Born in Moscow in 1971, Kissin began playing the piano at the age of two. He entered the Moscow Gnessin School of Music when he was six and came to international recognition at the age of 12, performing Chopin’s piano concertos in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the Moscow State Philharmonic, under the baton of Dmitri Kitaenko.
Since his first appearance outside Russia in 1985, Kissin has played with leading orchestras and conductors, performing in the world’s greatest concert halls and winning numerous awards for his contribution to classical music.
A few days before the [a] concert in Jerusalem [in February], Kissin, who prefers written interviews to those done over the phone, responded to some questions posed by The Jerusalem Post.
You delved into the world of professional music at a very young age. How did it feel as a child to suddenly have a lot of adults around you, reacting excitedly to your performance?
It felt completely natural because playing music was my favorite activity since early childhood. I don’t think I cared much about the “excited reaction” of my listeners, but I always loved playing for other people. At my very first solo recital, which I gave at the Composers’ House in Moscow when I was 11 and a half years old, lots of seats had to be put on stage because there were only 600 seats in the hall, and many more people came. When my piano teacher, Anna Kantor, asked me afterwards whether the audience members who were sitting on stage around me were disturbing me, I immediately expressed the way I felt: “No, they were helping me!” A few years ago, when I started reflecting upon those things, I realized that my love for playing in public was caused by a natural desire to share with other people things I loved, things that were important and dear to me.
Is the audience important for you now?
Yes, they are of vital importance for me. It is for them that I do what I do. I can’t understand it when some journalists ask me, ‘When you start playing a concert, do you try to forget about the audience?’ How could I possibly and why on earth should I try to forget about the audience when it is for them that I go on stage and play?!
Has your attitude toward the audience changed over the years?
No, I haven’t noticed any changes in myself in that respect.
Was there any transition from the state of being a child prodigy to that of a mature musician?
You know, when I was a child, many of my listeners, professional musicians, used to say that the term ‘child prodigy’ didn’t fit me because I played like a mature musician.
You’ve been studying for your entire life with the same teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor.What is her secret?
Besides her natural talent and skills, she is a person of truly amazing integrity who has devoted her whole life to teaching piano. She never had a family of her own, but she rightly calls herself ‘a mother of many children.’
What is that thing she knows as a teacher that attracts you?
It’s not something she knows; it goes far beyond that. I think that our personalities simply matched extremely well. Thinking back, I realize how lucky I was in that respect because this is extremely important.
Aside from your teacher, what is the driving force behind your advancement in music?
Has there been any advancement or development in music?
Music, like all arts, is developing all the time. And this applies not only to art: If there is no development, there is no life.
How has your understanding of music, of its drama, changed since you were a child?
When I was a child, it was not really understanding but rather feeling of music – or one could say: intuitive understanding. Of course, it’s impossible to play well without the natural feeling of music at any age; but as a child grows older, feeling alone can no longer be enough.
How do your preferences in repertoire change over the years?
I don’t think they do. My tastes have always been very broad, for as long as I remember, and I have always been trying to expand my repertoire in all possible directions. On the other hand, I never bring a piece to the public unless I feel that I am able to play it well.
How do you choose new pieces?
That is very easy: from the pieces I love – of which there many! We pianists are extremely lucky: The piano repertoire is so vast, that I only hope to live long enough to learn everything I want to play.
How do you prepare a new work?
There is no special method. I just sit down and start working – and then the music itself tells me what to do. Then, at a certain stage, after I have formed my own conception and am able to execute it, I start listening to other people’s performances of the piece and learn from them. Even if I don’t like someone else’s performance, that also helps because then I know even better what I want to do.
Are the circumstances of a composer’s life a factor when you work on a new piece?
For certain pieces they are. If they had a direct influence on the piece – like Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ for example. However, the most important thing is the music itself.
What is important for you to consider in a performance?
To approach the level of the music performed as closely as possible. Of course, only the greatest performance can reach it sometimes; but nevertheless, we should all try to approach it as closely as our modest capabilities allow us.
What are your interests outside music?
Life itself. Different aspects of it. Of course, some of those don’t interest me at all. As Socrates said, ‘There are so many things in the world that I don’t need.’ In my free time, I like reading, sightseeing and spending time with other people: with my friends or with people whom I may not necessarily be able to call friends but whom I like and find interesting.
Once I went to an astrologer who, having made my natal chart, said to me, ‘Of the 10 planets, you’ve got seven in the air and none on earth. That’s why you don’t care about material things at all, but you are interested in ideas and you like spending time with people who provide you with interesting ideas.’ I could not describe myself better.
I imagine that coming from an assimilated Russian-Jewish background, being Jewish was not at the center of your universe.
Yes, it was – since an early age, in spite of the fact that I, indeed, grew up in an assimilated family and knew nothing about Jewish history, let alone religion. When I was a child, I wrote a will (yes!) the content of which, I believe, reveals a lot. It read as follows: ‘When I die, bury me in a forest outside Moscow so that the stone under which my ashes will be lying would hardly be seen in the grass and look like this ...’ – and I drew a rectangle with five lines and a G clef on them and the following inscription: ‘Here lies Evgeny Kissin, a son of the Jewish people, a servant of music’ – and my life years. See, that’s how I identified myself already as a child. At that time I couldn’t imagine that I would live anywhere else than Moscow, and I didn’t know any Jewish symbols, only musical ones!
But this upcoming concert is clearly a statement. Does it mean that now you feel more identified with the Jewish people than in the past? What has caused this change?
The only thing that has changed is that I started speaking about my Jewish identity in public. I never did before. Not because I, God forbid, was ashamed of it in any way, but on the contrary, for the simple reason that it was always something extremely special for me and therefore not to be talked about in public – like love, for example (that’s, by the way, why I hate talking about music as well). But about a little over a year ago, I felt that I had to do it in order to counter the raging anti-Israel hysteria in much of the world. Since I was well known and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world were coming to my concerts and buying my recordings, I felt that I had to tell them: “If you like my art, this is who I am, who I represent and what I stand for.”
What can you, as a person, do to advance the Israeli cause?
I am trying to do what I can: putting pro- Israel material (whose authors are mainly non- Jews, many of them are Arabs) on my fan club site, giving interviews in support of Israel.
Do you believe that an individual has the power to change things in the world order?
Each one of us can only do so much. So the more good people who are active, the better.