Vladimir Feltsman, after arriving in the US in 1987, quickly restarted his piano performing career (his first US concert was at the White House, the second at Carnegie Hall) and just as quickly took up a new teaching position at SUNY-New Paltz. He began the PianoSummer Festival there in 1995. “The teaching model was the most important feature,” he says. I wanted the kids to come and have lessons with different teachers, five days a week. I have been part of many piano institutes and camps, and I have never seen anything like this anywhere else.
“In my own experiences, I had one of the greatest piano teachers who ever lived, Jacob Flier. At the Moscow Conservatory at the same time we had other great teachers known around the world: Zak, Neuhaus, Oborin and Gilels. At the Juilliard School, they also had great teachers. But the culture of music schools is that you have to be loyal to your teacher. If you played for someone else, it would be bad for your relationship with your teacher. So I wanted to give the kids a chance to hear different opinions from people who represent different schools of piano-playing.
“We needed a strong faculty, and we have one. Two of the teachers aside from myself have been with PianoSummer since it started. We have now limited the faculty to five, because we have limited the students to 25, and now each student gets three lessons with each teacher. That means each teacher gives five lessons a day!
“In my pep talk with the students, before they begin lessons, I try to get across that the most important thing for anyone in creative endeavors is the ability to learn. I hope they will learn how to learn, absorb information, take what works for you and leave what doesn’t. When it comes through you, you absorb it and it becomes yours. Some kids tell me they are confused because one teacher says one thing and another one says another. I say, ‘Use your instinct. It’s your decision. Nobody has any ultimate truth, including me.’”
When asked what is new about PianoSummer this year, Feltsman replies, “The year, right between 2017 and 2019.” The major changes in the PianoSummer Festival – which runs at SUNY-New Paltz from July 10 to 27 – actually occurred last year. While the Festival is full of events open to the public, ranging from master classes to full-length recitals, its main focus is on the 25 students who come from literally around the world to study with master teachers. Starting last year, PianoSummer has been tuition-free, including housing, meaning that the best-quality students are admitted regardless of locale or financial status. As a result, even the student recitals will be appealing to general audiences.
The Festival’s public events begin with a Roundtable Discussion among faculty members on Tuesday, July 10. It takes place at 3 p.m., and like all events, it occurs at the college’s Studley Theatre. On Thursday, July 12, also at 3 p.m., the noted pianist Awadagin Pratt will present a master class. In these events, students play works in front of an audience for a teacher who then gives them suggestions on how to improve their performances. Even for non-musicians, these sessions can prove illuminating on what goes into a successful performance. Pratt holds a piano institute of his own at the University of Cincinnati, where Feltsman has appeared numerous times. On Friday, July 13, at 7 p.m., a group of PianoSummer students chosen by the faculty will collaborate on a full-length recital.
One of the Festival’s highlights is always the Faculty Gala, this year on Saturday, July 14 at 7 p.m. Five teachers at the Festival will give performances, including Paulina Dokovska, who will celebrate the French national holiday Bastille Day by playing music of Debussy.
Week 2 presents five public events: The Jacob Flier Piano Competition, contested among selected students, has two sessions, on July 16 and 18 at 3 p.m. Teachers at the Festival are the judges, along with a few ringers (including this writer). More of the best students play at a second Student Recital on Thursday, July 19 at 3 p.m.
On Friday the 20th, also at 3, Paul Harvey, Jr. presents a unique event: “Stagecraft: A Workshop.” Harvey, who produced his father’s famous radio show, had to give up his own career as a pianist because of hand problems. (He was a close friend of Van Cliburn.) Also a composer, Harvey wrote and produced several musicals. Feltsman says, “Whatever anyone can know about show biz and stagecraft, he knows.” Harvey will be concentrating on what goes on to prepare, before a performance even begins.
On Saturday night, July 21, PianoSummer presents a major “catch”: Marc-André Hamelin, one of the best-known of all contemporary pianists. Feltsman says that he has been attempting to get Hamelin to the Festival for years. After building a huge reputation for playing virtuoso piano music too difficult for anyone else, Hamelin is now concentrating on mainstream repertoire; his recital will include Schumann’s Fantasie in C and Schubert’s Sonata in B Flat. Since Hamelin routinely sells out Carnegie Hall and other major venues, this is an event for which you will need to buy tickets well in advance.
Week 3 begins with another master class, on July 24 at 3 p.m., this one by pianist Daria Rabotkina. A student of Feltsman, Rabotkina also attended PianoSummer, in 1998. In 2007 she won the Concert Artists’ Guild International Competition. She now teaches at Texas State University and is associate director of the Texas State International Piano Festival. Her latest CD will be released this year.
Student Recital No. 3 occurs on Thursday, July 26 at 7 p.m. The Festival concludes on Friday, July 27 with the Flier Competition Gala, three prizewinners from the 2017 Festival.
PianoSummer at New Paltz, July 10-27, 3 p.m./7 p.m., $10 (most events), $25/30 (special concerts), Studley Theatre, SUNY-New Paltz; (845) 257-SUNY, www.newpaltz.edu/piano.