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Denis Matsuev: That extraordinary idea worked

September 25, 2017, 8:00 UTC+3

Holder of People’s Artist of Russia title in TASS special project Top Officials

4 pages in this article
© Vyacheslav Prokofiev/TASS

On Putin playing the piano, rubbing shoulders with the powers that be, parental heroism and sold apartment


- Have you heard Vladimir Putin play the piano while he was waiting for a rendezvous with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping? What would you say about the performer?

- He touches the keys far more softly that before. Anyone familiar with the instrument will surely take note of the progress he made.

- Would you say the test was passed?

- One hundred percent!

- Wasn’t it you by any chance who gave him music classes?

- No, it wasn’t me. Not a single hour or minute. You have my word for it!

- And what if Putin himself asked you for a master class?

- I would’ve recommended him a more worthy teacher.

- But you’ve chanced to perform for the president, haven’t you?

- Putin repeatedly visited classical music concerts with my participation. The opening of the Tchaikovsky Competition and the inauguration of the new stage of the Mariinsky Theater… I can’t remember everything.

- And for the selected few?

- On one occasion Yelena Obraztsova and yours truly were invited to the Bocharov Ruchei residence. Our president was in the company of the then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his wife.

- What did you play?

- Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky…

- At the audience’s request?

- Not without that.

I can tell you quite honestly that it makes no difference at all for me where to play and what audience there is in the hall. It does not matter how many people there are listening to me – just three or two thousand and what my listeners’ social status is.

I always perform to the best of my ability. Otherwise I would’ve stopped respecting myself.

I have my own, subjective yardstick. If I’ve lost a couple of kilograms during one recital, that means that I did it the right way. Yesterday, for instance, I lost three kilograms. I’m still curious how a performing artist can leave the stage with one’s shirt being dry. It’s always different with me. Somebody has taken the trouble of calculating that Rachmaninoff’s Concerto N. 3 consists of fifty five thousand notes. It’s not like going out for a weekend picnic with only a tiny backpack to carry! It’s like scaling Mont Everest.

- Have you ever given private recitals in front of the heads of state apart from Putin?

- To begin with, in 1991 I became a laureate of the charity foundation New Names and over a very short period of time I toured several dozen countries. Ivetta Voronova, the foundation’s first president, regularly included me in different programs. Imagine: when I was just sixteen I played not only at Carnegie Hall or Vienna’s Musikverein, but also at the headquarters of NATO in Brussels, at the United Nations in New York, for Queen Elizabeth II, of Britain, and for the Pope. I performed for Pope John Paul six times. And on one occasion the King of Thailand and me played the piano four hands. He was a composer and wrote music himself. Quite melodic, decent pieces…

In a word, at a very young age I got acquainted with many politicians. So I do have some experience in that sense.

- Does your proximity to the Russian authorities create problems for you in the West? After all, the attitude to our country has changed, let us say, not in the best of ways.

- What do you mean by “proximity”? I am a member of the presidential council on culture, where I can share with the head of state the problems that trouble me and to draw his attention to certain issues. I remember on one occasion I briefed him on musical education for children. Under the existing standards the special educational establishments for future musicians, such as the Central Musical School at the Moscow Conservatoire, and the Gnesin School of Music were allowed to enroll students starting from the age of twelve. Although it is clear that the basics of music are to be taught at a far younger age. I felt obliged to discuss that with Putin. And my message wasn’t left unanswered. Some amendments have been made. Pre-school education at the Central Musical School begins at the age of four.

Regrettably, music classes are being ousted from the secondary schools, while I am certain that alongside the alphabet and numbers our minors must be taught musical notes, too. Regardless of whether they are destined to become musicians in the future or not. Basic musical knowledge helps people keep an open mind and develop a different type of associations. I’m prepared to press for this at any level, high or low, just for the sake of getting things going.

Incidentally, the fact that the decision regarding the Central Musical School was made so promptly was fresh evidence that the presidential council is not just a discussion club, although some have been trying to portray it this way. It addresses some very specific, crucial culture-related matters.

But this is certainly not a reason to speculate about “proximity” to the authorities. I have no theater or orchestra of my own. I don’t get government grants of budget financing. It is true that the Ministry of Culture does provide some funding for the contest called Grand Piano Competition and the festivals Crescendo and Stars of Baikal festival. But that’s where the federal subsidies run dry. The authorities of the Irkutsk Region contribute a certain share. As for the rest of the money needed, I raise it on my own. I visit sponsors, acquaintances and friends, I keep persuading donors and inventing plausible options. For instance, the Russian government’s award that I received last year was spent entirely on the Stars of Baikal festival.

- And so the financial 'tide' goes

- I can’t complain. I enjoy recognition in my home country. For many years I’ve had the title of the People’s Artist and of the State Prize laureate. Just recently I was awarded the Order of Merit, in which I take very special pride. This is my country and I’ve never had thoughts of leaving Russia, although invitations have been many. Starting from the 1990s. I was invited to the United States, France, Spain and Britain… I wish to live in my home country and to go to bed with this thought.

Believe it or not, but in our two-room apartment on Lenin Street in Irkutsk, the same featherbed I used to sleep on when I was a little boy is still there. Besides that, I refuse to let the apartment be refurbished. Everything there is the way it was nearly 30 years ago. Even my favorite toy lion sporting green overalls is still intact. And there is no place in the world where I can sleep better than at home. Home, sweet home.

Do you know how many recitals I did last year? Read my lips – 264! I enjoy touring the world provided I know that my home country waiting for me. In contrast to many other people in my profession I’ve never had any second or third passports or residence permits. I’ve never made arrangements for any “safe havens” elsewhere. Although I can tell you that getting Israeli citizenship would not be a great problem for me, because my mother is half-Jew. But it never occurred to me to do that. Why should I? And my daughter Anna, who is about to turn one, is a Russian citizen. This is a matter of fundamental importance.

It is true that the world’s attitude to Russia has changed, but my foreign tours still gather capacity audiences, and I don’t feel that the people have begun to react differently. There’s never been anything like this.

- But in the United States some calls were made for cancelling your tour last year, weren’t they?

- It was just a rumor some tried to turn into breaking news. In Boston a handful of picketers could be seen standing in front of the concert hall for a while. That’s a normal scene in the United States. There’s no day there without somebody protesting against something some place. Including the area near the White House. There were minor pickets before concerts by Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Spivakov. That incident in Boston would’ve surely remained unnoticed, had some not blown it out of proportion. First, in the social networks and then in the mass media. In the meantime, The Washington Post carried a complimentary review of my performance. Sadly, commotions sell better than good news.

Very few media outlets write about such matters, so I have to remind youthat it was me who prompted the purchase of more than50 new Steinway&Sons pianos for various regions of Russia over the past few years. Mind you, a new concert instrument costs 160,000 euros. A hefty sum of money, isn’t it? A Steinway piano’s normal life cycle is up to 30 years provided that it’s taken care of properly. And how many more good pianos from other manufacturers have been purchased around the country? Hundreds! There was a time when many pianists, including myself, had no chance of touring some cities because there were no instruments to play on. The situation has changed. I believe that this “piano purchase campaign” is an achievement of mine to an extent and I take special pride in it. Orenburg Governor Yuri Berg’s efforts have helped 18 district centers around the region acquire Yamaha salon pianos. They were bought not with budget money, but with donations from private sponsors. On one occasion, Governor Berg and I toured four cities in one day: Gai, Buzuluk, Buguruslan, Belyayevka. Ineach city,I tested the instruments’ quality myself…

Now there is another problem to address. We have just five concert halls across the country where the proper air temperature and humidity levels are maintained. For a musical instrument, the conditions in which it is kept are critically important.Sharp swings in temperature and humidity may cause the soundboard to crack.There have been times when after visiting some place that I had last just been to the previous year, I find the piano has changed beyond recognition. Purchasing a good instrument is not enough. Properupkeep and maintenance arecrucial. A great deal of persuasion is involved.Steinwaypiano tuner Vladimir Spesivtsev and I travel from place to place and explain that they need a special Dampp-Chaser (a system of climate control for pianos – TASS) to be placed under each instrument. It costs 20,000 rubles ($345)…

The way I see it, the presence of a top-notch piano in a region is an indicator of the level of culture and a mandatory condition for tours by renowned performers. Media support is essential in this respect, too. This problem is to be highlighted and sponsors’ attention drawn to the problem.

- I may be mistaken but I have the impression that there is only one person capable of keeping abreast of your tight performance schedule. Valery Gergiev.

- Correct. He is my elder brother in this sense. We even compete with each other, unofficially, of course, who will do more concerts in one year. I must confess with regret that Valery is in the lead, although he is some years my senior. His record is hard to beat. On one occasion he conducted an orchestra in Amsterdam only to perform in New York in the evening of the same day. Sometimes I have the impression that Gergiev has the ability to keep time under control and even to stop it.

We also had some joint accomplishments: at the Easter Festival in 2016 we began with a Tchaikovsky concerto in Belgorod at noon, at 5 p.m. we performed a piece by Shostakovich in Kursk and in Oryol at nine in the evening there was Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Three appearances on stage in one day with three different programs.

- I must address words of sympathy to the Oryol audience, who had to put up with the presence of exhausted Gergiev and Matsuev on stage.

- How very wrong you are. There was a standing ovation. And we had a great steam bath party afterwards. Gergiev is a great steam bath enthusiast.

I’d say more: I like this pace of life. I hate coming to a city several days before the recital to have a good night’s sleep, to leisurely have breakfast and then rehearse without any haste. This knocks me off my feet. I have to hurry all the time in order to be everywhere.

- What’s the right term for this? Money-raking?

- It’s utterly wrong. Money-racking implies hackwork, pre-recorded soundtracks and other tricks used so often to make a fast buck.

- But you don’t perform gratis, do you?

- Naturally. But that’s not the main driving force that makes me appear on stage. As I’ve already said, part of the money is spent on arranging festivals, on the New Names Foundation, which I took over from Ivetta Voronova, and on charity. I would not like to speak about that in greater detail. It would be wrong and not very modest of me of me if I would. Before my mind’s eye I have good examples of my senior colleagues, real masters of their trade, who have long indulged in this type of activity and who almost never speak about that aloud. You know, I still have this inborn Siberian habit: never offend and always help.

- You were in a somewhat similar position once, when you grandmother sold her apartment in Irkutsk to let you go to Moscow to study music?

That decision was made by the whole family. My mom and dad were about to take a dive into the unknown. The future looked so unclear that it will be hard for you to imagine. Nobody could say for certain if something good would come of that risky venture. Hoping for good fortune and the lucky star was all we could do then. It may sound too pathetic, but my parents displayed true heroism. My father and mother were perfectly aware that I had already overgrown the local level. I needed a fresh impetus. Fifteen is a critical age. Sadly, many potentially talented musicians stop developing precisely because they do not make a step forward at this crucial moment. True, suspense may look scaring, but you have to overpower your own self, if you wish to achieve something serious in the future.

One should be aware that in the late 1980s cultural life in Irkutsk was pegged to my father somehow. He authored music for many local stage productions. My mother was a piano teacher. My grandmother sold her apartment for $13,500 and gave the money to us to go to Moscow. We lived on that money for several years. My parents abandoned their well-established life to move into a single-room apartment.

My father offered his services to Moscow theaters, gave private lessons, and worked as a teacher at an amateur music class at a children’s creative center. Supermarket shelves were mostly empty in those days. To put it in a nutshell, those were turbulent years, yet I recall them as one of the brightest periods in my life.

A stroke of luck certainly played a role. In the autumn of 1990 the New Names Foundation invited me to Moscow for taking part in a Morning Star TV show. That was my first appearance on TV. I played my own jazz piece called Paris Memories. A year before that I had performed in Sorbonne. It was a sensation. A youngster from Siberia plays before an audience of university professors and students in the capital of France. That trip had produced the strongest impression on me. I still recall the day when I first saw Place du Chatelet. I was instantly overwhelmed.

Upon return from Paris I wrote this jazz piece which I would later play on TV. In Moscow we used to stop at the home of my father’s good old friend, Igor Kopyrin. The Central Musical School was next door. Sheer coincidence. Kopyrin suddenly had an idea: “That’s the place for you to go! Go and ask. What if Denis is good for them.” Frankly speaking, the idea looked utterly weird. The academic year was already well in progress and all classes were full. But Kopyrin was very insistent. Strangely enough, we were granted an audience with the school’s director, Valentin Belchenko. He listened to us for a while and then asked me to play something. I performed Rachmaninoff’s prelude and that very same jazz phantasy about Paris. Belchenko stayed silent for a moment and then said: “OK, you’re in. Join us. Right away.”

I left his office without having the slightest idea what to do next. We returned to Irkutsk and gave the proposal some thought. I hated the idea of leaving my school, let alone leaving Irkutsk. I literally turned hysterical!

Oddly enough, but my love of football and the Spartak football club, of Moscow, decided it all. Pretty bored with my hysterical screams about my friends and Baikal I would be unable to live without my mother tabled this mighty argument: “But then you will be able to go to Luzhniki to see Spartak matches.”

In a moment I turned silent. My farsighted mother knew how to bait the trap right! Now you can see that I went to Moscow not for the sake of studying music but for the sake of seeing Spartak play live.

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