The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical Q&A: Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev discusses Prokofiev and Gershwin, which he will play at the opening concert of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night.

October 3, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), playing under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell, will open its new season.

The featured soloist is the young Russian pianist Ilya Yakshev, who will be making his Madison debut.

On the program are Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.1 and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” both with Yakushev, as well as Sir Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20, and Aaron Copland’s “Music for the Theatre.”

Tickets are $15, $18, $35, $55 and $62.  For more information about the concert and tickets, visit:

 http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks/25/event-info/

 Yakushev (below) recently granted an email interview too The Ear:

Can you briefly introduce yourself — tell us about yourself and the highlights of your life and career, including current projects (recordings, etc.) and future career plans?

My name is Ilya Yakushev, I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1981 and started taking piano lessons at the age of 5.  I later graduated with a BM (Bachelors of Music) from the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music in 2000 and then from Mannes College of Music in 2007 with three diplomas – BM, MM (Masters of Music) and a Professional Studies Diploma.

My recent performances include appearances with the San Francisco Symphony, Utah Symphony, BBC Concert Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic, Kirov Orchestra, and Syracuse Symphony (that was a tour with Andrew Sewell).  I also established my own record label – IY-Records – and produced two CDs (below) and a DVD over the course of last two years.  Future projects include a recording of a new CD this season and quite a few very exciting concerts!

In Madison, you will perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” What do the two works have in common, besides length, and how do they differ, from your perspective as a pianist? How do they work together on the same program?

The concerti I will be playing in Madison don’t have much in common – and that’s why Andrew asked me to play both of them in the same concert.

The only things they have in common besides being about the same length is that they are both very fun pieces to play AND to listen to.  Everyone knows “Rhapsody in Blue” by Gershwin (below) — everyone loves this work!

The concerto by Prokofiev (below) is not as well known, but is also a very energetic and positive piece of music.  Those who don’t know it will love it also!

You have toured with Andrew Sewell (below) before, doing Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, I believe. Could you comment on how you feel about performing with him and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and coming to Madison?

Andrew is a great conductor and a great friend.  We got to spend a few hours together and to get to know each other while driving from city to city on the tour with the Syracuse Symphony in 2010.  He is not only a dedicated musician and an outstanding conductor, he is also simply a great guy!  I am very much looking forward to working with again.

Was there an Aha! Moment – perhaps a certain piece or performer or performance – when you realized you wanted to become a concert pianist?

There was really no Aha! Moment. The wish to connect my life with the piano forever didn’t come to me overnight.  I personally never believed in those “movie moments” when someone makes a life changing decision in one minute.

I decided that I want to be really serious about my piano at the age of 15 when I applied for Rimsky-Korsakov College in St. Petersburg.  And then I realized while studying there that I made the right choice.

Is there a certain repertoire you feel closest to? 

My repertoire ranges from Bach to Shostakovich, I can’t say that I have preferences in repertoire.  But I do have “composer periods”, when I would play a lot of Beethoven in one season and a lot of Prokofiev in another. (Below, he performs the bravura finale of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”)

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