Pianissimo!, an ensemble of composed of four highly accomplished female pianists, made its acclaimed Chicago Debut in September 2015. As classically trained soloists and duo pianists, the four women have appeared in major concert halls and on television and radio around the world. They have recorded numerous albums and won numerous awards and honors, as well as accolades and rave reviews from major publications for their outstanding performances and programming. The ensemble’s mission is to present entertaining and education programs of classical music on two and four pianos. Offering both traditional symphonic and piano repertoire, contemporary music for multiple pianos/pianists, as well as cross-over repertoire from jazz and Broadway genres, the ensemble aims to appeal to audiences of all ages who enjoy good music accompanied by charming, witty and informative commentary on the music.
The ensemble includes Global Music Awards’ Gold Medal winner Susan Merdinger, a Steinway Artist, who formed the group. Dr. Svetlana Belsky appeared at Carnegie Recital Hall, Kieve Philharmonic Hall and in countless university concert venues. Dr. Elena Doubovitskaya, a native of Russia, performed her debut recital in Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall and serves as Piano Chair at Merit School of Music. Irina Feoktistova, a graduate of St. Petersburg Conservatoire, Russia, is a winner of the IBLA Grand Prize Competition. There are four talented and entertaining performers.
Merdinger said, We’ve trained as duo pianists, but we wanted to take it a step further, and in performing on four pianos, we’re helping to create a new body of repertoire for this type of ensemble. To solve the problem of having music for four pianos, Pianissimo! Commission several composers, including Ilya Levinson, Margarita Zelenaia and James Stone.
Pianissimo! recently released their debut live performance album, Pianissimo!: The Chicago Debut Concert.
Members of the ensemble were kind enough to respond to our interview:
1. As founder of the group, how did you come up with the idea for a four piano ensemble?
Susan: Back when I was a Baldwin Artist I was given a promotional video called A Grand Time, which was a concert featuring close to 30 pianists on 15 pianos. I always thought it was so cool, but totally impractical except for a single special event. So, naturally I married a pianist and formed a duo piano ensemble, which was the normal thing to do, and we were very happy to win a Global Music Award Gold Medal for our recent French Fantasy Piano Duet CD in September 2014. In 2011, I also formed a duo with Irina Feoktistova, and we enjoy the camaraderie of duo piano playing together as well. But, somehow, the idea of a larger multi-piano ensemble was still intriguing to me, and when I thought about it, I felt even more strongly that the ensemble should be comprised of only female pianists. So, in November of 2014, I started meeting with many Chicago-based female pianists, and found another two women who were most completely dedicated to the art of multi-piano ensemble playing. In essence, we were two duo piano teams who merged together to make a piano quartet!
2. Who came up with the ensemble’s name, Pianissimo!? What does it mean?
Susan: Svetlana came up with the name. I think we also considered Fortissimo, but there are other groups with that name. Initially we got a little resistance to the Pianissimo! name because one person thought it would be to demure for us; little did they know! It’s really a tongue-in-cheek name with many meanings; I’ll let Svetlana explain.
Sveta: The process of finding the perfect name took a while; quite unnecessarily prolonged by giggling fits, episodes of eye-rolling and getting up to get a new bottle of Chardonnay. In fact, the naming session adjourned with nothing but dozens of rejects, covering assorted world mythologies, exotic place-names and historical references. We resolved to try again another day. But, sometime in the middle of the night, I had a eureka moment, and the perfect name just appeared out of thin air (somewhat flavored with the afore-mentioned Chardonnay), Pianissimo, a name with many layers of meaning, some literal, some facetious. Piano is both a musical term (for soft) and the name of our favorite instrument. Pianissimo, of course, means much piano, many pianos, in our case, and an indication to play very softly, not exactly something that comes to mind when thinking of four large instruments!
Susan: And because of that, when branding our group, and designing our website, I decided that we must add an exclamation point to our name. Thus, we are Pianissimo!, not just Pianissimo.
3. Imagination suggests that four pianists performing at once on the same stage would either be a divine complexity of sound or complete chaos! You said, We chose to highlight and play music that is quite virtuosic. Is that the glue that brings order to the sound?
Susan: I think the key is that the music must be strategically written, so that different colors, rhythms, motifs, are featured on each piano, and we must recognize that if it sounds incomprehensible to us, then it will also be to the audience. So, we work very hard on issues of balance and voicing, and sometimes re-arrange the music to suit our style of playing and provide more clarity.
Sveta: The glory and the magic of four pianos playing together is the incredible variety of sound and texture that becomes available, from shimmery translucent to full orchestral complexity. Most music available for multi-piano ensemble is designed for beginner or intermediate players, so the issue of complete chaos is very real indeed, even if not by design. What makes Pianissimo! so special is that we are each a virtuoso soloist in our own right, and well able to bring clarity to a score of any degree of difficulty. Our commissioned composers have given us just that, as requested; proof that one should be careful what one asks for!. First rehearsals of these knuckle-breakers are the definition of complete chaos, with elements of despair, discussions of the composer's obvious diabolical intent, and more giggling and eye-rolling. And then, little by little, the divine complexity of sound emerges in its full glory, and we start making music!
4. Pianissimo! performs classical, jazz and Broadway music. In the context of four pianos, which of these genres seems to most stir your audiences? Which genre turns out be the most fun for the four of you as an ensemble?
Susan: Interestingly enough, each genre seems to appeal equally to everyone in the audience, good music is good music, so even though we are classically trained pianists, we do not discriminate against any genre of music nor any type of composers. We have also found that people in the audience all tend to have different favorites amongst our repertoire, regardless of the genre. It’s just a subjective matter of taste. We are open to the idea of performing music that is cutting-edge and unconventional as well as the traditional classical and jazz favorite; and, we are always on the lookout for more composers with whom to collaborate.
Sveta: The greatest mid-perception among the general populace about classical music is that, while one piece or another may be okay, the actual concert experience is stuffy, pretentious, snobbish and, let's face it, boring. We musicians do tend to contribute to the decline in classical concert attendance by treating our performances as some mystical experiences, programming works inappropriate to a given audience, or leaving our listeners in the dark about a work's context and meaning. The mission of the Pianissimo Ensemble is to communicate our love for music, all music, and our profound belief that a concert should be enjoyable on every level. We talk about our pieces and encourage audience response, and we laugh on stage. Most importantly, we program a wide variety of music. Of course, we are classically trained and so classical masterworks form the bulk of our repertoire. We each select pieces we especially love, so our passion and excitement communicate to our listeners. We also enjoy letting our collective hair down and play favorites from other genres; it turns out that each of us has had guiltily pleasurable experiences outside of the classical and we are thrilled to find kindred souls in each other. We love how much our listeners enjoy the variety and the excitement of a Pianissimo! concert!
5. The ensemble’s mission has an educational component. Tell us about that and why that’s important.
Susan: As an ensemble comprised of four pianists, we perform two piano, eight hand music as well as four piano, eight hand music. The sound is naturally big and orchestral in sound, so it is only natural for us to develop symphonic repertoire transcribed or arranged for pianos. And, what this means is that for a fraction of the cost of bringing in an entire orchestra, we can present to schools and retirement communities the wealth and breadth of piano, orchestral, operatic and musical theater repertoire. Many young people who we will present concerts for may never have heard an Overture by Beethoven, or Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, but if we introduce it to them, they may then be inspired to actually attend a symphony orchestra concert! We are, in essence, Ambassadors of Music, and we hope to bring our music performances to audiences around the country and around the world.
6. How difficult and expensive are the logistics of arranging for four pianos at each venue?
Susan: Most schools have two pianos at a minimum, and we can perform with two grands or four grands or four uprights, or whatever combination of pianos they can put together. Depending on the presenter’s budget and stage space, there is of course an additional expense of brining in an extra piano or three extra pianos pianos, but the total cost with our performance fees is still much less than that of an orchestra. When we perform we like to rotate our positions so that the audience can get a closer up view of each one of us at one time or another; this necessarily means that we must be able to easily adjust and re-adjust to different pianos and their sounds and actions in the course of a single concert, but we feel it is worth it!
7. What’s in the works next for Pianissimo!?
Susan: We have concerts planned in libraries, some schools, and are hoping to present Showcases in the Midwest Arts Conference and the NYC Performing Arts Conference. Naturally, we are hoping that a major label will want to pick us up and sponsor us in our first studio recording, which would be great for our ensemble and our colleague/composers we are working with. I also envision us branching out into collaborations with additional instrumentalists and/or electronics, and commissioning a Concerto for Four Pianos and Orchestra, and recording that as well. Really, the sky’s the limit if we can find sponsors and enough venues and presenters who are interested in what we have to offer!
8. What would a fly on the wall experience when the four of you are rehearsing or in the cocktail lounge with the four of you after a performance! What’s that like?
Susan: In rehearsals, we are pretty civil and get a long fairly well, I must say, which bodes well for our future together as an ensemble. But the fly on the wall will also get to hear us sharing our own personal war stories of this music career; quoting some of our marvelous teachers, details of musical relationships past and present, where to find good performance dresses and gowns, concerns about our love lives, family matters, and eventually we buckle down and get to the business of interpreting the music, and then we break to enjoy some food and drink! We all like to share our ideas, and come to a consensus. With four people, there are more ideas and more input, as in any quartet ensemble, so there can still be opportunity for disagreement or agreement and then, hopefully, some compromise which doesn’t compromise the musical integrity.
Sveta: We are four highly trained professionals passionate about their art (who have also become sisters), so think of a cross between Real Housewives, The Shark Tank, Sex and the City and The Game of Thrones. That’s what you’d see.
Susan: Yes, I’d think we would make pretty good material for a reality television show!
9. If your music is a gift to your fans, what do you must want them to say about that gift?
Susan: I just love it when people say to us that we made them smile or made them cry, or that our music performance has been a highlight of their day or week. We want our music to be emotional, riveting, exciting, both intimate and truly grand in proportion. We hope that we will inspire and motivate young and old alike to listen to music in different ways. While orchestral music is the full technicolor sound, ours is more black and white, like the pianos we play on, no pun intended! The greatest satisfaction of this or any ensemble is in the process, the collaboration of like-minded artists, bringing musical sound to life and baring our souls and opening our hearts to our listeners with the hopes that we can somehow bring light into their lives and open their minds and hearts as well. We want our gift of music to be one full of joy and sorrow, and magic and wonder, reality and fantasy.
To learn more about Pianissimo! and find their new album: LINK