Although only 18 when he left the Soviet Union, pianist Alexander Peskanov is still inspired by memories of his homeland, especially of a recital presented in his native Odessa a century before he was born.
"I was told stories about that when I was a little boy," the 33-year-old Peskanov says by telephone from New York, his current base of operations, "how Franz Liszt visited Odessa and played in the same hall I later performed in when I was 15. A hundred years later they were still talking about it, how he had a platform erected in the middle of the hall so everybody could see him and then had two grand pianos, one black and one white."The story is that he played the first half on one then finished on the other, and the first one he played on they say he destroyed it. I wouldn't go that far, but obviously he was trying to make an enormous impression on his audience, almost like a pop performer."
Peskanov laments the absence of such performers on the concert scene today. "You won't find any contemporary artist making an impression like that," he says. But as anyone who caught either of his two Assembly Hall recitals in recent years can attest, he's not above trying. In fact the first, in 1986, was so jam-packed with showpieces that I observed it was hard to tell where the program left off and the encores began.
This week Utahns get to hear him in a more conventional context - i.e., as soloist with the Utah Symphony in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 on a Joseph Silverstein-directed program that also includes "From Bohemia's Forests and Meadows" from Smetana's "Ma Vlast" and the Dvorak Seventh Symphony. Performances will take place at 8 p.m. Thursday at Weber State College and Friday and Saturday at Symphony Hall, with a Thursday-morning "Finishing Touches" dress rehearsal open to the public at 10:15.
Either way, Peskanov insists, "I don't like concerts where the audience is a passive participant. I like them to be as active as I am, ignited with energy and spirit. Only in this way can I really reach my objectives as an artist, first to the composer in understanding his music, then to the audience in engaging them in that understanding."
This, he says, will be his second outing with the Prokofiev Second, a concerto he ranks in difficulty with the Rachmaninoff Third. "I don't know why he called it a concerto - he really should have called it a symphony for piano and orchestra. First of all, it's in four movements and the first-movement cadenza alone is almost like a finished piece, maybe the most remarkable cadenza anybody ever wrote," he opines. "With its different and distinct layers of sound, it sounds like it's written for four hands."
Like many composers (but few performers) Peskanov admits to forming mental pictures as he plays. "Especially with Prokofiev and Shoshtakovich," he says. "I think their music is pretty much a course in the history of Russia. For instance the third movement of the concerto I feel is a reflection of the Stalin era, very mysterious and very dark, so it's hard not to think about that when I play it."
Even so, Peskanov claims he never had the feelings for "Mother Russia" so many of his fellow emigres retain to this day. "She was more like a stepmother and we were looking for adoption." The "we" refers not only to his parents but also to his younger brother Mark, today a respected concert violinist.
"I don't know that we ever fantasized about our careers," Peskanov reflects. "But we did about traveling beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. Always we would reach for other places even though we knew how hard it was to leave the country. So in that sense our dreams came true."
Until then, apart from the Liszt legend, the greatest musical influence in Peskanov's life was his teacher until age 12, Rosalia Molodyetzkaya. "She sort of hypnotized me," he recalls, "and convinced me that I could hypnotize an audience. She made me believe I had no limits, that I could always keep growing."
Subsequently, during his years at Juilliard, he came under the influence of Ania Dorfmann - "a little bit lacking as a teacher, in that she wasn't always able to explain what she was doing, but a very natural performer with a wonderfully unpremeditated way of making phrases. So I would try to listen to her to catch what she was doing as opposed to what she was saying."
During duets, Peskanov says, that sometimes led him to play extra softly so he could hear. "And she'd say, `Oh, you sound wonderful!' She didn't realize she was listening to herself."
Currently Peskanov lives on Long Island with his wife, Lu Ann, and their four-month-old daughter. His wife he met two years ago this month when he was performing with the Annapolis Symphony, of which she was principal flute. Today he performs around 85 concerts a year, serves as artistic adviser to the Cullowhee Music Festival in western North Carolina and just finished recording the Mozart K. 449 Concerto and Liszt "Malediction" for Denon.
As a composer, he has written both music for films ("He Knows You're Alone," "The Clairvoyant") and some of his own recital pieces. But what he seems proudest of, apart from his family, is a TV documentary he recently completed focusing on his activities with schoolchildren in Georgia.
"At one point," he says of that project, "I was playing for some children in a public school in Savannah a piece of mine called `Clouds," written for my little daughter. I told them to close their eyes and asked how many saw clouds and they all raised their hands. To me that was more reward than all the applause, all the reviews, because I had reached those children.
"It's the same thing with adults. When I preface the `Tempest' Sonata with a few sentences about what Beethoven was going through with his deafness etc., people are much more intent. They understand what was going on in the composer's mind, so he and I can reach more people, and hopefully make classical music more popular."
Tickets to this week's concerts range from $4 (student) to $27; for information call 533-6407. For tickets to the Ogden concert, call 399-9214.