WE ARE THE MUSIC MAKERS: exclusive interview with pianist Natalia Nicolaeva


Exclusive interview for all across the arts

Russian pianist, Natalia Nicolaeva – March 2020

As I knew nothing at all about either Iya Zhmaeva or Natalia when my wife and I and two friends stumbled into into a small concert room in Tias on an evening before which we had heard a classical piano recital in The Camel House in Macher, I hope it wouldn´t sound too rude when I began my interviews with both artists by asking, who are you?

´I am Natalia Nikolaeva. I was born and grew up in the Crimea, on the Black Sea.

Isadora Duncan

In this regard, I recall the lines of the great dancer, Isadora Duncan, from her autobiography: “I was born by the sea and noticed that all the outstanding events of my life took place near it. My first thoughts about movement and dance were certainly inspired by the rhythm of the waves… My life and my art were born by the sea”.

In the same way, my first childhood experiences and memories are mostly related to the sea and to music. Maybe that’s why I need and love this wonderful island of Lanzarote so much. I have been living in Berlin for 24 years now, where I graduated from the University of the Arts (Universität der Künste Berlin) in piano and instrumental pedagogy. Berlin has a multifaceted cultural palette that allows me to grow and develop professionally, providing impulses for piano and chamber music. Berlin and its cultural life is my intellectual food, which I need very much. And the Lanzarote and the Canary Islands are my soul and my heart without which I cannot imagine my existence. Here on Lanzarote there is everything – the energy of the volcano, the power of the ocean, the invigorating sun and interest in culture! Here I have the opportunity to realize my projects and bring music to people. It’s like a little paradise!´

With such an obviously wide love of and interest the arts I wonder why it was playing music, and the piano in particular, that  Natalia was drawn to.

´For me, a piano is an instrument of my inner world. With it I can express myself. It’s my language. You can speak Russian, English, German, Spanish, or you can speak and express your thoughts through a piano.

Vladimir Horowitz

Vladimir Horowitz, one of the greatest pianists, said that the piano is one of the easiest instruments for beginners and the most difficult for experienced masters.

This instrument combines strength and grace, singing and life; on the piano you can perform one voice and imitate the entire orchestra; play opera and ballet; perform an entire symphony and a small salon piece; accompany the melody and build a complex polyphonic vertical. The pianist can be a soloist and part of a chamber ensemble. Without the accompaniment of the pianist it will be difficult for a singer and any other instrument. The piano is a kind of foundation. It’s like ancient columns on which a building with a beautiful dome is built.´

When I ask Natalia what she plays for her own pleasure without rehearsals or concert plans, she gives the question some serious thought.

Natalie speaks with a fan after recent concert

´This is a very difficult question, as professional musicians are almost always preparing for something. But in order to distract from the usual activities, sometimes you want to remember and pick up forgotten childhood melodies or musical passages and make piano transcriptions out of them. Or, for example, when reading a book about Beethoven, you want to play all 32 sonatas in a row, and all variations and all 5 piano concerts by this great composer. After seeing a Rafael exhibition you definitely want to play the Scarlatti’s sonatas or after visiting Monet and Renoir’s exhibitions to enjoy Debussy’s music… there is also jazz, but this is a separate conversation!´

That thruway reference to jazz sounded intriguing and was rendered more so by the You Tube screenings of her playing some jazz standards. Her talk of great painters and their works makes it sound as if Natalia has also followed similar sidetracks and detours all across the arts to those we have taken, so I ask her a question I also asked of Iya Zhmaeva, about where her music has taken her, both literally and spiritually. The question obviously loses something in translation, as asked Iya in Spanish before asking Natalia in Russian.

She began her response in much the same way as Iya had done.

´I don’t quite understand this question. Please send it in English or Spanish! However, if you are asking about places where music has won me over I would say that place is my my room where I can study at my instrument.. The moment I start working on a piece, I am very happy. It’s very hard, hard work, but it’s happiness! It is the happiness of being in touch with Music, with something sacred.´ (ed. Natalia´s deification, though whether intentionally typed by her as such I cannot be certain. What do you think?). ´The great Russian pianist Maria Yudina said “We will all be saved through Music.” This has deep religious roots.´

´In terms of where music has taken me  beyond my own personal space, I have to mention, of course, the magnificent concert halls – the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin Opera Houses or the halls and opera houses of Salzburg during the Music Festival. For me as a musician the quality of the music, the quality and the frankness of the performers I listen to, is very important. The music of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Mozart goes deep into my heart and soul and remains there forever. And how can we not mention Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Bach?´

Given Natalia´s reference to the quality and frankness of performers I have to ask about her musical collaboration with violinist Iya Zhmaeva and how that came into being and what makes it work so well.

´Playing chamber music is very difficult. It’s a kind of relationship, a partnership. Either you’re right for each other, or playing together is impossible. What do I mean when I spek of being right for each other? Actually I can’t definitively answer that question. Probably it’s necessary to have a similar level of music education, to be able to listen and be ready for dialogue, to be open to something new.´

´I am very glad that I had the pleasure of meeting such an interesting person and a wonderful violinist as Iya Zhmaeva. In my opinion, we understand each other in music, we try to discuss and create programs together, to make sure that both parties are interesting. We learn to breathe together, to sound similar and to think alike in music. Our great happiness is that we speak Russian. Still, having one native language, it doesn’t require much explanation, because a common mentality unites. Of course, there are no disputes either! I really like that we can always stop our discussion, smooth out our hot Russian temperament, listen to our heart and inner voice. And the inner voice says, “Viva la musica!” And then everything at once falls into place, the concert comes and we are happy that we can play together and carry to our audiences the masterpieces of musical literature – sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms, Frank, works by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Bartók, Piazzolla and many, many others.´

Natalia will be back on Lanzarote in June and we hope she and Iya might again play a concert here. Meanwhile, we look forward to seeing Iya play, in accompaniment with her thirteen year old month son, and a pianist, in Tias later this month.

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