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Yakov and Aleksandra Kasman: 176 keys to mastering Rachmaninoff (gallery, video)
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Yakov and Aleksandra Kasman will take the Jemison Concert Hall stage on Friday, Feb. 7, to show their home town of Birmingham just how far they have progressed as a duo in five years.
A demanding all-Rachmaninoff program will reveal these musicians' three-fold relationship - as father and daughter, teacher and student, and as musical partners.
Aleksandra - Sasha, as her friends and family call her - began piano lessons at age 6 with her mother, Tatiana, a Moscow Conservatory graduate and UAB adjunct instructor. Six years later, she switched teachers to her other parent, UAB professor of piano and artist-in-residence Yakov Kasman. She had found two ideal mentors, not at conservatories in Moscow, Paris, or New York, but right in her living room.
Like any other daughter who plays the piano, she had to clean her room, practice scales and wash the dishes at the family's Vestavia Hills home. That aspect of her life changed recently.
"Now she's a freshman at UAB and lives on campus," said Yakov, an Orel, Russia, native who has continued as her teacher. "When we're in our living room watching movies and other things it's one thing. Once we are having a lesson, it's a different story."
The performance bond came about at a recital in Paris in 2009, when Yakov invited Sasha to the keyboard to play an encore. A short time later, the duo repeated the effort after Yakov's solo recital at the Birmingham Museum of Art, performing two encores from a Russian ballet score. Their partnership was cemented.Rachmaninoff's two suites for two pianos, plus the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, scored by the composer himself, are on the program. Yakov described it as "the best two-piano music in the world. These pieces cover all of Rachmaninoff's life. They are very, very difficult and demanding.Yakov believes Sasha has what it takes to pull it off. At 18, she has proven her talent numerous times, winning competitions in Europe and North America. A recipient of the National Federation of Music Club's Stillman-Kelly Award, she has won medals at the International Competition for Young Pianists in Memory of Vladimir Horowitz in Kiev, Ukraine, the Alabama Symphony Volunteer Council's Lois Pickard Competition, and a three-time finalist at the Blount-Slawson Young Artist Competition. Recently, she was named an alternate in the Southern MTNA Senior Performance Competition, and took second place and the Young Jury Award at the Arthur Fraser International Piano Competition in Columbia, S.C.
Sasha has given solo recitals in New York and Washington, D.C., duo performances with her father in Fort Collins, Colo., New Orleans, Orel, Russia, and Busan, South Korea, and has soloed in concertos by Mozart, Chopin and Rachmaninoff with the Ukraine National Symphony.
Sasha believes her competition successes come from strong musical training.
"Before a rising musician starts participating in competitions, there must be a base," she said. "He or she must be a formed musician, or on the way to a professional level. You have to have experience, you must have musical ideas of your own. Otherwise, there's no point."
Yakov has no cause to disagree. Having garnered accolades worldwide for his orchestral appearances, 15 CDs, solo recitals and chamber music concerts, he benefited greatly from the competition route. A 1991 gold medalist at the Valentino Bucchi Competition in Rome, he went on to win medals in the London World Piano Competition, the Artur Rubinstein International Competition in Tel Aviv and the International Prokofiev Competition in St. Petersburg. In 1997, he took the silver medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
"We all wish to find another way than competitions, but the whole world is now functioning by competing," he said. "The competition is a show for the audience itself. For quite a long time it has been the only way for a musician to come to the concert stage to become famous."
But after the competition is over and the medals are awarded, the stress is just beginning. Each time a winner steps on stage is a test of medal-worthiness.
"You have to confirm your reputation, your right to be on the stage," Yakov said. "Then it's as stressful as anything else. You always have to prove you're right. There are only so many musicians, and so many stages, so it always has to be top level."
Despite her accomplishments, Sasha seems like a "normal" UAB freshman. She graduated from Vestavia Hills High School last spring and is roommates with two of her high school friends. Outside of music, she plays intramural soccer and is enrolled in one of the university honors programs.
"That program is one of the reasons I came to UAB," she said. "It's interdisciplinary, with a lot of unique seminars, which I enjoy. This year it's science, technology and society, presented by faculty members who specialize in areas from science to politics to humanities. We get a broad sampling."
Added Yakov, "She's also quite good in English, Russian and French. We still continue to absorb Russian culture, even as Americans."
He also gave high compliments to Dina, his and Tatiana's second daughter.
"She plays piano very, very well," he said. "She's very advance and very musical. She just turned 14, so she will come to high school next year."
Sasha eventually hopes to go for a doctorate and to continue on to a performing and teaching career.
For now, she practices four or five hours a day (more on weekends), continues to search for competitions and hones her solo skills and musical partnership with her father.
"I'm teaching her while we're playing together, and she's teaching me in some places," Yakov said. "It works both ways. When we teach, we learn. It's a two-way exchange."
Asked about conflicting musical opinion, Yakov said jokingly, "I'm always right, so we always agree."
Sasha conceded: "Of course. I'm way less experienced and musically knowledgable, so most of the time I have to agree that he's right."