What started off as a small YouTube series has flourished into a nonprofit media empire that inspires classical musicians around the globe to achieve more, create, and find healing in their art. Living the Classical Life is directed by award-winning cinematographer Peter Hobbs with host Zsolt Bognár. While over 50 episodes exist, we wanted to highlight our top 10 pianist episodes featuring Daniil Trifonov, Yuja Wang, Emanuel Ax, Stephen Hough, Gary Graffman, and five other star pianists.
To preface these exceptional interviews, host and pianist Zsolt Bognár says: “I realized that in sharing the stories of the musicians and legends I admired growing up—who have so much to share on a musical and human level—our show has much to give to others seeking the same path, and much to illuminate to all who have an interest in the arts and a passionate life.”
1. Daniil Trifonov
As a Deutsche Grammophon recording artist and winner of the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky Competitions, Daniil Trifonov is constantly practicing and improving for the next performance, going straight to the piano when he wakes in the morning. These methods might have aided him in his continued success.
“Establishing closer connection to the music—when you feel that there is no physical distance between your fingers—if your fingers go directly from your heart,” he said.
Daniil Trifonov also is experimenting with how to showcase classical music to audiences, including creating a gorgeous music video for his performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40 - 1. Allegro vivace (Alla breve).
2. Yuja Wang
Yuja Wang has enjoyed a singular rise to fame with a large repertoire of solo performances, chamber music collaborations, and performances around the globe. The 2006 Gilmore Young Artist Award-winner recently opened her Carnegie Hall Perspectives Residency with bold, animalistic energy.
Yuja said that when something emotional happens in life, music can be so powerful. It can resonate to the situation, and she reacts to the music more intensely. “I need it, I need this nourishment,” she said.
3. Emanuel Ax
Distinguished pianist Emanuel Ax has been a Sony Classical exclusive recording artist since 1987 and won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition as well as a few Grammys.
When Emanuel won the Rubinstein competition, the great musician Arthur Rubinstein was the chairman of the jury at the time. “I always think of [competitions] as going to the 7-11 and buying a lottery ticket,” Emanuel said. “Because of course you work really hard, you prepare and you hope you play your best. And of course, anything can happen.”
4. Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough has appeared with almost all of the major European and American orchestras. In 2001, he became the first classical performing artist to win a MacArthur Fellowship. That isn’t all he has accomplished: Stephen had a solo exhibition of his paintings at the Broadbent Gallery in London in 2012, and was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2014. He also is an award-winning poet, writer, and teacher. His diversity in disciplines is what fascinates many.
“You get to a certain age when you don’t care so much what people think about you, and that’s one of the great things about getting older,” he said.
5. Gary Graffman
Gary Graffman is known as a great pianist and teacher to many well-known names in the classical world. He has worked with many young artists through Philadelphia Young Pianists’ Academy, who revere the maestro and his advice. One of his tips: Do not do many competitions.
“Oh yea, I was totally against competitions! Example: I didn’t allow Lang Lang do competitions … he followed my advice. The same with Yuja Wang. The main reason was, they didn’t need to. … [they] had concerts. Managers are going to be there. Conductors might hear you. It might even be the beginning of a career,” Gary said.
6. Caroline Oltmanns
Caroline Oltmanns is a multifaceted artist, with six solo albums and music broadcasted globally on radio and television. She also is a professor of piano at Youngstown State University, as well as an International Steinway Artist, Fulbright Scholar, and recipient of the Stipendium der deutschen Wirtschaft.
Her fame has skyrocketed in recent years, but what does she make of this sudden success? She said, “It felt fantastic. It felt also frightening, because you sort of wonder will I fill the shoes that suddenly are so much bigger? Will I be able to be conscientious as a musician and not suddenly not follow a path I do not believe in anymore?”
7. Paul Schenly
Pianist Paul Schenly is the artistic director of the Cleveland International Piano Competition and founder of the idyllic summer piano festival Pianofest in the Hamptons. This intimate 8-week event offers concentrated study to pianists that are chosen by audition from around the globe. Weekly concerts are given to local Hamptons’ society and provides a chance to meet and mingle.
“I was looking for a place where we could house several pianos for practice...” Paul said. Now the big Hamptons’ manse has at least eight grand pianos in it including one in the kitchen! “This house is wonderfully strong...”
One of Paul’s biggest rewards is the wonderful friends he has made through Pianofest in the Hamptons.
8. Pierre van der Westhuizen
Pianist Pierre van der Westhuizen has a unique look into the world of competitions, as the former president/CEO of the prestigious Cleveland International Piano Competition and the current director of the Gilmore Keyboard Festival.
“I heard someone say, to prepare for a competition, you train like an athlete but you perform like a poet,” he said. “I think that dichotomy…scares a lot of musicians. It is that element of sportsmanship which may turn off some people, and yet for others it is extremely exciting to see that play out.”
9. Brian Zeger
Brian Zeger is one of the leading collaborative pianists in the musical world as well as director of the vocal arts program at the Juilliard School. He has appeared in concert with star singers Susan Graham, Denyce Graves, Thomas Hampson, and Deborah Voigt, and has collaborated with Jamie Barton and Isabel Leonard, just to name a few.
“For each person, they’ve got to find the artistic niche that speaks to who they are and that gives them a kind of work that they simply want to wake up and do all day,” Brian said.
10. Yefim Bronfman
The Grammy Award-winning Yefim Bronfman has been playing for more than four decades. He is dedicated to chamber music and has performed with many chamber ensembles and instrumentalists. He also has his work recorded for Disney’s Fantasia 2000. He will be forever immortalized in Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain when the narrator attends a rehearsal at Tanglewood.
“[The book] is wonderful. It feels old, and full-bodied, just like me,” Bronfman jokes.
To watch many more of the 50+ interviews, head over to Living the Classical Life.