The Consolation of the Classics

No matter the chaos or uncertainty surrounding us or within us, the arts provide a refuge. Celebrated pianist Janara Khassenova delves into why.
April 20, 2021 Updated: April 20, 2021

Despite shutdowns that spread across the world last year and caused the performing arts industry to grind to a halt, finding a musician with idle hands remained as difficult a task as ever.

“Some of my colleagues said, ‘Oh, I can finally play “Hammerklavier,”’ or, ‘In lockdown, I learned book one or two of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” by Bach,’” said celebrated pianist Janara Khassenova with a laugh. Pianists with schedules packed full of travel, concerts, and teaching appointments suddenly found that they had time for the special projects they’d put off for years, like learning a cycle of works by a favorite composer or some classics that never made it to program.

“We can’t slow down just because of a lockdown.”

Musicians like Khassenova are artists by nature, and the creative impulse doesn’t wait. When musicians saw their old livelihoods go up in smoke as every event was canceled worldwide, they came up with new ways to reach people and found new platforms through which to express their art, performing on camera in empty auditoriums or in the silence of their own living rooms. Some were busier than ever.

“But everything is different, because whether you have 200 or 50 concerts in a year, everything is scheduled and you live in that rhythm,” she said. “And you miss that live interaction with the audience, with the people who come to meet the music. That energy is no longer there.”

In that absence, musicians and listeners alike were never more aware of the idea that music is connection.

Khassenova was certainly busy herself, serving as a jury member for a piano competition. As shutdowns continued globally, it seemed less and less likely that the 2020 event would take place. While the competition team was preparing to postpone the event, they decided to make the repertoire public anyway—pianists wanted to keep themselves busy.

And then a new idea formed.

Piano Talks

The NTD International Piano Competition, for which Khassenova had been a jury member since 2016, had a treasure trove of material to share. New Tang Dynasty (NTD) Television is an American broadcaster that, in its mission to promote traditional culture, has long held a series of cultural competitions including oil painting, bel canto singing, photography, and of course piano. Khassenova, who performs and teaches, has served as the artistic adviser for NTD in all matters relating to its piano competition.

Thanks to the competition having a wide-reaching broadcaster for a partner, its semifinals, finals, and winner’s concert performances stream live to audiences that can number in the millions. Khassenova looked at the musical material accumulated over the years and thought that now was the time to share it.

She curated a selection of recorded performances and, together with NTD, created a miniseries exploring the world of the piano repertoire. She stepped into her new role as TV host, and “Piano Talks” premiered late last year (episodes can be streamed online).

The program mainly celebrates the works of the old masters, Khassenova said. There’s an episode on Bach’s iconic, haunting “Chaconne,” originally written for solo violin but transcribed and transposed every which way in the centuries since. For example, the competition included an interesting interpretation of Ferruccio Busoni’s romantic piano arrangement of the piece.

In another episode, Khassenova visits with Russian composer and pianist Sergei Dreznin, reminiscing about Rachmaninoff, a man out of place and out of time, who wrote beautiful additions to the piano repertoire, which had scarcely grown since Chopin’s time. The two discuss the Russian school of playing music, famous for its focus on the art of beautiful sound. These conversations and insights add another layer to the music presented, entertaining for casual viewers and music lovers alike.

To round out the series, Khassenova said she sat down with fellow jury member Susan Liu, who arranged a specially commissioned piece that all semifinalists had to perform from memory.

“It’s filled with these gorgeous, beautiful melodies,” Khassenova said.

Glorious Realm

The NTD International Piano Competition takes a unique approach to its repertoire, largely limiting works to those composed between 1650 and 1900. Its mission is to revive the traditional piano repertoire, those masterworks of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods that made piano music an art unto itself.

In its own words: “The competition’s commitment to artistic excellence is a means to allow the 250-year legacy of piano literature to continue to flourish. We believe this repertoire is a treasure of mankind and should be passed onto future generations to come.”

As Khassenova said: “The more you play the traditional music, the more you understand how you can grow with the music, as a musician and as a person. There are so many things that you can discover there. Everything is there.”

The classics are shepherds of the permanent, that which is deep, profound, and unchanged by time itself. It is the interpreter’s duty to convey these things with clarity.

In 2016, the judges added a new challenge.

It was an effort to show that music written today can be traditional, too. They commissioned a special piece that, fascinatingly, was both traditionally Chinese in character and classically Western in tonality. “Glorious Realm,” a vocal piece written by D.F., artistic director of world-renowned Shen Yun Performing Arts, was rearranged for piano by jury member Liu. Every competition cycle since then has included such a piece.

Ancient Chinese melodies and perhaps-unfamiliar pentatonic sequences make these works, which the pianists have about 40 days to memorize, a special challenge. But as Liu tells Khassenova in her interview, you don’t have to be Polish to play a Chopin polonaise. Classical music is truly a universal language, capable of speaking to any and every culture.

Khassenova said that it was interesting, actually overwhelming, to witness the work being performed for the first time. Almost more so than when hearing pianists perform well-worn classics, one could glean the musicians’ innate personalities and the cultures from which they came in how they played it.

Jurors noticed the contestants’ own Italian, Russian, or Asian influences as they performed the piece, the dance rhythms they picked up on or didn’t, and the dramatic arcs they honed in on.

“I remember that every one of them played it differently, and it was an absolutely unique experience,” Khassenova said.

The Search for Answers

Music has an undeniable spiritual component. People often say that it can communicate the great ideas and feelings that words cannot; Khassenova was reminded of a quote from Heinrich Heine, who wrote many of the poems that Schubert set to song: “Where words leave off, music begins.”

She offered one hypothesis as to why this is.

Khassenova remembers that her teachers would tell her, “There is something you can learn, and there is something we can teach—but there is something that goes beyond.”

“You can’t put your hands on it,” she said. “Far from that, it’s something from above, and you either feel it, or you try to feel, or you try to understand—or even if you don’t understand it, you still question it—and then you bring it into your music. You know what I mean?”

The search is both internal and external. There is a quest to understand what the composer’s intentions were—why did Bach use counterpoint, why did Beethoven choose certain dynamics—and one must remember that these great composers grappled with deep spiritual questions as well, in their study of art and its reflection of the human condition.

“We can’t just have answers for every single thing—as musicians and as humans, I think,” Khassenova said. “You can’t just say ‘this is the way,’ or ‘that is the way’; even composers themselves were still learning and looking for something, looking for answers, and that’s what they wrote in their music. There is no concrete answer for these things.”

The search must then turn inward. As Khassenova said: “The more we question, the better for the whole process. We’re searching, and we’re trying to find it in the way we play music.”

If art is life, it is no wonder that interpretations can be endlessly unique, and no two performances are ever the same.

“Sometimes you see the personality of the performer inside his playing,” she said. One pianist might be spontaneous, going along with the sound and living in the moment, and another might be analytical, giving a premeditated, intellectual interpretation that finds the beauty in the logic and structure of a piece.

“It tells me how different we are as individuals,” she said.

The Show Goes On

The competition is currently scheduled to take place in autumn 2021, at a premier venue in New York that has yet to be announced. The application period for pianists is open until Sept. 23.

“We live in a very complicated time now,” Khassenova said. “There are a lot of uncertainties, and this pandemic also showed us how our life and the environment in general is very fragile. But as long as we stay close to our roots, and position ourselves in goodness and positive vibes, we will see in our art something to heal, and we’ll be transferring that to our audience.

“It can be something both beneficial to ourselves and our audience, a healing kind of a process, too.”