Fashion Savvy Pianist Brings Verve to Classical Music
NEW YORK—He walks across the stage to the grand piano with such ease you can anticipate his performance in full confidence. But once his nimble hands let tones flow so lyrically, you may have to close your eyes to fully listen because the crystal shoes he wears can be rather mesmerizing.
First a pianist, and later an actor, mentor, producer, and designer, Konstantin Soukhovetski loves playing for a live audience. “When I’m performing, in that moment, I am more real than when I’m not,” he said.
At first the shoes may seem gimmicky, but the Swarovski crystals actually hint at the multifaceted aspects of Soukhovetski’s personality, talents, and aspirations.
A Maverick at Home in New York
Soukhovetski grew up in Moscow, before the fall of the Iron Curtain, in what he calls “a dynasty of painters.” His father’s paintings are on Russian postage stamps and in museums. His mother’s and sister’s paintings are in collections worldwide. As the first born, his parents expected him to be a painter too—in line with the “dynasty.” But Soukhovetski, who loved watching bootleg American movies, knew he would be much happier performing, than behind the scenes creating paintings.
He jokingly calls himself the dark horse of his family. “I always say that because it’s kind of amusing,” he said. From the age of 4 he persisted in playing the piano—eight or more hours a day. Eventually he arrived in New York to study at the Julliard School of Music. His New York City debut was at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, and his music career took off from there.
“I was always completely in love with New York, I just wanted to be a New Yorker so badly,” he said leaning forward, and then mentioned that he hardly experienced any culture shock when he moved to New York, apart from the reality he experienced compared to all the American movies he had watched growing up.
He has won over 15 piano competition awards, has adjudicated competitions, and has performed around the world. Despite following the usual conventional path of a virtuoso, he defies any conventional expectation of the subdued pianist in a black suit and black shoes.
“I have these interesting conversations with my dad about the notion that artists have to suffer to be able to truly infuse meaning into their artwork, and I don’t disagree, it’s absolutely true of some artists, but I am not in that category of people. I am an extremely happy person,” he said.
At the tender age of 14, his piano playing took him to acting, playing a role as a boy pianist in the French play, “Victor or Children in Power” by Roger Vitrac, at the Moscow Academic Theatre of Satire—just a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He acted in that role for a 3 1/2-year run, until he literally grew out of his 19th century costume.
“It just plunged me on the stage of a most important Moscow theater for comedies with all these super famous actors, and they were all giving me tips and coaching me,” Soukhovetski said. They encouraged him to concentrate on acting, but he had already dedicated countless hours to the piano, and was not going to give it up.
Still, that acting experience, and other roles that followed, would later prove to be an essential springboard for his artistic career later in life.
‘Pianofest in the Hamptons’
A few days after shuttling from a performance at Carnegie Hall with violinist Philippe Quint & Friends, to the “Pianofest in the Hamptons,” Soukhovetski was preparing for a video production.
Summing up his raison d’être, “I really think that life is a gift and we just have no right to squander it,” he said at the Pianofest house where he has been an artist-in-residence since 2011.
Soukhovetski gave a quick tour of the 19th century home of one of the top intensive summer piano schools in the world—where cooperation is strongly encouraged over competition.
There’s a piano in every room. At least four pianists can be heard practicing different pieces at the same time—one plays a very dramatic piece by Nikolai Girshevich Kapustin, while another plays a Beethoven sonata. The result is a melodious semi-cacophony as one passes from one room to the other.
“This is where I sleep,” Soukhovetski said, showing his room and introducing the pianist practicing on the baby grand piano next to his bed. “I kind of clear out of here, except for my shoes,” he said.
When Soukhovetski wears his custom-made shoes, it amplifies his experience on stage. Wearing them, “you feel like you are walking on cloud 9,” he said. “Honestly, it’s really incredible, it makes you feel like something special is happening.”
He uses his sister’s tweezers to meticulously glue the crystals in place, one by one, taking about 60 hours to complete a pair. It’s a meditative experience for him, and also materially rewarding. He’s been commissioned to sell several pairs a year, for thousands of dollars each.
“People have preconceived notions about us musicians that we are somehow old-fashioned or nerdy … and it’s not true,” Soukhovetski said, and then gestured toward two pianists running across the porch in wetsuits.
“These guys are cool, I mean they are going surfing right now,” Soukhovetski said.
“So that breaks this kind of crystal ball that says we all sit and practice 12 hours a day, and that nobody does any sports, or anything but read smart books—we do that too—but we also live and play,” he said raising his eyebrows.
At Pianofest the 12 pianists practice at least four hours a day on one of the 10 pianos—there’s even a piano in the kitchen, which seems to be everyone’s favorite. Perhaps the humidity makes the piano sound better, or everyone likes it because it’s a sociable place.
Since dedicated musicians have to practice long hours, “without an incentive you can spend your whole life sheltered away, not really socializing,” Soukhovetski said. But at Pianofest, the students get to cook and eat together, they go to the beach, play chess or pool, learn from each other, and forge great friendships that can last a lifetime. It’s a pianists’ boot camp dream come true, where they can learn as much repertoire as possible, and also have fun in a beautiful environment.
“So having this is a great balance and it’s a great dress rehearsal for life,” Soukhovetski said.
The house usually gets quieter on Mondays or on other days when the students perform at a concert for Pianofest’s 27th season (June 22–Aug. 10). That’s when the piano tuner takes over to keep the pianos in good shape.
A Real Reality TV Show
Soukhovetski came up with the idea of creating a reality show during the entire Pianofest season. The founder of Pianofest, Paul Schenly, approved under the condition that the production is carefully planned around the students’ concerts and practicing schedules.
They called it “Real Pianists of The Hamptons” “because it is about real pianists in the Hamptons,” Soukhovetski emphasized.
Each of the six episodes includes a challenge between different teams, making sure “the punishment and the reward are equally sweet,” Soukhovetski said at the end of shooting the second episode.
In the first episode three of the pianists volunteered to give out brochures in East Hampton and on the beach, promoting the Pianofest season. “One of the girls was in a bikini on the beach, but it was raining too, so it was really hilarious and we got it all on camera,” Soukhovetski said just above a whisper.
“We are trying to have as much fun with this and make it feel sort of cool, sexy, now, but with these brilliant people, [for example] Julliard graduates with piano performance degrees. Not everybody wants to incessantly watch Kardashians shop up a storm,” Soukhovetski said.
Crystalizing the Story in Music
At Pianofest concertos, a second piano stands in for the orchestra. With skillful hands a pianist can evoke the sounds of all the other instruments, even the human voice, but it requires skill. Virtuoso pianists have the mastery required to tell the story of the music, to incorporate all of the emotions the composer put in the piece, interpret it in their own unique way, and convey it to the audience.
“I think I have become a better musician through my acting experiences because acting is narrative, it’s storytelling,” Soukhovetski said. When he performs he reminds himself not to fall into the trap, which many musicians do, of “just playing pretty for pretty’s sake,” he said. His acting experience has helped him convey the story of the music he plays. It is more challenging with the piano, than with opera singing, because of the absence of words.
He uses techniques that help actors be sincere and in the moment to help musicians do the same. He has been using and perfecting such methods for years, and plans to write a book on how to apply Stanislavsky acting techniques to playing music.
When Soukhovetski plays the piano his narrative gets across, but he said, “It’s not some kind of trait of genius.” It is the result of deliberately using his knowledge in acting—in analyzing the script, of always having an intention in a scene and in a character—and doing the same when interpreting a music score and playing it.
“I strongly believe that if we approach it this way it makes our musical interpretation much more tangible, and it crystalizes the idea,” Soukhovetski said.
Dispelling the Tortured Artist Myth
One of Soukhovetski’s favorite pieces is Schubert’s final piano sonata in B flat major—”a lifetime in 40 minutes,” he calls it. The story he tells when he plays that piece is about “incredible acceptance and loneliness … of one who is soon to die,” he said.
They are looking back at life with a sense of peace and regret. “Playing the regret is very hard because, well, how do you play regret?” Soukhovetski said. “You have to feel it—it’s in the timing, it’s in the color that you create, which has to be bright, but it has to have sadness kind of hovering over it,” he explained.
He wouldn’t want to wish that deep sense of loneliness on anybody, but music is healing in the sense that it allows one to process difficult emotions with broadmindedness and with a safe distance.
“What allows me to really embrace the darkness is the fact that this darkness is outside of me,” he said. He can commit to it for the duration of the performance and then let it go. “We are fortunate as performing artists. … We get to live those cathartic moments, and it’s therapeutic,” he added.
One of the reasons he is so enthusiastic about producing “Real Pianists of The Hamptons” is because it dispels the stereotype of the lonely artist and it also popularizes classical music, which can be so healing.
“Music is emotional release that helps one cope with daily life. … It allows you to express yourself without having to shout at people or write graffiti or God forbid reach for the gun,” Soukhovetski said. “If only more people would be exposed to the power and beauty of music and the healing and the expressive power of being able to create something meaningful with your own hands or voice, I think the world would just be a better, less crazy, place,” he added.
The Pianofest students encourage each other to explore other aspects of their personalities and to express other talents. For example, the pianists Jacopo Giacopuzzi is also the executive producer of the reality show, and Philip Kowka cooks gourmet meals for the group.
Soukhovetski also has a keen eye for fashion and can identify if someone is wearing Armani, Jean Paul Gautier, Donna Karan, Diana Von Furstenberg, Calvin Klein, Berluti—you name it—of any collection of the last 10 years. When he interviews audience members at the Pianofest performances, he will comment on their clothes.
“I like things that are wearable but exotic and kind of cool,” he said. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art gala for the Alexander McQueen show, he wore an outfit from the final collection of Alexander McQueen, happily noticed by fashion experts present.
“I always sort of wanted to do everything in life,” he said. In addition to making his dazzling custom-made crystal shoes, Soukhovetski also plans to create his own fashion brand, probably with all the flair and panache than one could ever anticipate.
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