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Xavier Magazine | May 27, 2017

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A Classic Change: Moving the Music Series in a New Direction

A Classic Change: Moving the Music Series in a New Direction
By Michael Shaw

Almost from birth, Polina Bespalko’s life has been filled with music. Records of the great classicists spun endlessly in her Russian home. Her first piano lessons began before she was old enough to count all 88 keys.

“My mother was my first teacher,” she says.

Showing ability beyond her age, she was plucked from the population at the tender age of 6 and enrolled in the Central Music School and later the elite Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow to hone her burgeoning skills.

It worked. She emerged as a significant talent on the world’s stage, and proof of her prowess is as close as the nearest Internet browser. A quick search of YouTube rewards you with her virtuosic performances at the 2008 New Orleans International Piano competition. Her style is physical, fearless and dramatic. In the hands of Bespalko, classical music is a contact sport. Her musicality commands the stage. 

polina videoLife on the international tour, while glamorous, is also exhausting. So as an alternative to a life on the road, Bespalko came to Cincinnati to continue her studies, recently earning her Doctorate of Musical Arts. She also joined the faculty in Xavier’s music department and became director of the Xavier Music Series.

Her goal is to bring a fresh perspective to the Series and move into a new era—and she’s doing so with the same force and fervor she brings to her piano playing. What hasn’t changed in the year since she’s taken over is that the Xavier Music Series remains one of the longest-running and most prestigious music series in the United States featuring classical piano, classical guitar and swing. What has changed is nearly everything else.

Bespalko has dusted off the Series and put her stamp on it—although she hasn’t totally abandoned all the traditions of classical music, composers and pianists, especially her adoration of Franz Liszt. “Women would go crazy over him,” she says. “They even collected his cigar butts.” 

Liszt’s butts aside, it was his devotion to live performance that inspires Bespalko’s own approach to reinventing the Series. 

See this year’s Music Series lineup.

“The biggest thing about Liszt was that he was not only a genius who reinvented classical music and elevated the performer to rock-star status. But what other people tend to forget is that he supported so many other composers like Schumann, Brahams, Wagner and Chopin.” 

With such motivation, the performers she’s identified to feature in the upcoming series are ones she wants to experience live. And, to those people who have banished the live performance of classical music to hoary halls and well-heeled patrons, rest assured that this is not your grandmother’s brand of Bach.

Take, for example, Anderson and Roe, a piano duo who describe their approach as a mix of “physical friction, charged chemistry and emotional danger.” It may be of interest to the classical music death-watchers that their video Libertango has garnered more than 1.4 million YouTube views.

“It’s more than just the music, it’s also the personalities behind the music,” she says. “Everyone has a very interesting background and story. They also represent diverse aspects of music. And they make the experience less intimidating.”

This challenge of bringing classical music into the 21st century isn’t new to Bespalko. It’s part of her doctorate, she created a multimedia presentation, giving a recital and projecting program notes simultaneously on a large screen, providing a historical and inspirational background. Her subject? Liszt.

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