For the world-renowned pianist and PianoSummer artistic director Vladimir Feltsman, the decision was what we might call a no-brainer: For a number of years, the SUNY-New Paltz-based piano festival has concluded with the Symphony Gala, a collaboration with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic in which the winner of PianoSummer’s Jacob Flier Competition would perform a piano concerto with the Bardavon-headquartered orchestra. It was a celebratory and popular finish to the internationally recognized July piano festival that the Russian émigré Feltsman founded 23 years ago, seven years after his arrival at SUNY-New Paltz.
This year, however, due to some generous gifts bequeathed to the Feltsman Piano Foundation, he suddenly found himself in a position to a realize a longstanding goal: making PianoSummer tuition- and board-free for all of its 25 students (gifted and emerging pianists under the age of 35). While Feltsman concedes that he hated to lose the Symphony Gala in order to marshal the funds to go tuition-free, he asserts that “PianoSummer has never been about anything glamorous. The decision was an easy one.”
Talent, Vladimir Feltsman observes, does not recognize economic classes. “For years we have welcomed members and ticketholders with the wish that PianoSummer might someday be able to attract the top emerging young pianists from around the world based solely on their ability to play, not on their ability to pay,” he said. “Each year, with their support, we have moved closer to reaching that goal. This year, we have finally achieved it.”
Now, with what is in effect a full scholarship program, PianoSummer is positioned to compete for all of the top young pianists worldwide, not simply those with means. Among the ranks of young pianists, the festival is already well-known for its extraordinary rigor and for the quality of the faculty it attracts. While bigger festivals like the Aspen Piano Festival may enjoy deeper pockets for scholarships and bigger crowds, PianoSummer has, if anything, a superior reputation for the learning experience it offers.
Each PianoSummer student will receive no fewer than 50 lessons over the course of the program, and from no fewer than five different master teachers (by contrast, Aspen students receive one lesson a week from one teacher). This, Feltsman emphasizes, is what distinguishes this festival. Not only are the students immersed in intensive learning, but they are also gaining radically different and sometimes-conflicting perspectives on technique and the interpretation of, say, Chopin or Beethoven. Regarding taste and artistic approach, “None of us,” Feltsman says, “has any exclusivity of truth.”
Prestigious as it may be, PianoSummer is at its heart a family operation, run by Feltsman and his wife, Haewon. Vladimir controls all artistic decisions; Haewon manages the festival’s rather complex logistics. The festival includes three weeks of intensive lessons, given by an exceptional faculty, and the annual Jacob Flier Piano Competition for pianists under the age of 35. This year the Flier Competition carries a new first prize: a solo debut recital at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
PianoSummer also brings a series of marquee public concerts given by an exceptional special guest performer, previous years’ Flier Competition winners and PianoSummer faculty. Among the featured events on this year’s schedule are the Faculty Gala, taking place on Saturday, July 15 at 7 p.m. in the McKenna Theatre, a chance to hear a broad range of classical music performed by six master pianists in a single night. The program highlights showpieces of celebrated composers performed by the PianoSummer faculty.
Feltsman is especially excited this year to welcome Ilya Rashkovskiy for a Guest Artist Recital on Saturday, July 22 at 7 p.m. at McKenna Theatre. Feltsman met Rashkovskiy two years ago at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and is lavish in his praise for the young Russian, whom he considers among the most promising pianists of his generation. A week later, on Friday, July 28, the Flier Competition Gala, which features past winners of the Flier Competition, takes place at 7 p.m., also in McKenna. Feltsman is keen to point that the festival’s student recitals and master classes should not be dismissed by the public. The talent level of the students is exceptionally high, and the student recitals are free.
Feltsman is a decorated concert pianist and a prolific recording artist. Why is the grueling work of PianoSummer so important to him? “I learned,” he says, “from my own great teachers, and from their teachers, that all which is not given is lost. That’s our motto and my pep talk. It may sound corny, but it is not. That is what PianoSummer is all about.”
PianoSummer runs on the campus of SUNY-New Paltz from July 10 through July 28. For more information and a full schedule of performances and master classes, visit www.newpaltz.edu/piano.
PianoSummer, July 10-28, SUNY-New Paltz, (845) 257-3880, www.newpaltz.edu/piano.