Olga Stezhko, piano
Tuesday 10 November 2015 7:30PM
Olga Stezhko, piano
Part One: Toys & Dances
Sergey Prokofiev : Old Grandmother's Tales Op. 31
Sofia Gubaidulina : Musical Toys
Dmitry Shostakovich : Three Fantastic Dances Op. 5
Claude Debussy : Suite bergamasque. Menuet
Lev Abeliovich : Tarantella
Aleksandr Skryabin : Deux danses Op. 73
Part Two: Images & Visions
Claude Debussy : Images, Series 1
Aleksandr Skryabin : Cinq préludes Op. 74
Claude Debussy : Images, Series 2
Aleksandr Skryabin : Vers la flamme, poème Op. 72
The below essay explains Olga Stezhko’s thoughts behind her Wigmore Hall programme.
This programme is deeply personal to me. It is a conscious attempt to rediscover those things that were central to the development of my musical identity. Inevitably this can appear to be a sort of light musical psychoanalysis, but as I recall my childhood I remember vividly being surrounded by magic, with all its signs and symbols, which greatly affected how I felt towards the world around me at the time. To some extent, I have never lost touch with my younger self thanks to my extensive teaching work with children. Their distinctive personalities are an endless source for artistic inspiration; I wish therefore to dedicate my concert to those boys and girls.
The narrative of the programme reflects the development of our perception of reality during different stages of life. It moves from the magical realism of a child’s worldview in the first half (Toys & Dances) to the broader metaphysical questions we all face at some point in life in the second part (Images & Visions).
Prokofiev’s Music for Children and Gubaidulina’s piece Thambelina were perhaps my earliest and brightest musical memories. When I was a kid I remember how much fun I had sight-reading Prokofiev’s music with evocative titles such as The March of Grasshoppers or The Rain and the Rainbow. They were definitely more enticing to me than any piece called Study or Prelude that I had to learn as my homework. I also remember how I would hide the adventure books by Jules Verne or C.S. Lewis behind my scores and read them when I was fed up with work after a few hours. The mute pedal was my best friend; whatever gibberish I played whilst reading would have maintained the illusion of practicing to my parents in the other room. There I was - physically in my room but mentally and emotionally in a child’s irresistible inner multiverse.
When I was nine years old, I composed a ballet called Cinderella as a reaction to Prokofiev’s work of the same name. It was my first and last serious composition. I discovered Prokofiev’s Tales of an Old Grandmother and Gubaidulina’s Musical Toys, which I will play in the first half of the programme, relatively recently. In many sources those cycles are referenced as children’s music but in my opinion that description is completely misleading. What is the definition of children’s music anyway? I believe when these works emerge as an innermost urge from a mature master, it epitomizes their most sincere and unpretentious artistic output. Such music as Gubaidulina’s Musical Toys (part of my future recording project Toys&Tales) or, for example, Debussy’s Children’s Corner (to be included into my next all-Debussy album) is as rich with imagery, colour, trepidation, emotion and symbolism as any symphonic masterpiece. Moreover, it is perhaps the most accurate musical description of any composer and their inner worlds. Both performers and listeners can relate to this kind of music precisely because there is something universal about it as we all were children once, authentic and genuine in our relationship with the world.
Whilst Prokofiev and Gubaidulina were symbolic for my childhood, Scriabin and later Debussy are the composers that were inseparable from my early adulthood. Every time I learn a new piece by Scriabin I feel that I go back to something fundamental in me, to the core and the essence of my musical personality. If I have to choose one piece as the last thing I would ever play in my life, it would undoubtedly be Vers la flamme. Music by Scriabin (and Busoni) was the basis of my debut album Eta Carinae, named after the most massive double star system in our galaxy, where I explored the links between music and science. My interest in astrophysics was in fact partially sparked by Scriabin’s later piano and symphonic works. The luminosity, explosiveness and ‘cosmic’ nature of his music inspired me to engage enthusiastically with the subject, as it became a true passion. Scriabin’s very last, strange and mysterious piece that I included in the second half of the programme – Five Preludes Op.74 – is one of the examples of his intuitive artistic connection with the scientific concepts. The set was composed before scientists discovered how stars form, develop and die and yet, at least in my opinion, this music provokes a very strong visual and semantic association with the physical processes present in the cosmos. I link every prelude with a particular cosmic phenomenon: from wave-particle duality to nebula to red giant. Scriabin strived to achieve a higher plane of consciousness through his music. His stirring words 'I would like to have been born as an idea, as a dream of young life, a motion of sacred inspiration...' fill my heart with an almost unbearable but such sweet yearning.
The sensuousness of Debussy’s music is of a different kind. The composer once said: “I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naive candour of a child.” Those words are definitely echoed in his compositions. From one side, there is childlike purity and tenderness that reflects Debussy’s feelings for his beloved little daughter Chouchou; from the other side he encodes in his music a turbulent and fervent love story with the mother of the child Emma Bardac. The poetically descriptive titles of his pieces are deceptive: underneath these we find a myriad of subtle depictions of complicated emotions and psychological states. Debussy’s music excites me in a new, grown-up way unlike any other composer. It connects me with the memories of places and people at various stages of my life, subtly illuminating my relationships to them. It is well known that Debussy disliked the term ‘impressionistic’ so fixedly attached to him. In my opinion, the word expressionistic would be more appropriate. All the nature elements in his music – water, light, clouds, night – simply provide a metaphorical foundation for a highly subjective journey of exploration of your own inner world.
Like any artist, I often explore a particular field or problem through the music I play as it was, for instance, with Scriabin and cosmology. In preparation for this programme I was looking into the cognitive differences between children and adults and how music fits into their perception of the world. One of the overarching concepts that kept on reappearing was that of selfishness and selflessness, both in its simple and more complex forms. Young children believe they influence the world around them by thought and action. For example, in their view the moon is moving through the clouds because one follows it with their eyes. The children’s universe is egocentric by definition and magical reality is possible because the inner and outer worlds are fused into one. However, and somewhat paradoxically, there is no conscious ego until a certain age precisely because there is no clear border between the self and the outside. Musical performance has a similar duality: on the one hand it is an expression of an individual artistry and therefore egocentric in its nature; on the other hand it can transcend the barriers that a multitude of socio-political, cultural and religious forces puts between us, by speaking directly from one heart to another thus uniting people with each other. Prokofiev and Scriabin were known for their highly self-centred and idiosyncratic personalities. But for many other composers the ability to reach out and help others, often in the direst circumstances, was an act of moral necessity. In the first half of the programme, after Musical Toys, you will hear Three Fantastical Dances written by Shostakovich at the age of sixteen. Later on his life, Shostakovich spoke to the young Gubaidulina, who had played for him the symphony she had written for her final examination as a student of composition: "My wish for you is that you should continue on your own incorrect path." Denounced by the Soviet authorities, Gubaidulina was forever grateful for those fortifying words of encouragement. You will also hear Tarantella, the unsettling last piano piece by Lev Abeliovich, who escaped the Nazi prosecution in Poland where he studied at the time and found a refuge in my native Minsk. The city became Abeliovich’s home until his death in 1985. Further reflecting on the concept of selfishness and selflessness in our modern age, the two contrasting trends immediately spring in my mind. From one side we witness how individualism is often being reduced to a grotesque caricature ‘selfie’ and the idea of economic growth by any possible means, often unsustainable, is being taken as gospel. It is all the more encouraging to see, from the other side, so many outstanding creative minds unite in a countermovement based on collective responsibility and mutual help. Nurtured by the gloriously borderless Internet, it comes with an added benefit of being able to express oneself in front of millions of people. As a result, the self and the outer can be both accommodated in quite a harmonious whole. One just needs to remember to treat this newfound balance with great care and sensibility.
If we stop for a moment and listen to our inner child - warm-hearted and magically powerful - who might be a little bit forgotten but not lost inside us - that lucid dream of our better selves might come closer to reality.
© 2015 Olga Stezhko