Born in Kiev a little more than 40 years ago, Valentina Lisitsa came to America in the early '90s to work as a concert pianist. She rode a wave of acclaim, recording the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra, but soon realized she was "just another blonde, female Russian pianist." Looking for a new audience, Lisitsa turned to YouTube around the time of its 2007 inception, with "just me and my piano and nothing else." Seventy million views and a record deal later, she found them.
For her new album, Chasing Pianos, Lisitsa turned to British composer Michael Nyman, a former critic who coined the term "minimalism," often used to describe the works of Philip Glass. The album largely culls from his score for the 1993 Jane Campion film The Piano. It's a far cry from the ornate pieces of Rachmaninoff, but "you have to express so many emotions, and to touch human hearts with so few notes," she tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "This was an exciting challenge for me."
But with so much available to watch and hear free, what's the point of recording and selling music? For Lisitsa, it's an "investment in the future." Her YouTube channel has helped her book concerts all over the world, while also providing opportunities for those without the financial means to experience classical music. The hope there is that, when circumstances change, those same people will attend a performance.
"Classical music — just music in general — it's a social kind of event," Lisitsa says. "This is the center of any music event, because nothing compares to the magic when you're on stage as a pianist and your audience basically transcends time and will go to a different dimension altogether."
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SIEGEL: The music is from Valentina Lisitsa's new album "Chasing Pianos." It's the piano music of Michael Nyman, from his movie scores. This is from Jane Campion's 1993 Oscar-winner "The Piano."
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SIEGEL: Valentina Lisitsa was born in Kiev just over 40 years ago. She came to this country in the early 1990s and she has experienced remarkable highs and lows of a career in classical music. She's recorded the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra, and she has contemplated giving up her career as a pianist. She joins us now from Munich. Welcome to the program.
VALENTINA LISITSA: Delighted to be with you.
SIEGEL: You've said that some years ago, you felt like you were - and I'm quoting right now, "just another blonde female Russian pianist," and you were thinking of giving up music. What happened to make you feel so bleak?
LISITSA: Well, the problem, like, was every business - because, you know, there is classical music and there is classical music business. And two things are related, as they say, as chair and electric chair. But classical music business is where you become a commodity. And yes, I was just another blonde, pretty and, you know, Slavic-Russian-Ukrainian pianist who was probably good according to people in playing Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and, you know, typical Russian repertory, and I couldn't break out of that mould. And it took me years trying to figure out what I want to do, whether I really want to do music and whether people really want to listen to me.
SIEGEL: Today, they not only want to listen to you, they want to look at you. They call the Justin Bieber of classical music because so many people watch you on YouTube. How many people have watched you on YouTube?
LISITSA: Oh, it's well over 70 million by now. And people also call me YouTube sensation. And sensation means something that is here and is gone tomorrow. I'm certainly here to stay for a long time. In 2007, when YouTube was just starting, I put my first video and they have over 200 music clips. And this is classical music without putting lipstick or miniskirt on Beethoven. It's me and my piano and nothing else, basically, in those videos.
SIEGEL: Well, I'm glad that you didn't give up your career. I'm just curious, though, when you were down and thinking about it, what would you have done instead of played music? What were you considering doing for a living?
LISITSA: You know, first, when I was still in music school, I wanted to quit it all, unbeknown to my parents, and become a professional chess player, which I did for a while. So that was one period. Then I decided that, yes, I want to be musician after all. And then, second kind of, you know, middle-life crisis came. In United States, I had a family, had young boy, and I had no concerts at all. You know, it was 2005, '06. And once I saw an ad that they were hiring in CIA, strange enough to say, native speakers of Ukrainian, Russian to read press. And I thought for a while just quitting piano and doing just - getting a regular job.
SIEGEL: You did say that the ad that you saw was for Ukrainian speakers. It was from CIA, wasn't it?
LISITSA: Yes, yes, yes. I love reading news, so that would be probably good fit. But, you know, I probably would end up like Edward Snowden or something like that because I was always kind of a contrarian.
SIEGEL: Now, Michael Nyman, the British composer whose works you play, is also famous as a music critic for having given a name to a style of composition epitomized by Philip Glass. He used the word minimalist and it describes a lot of the music of his that you play on this album. And I'm just curious. As a pianist, what's the difference for you between playing ornate, complex, virtuoso pieces like a Rachmaninoff concerto and this kind of stripped-down, purposely more simple music of Nyman's?
LISITSA: It's a wonderful challenge for any pianist to do because it's so much easier to do those thousands of notes per second, which we're so used to in Liszt and Rachmaninoff and so on. And we pianists are notoriously picky and complainant about composers like Mozart because we all say, oh, you'll make it in Mozart because there are so few notes and so much meaning in them. And in a way, it was a strange parallel between Mozart and playing Nyman because you have to express so many emotions. And to touch human hearts with so few notes, this was very exciting challenge to do.
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SIEGEL: Valentina Lisitsa, I want you to explain the business that you're in now, which is such a tough time for musicians. Your YouTube channel, visited by - did you say 70 million people by now?
SIEGEL: That's where we can all see you for free and we can hear you for free. We can listen to your music. On the other hand, you're trying to sell a CD. How does this work out? How does it succeed for a musician to be so widely exposed without charging any sale price or ticket of admission?
LISITSA: A lot of my audience are in places like South America, India, lots of places in Asia, and Africa where I probably wouldn't even have chance to go and play nowadays, even though I'm playing pretty much every day of the week. So it's investment in the future. And if you look at demographics, a lot of those people are young people. And even in Europe, you know, I go play in Spain where there is 40 percent of young people under 25 have no jobs. And they probably cannot afford very expensive concert ticket to come to opera or to symphonic concert, and they probably cannot even afford to buy a regular CD. So that's where all this free media comes.
But, no, we're all optimists and we all hope that, eventually, those people made it to middle class and they carry the love of classical music and they remember that they were given this chance to listen to it for free, and they will do something in return for society, for humanity.
But another thing which is, I think, is important, classical music - just music in general - it's a social kind of event. You know, it's live performance. This is at center of any music event because nothing compares to the magic when you're on stage as a pianist and your audience and - we basically transcend the time and we go to different dimension all together.
SIEGEL: So both in terms of today's economy but also in terms of your sense of aesthetics of the art of music, all of the recorded music is a promotion for live performance and to try to get people to experience music live. It's not that concerts promote record sales and that that is the bottom line of what you're doing.
LISITSA: Of course, it's the same in sports. Look, even if we can watch on the most wonderful, high-definition, 3D soccer championship, nothing will substitute for actually going there and being with hundred thousand screaming fans on the stadium, right?
SIEGEL: Well, Valentina Lisitsa, thank you very much for talking with us.
LISITSA: Thank you.
SIEGEL: And Ms. Lisitsa's new album is called "Chasing Pianos." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.