“This Moment Will Never Happen Again…”
An Exclusive interview with Alexander Kobrin, winner of the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
By Bożena U. Zaremba
Although you have received prizes and won many prestigious piano competitions, including the Busoni and the Scottish International Piano Competitions, it seems that it was the Van Cliburn Competition that gave a real boost to your career.
I would disagree with that. The Van Cliburn Competition did indeed give a boost to my career in America, but before I won the Van Cliburn, I had been touring quite a lot in Europe and Asia, mainly Japan and Korea. The win in Texas put me onto a different level of a number of concerts a year, which in time became exhausting. After a few years of a hectic concert schedule, I eventually made a decision to cut it down to have more time for other things, like teaching and learning new repertoire.
You were an underdog at the Van Cliburn, and because of your somber stage presence people called you an “undertaker.” What did you think of that?
I was enjoying it very much [laughs]. I loved that nickname. The other two were “Iceman” and “Harry Potter,” but after the Competition I changed my glasses, so they don’t call me that any more.
Did you feel a competitive spirit during the Competition?
Actually, not really. First of all, it was very hard to hang out with other competitors, though I did get a chance to reconnect with people I had known from other competitions and festivals. You stay with a host family, and I was very lucky that my host family took me anywhere I wanted and introduced me to many people. My hosts were marvelous; it almost felt like home. I was practicing, of course, but I had a lovely time. The audience in Texas was great, very inspiring, so I felt like every stage of the competition was just another concert. So personally, I did not feel any pressure, and especially now, with my experience as a juror, I try to distinguish a competition from a sport event — we are not competing, we are making music. Besides, music is so subjective, and it is very difficult to judge who is better. There were many wonderful pianists at the Competition.
You also had a chance to meet maestro Van Cliburn* himself. Tell us something about it.
It was outstanding, kind of a dream come true, to see him and to spend a few hours with this piano legend, one of my favorite pianists of all times. He is an amazing man and a magnificent musician, truly dedicated to music. Just to hear him talk was so inspiring. It was also wonderful to see how he loves Russia. Everybody loves him in Russia. I still meet people in Moscow who had been to his concerts, and when they learned I was going to be in Texas, they asked me to say hello to him. He had obviously won their hearts, not only with his music, but also with his adorable personality.
Let’s move back in time a little bit. You were born in Moscow and grew up during a fascinating period of Russia’s history, when extreme political, economical, social and cultural changes were taking place after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. What was it like growing up at that time?
It was very interesting. There was a lot of instability and poverty; everything was a bit shaky. I was still at school, but it was actually quite dangerous, because the Gnessin Academy of Music was in the heart of it all. I vividly remember the year 1991, when the revolution happened, and 1993, when we had tanks in front of the [Russian] White House. These were tough times, but we school students were experiencing everything mostly at home, where we would listen to our parents talk and analyze what was going on. I am sure we could not really understand what was going on. Now, when I go back to Russia and see people who are 11 or 12 years younger than I am, who were born in Russia, I can see a tremendous generational difference. They have a totally different mentality. They don’t know what it is like not to be able to know what you are going to eat the next day. It is hard to explain to them the time when there were no cell phones, no computers, and all those little things that today you cannot imagine your life without. And then we were freed, and we were witnessing something building up, though we were not sure what direction it was going to take. A lot of my friends, who were studying abroad, were coming back in the ‘90s, because there was that feeling of revival, the feeling that something huge was going to happen to our country. And now it is just one big disappointment. A lot of them regret coming back. Part of it forced me to leave and build my life in the United States. I got my freedom here, for which I am very grateful. It is a shame that I could not feel this way in my own country, where my parents, my friends and my teachers live.
At what point did you decide to settle in the U.S.?
After a couple of years touring the U.S., someone suggested that I apply for the green card, and I did. I think it came naturally, because from the very beginning I felt very comfortable here.
Why, do you think?
It’s the contrast from Russia, I guess. People here are so independent, nice, and hospitable. When I go to Europe and I see people on the street, I do what I do here — I smile. I have this huge argument with my mother, who says, “They ask you, ‘How are you?,’ but they don’t really mean it.” I say, “Yes, Mom, it doesn’t mean anything, but you prefer when somebody says ‘You are a fool’ right into your face [laughs].” I prefer the first way. You can also talk about opportunities for people here in America, about the comforts of life, but what I admire most is that when you work hard, you can feel appreciated. I am sorry I could not get this in Russia. Of course, there are wonderful people there, too, but there is this aura of depression and that feeling that there is no way out.
Where do you actually live?
I live in Columbus, Georgia, and teach at the Schwob School of Music — wonderful place, wonderful people. My schedule is very flexible and I am glad that I have this balance between performing and teaching.
Do you keep a balance between your professional and personal life?
I have completely failed on that [laughs], so for the time being I am concentrating on my professional life.
What is the most important lesson you learned at the Moscow Conservatory?
I was blessed to study with Prof. Lev Naumov for seven years. He was a remarkable teacher, a great musician, and a very wise man. The most important thing I learned from him was the complete and uncompromised devotion and dedication to what I am doing. Another great teacher I would also like to recognize is Prof. Tropp from the Gnessin Academy of Music, who said, “If you want to understand Rachmaninoff, love him.”
I would think it is impossible to force yourself to love a composer.
We pianists are like actors — we try to make somebody’s life our own in order to get a deeper knowledge of this life. A famous Russian actor, Vladimir Vysotsky, just before he died, said, “I am so tired of dying every night.” That’s what should really happen; we should try to go as deep as possible. It’s very hard to do, and it’s not for everyone.
What impact are you trying to make on your students?
I’m trying to continue the path I took at the Moscow Conservatory, this emotional approach. It does not matter how talented you are. Sometimes a less talented person, who maybe is struggling with fingering, loves it so much that he or she achieves more than someone who has beautiful fingering but does not care enough.
The concept of talent can have many faces. Sometimes it translates into the ease with which you move your fingers, while other people possess a talent for having greater insight into music.
Absolutely. Also, with music, you cannot just go home and switch it off. If you don’t live it, I am not sure it makes sense.
Tell us something about your musical fascinations.
Through the years I have narrowed down my interests to Romanticism and Classicism. I adore Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and the great Romantic composers, Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms. I am also a great admirer of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.
What place does Chopin’s music have in your repertoire?
I played Chopin from the very beginning of my musical education, and he had a great impact on me. There are so many things to explore in his music that you can never get tired of it. It is hard to talk about a genius and describe my feelings about his music.
What does a pianist need to do to perform Chopin convincingly?
Oh, I really don’t know! This question is so difficult. For example, I could never forget the recording of Chopin’s Scherzo in B Minor by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in Hamburg. It didn’t feel like Chopin in the sense of style and touch, but it was so dramatic, so grave. Nobody would ever play this way. If you played like that for a piano competition, you would be kicked out immediately. It was impossible. But it was convincing. And you couldn’t say it was not tasteful, not at all. We can talk about what you need in Chopin — the melodic lines, the style and chromaticism, the patriotic aspect, the feeling of nostalgia — but when you listen to the performance of remarkable pianists, you don’t think about those things, you just listen. So it comes down to how you feel after the performance — whether you feel nothing or disappointed, or bored, which is the worst thing, or whether you get inspired.
In one of your bios, I read that you enjoy the late 18th- and early 19th- century German literature. Where does this come from?
It is probably connected with my total love of Schumann. That period inspired me — the way of writing things, total freedom of expression — and this incredible connection between literature, music and art.
I also read that you are an accomplished soccer player. What accomplishments are we talking about?
My main accomplishment is two broken legs [laughs], at two different periods of time, of course. When I was a small kid, it was just a chapter of my childhood. It is important to have something apart from what we are doing; you cannot just sit at the piano and play all day. Let kids be kids. What I always say is, “Listen, look at all those composers we are playing — they had tremendous personal lives. They lived crazy. How do we explore their lives if we don’t experience it ourselves?”
Once you said “I'm trying to play every concert as my last one, to do the best I can.” Has your attitude changed?
No, I still feel the same. The most precious thing about making music is this Faustian feeling of freezing the moment, this realization that this moment will never happen again. Every concert is different — I am different, the place is different, the stage is different — so every time I go out there, even if I am playing the piece for the 10,000th time, I can never be bored by it. This understanding that some kind of a miracle, something unique is taking place in this particular minute, makes me be just more careful with it and enjoy it more.
*Harvey Laven “Van” Cliburn Jr. (known throughout the world as Van Cliburn) was the winner of the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. At the time of the Soviet regime, the judges had to ask permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give the first prize to an American.
The pianist’s official website: www.akobrin.com