Pianists in Reality Show

Thomas Bohlert
July 26, 2011

What do a classical pianist, an action-film drug dealer, and a reality show producer have in common (other than sounding like a trio who might walk into a bar in a bad joke)?

I stumbled upon the answer when I went to review a Pianofest recital at the Avram Theater on the Stony Brook Southampton campus on July 18 . . . not knowing that I would meet Konstantin Soukhovetski, in whom these three creative characters are converging. Mr. Soukhovetski, who has a well-established concert career, was a Pianofest participant from 2000 to 2006. A graduate of Juilliard, he has garnered 10 significant piano competition prizes over the last decade, and has appeared with symphonies from Asheville to Pretoria.

As unlikely as it may seem for a classical pianist, he also has a major role as a bad-guy drug dealer in “Dishonorable Vendetta,” an independent film to be released later this year about a Bolivian drug lord and a group of Russian drug runners. He also has a role in an indie called “Andrei,” to be released in 2012.    The years that he was at Pianofest were the years when the reality show format was first flourishing, he said, and he thought then about making a reality show there — with the music-drenched atmosphere marking “a new day” in the genre. So, as this season’s artist in residence, he was thrilled when he was given the go-ahead to start videoing a reality show about Pianofest, the renowned festival in which music students come together to live, practice intensely, and perform.

The timing was perfect: This summer’s second session of Pianofest began on July 12, with 12 participants, of which only two are returnees, which is very unusual.

Mr. Soukhovetski’s face lit up as he talked about the greatly varied personalities of the group, and how in a few days of filming they had “already opened up in unexpected ways.”

Most of them, he said, do not fit the stereotype of a pianist (an introspective nerd who spends 12 hours a day in a practice room). He hopes to show their lives from many angles, and with all their individuality, “from music to fashion to drinking, from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

The show will be edited true to the reality show format, Mr. Soukhovetski said, and still deliver wonderful classical music, with humor and spontaneity.

Before the recital on July 18, he was set up in the lobby of the Avram Theater, ready to shoot footage of anyone in attendance who might be willing to be in front of the camera.

When asked how the reality show would ultimately be released, he said he hoped first to use social media such as Facebook. “You would be surprised how much happens at Pianofest through the social media!” From there, it might possibly be shown on local TV channels or public broadcasting.

Mr. Soukhovetski is a talented, focused, and multifaceted artist, and I am intrigued to see what he can do working in this (typically somewhat tawdry) genre, offering us a window into this very special group of musicians.

Watch for it.

Now, to give a somewhat shortened commentary on the recital itself. I hesitate to choose from among the six performers, since it is like choosing from an embarrassment of riches, but that is my task.

Yesse Kim played the very powerful and demanding fugue from Samuel Barber’s Sonata for Piano, written in 1949. At these programs, Paul Schenly, the founder of Pianofest, gives informal and insightful commentary about each composer, the historical circumstances of the composition, and about the performance, often playing snippets of the work to demonstrate his point. He explained that this sonata expressed the anxiety and uncertainty of the postwar world. The theme is angular, jaunty, restless, and rhythmic, and the music demands a lot physically from the player. Ms. Kim was fully up to it and gave a commanding performance. 

The unexpected gems of the afternoon were two of Nikolai Medtner’s “Vergessene Weisen” (“Forgotten Melodies”), played by Cahill Smith. Medtner was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, although he is much less well known today, partly because he wasn’t a touring concert pianist as they were. I was not familiar with these works, but in Mr. Smith’s hands they were absolutely endearing.

In the “Canzona Matinata,” one feature that stood out was that Medtner seems to have a rather individual harmonic language that really drew me, and the rest of the audience, in. The “Sonata Tragica” seemed like a magnificent, melancholy saga that could be told only through music; mere words would never be sufficient. I have to echo Mr. Schenly’s comment to Mr. Smith: “Your playing was aristocratic.”

After the program, Mr. Smith spoke excitedly about trying to include Medtner in many of his future programs. The performer and composer make for a combination that is worth following.

Gleb Ivanov was the last performer, and one of the Pianofest returnees. I reviewed his performance at the Southampton Cultural Center last year, and it is just by coincidence that I heard him again. Several of the players had wonderfully full dynamics; Mr. Ivanov elicited the most amazing pianissimo sounds from the piano, and rendered an elegantly restrained ending to Chopin’s Nocturne in G minor. 

While an audience generally loves familiar music, it can be a challenge to the player to make it original. Mr. Ivanov’s playing of the very well-known Chopin Polonaise in A flat brought me to that beautiful place between familiarity and newness.

I have heard it played many times, but thanks to his subtle and mature artistry, it was like visiting a place I have been to many times before, yet seeing it with new eyes and hearing it with new ears. I was taken down a path I’ve known, but with each carefully shaped phrase my attention was brought to the features that I hadn’t experienced before, to some insight that seemed fresh yet inevitable. This is the kind of playing that makes the great classics endure.

Pianofest continues through Aug. 8 with recitals on Monday afternoons at 4:30. Tickets are available only at the door; they are $20, or $15 for those over 65, and free for students. Be sure to take in at least one. The good seats are taken early. More information can be found at or 329-9115.