Nina Svetlanova

Nina Svetlanova

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I would like to share with you the story of my musical journey and tell you about some of the remarkable Russian musicians who have influenced my life
"If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind."
Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931)
"Болящий дух врачует песнопенье..."
Е.Баратынский (1800-1844)

My parents and I lived in Moscow. Since my childhood it was always understood that I would be a musician. From a very early age, I listened to my mother's playing; she was a pianist who graduated from the Kiev Conservatory. I remember very well all the pieces that she played for me. It was mainly Chopin, but she also sang and played popular arias from operas and operettas (both the female and male roles). She always knew the lyrics and the music by heart.

At the age of five, I was sent to the Gnessin Music School.

At that time, Gnessin Music School was in a different location than it is today. It was in the place where all the Gnessins lived. They were a remarkable family, consisting of five sisters and one brother. Elena, Olga, Maria and Evgenya were pianists; Elizaveta was a violinist, and Mikhail Gnessin was a composer.

Elena Fabianovna Gnesina
Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin

All of them were passionate musicians; their minds and souls totally committed to the school they had founded. The School was founded in the end of the 19th century, and the Gnessins went through immense difficulties after the Revolution in order to keep the school.

It was in a small home, which was a very warm, special and friendly place. Gnessins were like missionaries. Elena was the brain of all this. She sacrificed her private life and totally dedicated herself to teaching, helping students and taking care of administrative issues. Thanks to her efforts, the school soon grew into the Muzikalnoye Uchilishche (Junior College). Much later, it became a college-level conservatory. Now, it is called the Gnessin Academy of Music.

When I studied there, it was a very modest place, with the only purpose to bring up young musicians. At that time, there were no politics, financial goals, envies, and competitiveness. There was a warm, family atmosphere and I was very happy to be there and to study with my first teacher.

My first teacher was Sofia Davidovna Kogan, a pianiste extraordinaire.

Sofia Kogan

She was a Kiev Conservatory graduate. On her graduation, Heinrich Neuhaus was on the panel of judges. Some thirty years later, he told me that he could still remember in detail her playing, in particular, the second movement of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 31 No. 3. He told me that he had never heard anything like that. She studied with professor Dombrovsky, a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky. Her diploma recital consisted of three parts, during which she played extremely advanced and demanding repertoire including two Beethoven Sonatas, Liszt's Mephisto-Valse, Totentanz, Tarantella and more.

Sofia Davidovna was a very unusual human being. Aside from her outstanding pedagogical talents, she was exceptionally warm and kind. Pupils adored her, and never in her life did she raise her voice during a lesson. Her teaching was very interesting. She never exerted any kind of pressure on her pupils. Her own piano playing was a significant part of the lessons, and somehow, we were all affected by it and remembered it for a long time, sometimes forever.

I can clearly see her hands now. Her special trademark was a very strong and big muscle on the fifth finger of her left hand, and children were allowed to touch it. When she played Rachmaninov's E minor Moment Musical, it still stays in my memory how incredibly her left hand moved and the immense power of her sound, its clarity and intensity.

Listening to music was an integral part of being her pupil. She encouraged students, even at an early age, to chose their own repertoire. Since then, with my students, I always ask them first what it is they want to play. The pianistic fundamentals she gave to her pupils served them for all their life. She regularly took her pupils to concerts. It was with her that I heard Sofronitsky for the first time. He played Liszt and Schubert-Liszt, and the impression of that recital has never faded from my memory.

When she taught, she radiated love and understanding, and all children felt they were in a family. Around the time I was 11 years old, I also started playing for her husband, the renowned Grigory Kogan, but I never stopped being her pupil until her untimely death.

She committed suicide at the age of 46...

Grigory Kogan
Grigory Kogan

My close artistic and human relationship with Grigory Kogan has continued until his death in 1979. Some of my experiences with this remarkable person are described in a separate chapter.

Evgeny Svetlanov, 1952

My first husband was celebrated conductor Evgeny Svetlanov then young, bright and very tallented pianist. Together with him I had discovered a great world of symphonic music and operas. We played through almost the entire symphonic and operatic repertoire. In addition, our duet became well known among young Soviet composers. We were constantly asked to play the new compositions for the Officials of the Ministry of Culture. This was the only way, in those years, for the young composers to get approval for publishing. Recently, I have been asked to write about Svetlanov the pianist. My memoirs can be found on the website dedicated to Svetlanov.

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Moscow Conservatory

I was 16 when I entered the Moscow Conservatory.

To be accepted in Professor Neuhaus's studio, was already a serious life achievement. I studied with Neuhaus for seven years. The first two years, I was in the group that he taught at his home. At that time he had an apartment on Chkalov Street. Many things were happening in this apartment.

Heinrich Neuhaus

Whenever he taught, there were always ten or fifteen people present. Some were current students, some former students, some parents, others young teachers, friends or guests.

I remember occasions when the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter came for long hours to play Wagner's Operas, and on other occasions when there was an exhibition of Richter's paintings. Sometimes there were evenings with little comedy shows prepared by students. Neuhaus' wife, Militza Sergeyevna, was always kind and made us feel welcome in their house. There was always a very special, light and creative atmosphere.

During those first two years, his assistant was Leonid Brumberg. The things I learned from Brumberg serve me until now. As life goes on, I feel more and more respect and admiration for him.

Still being a student, I entered an audition for the position of Opera Konzertmeister (opera coach) in the Bolshoi Theatre. The Bolshoi Theatre was always a special institution in the Soviet Union. After admittance, one had to go through a severe, long process of official administrative acceptance. Being member of Bolshoi Theatre had certain privileges and many people had applied.

The audition itself consisted of three rounds: first was a solo performance; second was sight-reading. This second round was particularly interesting. In the panel of judges were the most prominent conductors Melik-Pashaev, Nebolsin, Kondrashin and composer Shaporin. One of the conductors went on stage, and gave the auditioner an orchestral excerpt to be played on the piano under his baton. Finally, the third round consisted of leading a rehearsal with a group of singers for a performance of Glinka's canon Kakoye Chudnoe Mgnovenye from the opera "Ruslan and Ludmila".

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Bolshoi Theatre

I become a member of the Bolshoi.

We were allowed to attend all opera and ballet rehearsals and performances. I was so crazy about ballet that I saw Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet with Galina Ulanova 27 times.

The job was mainly to rehearse the parts with the singers. I realized I did not like working there, and soon left. However, I do have some unusual memories about my peculiar duties. At the time Soviet Union did not have good vocal school, so the Bolshoi looked for voices outside of the cities in the countryside. Sometimes, they found very good voices and brought them to the Theatre. Most of newcomers had almost no musical background. I remember one episode, in the opera La Boheme, were the tenor who was singing Parpignol had to start his part behind the curtain. He could never remember that first pitch, so during each performance there was a special call to the pianist (me) to stand by and holler the pitch to his ear.

Another recollection was during a performance of the opera Pskovitianka by Rimsky-Korsakov. In this opera, the sound of big bells has a very important part in the score. In the Bolshoi Theatre, under the roof there was a special place with many different kinds of big bells. To make them sound, a person had to wait until a small light bulb went on. That was the signal to hit the bell. The button to turn on the light bulb was in the orchestra pit. Usually the pianist, who sat in front of the conductor, had to push it at the right time, following the conductor's signal. The trick was to push the button a little early, so that there was enough time for the bell person to see the light and to hit the bell. The time interval was not always the same; it depended on tempi, that evening's interpretation of the music, etc. The sound of the bells was huge, and if it accidentally wasn't on time, it was quite frightening.

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My next job was in Moskonzert,

the bureau responsible for all concerts in the USSR. I pretty much covered with concert tours almost all the Soviet Union including such far points like Far East and Kamchatka. This job gave me a lot of experience in chamber ensembles. The common form of concerts in the tours were the so-called Estradniy Konzert. They consisted of many different genres, all of them with piano accompaniment. There were no rehearsals and obviously it demanded a great deal of sight-reading and readiness.

Zara Doloukhanova
Zara Doloukhanova

One of the most important parts of my life was to meet and to work with the great singer Zara Doloukhanova. We worked together for almost fifteen years, and this time was immensely influential on my artistic and personal life.

My work with student-pianists is based, in a big part, on principles, which I discovered with Doloukhanova. I ask my students to sing a melody until that melody will be understood in its inner tendencies, then it will become part of their own interpretation. Sometimes, working on Mozart Sonatas I even ask them to compose words to reach the natural logic of the melodies.

Applying this technique with pianist produces good results. Sometimes it helps not to be involved with the texture or technical difficulties, but first gain a clear idea of the musical thought, which will be then expressed with fuller meaning. Usually, teachers and pianists do these steps at the same time (sound, technique, music). As a result of the many years of working with Zara Doloukhanova, and understanding her schooling, my method puts themes, phrasing, and interpretation in the first place, brings good results in our very technocratic times. With great artist Zara Doloukhanova, together, we toured all over the world.

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In 1975 I moved to USA.

As an artist I already had been in America several times and very much enjoyed the friendliness and the warmth of the people who I met here. I was even offered some attractive jobs from the celebrated Sol Hurok management. However, when I came here to stay and live, the situation was completely different. Sol Hurok's office was sold and his management agency didn't exist anymore.
There was no job.

So I decided to try teaching, something I had never done before. Nadia Reisenberg (famous piano pedagogue, who I met in New York) suggested to Mannes College of Music that I could replace a teacher who had gone on maternity leave. I taught a class on a temporary basis. It was my first teaching experience. After that period was finished, the students decided to stay with me.

My class
My class 1994

That's how my life as a piano teacher started. Later I was formally invited to become a faculty member at Mannes and a few years later was invited to teach at Manhattan School of Music. Since then, my teaching life expanded significantly. I always have a big class. Students are coming from different countries. For example, last year I had students from 19 countries.

Among my students are winners of international piano competitions as well as professionals occupying prestigious positions in the musical world.

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Here is the Picture Gallery of some of my dear students.

In 1983 I was invited to Columbia Artists management after one of the managers heard my performance at Newport music festival. I played Second Sonata by N. Miaskovsky.

The following year was my debut at Lincoln Center, which was very warmly accepted by the press.

Barcelona: architectural masterpiece by Antonio Gaudi

All these years, I have been traveling extensively, giving concerts, master classes, courses, and lectures, in countries like Germany, England, Spain, Austria, Finland, Israel, Thailand, Philippines, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, USA, Canada, France, Belgium.

In my life I have traveled extensively. Among the most memorable places is Barcelona, with its unforgettable architecture.

Some of my students have been travelling with me to different countries.

I have wonderful relationship with many of my international students. Especially from Suolahti Summer Courses in Finland, where I teach for the past 21 years. This is one of my favorite places.

Group from Suolahti Summer Courses
Suolahti 2004
Ira 2005

I was also invited to judge competitions such as Monsalvatge Contemporary Music Competition and Concurso de Piano Ricardo Viqes in Spain, Korea Piano Competition, United States World Piano Competition, International Competition for Young Musicians in Corpus Christi, TX and New York Chopin Competition.

Copyright © 2001 Nina Svetlanova