Vladimir Feltsman is a musician with three careers – he ranks as one of the world’s great pianists, and he is a well-regarded conductor as well as a distinguished teacher.
Feltsman makes his fourth appearance with the Spokane Symphony in a pair of concerts this weekend at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.
He will perform Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 on a program that also includes Bohuslav Martinu’s Concerto for Two Orchestras and Timpani, and Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony No. 5.
Music Director Eckart Preu will conduct.
“Brahms’ Second is probably the greatest piano concerto ever written by anyone,” Feltsman said in a telephone interview from his home in upstate New York.
“It is not your typical romantic concerto with many things for the soloist and very little for orchestra. In this concerto there are two equal partners; you could call it a symphony with solo piano.”
Feltsman says he heard the concerto many times when he was young back in Moscow.
“I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t know it,” he says. “Then learned it in my early 20s in just two weeks. If I were to learn it now it would take me two months, but that’s the difference between the brains and memory of a 20 year-old and somebody who is 58.
“Technically and musically it is a marathon, a huge undertaking – just the first movements is 20 minutes. And that’s only the first movement of four. I just hope I get a good nap Saturday afternoon.”
Feltsman was born in Moscow and began studying the piano with his mother when he was 6. His father is a famous composer of popular songs, musicals and film scores.
“He is a icon in Russia,” Feltsman says. “Everybody can sing his tunes and every truck driver knows his name. He was always very busy, so I was surrounded by music at home.”
Soon after beginning lessons at home, young Feltsman entered Moscow’s Central Music School. He made his debut with the Moscow Philharmonic when he was 11 and went on to study at the Moscow Conservatory with Yakov Flier. Feltsman also completed studies in conducting with Ilya Musin at the Leningrad Conservatory.
He won international piano competitions in Prague and Paris, made highly praised recordings and performed widely in the Soviet Union. He seemed destined for a big career.
Trouble lay ahead. Still in his twenties, Feltsman chafed at the rigidity of the Soviet regime’s arts policies, and in 1979 applied for permission to emigrate. Permission was denied.
He quickly became an artistic outcast with his recordings withdrawn and his few concerts scheduled only in the most remote cities and towns.
The support of the American ambassador in Moscow and the embarrassment suffered by the Soviet government when Sony released a CD of a Feltsman performance smuggled out of Russia enabled him to come to the United States in 1987.
He has since established an international career as a pianist, and recorded more than 30 CDs. He was appointed to the music faculties at the State University of New York at New Paltz and at the Mannes College of Music in New York City.
“Teaching is something that I didn’t choose deliberately,” Feltsman says “I just have the ‘bug’ that makes me want to transfer things I have learned so that they don’t go to waste, to do something that is long lasting and will outlive me.”
The teaching project of which Feltsman is especially proud is the 15-year-old PianoSummer at New Paltz, where 40 students from all over the world come to work with eight teachers, taking a lesson from a different teacher every day.
“It’s grueling, it’s like a piano boot camp,” he says. “But these students leave much better musicians than when they arrived.”
Feltsman has also been welcomed back to Russia both as a pianist and as a conductor.
“I was very happy to be asked to conduct a concert performance of ‘Cosi fan tutte’ with singers of the Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg,” he says. “And I have conducted Brahms’ Second and Fourth Symphonies and some Beethoven works with other orchestras.”
Feltsman and Preu will discuss the music on this weekend’s program in pre-concert talks one hour before each performance time.