Valentina Lisitsa showed musical talent early, but she wanted to be a professional chess player. Music won out.
Lisitsa will join the Spokane Symphony and conductor Eckart Preu this weekend for a pair of all-Russian concerts.
She will perform the solo part of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The orchestra will open the program with Anton Arensky’s “Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky” and conclude with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
Lisitsa grew up in Kiev in what was then a part of the Soviet Union, now Ukraine. She began studying the piano when she was 3, attended the Lysenko School for Gifted Children in Kiev and at age 7 became a student at the Kiev Conservatory
“The Rachmaninoff Second was the first concerto I played,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “And it was the only concerto I played when I was back in Ukraine. Strange enough, I didn’t think I had such an affinity for Rachmaninoff at the time.”
That changed. Now Lisitsa plays all four of Rachmaninoff’s concertos, his Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini and many of his solo works. She and husband Alexei Kuznetsoff also perform Rachmaninoff’s works for two pianos.
Despite the Second’s enormous popularity, she says, “It is still a beautiful and fresh piece. If you know its history, you know it came at the end of a dark period of Rachmaninoff’s depression and desperation.
“But it is not a uniquely sad piece and it is not just a big show piece, either. It has many threads of expression and ideas. And, of course, it is the most requested concerto in my repertoire.”
After playing in Spokane, Lisitsa will fly to London, where she will record the final session completing a full set of Rachmaninoff’s music for piano and orchestra with the London Symphony.
“It will be a complicated trip, though,” she says. “I first fly to Paris to play a recital, then to Abu Dhabi for a recital celebrating the 200th anniversaries of the births of Chopin and Schumann, then I will go to London.”
Laughing, she adds, “I am sure all those one-way tickets with raise the interest of the security people.”
In addition to a busy career of solo and orchestral concerts, Lisitsa regularly performs two-piano concerts with her husband and has recently formed a partnership with violinist Hilary Hahn.
She met Kuznetsoff as a fellow student at the Kiev Conservatory. It was then she focused her attention on becoming a professional musician.
The couple’s two-piano teamwork brought them to the United States in 1991.
“We had won several competitions in Europe, but we came to the States and entered the Murray Dranoff Two-Piano Competition in Miami and won first prize,” Lisitsa says.
“At the end of 1992, we came back to the United States thinking maybe to study here a couple of years, and now we’re still here.”
They live in New Bern, N.C., with their 4-year-old son.
“We found this wonderful old home on the Internet,” Lisitsa says. “We were looking for an old house that could be restored on a historic property, we needed a big piano room and we wanted great views.
“It is what you call a gentleman’s farm, built by a man who came from New York looking for something like a French Provincial lifestyle in a big, chateau-like house.”
Preu has chosen Tchaikovsky’s popular Symphony No. 4 to conclude this weekend’s concerts. But he has elected to open the program with the seldom-performed “Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky” by the composer’s colleague, Anton Arensky, who happened to be Rachmaninoff’s composition teacher.
Preu will discuss the music on this weekend’s concerts one hour before each performance as a part of the Gladys Brooks Pre-Concert Talks series.
Lisitsa will give a master class commenting on the playing of four piano students from Spokane high schools and colleges on Friday at 3 p.m. at The Fox. The class is open to the public free of charge.