With this post from February of 2010, I continue to publish my archival blog materials from the retired PR Perfect site. I conducted this interview with the Philadelphia treasure Ghenady Meirson (aka coach Ghena) ahead of Lyric Fest's popular "Biography in Music" program dedicated to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Meet Ghenady Meirson:
As BroadwayWorld notes, Meirson is “perhaps the preeminent expositor of the Russian vocal repertoire in America, and he does that through the annual Russian Opera Workshop programs."
A long-time faculty member at both the Academy of Vocal Arts and Curtis Institute of Music, “Ghenady Meirson has been the go to-master for two decades in Philadelphia for authentic Russian operatic repertoire” (Huffington Post).
In 2011, Meirson founded Russian Opera Workshop, a private and independent young artists program in summer residency at the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), and “has become one of the treasures of the Philadelphia summer season” (Broad Street Review). Learn more about Ghena here.
Q: Tchaikovsky as a composer of vocal works - what are your thoughts about his vocal repertoire, does he have his own signature?
GM: If Tchaikovsky was alive today, he would be a supremely rich man from the Nutcracker royalties alone. His music has universal appeal. It is honest and goes straight to the heart.
Tchaikovsky combines an exceptional gift for writing unforgettable melodies and strong grounding in Western classical composition traditions. At times, it is difficult to distinguish a Russian folk tune from an original Tchaikovsky melody. He is Russia.
If I were to describe Tchaikovsky's vocal writing in adjectives, these would include 'elegant', 'rich', 'lyrical', 'emotional', 'dramatic' and 'haunting.' He uses the voice to deliver the lyrics' meaning simply and directly, never resorting to unnecessary vocal acrobatics.
His songs are gems. Setting music to already polished poetry by Pushkin or Tolstoy must have been a joy. In composing opera, he was extremely demanding on his librettists. Working with his brother Modest on "Queen of Spades" and "Iolanta", he required utmost efficiency, mercilessly eliminating extra words.
With "Eugene Onegin" and "Queen of Spades", Tchaikovsky takes center stage in the international world of opera. Subjects of love, passage of time, and greed, are poignant and always contemporary. Tchaikovsky was deeply interested in human emotions. These operas succeed in transcending cultures and eras.
Q: Your annual Russian repertoire programs at AVA are well-known and always well attended. What is the idea behind these programs that makes them so successful?
GM: American audiences love Russian music. I started to coach Russian repertoire while a student at Curtis, and since 1989, I have been doing the Russian Romances program at AVA.
My primary goal is to offer students the experience with this repertoire. I am pragmatic about selections for each artist. I want them to use these works in auditions and concerts.
In today's hiring environment, opera companies cast American singers in Russian roles along side the Russian-born singers. Some of our former AVA students are hired to sing Russian roles in major opera houses around the world, including the MET.
Q: Please comment on Tchaikovsky as personality. A few words about his tour in the United States in 1891.
GM: Artistically, Tchaikovsky always had frictions with the Saint Petersburg's "Mighty Handful" that included Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Cui. They wanted him to embrace the nationalist movement of Russian music, while he saw music as music. Lucky for Tchaikovsky, a new conservatory opened up in Moscow, which now bares his name, giving him a much needed getaway from Saint Petersburg.
While he had many challenges, his happier of times was the three-week visit to the United States as a conductor. He visited Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York where he enjoyed daily walks in then very new Central Park. He cherished his interactions with New York's high society and continued to work on the Nutcracker ballet and Iolanta as a double bill commission.
Tchaikovsky conducted the opening of Carnegie Hall. Orchestra musicians went wild over him. In a letter to his brother Modest he wrote how much more famous and appreciated he is in America than back home in Russia.
Q: You have known the Lyric Fest founder Suzanne DuPlantis for years and surely, are familiar with the nature of their mission. Now that you are preparing for your own debut performance with Lyric Fest, what are your feelings about the Biography in Music project? What attracted you in this invitation?
GM: While on a business trip to Boston last year, I got a call from Laura Ward [Lyric Fest's co-founder] who extended the invitation to do a Tchaikovsky program with Lyric Fest. I was touched. I admire Laura's work immensely.
I worked with Suzanne when she was an AVA Resident Artist. We performed some of the Tchaikovsky selections that are on this Lyric Fest program. She has such deep appreciation and feeling for this music. I loved working with Suzanne.
While our paths didn't cross, Randy and I were students at Curtis at the same time.
In my view, Lyric Fest has emerged as one of the more important concert series in Philadelphia area. Lyric Fest presents a fresh and engaging concert format that delivers a fulfilling emotional return to its audiences.
Q: If you had a chance to invite people to this program, what would you say to them?
GM: One of AVA's patrons buys tickets for each night of Russian Romances performances. The other day he dropped off a box of Russian chocolates in appreciation for our work, adding that he'd like to see us increase the number of Russian performance dates.
I invite everyone to attend Lyric Fest's Tchaikovsky program and enjoy the music and a life story of an exceptional composer. Just as the AVA patron I mentioned, you may find yourselves moved enough to send Lyric Fest some Russian chocolates.
Q: Where else can we see you play? **
GM: Since I perform in public on very limited basis, I started to record short piano pieces for my YouTube.com/GhenaPlays channel, just to keep my piano playing in top shape. In 2007, I recorded Tchaikovsky's August ("Harvest") from The Seasons. Recently, this piece was used in a movie "Orphan" (not my performance).
Movie fans began scouring the web in search of the piece and discovered my video. Based on user comments it is wonderful to see the many different ways Tchaikovsky's music is discovered.
** Since 2011, Ghenady provides piano accompaniment during the Russian Opera Workshop performances. Catch this unique one-man-orchestra at AVA at the end of June and July annually. Find more information here: https://www.russianoperaworkshop.com/.