Georgian Pianist Elisso Virsaladze on Schumann, Competitions, and More

Elisso Virsaladze will visit Colburn in March for a master class and concert with Conservatory students.

On Friday, March 8, legendary Georgian pianist Elisso Virsaladze will perform a program of Hadyn, Mozart, and Schumann with Conservatory students as a part of the Colburn Chamber Music Society. We spoke with her about the program she’ll be performing, her connection with Schumann, and being a pianist in today’s world.

This interview has been lightly edited for style, content, and clarity.

This is a rare North American appearance of yours. What brings you to Colburn?
They invited me to play with young people, which I like very much. It’s an opportunity just to have experience playing with the young musicians of the Colburn School. I’m really very curious about it. I know only that it is very high-level school.

How did you select the pieces on the Colburn Chamber Music Society concert?
First of all, the Haydn Trio I’m going to play with them is very, very rarely played. It’s a very short piece, two movements. I think all Haydn music is phenomenal and interesting.

The G minor Mozart quartet I admire very much, and I find it one of the best chamber music pieces, not only of Mozart.

The Schumann Quintet I like very much because I played it from an early age. I admire this music and find it extremely interesting, not only for pianists, but for strings as well. It will be a very interesting compilation with young artists, I hope.

You’re well-known for your interpretations of Schumann. What specifically draws you to Schumann’s music?
It’s not such a surprise for a pianist to be very involved in Schumann’s music. It’s one of the most important composers for piano. I’ve played Schumann from the very beginning. When I was a little girl, I had already played some pieces of Schumann, including his concerto with the orchestra. I have really a very deep connection to the composer, which is really amazing. He’s so changeable—every episode, every bar is different. It is full of curiosity, the composer, it’s really amazing.

How did you come to study music?
I grew up in a family where my grandma was a professor of music. I heard music from childhood when I was little with my brother. We were fond of music because we had lessons my grandma gave in our home from morning until the late evening. She was very often ill and couldn’t go to the conservatory, so lessons were in our home.

It was very interesting for me listening to different talent because I didn’t understand. I had no idea who was gifted and who was not but when someone’s playing very well, you are just so impressed that you like the student.

But my grandma, she didn’t want to teach me, because she said the relationship would be very difficult to be the teacher and to be with her grandchild and have her as a pupil. So I started pretty late. The first lesson I took from my grandma was when I was eight years old. Before, I had played by ear because I could play all pieces played by my grandma’s students, not reading the score.

So I was at the central music school in Tbilisi, and then the conservatory afterward when I finished the school. I was all my life, in principle, very close to my grandma. Of course, my future was influenced incredibly by Professor Neuhaus, a very famous pianist and pedagogue professor. I was nine years old when I played first for him. Afterwards, before the Tchaikovsky Competition, I studied with him. And so my professors from childhood were my grandma, Professor Neuhaus, and afterwards Professor Yakov as a post-graduate student and then an assistant at the Moscow Conservatory. That’s very briefly my biography.

You’re a known juror at prestigious international piano competitions. Can you give some advice for pianists preparing for those competitions?
It is very difficult to answer this question because competitions nowadays are a very important part of life of young musicians, which is good and not good because when I was young, there were not so many competitions in the world. It was much less. There was not such a big amount of pianists as today, so it was a little bit of a quiet life for young people in music.

Without competition, it’s very, very, very difficult to find the place under the sky for pianists—for musicians, but especially for pianists. For violin and for strings, you have orchestra and principal. You have potential and you can go to the orchestra.

I have only one piece of advice. If you really like music and if you really want to be with music your whole life, then you have to dedicate your life to this profession. It is very, very difficult, and sometimes very ungraceful because you think you achieve some success, but it is not, and then you must continue and repeat if you really like music. But if you don’t, it’s better just to quit early and be busy with some other profession.

What’s coming up next after your stay in Los Angeles?
Don’t ask me, many things. I’m returning to Moscow then after it will be Spain, Italy, and et cetera, many concerts all over the world and Europe. I have concerts in Israel, Poland, Japan, so on.

That must get very tiring.
Tiring, of course. But you know I am used to having such a life, so I choose it myself.

Hear Elisso Virsaladze perform with the Colburn Chamber Music Society on Friday, March 8. Get your tickets today.