An interview with Dr. Polina Bespalko on her upcoming concert

By: Nick McGill ~Sports Editor~

Polina Bespalko is a member of the music faculty at Xavier University and is the director of the Xavier University Music Series. Originally from Russia, Bespalko will be giving a concert highlighting important Russian and Soviet composers on March 27 in the Werner Recital Hall at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Newswire Sports Editor Nick McGill, a student of Bespalko’s, sat down with her and discussed the upcoming concert.

PB: I graduated from CCM with my doctorate degree last year. And as a student for the doctorate degree you are required to do many, many recitals, solo and chamber, in order to get your degree. And this is the time when it’s very exciting to me because I am coming back as a guest artist now, not as a student. So it is the same stage but it will have a different feel for me. This concert is part of the Bearcat piano festival which is an annual festival that is run by my former teacher Awadagin Pratt who is the artistic director of the festival and also a performer we were glad to hear at the Xavier University Music Series in January. I will present my solo program and the first half of the program will be dedicated to Soviet composers; Sergei Prokofiev, Arvo Part, Sofia Gubaidulina and Nikolai Kapustin. And the second half I will be playing one of my favorite works and probably the most enigmatic of all piano literature: Franz Liszt B minor Sonata.

NM: What got you started playing piano and when did you realize it’s a passion of yours?

PB: My mother started me playing piano at age five. In two years, she prepared me for auditions at the central music school in Moscow, and in the former Soviet Union there was only one school for gifted and talented children who wanted to perform music. And it was very difficult to get in because there are so many children trying for few spots. I was fortunate to get in and start my studies at seven years old and you basically only focus on music. There are other subjects, but the main focus is music-solfege, eurhythmics, music history, music theory, sight singing, everything. And then comes math, English, Russian, normal subjects. You study there for 11 years and after graduating from it you could be auditioning for the conservatory, Moscow State Conservatory which I was also fortunate to graduate from.

When did I realize it was a passion? You know, my mother started me because she realized I have perfect pitch and I have to say that gift helps me learn music faster because I can hear it faster. As a passion it has kind of naturally merged into everyday profession. When you start as a child, I just don’t see myself doing anything else to be frank with you. I think it’s a passion but it’s a passion for that work. For me music maybe isn’t so much a passion, but there is that emotional impact that I get every time I hear music and the older I get the more I feel it. So it’s kind of a journey that having a certain realization that it is my passion.

NM: As you have gone through your performing career what has seemed to be the best or most rewarding aspect?

PB: The most rewarding aspect is having an ability to prepare for the concert, to give 100 percent and sometimes that is difficult but to be able to share with the audience is special. Because you have certain artistic ideas or comparatives and sometimes it’s very difficult to express that on stage. To me, when I’m happy with how I played and the audience is happy with how I played, that’s the greatest connection that is the most rewarding, but the most challenging at the same time.Polina

NM: What do you hope your audience experiences after leaving the concert?

PB: I realize that what I feel isn’t necessarily what other people feel. Everybody is very different and that’s what makes art the most exciting to me. Because you can look at the same painting, the same music in a different mood, a different time of day and you will see or hear or feel something completely different. I don’t expect the audience to love it or hate it; I expect them to think about. I hope they would think about it after leaving my performance. Think about why they did like it or didn’t like it or if it was entertaining, boring, anything but if they come out of the hall with some sort of emotions, that’s my goal. So whether negative or positive, happy or sad – of course I would be happy if they are happy. All artists want to do that. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Tootsie” with Bill Murray, and there’s a big party and he says something like, “I want my audience to come on the rainiest, most stormy day of the year and have six people in the theater.” That’s my goal, no matter what they are still there. The real true music lovers.

NM: What excites you about your repertoire?

PB: First of all, I am representing the Soviet Union composers in the first half of my recital which starts with Prokofiev who was one of the first big Russian composers in the Soviet era and I am finishing with Nikolai Kapustin which to me symbolizes the end of the Cold War because he based his art on jazz. Back then when he was starting to compose Jazz was something that wasn’t often heard. It wasn’t performed on the big stage – it was kind of an underground movement more than anything. And by me playing these works I feel like I am celebrating that moment in political history when the wall was completely broken. There was nothing left of the Russian classical schooling in his works. It’s basically clear jazz, blues and Latin jazz and all kinds of aspects. When you listen to it you think, was it really a Russian composer? No, it doesn’t sound like a Russian composer. So to me, I kind of have a journey starting with Prokofiev and finishing with Kapustin. In the midst of that there is Part and Gubaidulina – to me they are the most spiritual composers of that time. They both really celebrate that religious spirituality and God. That kind of connects to the second part of the program, Liszt’s B minor Sonata. To me that’s the most celebrated and enigmatic works. If you were to compare to a work of art it would definitely be the Mona Lisa because there are so many versions of explanations of what this piece is about. It’s a gigantic work of 30 minutes. Liszt was a programmatic composer, meaning that he always had a little explanation or inspiration in his works. But with this work there is no evidence of any inspiration in any kind of program. And it’s only one work of Liszt’s like that. He kind of jumps 20 years ahead of his time by composing this, if not more, because it’s so different and so unusual and it stands out. People still debate about what this work is about. Why? Why did he write this? We still don’t know, he didn’t leave one trace of evidence. But spiritually it was composed right before he took holy orders so to me that connects my first half of the program with this. So I’m taking a step back in time and showing my audience what started it all. I am extremely, extremely excited about this program.