Nikolai Lugansky, Pianist: 
The Good Boy Kolya at Kolarac 

From Danas, 16 March 2002
Written by Stanislav Milojkovic and Zorika Kojic
Translated from the original Serbian by E. Missoni and S. Duljic
Edited by Valour

You could meet Nikolai Lugansky that Saturday afternoon only with special intervention from his hosts in the Belgrade Philharmonic. A telephone chase across all of Europe several days before, as well as persistent efforts to define the interview time, finally resulted in agreement on lunch immediately after the artist lands in Belgrade on his flight from Paris; that is, sometime around three o'clock in the afternoon. There were careful negotiations about the length of the whole event, bearing in mind the challenging piano performance that awaits him at eight o'clock that evening at Kolarac and the fact that he is leaving Belgrade almost immediately after the concert. Add to this, the fact that a whole army of people stands at attention, shoving under the carpet their electrified emotions for the moment of meeting him.

You could accidentally catch a glimpse of him and his wife too, in the lobby of Hotel Slavija Lux, but for lunch at the top floor restaurant you need a very good visa.

He and his wife, by the way, are a very secretive and withheld couple. In their stare, I sense something that goes much further and deeper than the present moment. They do not even try to be sociable to the degree that contact with media would require, but in that,  there is nothing unpleasant on their part. When you see them so gentle and quiet, like two teenagers, both wearing glasses, you can not escape the impression that Ivan Tasovac, director of Belgrade Philharmonic, and our exclusive and talented translator for this occasion (also a former colleague of Nikolai Lugansky from Moscow piano classes) looks in his elegant suit and respectable glasses like an older brother and successful Hollywood producer. 

But, sitting across from him, you realize that Lugansky too has his own weapon that could overwhelm you, 
the nice look of Kolya, the good boy-next-door and at the same time, a suggestion of Close Encounters of the 
Third Kind

Lugansky says that yesterday he was in Paris, and that he had a full day of interviews, television and radio shows, radio, tapings and all the rest, because the promotion of his new Chopin CD of Preludes, Ballades and Nocturnes is under way. The CD was published by Erato / Warner Classics.

Danas :This is, by our reckoning, the fourth time that you've come to Belgrade. Three times for recitals, 
including the one this evening, and one time you played with orchestra. Can you keep track of what you played 
where, considering the many performances during all of your solo seasons? Do you write it down or do you 
keep it in your head ? How do you determine of the content of your programmes?

Lugansky:  Hmmm (his wife adds "Na bumacki" on paper notes), my father keeps track of that and records where I played and what, but the problem is with, you know, encores! But I actually remember what I played here in Belgrade. (His wife adds that his father also records the encores he played: every time he returns home he asks him what he played as encores, so as not to repeat himself). I forget, of course, some of the encores for some of the cities, that's why the concert records are kept, but I remember the programmes for cities that are important to me, and Belgrade I remember. I love this town.

Danas: Belgrade is a truly exotic place these last ten years, and apart from that, there was no lack of exotic places among your travels. Judging by the lines in your biography which state that you were in the Far East, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, I am interested in hearing from you specifically how  those audiences receive European music. How close is it to them?

Lugansky:  Everywhere there are people that are true musical listeners, and that listen excellently to music in Japan, Korea etc., although I do not play much in the East lately, but mostly in Europe - France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands - I do not understand why Belgrade would be an exotic place ...

Danas: Well, because we were bombarded, for one thing !

Lugansky:  Aaaaah, well that is super-exotic!

Danas: That audience has a different 'background', and I believe that it shows somehow, the same as we as listeners sense a different 'background' in pianists that come from the East, of course, in the best sense, as in a new spirit, a new vision of the work?

Lugansky:  I do not sense this difference, but music really has mystic and universal value, so it seems to me that no matter the heritage and even education; one either accepts this music or doesn't. I don't view - and I think that it is impossible - to view and evaluate pianists by their place of origin . But, I can point out some general tendencies I notice, for example that Asian pianists have strong nerves. On average, they are very solid there. But I think that background and race are not crucial, but that there are people capable of doing this and people capable of receiving it. There is a large number of Asian people who understand this music perfectly, and a large number of Europeans who understand nothing.

Danas:  While we are mentioning this strong nervous system, what do you consider crucial and important for being a concert pianist? And an educator too? Recently you became assistant to Professor Dorenski at the Moscow Conservatory, yes ?

Lugansky:  As a teacher it is not important, because everyone can give advice (laughs). But, in a concert pianist it is musical talent. That is the ability to understand the musical language like an open book, that when you look at a music score, it immediately resounds in you, affecting your emotions. On the formal side there is memory, fast reading of scores, facility of hands etc., there is a vast number of these components.

Danas: In other words, how to perform a piece that is so much studied and played and make it a new kind of challenge for yourself? And how to make them special in their own interpretative way, creating again that first excitement?

Lugansky: The piece of a great composer is like a whole universe, and every performer is like a planet. I am only trying to express everything that is in the music and I’m doing my best, but of course that is impossible. We can find two or five or ten top interpretations of Chopin’s Ballades, which will be completely different and yet each one of them will be Chopin’s Ballades – only different. For me it does not really matter if there are so many different standards: various recordings, performances, are they new or not – no, a pianist is himself in a personal relationship with the music itself, with notes and that’s where… how do you say… (smile) interpretation appears. I am always trying to play the music that I consider to be ingenious and that I like very much and, when I am composing a programme, I am very careful about the things we talked about – what have I played in that CD, what am I planning to play the next period.

Danas: So, in this case it is all the music of romanticism, music of the 19th century ?

Lugansky: Most probably, the music of Grieg is played the least, but that is completely undeserved. On the contrary, we have some examples of pianists, such as Gilels, who played Grieg a lot; but basically only Grieg’s concerto is usually played. Pletnev has also made great recordings of Grieg’s music.

Danas: A few important points about your performances and great successes in the competitions from your youth are being constantly referred to in your biography. I am interested in your opinion on that today.
To what extent are competitions useful for a pianist, why are they important and how did you personally feel as one who won the famous Tchaikovsky and other competitions?

Lugansky: Well, the winner most certainly feels better than… those who lost! But for example in the last contest, when I was 22 (so I was a grown man), I felt absolutely terrible. When I was 16 and I played at the ‘Bach’ in Leipzig, I still considered it to be somewhat normal, but later it became very unpleasant. Because it is very difficult, it is not good for one’s nervous system, it is a switch of genre, it is a contest. It implies, you know, someone is better, someone is worse… but basically, music exists for itself, not for comparison. 

On the other hand, competitions are necessary for a general musical life in order for conductors of the orchestras and managers to choose certain pianists. Still I have an impression that in recent years competitions seem to have lost their importance. And in recent times there have been a lot of young musicians appearing on a concert stage without ever playing in a competition. But of course, I cannot say which is better and which is worse. Because if there are people whose careers are determined simply by knowing a certain person, I don’t see that as being any more fair than a career of someone who won an award in a competition. Therefore, it is a part of musical life, but it is very difficult to participate in a competition. And what I had said about musicians from Asia - that they have very strong nerves – that is a very important thing for a competition. 

Danas:  It might be a somewhat intimate question, but there is an interesting detail in your biography. You are a child of scientists. How did a scientific environment produce such an artist and do those two worlds really influence each other?

Lugansky: No. My mother is a chemist and there is not one thing about chemistry that I could possibly understand! My father is a physicist and all I can say about that is I find some of the stories from popular physics that he told me when I was young to be very interesting and I do think that it is an interesting field. But my knowledge there is very limited. And generally, I think that the abilities of a man depend very little on genes. There are some other qualities, features of character, for example, the way of thinking, capacity for work … but sure talent in any given area comes as a gift.

The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site