September 14, 2012

Don't call her a YouTube sensation

After moving from her native Ukraine to the United States, Valentina Lisitsa had a competition victory and a healthy burst of concert bookings launching her as a pianist.

It looked like time for a career change.

After moving from her native Ukraine to the United States, Valentina Lisitsa had a competition victory and a healthy burst of concert bookings launching her as a pianist. But that tapered off, as it does with many young musicians. So Lisitsa’s concert datebook was thin.

Along came a job announcement from the CIA, which needed foreign-language speakers to monitor overseas news. Washington wasn’t that far from her adopted home of New Bern. So she filled out an application.

Before she sent it, though, a fan persuaded her to try something else: YouTube.

That was more than 47 million viewings ago. With those as her springboard, Lisitsa’s career has been reborn.

In June, she played a recital at the giant Royal Albert Hall in London. YouTube was there, webcasting the whole thing. A major recording label put the concert on CD and DVD in record time, and more discs are in the works. Her concert schedule is booked for the next couple of years.

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “It’s absolutely great. Because that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”

For the love of music

Media reports about Lisitsa can hardly resist calling her a YouTube sensation. She good-naturedly scoffs.

“It’s not about being a sensation,” Lisitsa says. “As Paris Hilton proved, you don’t have to do anything to be a sensation. Trying to achieve fame through music would be a very difficult way to do it. You do music because of the love of music – because you want to share it with other people.”

Lisitsa only caught onto that as an adult. As a girl in Ukraine, where she played her first recital at age 4, Lisitsa mainly liked the fact that the piano brought her attention, she says. As with lots of budding musicians who grew up playing in competitions in the Soviet Union, music became “like a sport – like the Olympics.”

“Music competitions are like gymnastics multiplied by 100,” she says. “It’s very frustrating for a child’s psyche.”

But when she reached the music conservatory in Kiev as a teenager, a student named Alexei Kuznetsoff helped show her that music was more than an athletic routine. They began performing as a piano duo – a genre featuring many of the same composers who wrote great solo works – and they married. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 supplied their next opportunity.

“When the Iron Curtain lifted,” Lisitsa says, “everybody was let out of the cage, and people went in all directions.”

‘A spectacular technique’

Winning a duo-piano contest in Miami in 1991 gave the couple a foothold in the United States. They eventually settled in Miami, where they earned U.S. citizenship in 2001. Despite some high-profile engagements, over time they bumped up against a fact of musical life: The piano-duo repertoire is small. Lisitsa began developing a solo career.

One of her first boosters as a soloist was the head of a Miami concert series, Julian Kreeger. He pokes fun at his own first reaction after she sent him her repertoire list, including an array of virtuoso blockbusters.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t a woman’s repertoire,’ ” Kreeger says, laughing. But when she played, she set him straight.

“She has a spectacular technique and a beautiful sound,” he recalls. “The moment I heard her, I thought she was really something special.”

When she played at Royal Albert Hall, Kreeger was there, hearing the same qualities he always had. In the virtuosic and poetic music that’s her strong suit, he says, “she was always a finished product.”

‘Amazing life’

A few years ago, the couple decided they wanted to live someplace with more elbow room than Miami, where they had worked on a fixer-upper home. They found New Bern, which offered a house that was just what they had in mind: a big, 1920s home needing TLC; a riverside location; three acres of property surrounding it. The main room, about 30 feet square with 16-foot ceilings, has more than enough space for two of the couple’s four pianos.

“You can have this absolutely amazing life, to be alone with nature and to practice any time of day you like,” Lisitsa says. The townspeople are friendly. The New Bern airport is well-connected, via Charlotte and Atlanta, but small.

“The best part, which I really love, is being able to come to the airport a half-hour in advance, and knowing all the TSA agents by name. They greet me, and it’s so wonderful. It removes so much stress from travel.”

‘They discovered me’

A few years ago, though, Lisitsa didn’t have much traveling to do. She had run up against a familiar phenomenon in the concert business.

“Every year, you have more young and very ambitious people come along,” she says. “Everybody is happy to give them a first chance. But sometimes the second chance – the re-engagement – never comes.”

One thing students aren’t taught in conservatories, Lisitsa says, is “how to find your audience. ... That was very frustrating, and I didn’t know what to do about it.”

That’s where YouTube came in. Prodded by a music lover – and with husband Kuznetsoff as videographer – Lisitsa posted a string of videos.

“Suddenly I discovered that I had an audience,” she says. “At first, there were just a few people. But they were very enthusiastic. ... People would see a little short clip on YouTube, and they would like it so much they would share it with other people.”

The boom, she says, came during the past year, when her videos went from about 10 million hits to more than 40 million. When she played at Royal Albert Hall, music lovers who knew her from YouTube traveled to London from around the world – countries including Barbados, Brazil, New Zealand, Lithuania, Canada and Japan.

“They came because it was not only a concert – it was an event for them,” Lisitsa says. “They discovered me, and they wanted to see me live. They’re part of the success. They created me.”

The switch to a new agent also helped, she says. In addition to a full datebook, she has a recording contract with a major label, Decca – which put out her Albert Hall recital on CD and DVD at top speed.

“I have so many concerts, and I’m so thrilled,” she says. “I’m having the best time of my life.”

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