Infusing her music with life

Infusing her music with life

It’s not the eighth notes or the allegro moderato dictated by sheet music that gives concert pianist Yuliya Gorenman her seamless, unflinching sound when she performs on stage. 

Of course, when playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, a little guidance from the composer helps. But it is Gorenman’s mood, molded as much by a recent 30-second encounter with a woodpecker as by her schooling in St. Petersburg, that produces a unique performance each and every time she plays a piece.

Born in Odessa, Ukraine, and raised in Kazakhstan, Gorenman is a professor of piano and musician in residence at American University. She has lived in the Washington area since 1995 but has performed all over the country and the world. Critics often laud her musical style as fearless and her quest to perform and record the complete cycle of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas at AU is testament to that.

Gorenman performs with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Kim Allen Kluge this weekend as part of ASO’s All-Beethoven Valentine’s Day Weekend at Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall&Arts Center. It will be the third time she has worked with Kluge, who she considers a good friend. 

The distinctive, jovial pianist recently spoke with the Times about winter in Washington, how her musical attitude relates to deep-sea fishing and why fruit grown under a lamp, no matter how ripe, is less meaningful than fruit grown on a tree.

Alexandria Times: What does the D.C. area offer you as an artist?

Yuliya Gorenman: Here’s why I love it: It has three airports, it’s cosmopolitan, it can get me anywhere I want to [go]. It has people speaking dozens of languages, if not more. What’s not to like?

It’s very international. Does this characteristic influence you as an artist at all?

I think every experience I have affects my playing. One year I went to Puerto Rico and during that trip I went to see what’s called the Bioluminescent Bay, where you see what looks like a lot of flashlights at night in the water. It was the most magical feeling. And as I was experiencing this I was thinking, ‘My goodness, this is just like the music of [Claude] Debussy.’ So I tried to bring that experience into my music. But it’s not only the travel. The more you’ve lived, the more you bring personal experience into your music. 

Does that mean you’ve looked at the snow outside and that it will influence your performance this weekend?

I was looking at the bluest blue sky, with the white snow, and then I saw a woodpecker with that red head. It was just two days ago. It was most quiet and yet the bird had this song that was very determined and definite. If that’s not music, I don’t know what is.

Maybe you could incorporate a woodpecker into this weekend’s performance. Maybe not? They may not take instruction well.

Well, woodpeckers are all about rhythm and so is Beethoven. We have our internal rhythm. The heartbeat is the rhythm, right? And if we agitate it, our heartbeat goes faster and that’s the tempo of all music. 

Have you worked with ASO and Kim Allen Kluge before?

Yes, I have. It’s going to be our third time. We’re friends. It’s absolutely great. 

The show is oriented towards Valentine’s Day. What do you think makes Beethoven a good choice for the holiday?

It’s an extremely lyrical concerto. It’s very personal. It’s one of the most sincere [pieces of] music that he ever wrote, I think. It doesn’t have the flash and bombastic stuff that some other pieces have and it’s plenty sparkling and it’s really a great piece. Normally, when you think of concerti, the concerto would start with a big bang and a big orchestral introduction. In this case, it’s just me. I start the pace and I play quietly and very introspectively and then allow it to kind of unfold. It’s really a great story.

Is that how you consider a lot of the pieces you play? Other people may describe it as a song.

I think almost every piece is either a dance or a song. In the case of a song, there’s always a story. The story changes every day. It changes with how you feel at the moment and what’s going on. I don’t have a definite story as in a storyline, but there are certain emotions it evokes from me. 

So you can rehearse all you want, but this is something that just comes out on stage.

Absolutely. And it’s always a new piece. The experiences that you live that’s everything. You do bring it into your life and into your music and [in] whatever you do. I think that’s the difference with, lets say, real people and a wunderkind the little kids that have been taught well at the earliest age, yet they have not lived. It’s like a perfectly gorgeous fruit that’s growing under a lamp and not on a tree. So you have to bring your life experience into your life and your work. Otherwise, it’s meaningless.

Why are you described as ‘fearless’ so often?

I will take on something that many people would think twice [about]. I would take on performing all of Beethoven’s sonatas. You can probably count on … one hand the number of people that have done it. And I’m not bragging; It’s just, I want to prove it to myself that I can do it. I love such incredible things as deep-sea fishing, which is not exactly a womanly sport God forbid a concert pianist’s sport but I would say that’s what basically describes me.