lots of seats had to be put on stage because there were only 600 seats in the hall, and many more people came. When my piano teacher, Anna Kantor, asked me afterwards whether the audience members who were sitting on stage around me were disturbing me, I immediately expressed the way I felt: “No, they were helping me!” A few years ago, when I started reflecting upon those things, I realized that my love for playing in public was caused by a natural desire to share with other people things I loved, things that were important and dear to me.

Is the audience important for you now?

Yes, they are of vital importance for me. It is for them that I do what I do. I can’t understand it when some journalists ask me, ‘When you start playing a concert, do you try to forget about the audience?’ How could I possibly and why on earth should I try to forget about the audience when it is for them that I go on stage and play?!

Has your attitude toward the audience changed over the years?

No, I haven’t noticed any changes in myself in that respect.

Was there any transition from the state of being a child prodigy to that of a mature musician?

You know, when I was a child, many of my listeners, professional musicians, used to say that the term ‘child prodigy’ didn’t fit me because I played like a mature musician.

You’ve been studying for your entire life with the same teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor.What is her secret?

Besides her natural talent and skills, she is a person of truly amazing integrity who has devoted her whole life to teaching piano. She never had a family of her own, but she rightly calls herself ‘a mother of many children.’

What is that thing she knows as a teacher that attracts you?

It’s not something she knows; it goes far beyond that. I think that our personalities simply matched extremely well. Thinking back, I realize how lucky I was in that respect because this is extremely important.

Aside from your teacher, what is the driving force behind your advancement in music?

Music itself.

Has there been any advancement or development in music?

Music, like all arts, is developing all the time. And this applies not only to art: If there is no development, there is no life.

How has your understanding of music, of its drama, changed since you were a child?

When I was a child, it was not really understanding but rather feeling of music – or one could say: intuitive understanding. Of course, it’s impossible to play well without the natural feeling of music at any age; but as a child grows older, feeling alone can no longer be enough.

How do your preferences in repertoire change over the years?

I don’t think they do. My tastes have always been very broad, for as long as I remember, and I have always been trying to expand my repertoire in all possible directions. On the other hand, I never bring a piece to the public unless I feel that I am able to play it well.

How do you choose new pieces?

That is very easy: from the pieces I love – of which there many! We pianists are extremely lucky: The piano repertoire is so vast, that I only hope to live long enough to learn everything I want to play.

How do you prepare a new work?

There is no special method. I just sit down and start working – and then the music itself tells me what to do. Then, at a certain stage, after I have formed my own conception and am able to execute it, I start listening to other people’s performances of the piece and learn from them. Even if I don’t like someone else’s performance, that also helps because then I know even better what I want to do.

Are the circumstances of a composer’s life a factor when you work on a new piece?

For certain pieces they are. If they had a direct influence on the piece – like Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ for example. However, the most important thing is the music itself.

What is important for you to consider in a performance?

To approach the level of the music performed as closely as possible. Of course, only the greatest performance can reach it sometimes; but nevertheless, we should all try to approach it as closely as our modest capabilities allow us.

What are your interests outside music?

Life itself. Different aspects of it. Of course, some of those don’t interest me at all. As Socrates said, ‘There are so many things in the world that I don’t need.’ In my free time, I like reading, sightseeing and spending time with other people: with my friends or with people whom I may not necessarily be able to call friends but whom I like and find interesting.

Once I went to an astrologer who, having made my natal chart, said to me, ‘Of the 10 planets, you’ve got seven in the air and none on earth. That’s why you don’t care about material things at all, but you are interested in ideas and you like spending time with people who provide you with interesting ideas.’ I could not describe myself better.

I imagine that coming from an assimilated Russian-Jewish background, being Jewish was not at the center of your universe.

Yes, it was – since an early age, in spite of the fact that I, indeed, grew up in an assimilated family and knew nothing about Jewish history, let alone religion. When I was a child, I wrote a will (yes!) the content of which, I believe, reveals a lot. It read as follows: ‘When I die, bury me in a forest outside Moscow so that the stone under which my ashes will be lying would hardly be seen in the grass and look like this ...’ – and I drew a rectangle with five lines and a G clef on them and the following inscription: ‘Here lies Evgeny Kissin, a son of the Jewish people, a servant of music’ – and my life years. See, that’s how I identified myself already as a child. At that time I couldn’t imagine that I would live anywhere else than Moscow, and I didn’t know any Jewish symbols, only musical ones!

But this upcoming concert is clearly a statement. Does it mean that now you feel more identified with the Jewish people than in the past? What has caused this change?

The only thing that has changed is that I started speaking about my Jewish identity in public. I never did before. Not because I, God forbid, was ashamed of it in any way, but on the contrary, for the simple reason that it was always something extremely special for me and therefore not to be talked about in public – like love, for example (that’s, by the way, why I hate talking about music as well). But about a little over a year ago, I felt that I had to do it in order to counter the raging anti-Israel hysteria in much of the world. Since I was well known and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world were coming to my concerts and buying my recordings, I felt that I had to tell them: “If you like my art, this is who I am, who I represent and what I stand for.”

What can you, as a person, do to advance the Israeli cause?

I am trying to do what I can: putting pro- Israel material (whose authors are mainly non- Jews, many of them are Arabs) on my fan club site, giving interviews in support of Israel.

Do you believe that an individual has the power to change things in the world order?

Each one of us can only do so much. So the more good people who are active, the better.

The concert takes place February 16 at 8:30 p.m. in Jerusalem at the International Convention Center. The program features the following pieces by Franz Liszt: Ricordanza (Etude d’Execution Transcendante No. 9), Sonata in B-Minor, Funerailles, Vallee d’Obermann, Venezia e Napoli.

For reservations: (02) 623-7000 or *6226 www.bimot.co.il

by Stephen Pollard, October 29, 2010

For Evgeny Kissin, the piano is no longer the only means of communication. Renowned worldwide since performing both Chopin concertos as a 12 year old, Kissin has always avoided politics and controversy. Unlike musicians such as Daniel Barenboim, Kissin has stuck to his artistry.

But he has decided that “as a Jew” he must now change that. “After all this time of anti-Israel hysteria, I felt that I had to raise my voice.” He dipped his toe in the water earlier this year with an open letter to the BBC about its coverage.

Kissin has little time for musicians — artists of any stripe — who are loose with their opinions. They can too easily, he says, abuse their fame. “We should be extremely careful if we decide to speak out about politics because we can influence people’s minds. It’s a great responsibility.”

That influence can too easily, he feels, make things worse. “We artists often tend to idealise things. This is a part of our artistic nature.” That can mean ignoring reality and falling for myth.

Some have speculated that Kissin takes issue with Barenboim’s involvement in the Middle East — his public criticism of Israeli policy and his East-West Divan Orchestra, in which Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs play together.

But Kissin’s criticism is specific: “I think it’s admirable to try to contribute to making peace and mutual understanding with the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular, and that’s why I believe the idea of a joint Arab and Israeli orchestra is admirable. But I do not understand why Barenboim chose someone like Edward Said [the Palestinian academic and co-founder of the orchestra] as his partner.

“In such an undertaking, each participant should be critical of his own side, but while Barenboim has been critical of Israel, Said too was critical of Israel. Said did not believe in the two state solution. He believed the Palestinians were right to reject the UN partition plan of 1947. When the Israeli army was retreating from Lebanon, Said was throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers across the border. He was throwing stones in the backs of retreating soldiers.”

For Kissin, the betrayal of Israel by the Western intelligentsia has now reached such a level that he feels compelled to use the privileged position his pianistic eminence gives him to speak his mind.

Not that he could ever be accused of being under-informed. As he speaks, he demonstrates a clarity of thought and grasp of history and detail that would shame most so-called experts. It is as if, having decided to be silent no longer, he can now hardly bare not to share everything with the world. In the course of a near three hour interview, the references, quotes and arguments pour out of him.

The heart of the problem for Kissin is the West’s refusal to acknowledge reality — from the reality of the Soviet Union to the reality of the threat to Israel. “When I moved from Russia to the USA I was only 20. I was surprised to see how naive and yet so sure of themselves so many people were regarding what the Soviet Union was like. In the early 1990s I watched Gorbachev on TV meeting with students at an American university. He had the chutzpah to say that both superpowers had lost the cold war, which had exhausted our economies. That I found outrageously insolent. But what I found frightening was that those words were met with thunderous applause. Young American students did not acknowledge their own country had won the cold war and saved the whole of mankind.”

There is, he argues, a similar refusal to acknowledge reality when it comes to Iran today. For decades, the regimes sponsored by the Soviets were Israel’s greatest foes. “Now the Soviet Union is no more, but there is Iran. Even though they dropped relations with Israel after the Six Day War, and though the Soviet propaganda started smearing Israel, none of the Soviets leaders ever said that Israel should not exist and be destroyed — but this exactly what is said by today’s Iranians”.

Kissin celebrated the Oslo Accords. “I naturally thought that it was a wonderful thing, a great historical breakthrough which should be supported and encouraged.” But he has grown despondent at the subsequent turning of truth on its head, as Israel has been blamed for the terror of Hamas and Hezbollah.

“Very soon afterwards, Arab terrorism against Israeli civilians increased. At that time it was rightly presented as Hamas’s attempt to destroy the peace process. What’s amazing now is that even though his was widely reported, few people remember that. I have heard from various people living in Europe things like, ‘If only Rabin remained alive he would have bought peace. In Rabin’s time there were no killings, no intifada.’

“Not only did the killings actually increase after the signing of the Oslo Accords, but that was exactly why, just before Rabin’s assassination, his approval ratings dropped to 28 per cent. It was only thanks to the outpouring of sympathy for him after his assassination that they jumped up to 82 per cent.

“People only believe and remember what they want. Even if it is the opposite of what took place.”

In this context, Kissin returns to the Soviet Union, and a book he cites: the memoirs of Alexander Bovin, a senior Soviet political commentator who, when diplomatic relations were restored, became the ambassador to Israel in December 1991 (for one week, before the USSR disappeared and he became the Russian Federation’s ambassador).

“This book is anything but uncritical of Israel. But it’s amazing how sharp the contrast is between a book by a man without a drop of Jewish blood and much of today’s western media.”

Bovin wrote that the solution would be Arab recognition of Israel and a guarantee of her security, with a Palestinian state as a UN member. A demilitarised Golan Heights and Gaza would be given to Syria and Egypt. Jerusalem would remain Israel’s capital.

For Kissin, the memoirs reveal the startling contrast between attitudes then and now. “Now, Gaza is run by Hamas, Barak and Olmert have already offered Jerusalem to Palestinians. We don’t know what Netanyahu is thinking. I just want to cry to the Israeli leaders today: please try to stick at least to the ex-Russian ambassador’s lines!”

Kissin seems as passionate in his demeanour as he is at the piano. I ask if he actually enjoys speaking out: “It’s more psychologically complicated than that. These are all sad things, so I hesitate to use word enjoy. But nevertheless, now I’m doing it I do feel something like it. Speaking out in defence of our people’s country and consequently of my people.”

What about a political career? “Am I interested in politics? Yes. As for participation: I have no such plans. But I cannot exclude the possibility that if the time comes and I feel that I need to speak out on something which I find important I may do so.” A politician manqué, perhaps. But with principle.

In his own words:

On duty - "I think that this applies not only to Jewish artists, but to all Jews in the entire free world: we must keep screaming in defence of our cause all the time! The number of our enemies is much greater — so for the sake of Israel, we must put aside our differences, unite and outweigh our enemies in energy and determination."

On speaking up "Now, when the western media keep slandering and smearing the Jewish state and her politics; when antisemitic incidents in Europe have been increasing dramatically; when Israeli politicians can freely visit Morocco and Abu Dhabi, but cannot come to Britain for fear of being arrested for alleged “war crimes”; when, of all the countries in the world — not China, not Iran, not Saudi Arabia — Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is the only target of boycotts by British universities; when the organisers of the gay parade in Madrid tell Israeli gays not to come to take part in it… Can it be that some western Jews believe that if they keep silent and avoid expressing their support for Israel, that they will be better off?"

On Fairness"I always try to be objective, and for that reason I ask myself sometimes: what if the tables were reversed? What if the Jews had the whole of North Africa, the whole Arabian Peninsula, Palestine, Syria and Iraq — and the Arabs had nothing and wanted Palestine? And the only answer that comes naturally to my mind and seems fair to me is: in such a situation, it would have been the sacred duty of the whole world to give Palestine to the Arabs and to suppress any Jewish resistance ruthlessly."

On the diaspora"Israel’s enemies realised that they could not win by military means and instead launched a cunning propaganda war against the Jewish state. Unfortunately, Ben Gurion’s idiotic principle, “It doesn’t matter what Gentiles say, what matters is what Jews do”, proved too deeply ingrained in the Israeli mentality (which Israelis finally began to realise themselves a few years ago), and that has been bringing disastrous results for Israel in this war. In these hard times, I am firmly against the belief that all Jews should live in Israel, because contrary to Ben Gurion’s statement, it does matter what Gentiles say. Tiny Israel needs outside support — and we must provide this support in free countries by forming a powerful driving force to do exactly what our enemies have been doing for dozens of years: to influence governments and public opinion. United we stand!"

On Sikh pride "A few years ago the Sikh community of Britain were angry about the portrayal of their brethren in a theatre play: they protested en masse - and the production was taken off the stage. I no longer live in England, but when last year I read reviews of Seven Jewish Children, I thought in despair: there are hundreds and thousands of Jews living in London — why aren’t they protesting? Is our national pride less important for us than the Sikh national pride is for the Sikhs?"

On our stake in Israel "Stalin’s right-hand man was Molotov; Molotov’s wife Polina Zhemchuzhina was Jewish. She was a convinced Communist — but when the State of Israel was established and the Moscow synagogue began collecting money and jewellery for Israel, Zhemchuzhina went there and gave away all her jewellery. When a close friend of hers, a Gentile woman, said to her: “Are you mad? You are the wife of a prominent statesman!” Zhemchuzhina replied: “First of all, I am a daughter of my people!” When Golda Meir came to Moscow as the ambassador of the newly-created state of Israel, at an official reception Zhemchuzhina said to her: “If everything is good in Israel, it will be good for all the Jews of the world.” Even the hard-line Communist and Stalin’s right-hand man’s wife realised that. Can it really be that we, Jews of the free world, have forgotten that?"


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