Nikolai Lugansky

«It was after this competition that I got my audience in Russia»

The interview was taken by Kamilla Urmano

It was not all that easy to interview pianist Nikolai Lugansky. People’s artist, docent of the Moscow Conservatory, laureate of Tchaikovsky Competition and the idol of the public can hardly be caught in Moscow. We could interview him only over the phone: on his way to the airport when he was about to start on his tour, and during his transfers between European cities. This determined the subject of the conversation: what is the “itinerant musician’s life” like?

Nikolai Lugansky

Of course, on the threshold of Tckaikovsky Competition we couldn’t ignore this issue. So the first question was:

Which Tchaikovsky Competition did you first visit as a spectator?

It was in 1982, and I was ten. I remember the performance of Ovchinnikov, Donohoe, Yermolayev, and also the heated discussion of the allocation of places, behind the scenes. I loved it back then, because I

also perceived the competition as a sports event. Today it’s the thing I like least of all.

In 1986 I was Tatiana Nikolayeva’s student already. She was a jury member, and after the first tour she said about Barry Douglas who got the first prize: “There’s a gorgeous Englishman there!”

However, you decided to participate in the competition after Tatiana Nikolayeva’s death, when you were Sergey Dorensky’s student?

Yes. He strongly advised me, and he produced several arguments. First, I had suffered a severe injury a year before the competition, and I hadn’t performed for several months. The contest was a good stimulus to get in shape. Into the bargain, Dorensky wasn’t in the jury that year, and it came as another reason to participate, for him and for myself.

Nikolai Lugansky

What is the difference between competition excitement and concert excitement?

At the concert, it’s more important what you have managed, and at the competition, unfortunately, what you haven’t. When you play a solo concerto, you are aware that for the public, it’s important whether you will be able to catch a wave, to “hear the call of the future”. If you have the inspiration, your audience can forgive you for some minor shortcomings.

The poor judges have to listen for 8 hours a day. It’s easier for them to attune their ears for detection of the wrong notes than to attune their souls to amalgamate with the music, when it becomes something more than playing the correct notes. Playing at the competition, you, unfortunately, start to feel what the jury members feel, and you overreact to the wrong notes so that it harms the music. Only few can cast this aside, and those few become winners.

Did Dorensky prepare you morally for the competition?

He is a fantastic psychologist, and he can charge you with positive emotions both at the concerts and (which is particularly important) at the competition as well. Before the finals he told me: “Play boldly, brightly and don’t pay attention to anyone. If you start worrying about wrong notes, you won’t make it”.

What were the brightest competition impressions?

The impressions themselves were so hard that memory got rid of them gladly and fast. But it keeps the “adjacent” things. I had just learned to drive back then, and I remember the “poplar fuzz, heat and June”, and the traffic jams. Vadim Rudenko also took part in the competition; he also was Dorensky’s student. We performed for each other and supported each other. We became good friends. I remember that feeling of romance, youth and friendship.

That year nobody received the 1st prize. You got second. One of the jury members told me that the gap between you and the rest of the competitors was so big that they had an idea to re-vote and to give you the 1st prize. But re-voting wasn’t allowed, due to the standing orders. Did it hurt?

It did, back then! When you are young, you feel it all acutely. Judging by the audience’s appraisal, and by my own perception, I was sure I’d get the first prize. But I didn’t. By the way, many people thought that I’d been treated unfairly. It was after this competition that I got my audience in Russia. However, it hadn’t affected my international career. There were no first prizes, and practically all European and American tours for the laureates were cancelled.

Nevertheless, you are one of the most wanted pianists of the world now. Do you like this itinerant musician’s lifestyle, this “never-ending road”?

Initially, I didn’t like it at all. I was a homebody, I hated travel and I mainly spent my summers at the country-house. However, over the years I not only got used to it, but I found many advantages in the touring life. It’s not only the “never-ending road”, but also “There’s nothing like roaming the world together with your friends”.

And what are these advantages?

Strange as it is, musicians on tour don’t have daily chores. It’s a kind of “dolce vita”: you eat in restaurants and live in hotels, and you don’t have any troubles of a “settled” person. However, you experience the “charms” of railway stations, airports and constant packing of your trunks.

Travels always offer you the possibility to see something interesting, to wander along well-familiar or unknown streets, to meet new people. However, no matter how I admire the beauty of other countries, I love to return home.

What’s your “artist’s set” in your suitcase, what do you carry along with you?

Nothing interesting: there are things which anyone would take along, plus my stage outfit: tuxedo, concert shoes, bowtie, belt and white shirts. I take chess if I go together with my friends who play chess: Vadim Repin or Alexander Kniazev. I used to take books, and now I have an e-book and a walkman.

What books do you read?

I’ve been reading only Chekhov recently. I think that I’ll start over when I read all his books. Besides Chekhov, I always have poems by Pushkin and Evgeny Onegin. My literature likes are invariable: there’s no one like Chekhov in prose. But I love to discover something new in music.

How do you make musical discoveries?

It’s always different. Say, my latest discovery is English composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams. When I was on tour in London, one lady gave me several disks with English music. Vaughan-Williams’ symphonies impressed me very much. His Fifth Symphony is one of my favourites now. In Berlin I visited a concert of an amazing pianist, Arcadi Volodos. I bought his disk where he performs music by Federico Mompou, and I discovered strikingly beautiful music.

Nikolai Lugansky

Do you often visit your colleagues’ concerts?

When you’re abroad, you can’t go to the theatre, because you won’t be able to fully grasp the language subtleties, the pun, the humour. So, if I have a vacant evening, I visit some concert gladly. I always try to hear something new: new music or new artists. It’s awful when you are convinced that you’ve heard it all, and when concerts serve just as props for your rigid views. However, that’s the sin of many people, mostly the critics.

What’s your reaction to critics?

When younger, I was perceptive enough to this, and criticism could put me off for several days or even weeks. It isn’t so now, of course. Now I realize that a review speaks much not about the concert and the performer, but of the critic themselves. So I’d like my critic to be an open-hearted and open-sighted person, inquisitive and, which is the main thing, good-minded. If a critic’s task is to make a musician perform better after reading their article, all honour to them!

What is Nikolai Lugansky like in everyday life?

In daily life I’m just like any other person; I’m different only in the concert hall. Of course, there are artists who lead some special life. Of course, some everyday chores can mingle with it. But I think that one can spend time with one’s children (I have three) and one’s family, and then get back to the music, and hear this “mysterious and soft sound”.

Will you tell me about your parents?

My parents are not Muscovites. Dad was born in Kaluga Region, and mom, in Dushanbe. They met in Moscow when they were students here. Dad went to the Institute for Physics and Technology in Dolgoprudny, and mom was a university student, biochemist.

It’s amusing that they had met thanks to music. Mom says that once she invited dad to the Bolshoi Theatre, to Verdi’s La Traviata. Dad was absolutely overwhelmed, because he had always liked Verdi. My parents joke that they got married shortly after that.

Why did the “non-musicians” decide to send you to a musical school?

It wasn’t them, it was me. When I was five, dad got a small toy piano as a present. Once he was trying to play the “May there always be sunshine” song, and I prompted him the notes absolutely correctly. It turned out that I had an absolute ear and dedication for music totally unexplainable for such young age. I was admitted to the Central Musical School, to the class of Tatiana Kestner. Back then, it was easier for me to read notes than letters. When I was ill, I often read Chopin’s impromptu or ballad notes instead of books.

I know that once you nearly got drowned and fought for your life amidst the raging ocean. Did your whole life flash before your eyes?

No! I didn’t have time for that. I had to think how to gulp in some air before I get submerged under another giant wave, how to stay afloat and not get drowned. I just fought for life. I remember the feeling of happiness when a rescue helicopter came after me. After that I realized that life was a great gift, and I started to value it much more.

Nikolai Lugansky

Are you a fighter really?

In sports, yes: ping-pong, badminton, chess, football, etc. In life… I don’t think so. Sometimes I think that I’m a bit like the Old Man from Pushkin’s Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish. This sounds not too good for an interview, but so it is.


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