Interview with Russian pianist Arsentiy Kharitonov

By Raymond Beegle
Special Correspondent for Classical Voice

Kharitonov with the author.  Photo ©2016 Ellis Gaskell

Kharitonov with the author.  Photo ©2016 Ellis Gaskell

Soothing “the savage breast” is only one of the many things that music has the power to do. For instance it also has the power to prompt a man to sacrifice much of his childhood, boyhood and youth in solitary practice and study. It even prompts a man like Arsentiy Kharitonov to leave his home, his country, his culture, in pursuit of a musical life and artistic excellence.

Sometimes, music is kind to those who have given up so much, as is the case with Russian-born Kharitonov, first prize winner of both the Liszt International competition, and the Rachmaninoff competition. He presently enjoys a teaching appointment at the University of North Texas while pursuing a fascinating international concert career.

Below are some questions I asked him, the answers to which provide a glimpse into the mind and heart of a deep, poetic, and practical artist who is in the process of receiving the recognition he justly deserves. I, with a multitude of New York fans, will have the pleasure of hearing him in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, on May 20th.

Raymond Beegle: You have said in earlier conversations that you consider yourself a maverick in your piano studies. How has that benefited you? Has it caused you any difficulties as well?

Arsentiy Kharitonov: There are both benefits as well as difficulties in my situation. Just a little story to tell: I got into Saint Petersburg college of music (which was a total miracle - still cannot explain how that happened).  I was accepted by a teacher who was impressed solely by the huge span of my hands! He was not prepared to deal with a student who was a total “zero” in music. I did not know how to practice, my pianistic foundation was nonexistent, and I could not sight read at all. In several months he gave up on me, and I was left in the college without any instructor’s help. Any person with common sense would change majors or do something else, but I was persistent; perhaps, quite delusional. I stayed to prove everyone wrong. In order to pass piano exams I chose to play less known repertoire where I was building my own interpretations, and that benefited me in many areas – and especially in musical analysis. I questioned every academic tradition, school, method, etc. Looking back, I still believe the main difficulty that followed me through years was the poor basic pianistic skills. As a self-taught pianist, I had made lots of mistakes and acquired bad pianistic habits. Later, I have spent lots of time unlearning those habits. It is a torturous process: to learn a certain skill and then correct it endless number of times. On the other side, right now I know what exactly to do with any particular problem; so not only this enables me to learn new or complicated things quickly, but also makes me a really efficient teacher.  

I guess, what I am trying to say is that I turned my early difficulties into a beneficial system of practice.

One other peculiarity of my development: I didn’t study piano repertoire in any methodical chronology, as most pianists do. I always played music that interested me the most at a certain time. When everyone played Chopin, I played Busoni or Prokofiev, or when Bach was in the spotlight of all pianists I worked on Shostakovich and Shchedrin’s contrapuntal works. I remember that I was the only pianist at that time (in Russia) who played Rachmaninoff’s first piano sonata and not his second one. I guess that made my approach to piano more unique.

RB: What are your feelings about leaving your homeland, your culture, and moving to a foreign country speaking another language?

AK: I moved to the United States in 2004 with more hopes about my career as a pianist. I did leave my country, but only in geographical terms. Its culture and language moved with me as well. I also think that I got a better understanding of my Russian culture by living in another country. I often miss being in my favorite city, Saint Petersburg.

RB: Who are the people that are the greatest inspiration to you?

AK: Three composers: Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Scriabin. These composers resemble three worlds that are very different in nature (water, earth, and air). This so called system helped me understand and follow the nature of musical phrase, dramatic essentials and their characteristics.

RB: Vonnegut says being a concert pianist is more difficult than winning the lottery. Why are you trying this against such staggering odds?

AK: It is a hard question. I guess there are two components in me trying to achieve this sort of career. One is my strong desire to share my art with people. On the other side, I want to bring some kind of new or rather “old” unconditional musicianship to this profession.

RB:  What books have influenced your life the most?

AK:  I won’t be original by saying that Russian classical literature means a world to me. I would not name any specific books, but I will mention writers like Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Platonov, and Lermontov. And I love poetry (Yesenin, Blok, Tsvetaeva, Pushkin, Lermontov, etc)

RB:  Do you think music, art, is a moral issue, or merely entertainment?

AK:  It depends. I relate to music as a High Art, and to me it is more of a moral issue. However, it is like a bitter mixture that very often has to be served in the candy of entertainment.

RB:  Do you plan to stay in America?

AK:  So far, yes… The future will tell… but with my new recording contracts and concert invitations it seems likely.

RB:  Tell me about the repertoire on your next recording

AK:  This will be my first major recording where I will be performing well-known composers, such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin. Most of the pieces are miniatures: Meditation by Tchaikovsky, Melody by Rachmaninoff as well as selected preludes by Scriabin. There will be also a tremendous and almost forgotten opus of Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Chopin.

RB:  Is your way of life centered around your music?

AK:  Most definitely. Music is an axis for my life and my well-being.

RB:  Phillip Glass said, “My father ran a record store, so the first thing I learned about music is that it’s a business. “Schubert said, “What God has given me, I give away freely, and that’s an end of it.” What do you say?

AK:  And I say that music has saved me.

RB:  What do you think are the major differences between pianists heard in the earliest recordings, and pianists today?

AK:  The difference is in an attitude to the music itself. I believe that back then musicians treated music as a miracle, which, in its essence cannot be sustained, or repeated, or explained. Nowadays, many performers treat music as if it is a part of their show. On the other side, today, everything has become heavily institutionalized (performance practice at its peak). Pianists became more polished, predictable, imitative, and boringly perfect. 

SCRIABIN Selected Miniature
TCHAIKOVSKY Selected Pieces  
RACHMANINOFF Variations on a Theme of Chopin   
Pianist Arsentiy Kharitonov
Friday, May 20, 2016, 8:00pm
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall