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Interview with Oksana Kolesnikova

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi, Tobias. Doing great, thanks for asking - and for this follow up interview. Where am I? Right now I am taking a break and enjoying a Cappuccino with my cat ‘Chingomma’, sitting at the balcony of my apartment in Los Angeles, California.

What’s on your schedule right now?
Well… in a few days I am heading to Columbus, OH to film my instructional video on piano playing. When all goes well, it should be available on HSN before the upcoming holiday season. At the end of August I’m going to Italy where I will perform at the Salento International Film Festival in Tricase… I plan to spend a week or so in Costa Smeralda in Sardinia, a true corner of paradise. Late September/beginning of October I’m going to China to visit the headquarters of Pearl River Pianos the world’s largest piano manufacturers, the one that produces my favourite piano, the ‘Butterfly’. Between all this, I am working on a few very interesting collaborations, including one with Italian smooth jazz sensation Rocco Ventrella, who has recently created a wonderful arrangement of one of my original works ‘Movements of Love’. I plan to expand my horizons also in this style, so stay tuned for a nice little surprise, if you like this genre.

Some of the pieces on your “Free Floating” CD take your childhood in Russia as a starting point. How do you look back at that period of your life?

In ‘Free Floating’ there is indeed a bit of melancholy, but also a lot of beauty and positive emotions. Looking back to my ‘Russian life’ feels like recalling images from another lifetime altogether… the freezing cold of Siberia, the raw behaviour of people constantly under a lot of stress and with nothing really to look forward to… but I also recall the stunning beauty of Nature and all the excitement I felt in believing with all my heart that I was going to live a fulfilling life… ‘Winter Swan’ is the piece in Free Floating the best describes my feelings of those days.

Would you say there is something as a “Russian soul”? If so, how would you put it into words? Is it of importance to you as an artist?
Ahh, “Russian Soul”.... I knew you would ask me about this, sooner or later..

I could perhaps sum it up with ‘national pride’ – an unspoken, intangible deep sense of patriotism felt at ‘dna level’ that makes all Russians feel very proud of their heritage. You see, one has to be an active part of this culture (unbiased to any propagandas) to really understand what these two words really mean. Unless one has lived in Russia or with a Russian, one can get only a vague idea of it through Russian literature. Authors such as Bulgakov, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pasternak did their best trying to convey the meaning of the “Russian Soul” to their readers. Russians tend to spot the ‘Russian Soul’ immediately; it’s as if it had a frequency of its own.  Musically speaking, I can describe it as a unique ‘signature’ found in most works by Russian composers. It always shines through and it is of paramount importance to me as an artist and as an individual.

For decades, there has been a clearly defined “RussianSchool” in piano playing. Do you feel it still exists and do you feel yourself to be influenced by it?

I left Russia when I was 15 and have not gone back since, but several Russian pianists whom I've met here in the States clearly indicated that this form of teaching and playing still exists. I must say, I have been directly influenced by the “RussianSchool” of playing not only while living and studying in Russia, but also here in the US. My own music professor at FloridaStateUniversity where I studied was a direct descendant of the famous Rosina Levine, when he studied under her for several years at the Julliard School of Music in the early fifties.

Was it a big cultural shock coming to the USA from Russia? In which way, would you say, do these two peoples approach Classical Music differently?

As a rather introverted teen that barely spoke English and had never seen a supermarket the size of a football field, where people could have ice-cream every day if they wanted to, coming to America was indeed quite shocking to me. To have total strangers smiling and saying ‘have a good day’, was not something I was accustomed to. I had to make serious efforts in smiling.

However, when it comes to classical music, I think these two countries share much more than what most people would think. The appreciation for classical music is not necessarily based on cultural differences or geographical location. The media and vested interests of the music industry tend to take control over people’s tastes (and wallets...) much more than they are aware of. I found that older generations tend to appreciate classical music more than young people do, perhaps as they are not as easily ‘brainwashed’ by flashy MTV-style videos that push soul-less productions that have very little to do with true art, other than perhaps the art of selling. Based on my observations, it is people who are educated and of upper social status who seem to appreciate classical music more than the rest. One of my goals as a classically trained musician gone modern is to reach out to those who normally would not consider listening to classical and give them something they can relate to, as e.g. the very successful experiment in collaboration with Jj and Byron J when we created ‘Just Don’t Say a Word’ in hip-hop format, based on my original classical piece ‘Aurora: fantasy in e minor’, the opening piece on the Free Floating CD.

What did the American influence do to your playing?

It added versatility to my repertoire and personal freedom to the way I express myself, as an artist and as an individual, by introducing me to musical styles and ways of thinking that up until coming here I never knew existed.

You often mention Liberace as a source of inspiration. Did you know him, before you came to the States?

I didn’t know him personally, but I was aware of his existence. My very conservative piano teachers were not too fond of his extravagant personality, but I was fascinated by his charisma and definitely by his amazing playing and versatility. I only wish I had met him in person when he was alive. I see him often in my dreams, actually, and – a very spooky coincidence – I live practically at walking distance from ForestLawnCemetery in Los Angeles where he’s buried. I almost flipped when I found out… So I go from time to time to ‘play’ him a visit, since he’s so close. He was an amazing artist, a true source of inspiration.

What were your most immediate goals, when you set out to pursue your solo career? And what were your long-term dreams?

My immediate goals were, and still are, to do what I love the most - playing piano, and make a comfortable living from it. My long term goals: I want to do my part in influencing people in a positive way through my music, and help create a rebirth once again for piano playing, by inspiring younger generations. I tried to summarize my visions in my ‘Mission Statement’.

Most Classical artists still consider it to be sort of accolade to record with a label. Why did you decide against it? Was there never, at least in the early stages, the temptation of using their extensive distribution networks?

Yes, there was, of course. This is what we all learn in college, if you want to make it in the music business you must get a record deal, or else… happy teaching or piano tuning! A record deal has advantages and disadvantages that largely vary from situation to situation, from artist to artist. Some deals can be fair, others totally disastrous to the artist – it all depends on many factors. In my case, I never wanted to sacrifice my artistic freedom, or have someone breathing on my neck, telling me what to do, how to do it, and when to do it… and this is unfortunately what happens more often than not, especially when you are not yet in the position of calling your own shots. A similar situation would take away all the joy of being an artist… But yes, there can be advantages as well; it’s just that to me, at least, landing a truly advantageous record deal is the equivalent of winning the lottery…I'd rather create my own fortune than just hope that the A&R scout-in-shining armour will be mesmerized by my music and sweep me off my feet. Bottom line, I want to be among those independent artists who proved that they can do it on their own instead of putting their faith in the hands of the Unknown and wait forever for a lucky strike - even though the road to independent success is not necessarily easy.

You seem to be one of the few Classical artists comfortable with recording in the studio. How do these two situations (studio/live) compare to you?

I enjoy doing both, however, when you're recording in the studio, you have less pressure as you can record the piece over and over if you don’t like it, and so bring it closer to perfection with a few takes. With live recordings, you have all the excitement and that raw energy that comes by being in front of an audience, but you have to deliver everything in one shot, mistakes or no mistakes, which for many artists, me included, is quite painful, as we are never truly satisfied… I am sure you can relate, you are a musician too...

Another of those with a keen interest in using the studio as a tool was Glenn Gould. Do you somehow feel close to his “free” approach and his utterly non-conventional way of playing?

I have a great respect and admiration for Glenn Gould. I'm very liberal to the approach one uses to play the piano as long as you keep the integrity to the composer whose music you are performing and try to capture the essence of their artistic soul – after all, playing the piano should be an enjoyable experience not become a nightmare – I think Glenn Gould really had a blast playing the way he did, and it comes across in all or most of his recordings – whereas with some other ’proper’ pianists I can almost feel their pain. Been there, done that...

How would you describe the first few years of your budding career? Was there enough fun to make up for the hardships?
The first few years seem to always be tough no matter how much you love what you do... Same here, I must say… Lots of sacrifices, very little time for anything other than accomplishing ‘the mission’, so to speak - but at least the satisfaction of seeing your dreams coming to full fruition, one step at a time. Perhaps it was not fun at the time when I'd see the other kids playing outside or all the fraternity house parties I missed while in college while I was practicing for hours and hours, but every time I'd master a new piece, the personal satisfaction of having accomplished something worthwhile far outweighed the missed 'playtime.' Plus, I'm still young so I guess I can always catch up with 'fun' stuff in the future... in fact I plan to release another video on piano learning, "Piano Teachers Gone Wild."  - Just kidding.

Would you say there was a sort of “breakthrough” moment, when you had the feeling for the first time that you were “getting there”?
I do get this feeling every time I see myself on TV, on the cover of a magazine or when I go on tour overses… But the most significative time when I feel that I am succeeding is when I receive enthusiastic emails from my fans saying they really enjoyed my music. As a musician and as a human being there is no greater achievement for me other than to know I have touched someone’s life in a positive way through my music.

Classical Music seems to play a less important role in your repertoire of lately. Is this perception correct – and if so, why?

It is correct. And for two reasons. As sad as it is, most classically-trained pianists insist in sporting an attitude that brings back, at least to me, very unpleasant memories of when the piano, my very own love, had taken the colour of an enemy. I can be rather reserved in person, so the best way for me to express myself is through my music. I enjoy presenting the fruits of my hard work to an audience that truly appreciates my efforts, and not one that inexorably condemns me when they feel I have offended the spirit of Chopin or Beethoven (who most likely would love to see their works interpreted with individuality rather than robotic precision). The other reason why classical music is playing a secondary role in my life is strictly a commercial one – to give you an idea, I conducted a survey at an upscale Beverly Hills location when I first moved to L.A., and asked 100 people of various ages and nationalities what they wanted me to play for them… only a few requested a classical piece – the vast majority wanted to hear Billy Joel, Coldplay, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Queen, Santana… I even got more requests for Usher and ’50-cent’ than Rachmaninov. Classical music is still appreciated very much all over the world and will live on forever, of course, but while my personal preference remains with the Great Masters, I am also glad that I was able to understand and embrace other genres, as this opened up whole new worlds and exciting possibilities that would have never been possible if I was strictly a classical pianist.

Many artists dream of a "magnum opus". Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?

Yes, I do. And I am in fact working on something along these lines. You will be among the very first to know, and I think you’ll like it.

If Liberace were still alive, what would you like to ask him?

Lee, it’s late and I’m tired. Would you like to join me and my cat for cappuccino? :)

By Tobias Fischer

Picture by John McClurg

Oksana 2000
Angelic Winters 2002
Free Floating 2002
Freedom 2004
Rich Brew 2005
George's Collection 2005

Oksana Kolesnikova
Oksana's tribute to Liberace

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