Go to Konstantin Soukhovetski’s Facebook profile and you‘ll learn that this concert pianist has a Bachelor of Music and a Masters degree, as well as an Artist Diploma from the distinguished Juilliard School in New York City.
But when you meet Konstantin in person, you’ll soon find out that his talents and activities are far from being limited to the piano. It almost looks like the charming and distinctly unconventional 29-year-old is seeking to complement the gravity of his music making with experiences that bring some lightness of being into his reality. And more than that — everything he touches seems to provide a deeper aesthetic experience for him.
His wide range of artistic endeavors suggests that he would rather venture into almost anything creative and self-expressive than live a life devoid of passion. There is his keen eye for the visual, which shows in the very professional fashion photos he has taken of his sister, with whom he has modeled at times.
He also photographed his revered Juilliard piano teacher Jerome Lowenthal for Lowenthal’s CD cover, and has created all photos for the international record review of his friend, pianist Vassily Primakov.
A look at Konstantin’s flamboyant outfits makes it obvious that he does not only enjoy making others look good, but cherishes experimenting with a bit of glamour himself. No matter if he goes all out for a special occasion, or only accessorizes a well-tailored but subtle suit — his impeccable style always stands out.
Had I not heard Konstantin’s intense rendition of Mozart’s D-Minor concerto a few years ago, I could have easily taken him for a Project Runway contestant when I recently met with him at a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
So it came as no surprise to me when I learned he had also studied theater arts as part of his Moscow education.
“The grownup actors adopted me and wanted to lure me into the world of the theater, which I enjoyed,” Konstantin explained. “I was impressed by the experience of performing with an all-star cast.”
Considering the fact that both his parents and his sister are active as painters, and that he has been playing the piano since a very young age, his upbringing and education in Russia add up to a very well-rounded training in an environment conducive to artistic imagination and achievement on different levels.
"I was trained uber-professionally,” he says. “I got the best music education, and then the acting just came very easy to me. I went on stage as a child; it became a home for me, a place where I was meant to be."
"But already then my teachers at the Moscow Central Music School made it clear to me that I would have to choose between acting and playing the piano. I could have never made the choice to leave the piano, though in my mind, I always wanted to do both. It did not have to be one or the other, I could multitask. And then finally this year, it dawned on me that I had to give acting another try."
Currently, Konstantin portrays a villain in Dishonorable Vendetta, an independent feature directed by African-American director Andre Joseph – Konstantin’s biggest role since last summer. In the film, he plays a Russian nightclub owner who assaults a group of drug dealers with a gun — a part which takes the concert pianist as far away from his classical music world as he could possibly get. It’s exactly that kind of adventure he enjoys.
“When I applied online for the film recently, I was called to audition right away, and then for the part. And I do want to learn. I am participating in student projects as well, which is a lot of fun. They are giving me experience in front of the camera. When I am acting, I am truly stepping out of myself; it is a liberating and very happy experience for me.
It also makes me a better pianist. The precision with which I express different emotional states and the choices I make in my interpretation of the music are being informed by my experiences in acting. I am much more aware of the circumstances surrounding the music, and the direction I have to give it to achieve a connection between the composer and the audience.”
And he continues: “Whether Shakespeare or Beethoven – you, as a performer, follow a script of printed directions, and yet you have to make it your own. The art is to somehow portray it, to make it fresh and alive, like it was being played for the very first time – with truth and integrity. You don’t want to be bored by your own performance.”
It’s not too far-fetched to assume that Konstantin has not been all too bored by his performances so far, given that his performances won him Juilliard’s 2003 Gina Bachauer Competition, the first prize at the 2002 Hilton Head International Piano Competition, the 2003 Arthur Rubinstein Prize, the second prize at the 2002 Walter W. Naumburg International Piano Competition, and the 2004 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. What may also prevent any boredom sneaking into his life is the fact that his extensive performance schedule over the years has taken him far afield, expanding the geographic reach of the countries he is visiting as a performer. But then, ever since leaving his childhood home in Russia for New York, he has always considered himself to be a citizen of the world.
So what has Konstantin planned for the future?
“I take it project by project, generally saying I would not jeopardize my piano playing,” he smiles. "My past 26 years have been dedicated mainly to the piano; my identity is that of a classical pianist, and I do learn two new piano concertos every season. However, I also majored in pop vocals and studio theater, doing shows and singing with a band. I anchored children news on TV (Russian National Television) and have always toyed with mainstream show business."
For now, there are many piano projects on his agenda.
On February 7, he will perform at the Ridotto Concert Series in Huntington, Long Island, a very artistic festival that always attracts a multimedia crowd. European violinist Margaretha Maimone runs the event. An actress as well, she has invited Konstantin already for the third time.
Besides some very interesting performances of Saint-Saens “Concerto No. 2” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” under conductor Daniel Myer, he will also perform with the Biava Quartet, musicians-in-residence at Juilliard, at the Kennedy Center on April 29. And he will go back to South Africa for a tour, performing Rachmaninov’s “Concerto No. 3” with the Johannesburg Philharmonic, a performance with the national KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic, as well as some solo performances.
It’s a well-known fact that rigorous tour schedules may be among the most taxing challenges musicians have to live with these days. A performer is always expected to show up – and even if ‘higher circumstances’ make it necessary to cancel a concert engagement, a no-show can still have a detrimental effect on an artist’s reputation.
Lucky for Konstantin, who had to cancel a concert in Atlanta last year due to heavy rain preventing his plane from taking off at La Guardia, he got re-hired and played very successfully. Perhaps it’s the good relationships he maintains, which come to his aid when most needed. Like the one with his agent, who he describes as a friend he shares a rare "sweet deal" with. That sweet deal may well entail a less-than-narrow definition of what a concert pianist is meant to do with his professional life.
A double-major in piano and compositon, Konstantin is well versed in transcribing and also likes to try himself at jazz improvisation — a relatively rare trait for a classical pianist. He comments on the different, more percussive touch in jazz piano, as opposed to classical piano.
“As classical pianists, we are always trying to perfect the velvety smoothness. Some of the classical rhythms are much more complex than those in jazz; but it is the percussive touch that’s so different.”
When I asked him about his recordings, he admits, "This is the department where I am lacking experience and need some further investigating. I recorded a CD about three years ago, right after my Lincoln Center debut. Over 60 hours of music footage was recorded but never completely edited, so I am drowing in material."
When getting into Richard Strauss’s sound world, Konstantin’s enthusiasm becomes contagious. He marvels, "When I listen to his ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ which I did four times this year, I feel like I died and have gone to heaven. When I do feel this connection with music, I don’t need anything else."
Konstantin is very aware of his strong response to music, which really reflects his passion for life in general.
His strong sentiments also inform the program choices he makes. He craves inspiration, not just the sensation of being intrigued by an idea. Literally seeking to feel a physical connection with the music, he welcomes the emotional response music triggers in him. "I need to be engaged very passionately in what I am doing – be stirred by it,” he states. “I have to feel so passionately about it that I have to get up and play it. I have to make it my own. Just the concept of the theoretical approach is not enough for me.”
That’s why he doesn’t play certain composers, such as Bartok. “I just don’t connect to his music. I don’t want to jump out of bed to go and play his music. And I don’t feel I should go against the sensitivity of the moment."
"When I perform a certain composer I do like to familiarize myself with all, or most of his works. I like to know about him, to understand his personality. I literally do that until the last minute before a performance. I travel with my laptop and take it backstage with me, and while I do not have a set ritual to get me in the mood for piano playing, I do listen to opera a lot."
About the "fear of playing" he says, “I never really suffered from stage fright, and while I had my share of fashionable tantrums at the theater as a kid, I was never scared or terribly nervous."
"My grandmother was a ballerina, and she always told me she would never forget the love in the people’s gaze on her. I can relate to feeling the joy and validation… and then of course, one has to be honestly able to say that there is nothing else one would rather do at that moment."
Konstantin claims that reading wittily written memoirs and biographies of legendary performers like Rubinstein and Horowitz are "… a great remedy against all doubts while waiting backstage for my own performance to approach. To see one’s icons in less than iconic situations and share their backstage anecdotes is very amusing."
They may also provide a healthy perspective on pianistic immortality. Despite his colorful stage persona and eccentricity, it seems that Konstantin is a very real person, in touch with his human side.