Profile: For Natasha Paremski, Brahms Meets Boldface Names

Monday, July 30, 2012

WQXR

The Russian piano tradition is typically characterized by certain qualities: a big, muscular style, an emphasis on dramatic expression and a rigorous musical education.

The 25-year-old pianist Natasha Paremski has absorbed many of these characteristics into her playing but her career has taken off in a distinctly American fashion as she mingles freely with contemporary composers as well as a few celebrities. 

Since the early days of her career, Paremski has had a knack for making friends in high places. She struck up a friendship with John Corigliano after he heard her play his Etude Fantasy. He suggested she learn his Piano Concerto, which she went on to perform with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Jeffrey Kahane in a performance the Denver Post said was delivered with "emotional maturity and sure-handed control." Paremski has also gotten to know Gabriel Kahane, Jeffrey's son, the indie songwriter. He composed a sonata for her in what he called his "first attempt at concert music," blending one of his pop songs with neoclassical elements.

On Monday at Le Poisson Rouge, Paremski will give the New York premiere of Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky by Fred Hersch, the noted jazz pianist and composer. Charles Hamlen, the chairman at IMG Artists, the management firm, introduced her to Hersch. The recital will also feature works by Chopin, Piazzolla and Balakirev's Islamey, as well as a guest appearance by violinist Philippe Quint. 

Paremski was born in Moscow, and started piano lessons there at age four. She moved to California with her family by the time she was eight. She became a U.S. citizen six years later and went on to study at the San Francisco Conservatory and the Mannes College of Music. Among her prizes was the 2006 Gilmore Young Artist Award.

In 2007, at age 19, Paremski came to the attention of Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, who recruited her for a theater project about the lives of Robert and Clara Schumann. In a 2010 performance at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Paremski embodied the spirit of Clara Schumann while pianist Jeremy Denk embodied Robert. It was later released on DVD.

Paremski said the music of the Schumanns was took on a new meaning when it was combined with the recited letters. "It was neat prism through which to view the music," she said. "Some of the darker Schumann pieces suddenly seemed much more harrowing."

Paremski's interests in theater didn't end there. She performed Ravel and Brahms in the choreographer Benjamin Millepied's Danses Concertantes at the Joyce Theater in December 2008She also played in a two-part BBC film about the life of Tchaikovsky, playing excerpts from the composer's first piano concerto and other works.

Last November, in addition to appearing in WQXR's Beethoven Marathon, she released her first solo album, a collection of sonatas by Brahms, Prokofiev and Kahane. It debuted at number nine on the Billboard classical chart.

The inclusion of sober Brahms may seem most out of step with Paremski's defiantly eclectic streak. Yet her experience with new music has helped her to realize that although Brahms’s music has become extremely popular in recent decades, it is often misunderstood. “Often I feel we just weigh it down, and it becomes really viscous," she explained. "We forget that Brahms was definitely a character, and that he had a great sense of humor. His music is very wild.”

For a while, she said, she tried to “tame” Brahms’s music, but then realized that in order to do the music justice, she simply needed to “embrace all the crazy parts,” just as she does with some of the newer music she plays.

Nevertheless, Paremski loves that she is paving new ground when she plays contemporary works. “It’s raw material, which is really exciting,” she explained. “You can take it in any direction you want.”

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