Etudious!: Vassily Primakov, 2002 piano competition silver medalist, set to return to Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation stage for concert of etudes

Growing up in Moscow during the 1980s, Vassily Primakov was just seven years old when he asked his mother, Marina Primakova, about starting piano lessons. “My mother was a pianist and I grew up with a lot of music around me, hearing her practice, rehearse and teach,” Primakov said in an interview with The Utah Review. “My first memories were listening to the classical music LPs that were played at home.” 

Primakov said he was inspired to be a part of the world of music like his mother but she was, in his words, “not amused” about the idea. In the mid-1980s, Moscow was already experiencing the political upheaval that would lead to the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, when Primakov was 12 years old. And, his mother was uncertain that a musician could be assured of a fruitful career.

Vassily Primakov

“There was a lot of arguing but my grandmother was very much for me starting lessons,” Primakov recalled.  “My mother asked me if I was very serious about it and I told her that I had no doubt in my mind,” he explained. “She reminded me that I would have to sacrifice a lot of play dates.” He took his first lessons with his mother and later he went to a music school after he finished his regular classes. “I was a late bloomer actually.”

Primakov, who won the silver medal and the audience prize at the 2002 Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation competition at the age of 23, returns to Salt Lake City this week to close out the Bachauer concert series for the 2023-24 season. His program titled Etudious! will feature piano etudes from well-known and not-so-well-known composers. It is slated for May 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts.

While Primakov might have been a late bloomer, he caught up quickly to the possibilities of a serious musical career. He entered Moscow’s Central Special Music School when he was 11 years old. When the Soviet Union collapsed two years later, his mother decided that he should go abroad to continue his studies. Researching music schools at the Moscow conservatory library, Primakov said names of teachers or schools, such as Juilliard, didn’t mean anything to him, at the time.

Eventually, one pianist sparked his interest: internationally renowned Jerome Lowenthal, who continues to perform at the age of 92. At the time when Primakov was in his teens,  Lowenthal was on the faculty of the Music Academy of the West in Montecito, California, as well as at Juilliard, both schools where he still is active. “I was very impressed reading about him [Lowenthal] and I wrote a letter in broken English to him,” Primakov recalled. Lowenthal responded and told the young pianist that he would be in Moscow to screen musicians for the Van Cliburn Competition and he would like to hear Primakov play. Soon after, the young pianist moved to California where he studied with Lowenthal. At 17, Primakov was admitted to Juilliard.

“Jerry inspired me about so many aspects of music,” Primakov said. “In one of our first conversations, he asked me if I had ever done chamber music. And, he taught me how important it was to collaborate with other musicians because it taught me to listen in different ways.” Primakov, who lives in New York City, credits Lowenthal, with whom he stays in touch, for introducing him to the broadest spectrum of composers, as well as books to understand the historical context about the era in which a piece of music was composed. “Being an isolated child, it turned out be an eye-opening experience, learning as much about politics as I did about culture,” he added.

Primakov’s progress accelerated when he studied with Lowenthal. At Juilliard he won the William Petschek Piano Recital Award, which presented his debut recital at Alice Tully Hall, and while at Juilliard, he was supported by a Susan W. Rose Career Grant. Three years before he competed at Bachauer, he received a prize at the Cleveland International Piano Competition. After his silver medal performance at Bachauer, he won first prize in the 2002 Young Concert Artists (YCA) International Auditions.

Today, Primakov follows Lowenthal’s lead with his students. Primakov also credits his first Russian piano teacher, Vera Gornostayeva, for pushing the boundaries on learning repertoire, especially music that might not be taken immediately to the stage for performance. “She taught me that every pianist has their strengths and weaknesses and there is nothing wrong with putting your limitations in the best light,” he explained. Primakov added that  Gornostayeva introduced him to Bach, Czerny and Chopin while Lowenthal encouraged him to study piano works by other German composers and lesser known figures such as Felix Blumenfeld. 

“It’s exciting and invigorating to reinvent yourself, as they say in pop culture,” Primakov said, adding that Lowenthal, in his nineties, continues to learn and hone new piano masterpieces. It is in that spirit that Primakov’s program of etudes, which the Bachauer audience will hear, includes pieces by Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Chopin and Schumann but also etudes from Scriabin, Blumenfeld, Anton Arensky, Saint-Saëns and Sibelius.

Primakov’s recordings of Chopin works have been hailed as definitive renditions of the Polish master’s music, as well as his recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos. In the fall of 2021, he collaborated with two other pianists, Natalia Lavrova and Oxana Mikhailoff, to perform a “piano extravaganza” of two piano works based on transcriptions from opera and ballet, at the Sparkill Concert Series in Sparkill, New York. This performance is available as a recording. In addition to teaching and concerts, he is co-director of the Sparkill Concert Series in New York. 

For tickets and more information, see the Bachauer website

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