NEW YORK—Having a way with tempering the passions, an especially talented musician can artfully provide that riveting catharsis we seek to experience at any concert. The Russian pianist and composer Arsentiy Kharitonov did just that to a full house at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on May 20. Giving two standing ovations, the audience seemed to clap in agreement that here is a young man with a strong ability to share his artistic expression, drawing from a wellspring of deep emotion.
“I have a forest fire inside,” Kharitonov said in the interview for this article. “I am speaking a language that cannot be expressed verbally. Interpreting music is a mysterious process. Sometimes I feel that I am doing something magical. We can all understand the music differently, but there are certain things that go through directly to one’s heart,” he said.
At the concert Kharitonov played the first notes of Scriabin’s Prelude in C minor attacking the piano without a moment’s hesitation. With each subsequent piece of the all-Russian repertoire—including Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky—he took more time to breathe before each piece, becoming increasingly at ease as he connected with the audience.
Kharitonov left the strongest impression on this listener, when he played his own composition, “Mezzanotte” (op. 39). He described his piece as challenging and hard to categorize, based on four notes and structured symmetrically with a rich blend of characteristics.
Everything that he had experienced, that had forged his character up to that point in his life, seemed to have coursed through his entire being as he played “Mezzanotte.”
Unlike other contemporary composers who are more like music theorists, Kharitonov, as a pianist, creates pieces that are playable. “I want to play my music because that’s where I completely express myself, 100 percent—it’s all me from the beginning to the end.”
Kharitonov inadvertently discovered his talent for composing in 2003, when in the middle of a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1 in D minor, op. 28 at the Rimsky-Korsakov Apartment and Museum, he completely forgot the notes and started to improvise. “I started to ‘compose’ right then and there, creating this huge dynamically forceful development that led to Rachmaninoff’s original text at the recap,” he said. After that performance a critic told him, “‘I didn’t really like the Chopin études that you played. They were quite rough, but Rachmaninoff! My God, what a piece!’ So that’s when I realized I should start composing,” Kharitonov said.
The concert at Carnegie Hall marks a milestone for Kharitonov, now 32, who through life’s circumstances had to break all the rules unwittingly. He started playing the piano at 15 years of age, unconventionally late for a concert pianist, and was left to his own devices to educate himself at the College of Music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Since then he has won prestigious piano competitions, such as the Liszt International Competition in Los Angeles and the Rachmaninoff Competition in Russia, and he has performed in solo recitals, and with orchestras throughout Europe and the United States.
A Maverick in the Making
Kharitonov’s childhood nickname was “walking radio.” He remembered whenever his parents would take him out walking around his hometown, Stary Oskol in southern Russia, “I would be singing so loudly that people would be looking at me,” he said.
One day Kharitonov’s 12-year-older sister, who was studying piano, decided to take the then 5-year-old Kharitonov to her music school—just for fun. He remembered his sister telling him, “They will press a key and then you have to sing that key, then they will clap a rhythm and you will have to clap that rhythm.” The music school accepted him, but when they informed their father, nothing came of it.
His father had been a ballet dancer and teacher and later became a painter, and his mother was a choir conductor and a teacher. “I was born into a very autocratic family. My father was deciding for everyone and was very particular about what he wanted to do with his kids,” Kharitonov said.
His father wanted him to become a dancer, but he had no interest in dancing, or in anything else it seemed. “I was horrible in math and in all other subjects. School was like a prison for me,” he said.
While growing up he was exposed to classical music but wasn’t really drawn to it until, at the age of 15, he discovered Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. He would listen to the first 20 seconds of that concerto, and rewind the cassette tape to listen to it over and over again. “I really loved it,” he said. “I don’t remember how many times per day I would be listening to those 20 seconds of music, and then I would listen to 30 seconds, and then 40, and so on,” he said.
He would fast-forward or rewind to his favorite sections, “I had internalized those ‘islands’ of music where I would feel comfortable and would therefore enjoy the music,” he said. After listening for some time, he was able to completely understand and nail the whole first movement by just listening to it.
“So, for me, Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto was a bridge to liking classical music,” he said.
He was so excited about discovering his calling that he announced at his school that he intended to go to St. Petersburg to study the piano. But his teacher replied in front of the whole class of about 40 students, “Kharitonov, shut up! You will be bumming around here for the rest of your life!” he recalled.
That heavy dose of humiliation did not stop him. After studying the piano with a private teacher in his hometown, he moved to St. Petersburg in 1999, where his sister had been working as an engineer for some time.
Again, as if a prank were repeating itself, his sister introduced him to a top music professor at the Rimsky Korsakov College of Music, which is affiliated with the Rimsky Korsakov State Conservatory.
“I guess it was my hand span that made the biggest impression on him (I have long fingers). I was just plain lucky. When I got accepted, I thought I was dreaming,” he said.
Three months later when the semester started, however, the professor became furious when he really listened to Kharitonov playing. “I remember he was screaming at me at the top of his lungs, ‘You are talentless!'” Kharitonov recalled.
He was allowed to stay in the college, but that professor swore he would not invest any time in teaching Kharitonov whatsoever. “Every rational human being would probably think, ‘Okay, I’ve got to do something else,’ but I thought ‘Okay, if you don’t want to teach me anything, I will just learn by myself,'” he said.
Besides taking the required classes, he read many books on music methodology, watched videos, practiced sight reading and the piano every day for many hours, and asked some older conservatory students to teach him some lessons to see how he was progressing.
He considers his collaborative piano teacher, Galina Osipova, his first mentor. “She was extremely helpful,” he said. “She told me I had ‘huge potential,’ … that I had ‘that spark.’ Those words were more than enough. I needed some confirmation that I was not learning the piano for nothing, that I was not delusional. She could recognize whatever talent I had, despite the terrible lack of technique,” he said. “That’s what sets a phenomenal teacher apart from a mediocre one,” he added.
After four years of basically studying on his own, he found a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Igor Lebedev, who graciously took Kharitonov under his wing and gave him some private lessons.
When Kharitonov gave his final exam performance, his official main professor who had neglected him again tried to grind him to a powder. “‘Well, what can I say—you didn’t learn a thing in four years. You are just as bad as when you first came here,'” Kharitonov recalled the music professor telling him coldly. “He was not going to change his mind,” he added.
Kharitonov’s talent manifested, with time and dedication, from loving music so much that it gave him the stamina and the will power to overcome one obstacle after another. For those four years of studying without supervision, driving himself to practice diligently, he said, “I was thinking, ‘This will pay back.’ The pay back was nowhere in sight, not even on the horizon yet, it was ridiculous!” he said, chuckling.
Kharitonov called his mentor, Lebedev, for a reality check to ask him what the chances were of him getting into the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Lebedev gave him a rather vague answer and suggested that he study in the United States under a former student of his, Nikita Fitenko. Kharitonov said, yes on the spot even though his English was nearly non-existent. “I only knew how to say, ‘goodbye, hello, and I love you.’ That was the extent of my English vocabulary,” he said, laughing.
A Russian in Louisiana
In less than a year, using strips of papers with English words on one side and their Russian equivalents on the other, learning 60 new words a day and taking the TOEFL English language test several times, he was accepted to Northwestern State University of Louisiana, in 2004.
He felt elated, not only because he would be furthering his career, but also because he would not have to serve in the Russian military. “I was jumping for joy. It was unbelievable. It was so intense, and I thought, ‘I can breathe now. I can breathe,'” he said.
When his family drove him to the airport they were speechless. “My sister said, ‘This is actually happening, we are not dreaming, he’s leaving,’ and I was indeed leaving,” he said.
When he stepped off the plane in Louisiana, he felt like he had stepped into a sauna. When he ordered food, he could somehow discern the cashier’s accent. “I got to a cafeteria and a black lady said, ‘Do you want the food to go?’ I said, ‘Excuse me, do I want the food to go where?'” Kharitonov said, imitating a Southern accent.
Despite the initial culture shock, living in Louisiana set a different tempo. “I felt welcomed. It was the time when I recovered from stress,” he added.
Learning More Through Teaching
After completing his bachelor’s degree in music performance in Louisiana, he studied under Joseph Banowetz at the University of North Texas, where he is in the process of completing his DMA and is currently teaching.
As he had taken a rather bumbling way in his own music education, Kharitonov learned from making many mistakes and could then teach others how to avoid those mistakes. “Teaching also taught me how to learn better myself because it is a two-way street,” he said.
He noticed that many of his students hadn’t really been taught how to practice pieces well on their own. “I would rather not practice at all than practice poorly. If I practice the wrong way, five hours for example, creating bad habits, then I have to spend at least 10 more hours to undo those bad habits,” he said.
“Music has become very institutionalized. There are so many schools, so many good teachers, good performers, and they all can deliver very good results, but it becomes very homogenized. Let’s say ‘Hammerklavier,’ Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 106, is a very good wine, and then people started to do what? They started to filter it, and filter it, filter it, filter it, filter it, and they filtered it to the point that it is now perfectly distilled water. There’s no taste anymore,” Kharitonov said.
Very much an individualist in his teaching, composing, and performing, Kharitonov would rather miss playing some notes than miss the artistry and sincerity in the music. “If I am not sincere, then what am I? If I were not sincere where I hold my entire life’s pursuit, I would be missing the point. …Sometimes certain things don’t fly in the direction that I want them to fly, but I hope I manage to express myself, and that’s most important,” he said.
Arsentiy Kharitonov is currently completing some compositions that he started and will be playing solo recitals and chamber music soon. Check his website for next season’s schedule: ArsentiyKharitonov.com