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Henry M. Robert

Piano as an interpreter

Danish Elisabeth Nielsen’s army of fans in Kyiv is growing
9 November, 2017 - 12:25
Photo by Artem HALKIN

Musicians from Italy, Denmark, and Ukraine conquered the Kyiv public. The National Philharmonic of Ukraine hosted The Piano Fairy, an evening whose program arose at the crossing of three European cultures. This cross-national project was born of joint creativity of talented musicians: young Danish pianist Elisabeth Nielsen, Ukrainian composer Roman Hryhoriv (musical director of the National President Orchestra of Ukraine), and conductors Aurelio Canonici (Italy) and Vasyl Vasylenko (Ukraine).

Two years ago the amateurs of music from Kyiv witnessed Nielsen’s triumphal performance at the stage of the Lysenko Hall of olumns. Back then, the pianist conquered the audience with her sublime culture of performance, first of all of Danish classic Carl Nielsen. After the concert, the pianist promised to return to Kyiv before long, and she kept her word. The Day jumped to the opportunity to interview the famous musician.


“For a year I did a postgraduate course under two wonderful professors at the Vienna Conservatory,” shares Elisabeth NIELSEN. “All roads famously lead to Rome, yet music roads cross in Vienna. This city is rightfully titled the musical capital of the world. This is where a professional ear is honed to perfection by top-notch performance, and each building has a story (or even a legend) to tell. Whoever wants, can receive a maximum of various impressions. Suffice it to say that stand-up ticket to the Vienna Opera House costs a mere 2 euro. Vienna is true to its solid, age-long traditions and is conspicuously conservative.

“I have played Beethoven in the famous hall of the Old Rathaus. This grand hall, with a total area equal to nearly a half of a soccer pitch, serves as a venue for concert and society events, balls in particular. But after a year my study in Vienna was over, and the question arose where I should be moving next. Musical life in the Austrian capital soon seemed too ‘canonical’ to me: the same symphonies by Beethoven and Mozart, the waltzes by Strauss… Sometimes you could hear a Shostakovich. I did not have enough fresh impressions and trends. Yet it was in Vienna that I unexpectedly met two young Ukrainian composers who introduced me to the sphere of contemporary electroacoustic music, Roman Hryhoriv and Illia Razumeiko. They became my guides in the hitherto almost unknown world of sounds. We became friends, and of this friendship joint musical projects were born. Thus Vienna became for me a place where classical traditions and the new electroacoustic space overlap in a most wonderful manner.”

How did Denmark welcome you after your “Vienna time” was over?

“Oh, fortune smiled on me again: I was granted the ‘artist in residence’ status, which allowed me to reside in Rome, where I found myself in an absolutely fantastic artistic environment: painters, poets, and writers from all corners of Scandinavia gathered there to draw inspiration from the eternal city for their own creations. For a moment I even considered staying there as long as possible… Later I received another grant from the Danish Academy, and then I plunged into the piano music by Ottorino Respighi, author of the famous tone poem Pines of Rome. I began to learn his Toccata for Piano and Orchestra, which I meant to present in Kyiv later, but unfortunately the score for the orchestra was not available on time. So this interesting plan remains so far unrealized. I hope that the premiere of a Respighi still unknown in Ukraine will become a true revelation of new aspects of his talent.”

Would you like to share about your “unconventional” graduation concert in Copenhagen?

“My klavierabend [piano recital. – Ed.], a sort of summing up my post-grad course, took place in late August in the great hall of the Danish Royal Conservatory. We inserted electroacoustic interludes between the original pieces of the cycle. However, we tried to do it very discretely and carefully, as the contemporary sound space does not really easily mix with romantic music (unlike baroque music, by the way). What results is often a sort of kitsch. During the performance of the ‘modernized’ Carnival abstract paintings, projected directly onto the front part of the organ, created additional effects. Because the event was taking place right amid my graduation exam, I was very worried. How would the commission take my innovation? What would everyone think of the international participants (two composers, a video artist from Ukraine, a cameraman from the UK, and a professor of electroacoustic music from Vienna)? Fortunately, our ideas were finally supported and approved by the jury.”

What attracted you in the creative innovations of the young Ukrainian musicians?

“I guess a young people’s initiative, when in one concert program you can combine different esthetic poles, styles, and epochs, has a future because it is consonant with our dynamic time. The Piano Fairy is actually another attempt at uniting several major figures from different music cultures in one space.”

What prompted including Myroslav Skoryk’s Piano Concerto into the program?

“Ever since my last trip to Kyiv I have dreamed of resuming Ukrainian music. I pondered on where to start from and finally chose for Skoryk’s Concerto. His music spoke to my heart, set my soul ablaze with its jazz insertions, motoric, neofolk intonations, and rhythms. It is no coincidence that Skoryk’s music instantly appeals to any audience.”


The concert program is extremely busy and comprehensive: playing in one evening two big piano concertos by Grieg and Skoryk, plus Nielsen’s Chaconne is an enormous responsibility. It must also be a backbreaking job, physically.

“Indeed, it was a serious challenge. But I always remember my teacher’s words: ‘You are such a tough cookie, you will cope with everything, whatever might come your way.’ I learn new pieces fast, and I love bringing them before the public. I hope that our joint creative plans will continue after this evening in Kyiv. You know, I dream of combining works by Ukrainian and Danish composers in my concert programs. At present, my fellow countrymen know little of Ukrainian music, just as your public is generally strange to the music culture of Denmark. I see breaking the situation cardinally as my mission, because Ukraine is in fact part of Europe.”

By Natalia SEMENENKO, musicologist