Vladimir Feltsman and the genesis of PianoSummer

Vladimir Feltsman

Vladimir Feltsman

For three weeks in July, gifted young musicians from all over the world come to SUNY-New Paltz to study at the PianoSummer Institute, run by Vladimir Feltsman, the world-renowned, Russian-born pianist who made his debut at Carnegie Hall in 1987 and has played with major orchestras around the globe.

Feltsman, who has taught at SUNY-New Paltz since 1987 – the year he emigrated from Russia to the US – has headed the Institute and Festival for the past nine years. Under his tenure, the PianoSummer Institute, which was launched 22 years ago, has developed from its modest beginnings into what he calls “one of the most interesting summer piano schools in the US.” That reputation in part was made possible by the private financial support that Feltsman – who also teaches at the Mannes College of Music – mustered from his extensive network of contacts.

The PianoSummer Institute differs from other distinguished summer music schools in that it is shorter – three weeks, as opposed to the more typical nine weeks – and intense, with five lessons a day. “It’s piano boot camp,” Feltsman said. Lessons are given by SUNY-New Paltz’s seven Music Department professors and visiting guest artists.

Despite the intensity of the program, “My purpose is not to make superstars of our kids,” Feltsman said. The Institute offers “an objective teaching model” in which all the students study with all the teachers: a modus operandi that exposes the young musicians to a variety of styles and approaches, Feltsman said. The aim “is to open up something in their minds and help them learn how to learn,” he said, noting that developing this “critical ability is of value for the rest of their lives” – a longer-lasting legacy than simply preparing them to play at a world-class venue (although when an Institute grad does play Carnegie Hall, it’s pretty wonderful, he acknowledged).

Feltsman himself made his debut with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra at age 11, although he modestly stated that compared to “kids today who make $10 million at the age of 12, I was just pretty good.” He credits his experience as a teenaged student at the Moscow Conservatory, and in particular, his teacher Jacob Flier, as the prime inspiration and foundation of his career. Back then, “The Moscow Conservatory was unquestionably the greatest music school in the world.”

However, “Being a student of one of these great guys implied certain rules of behavior: You could not walk into another class and hear how a different teacher worked. If you did, your present teacher was not very happy about it.” In contrast, at the PianoSummer Institute all the teachers have equal authority. “There is no such thing as the absolute truth about how to play Mozart,” Feltsman said. “It’s easier to say or show what not to do than to show students what to do. It’s like a mirror: What you get depends on how and who is looking. But when you absorb and digest from other teachers, it becomes yours, and that’s how you learn how to learn.”

Feltsman acknowledged this approach may initially be confusing for some students, but ultimately they discover “what clicks and resonates.” Such an open-ended learning approach also gives students a breather from the enormous pressure that they’re under. “The process here and in certain places in Europe is not very pretty,” he said. “The main criterion is not how good he or she plays, but how well the teacher is connected and the support he or she could get for the students. The PianoSummer Institute and Festival is the opposite of that.”

The accompanying festival, held at the college’s McKenna Theatre, consists of performances by faculty and selected PianoSummer Institute alum, along with a series of recitals by the attending students and master classes by the visiting artists. The students compete in two performances for the Jacob Flier Competition. All the performances are open to the public.

As a young pianist in Russia, Feltsman was perhaps free from the commercial pressures experienced by today’s up-and-coming classical musicians, but he had other challenges, namely getting his travel abroad approved by the KGB, and endured perhaps the worse fate imaginable for a performer, after he unsuccessfully applied for an exit visa: virtual artistic exile in the USSR for eight years, during which his recordings were suppressed and he was banned from performing. With the coming of glasnost, he was finally able to leave, in 1987. He continues to perform in his former homeland, but says that there’s nothing romantic about the connection: “I have quite a following in Russia and my concerts sell very well, so they can make money off me. I still have a few dear friends there, and Russia will always have a special place in my heart. But it’s all business.”

Despite the political difficulties, he feels fortunate to have been in Russia in the 1960s and ’70s. “If you’re talking about music culture, Russia was the place to be, especially for young students. But one of the main reasons I wanted to leave Russia is that if you don’t play the game and follow the rules, you have zero chance of making a career” – as a result of which, “I detest politics.”

He is concerned about the future of classical music in this country. “We need new ways of appealing to a broader audience, especially younger people, and I hope there will be enough people who can appreciate it and see the difference between Bach and Mozart and rap,” he said. “I don’t want to be the older guy reminiscing about the good old times, so I’m trying to help younger people see the real value of classical music and develop an appreciation for something real. Without classical music, poetry, literature and art, life would be that much more meager and gray.”

PianoSummer, SUNY-New Paltz; (845) 257-3880, www.newpaltz.edu/piano




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