If you've ever trawled YouTube for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Liszt’s Totentanz or Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, chances are you've encountered a clip of Valentina Lisitsa. The Ukrainian pianist with the flaxen hair and powerful technique has become one of the most popular classical performers of the viral video era, with her YouTube channel receiving 44 million views since it was set up in 2007.
That her videos have surpassed those by more recognizable names – including Lang Lang and Yuja Wang – is a story born of old-fashioned determination, luck and the machinery of social media. Her relatively low-budget videos have racked up more than 54,000 subscribers, with the most popular – Beethoven’s Fur Elise – having amassed 2.6 million views over three years.
The attention online has paid off: On Tuesday Lisitsa makes her recital debut at Royal Albert Hall in London in a widely-hyped event that is being streamed live on YouTube and will be turned around for a live recording on Decca.
Lisitsa, 39, a graduate of Kiev Conservatory, had been pursuing her career without a professional manager or promoter, when she began posting her performances on YouTube a few years ago.
“I was this obscure pianist,” Lisitsa told this writer in a 2011 interview for Listen magazine. Soon people started to take notice, and she proceeded to post more videos of herself. “I was absolutely blown away by the success but I started to agonize,” she explained. “I started to get a fan base and people started to ask me why don’t I play here or there. I didn’t have anybody to help me.”
Among those who noticed Lisitsa was an agent at IMG Artists, who last year signed her on and began helping her line up concert engagements. She also began performing with violinist Hilary Hahn; their collection of Ives sonatas on Deutsche Grammophon made many critics’ best-of 2011 lists. Lisitsa, meanwhile, continued to make videos any time she entered a recording studio or concert hall, which she has used to build a relationship with her fans.
More concert dates are ahead, including debut performances with the Helsinki Philharmonic, Colorado Symphony and Ravinia Festival. Watch her perform live at Royal Albert Hall:
Watch Valentina Lisitsa's performance of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata from WQXR's Beethoven Sonata Marathon in the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space. Recorded November 2011.