Xavier Magazine

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

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. 

[lightbox link=””]polina video[/lightbox]Life 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.

Xavier Magazine

Modern Music

Music students returning to campus this fall found their music classroom had undergone a complete technological makeover.

Now when they sit down at one of 14 brand new Roland electric pianos and turn it on, they also turn on the new Apple computers attached to each one. They adjust the computer monitor’s movable arm so they can see the front of the classroom, where professor Kaleel Skeirik uses a Roland to write music on the overhead computer screen.

As he plays a riff on the piano, the computer displays the musical notes on the screen—and on each student’s personal monitor—while the sound plays from speakers near the ceiling and in their individual headphones. On his computer, Skeirik adds to or changes the notes on the screen. Together, as their pianos and computers communicate with each other, the class composes music in real time.

The $55,000 makeover created a state-of-the-art music theory and practice lab, a welcome improvement for Xavier’s music program that provided top-notch equipment, improved sight lines and better lighting controls. And the modest $10 fee that each of the 57 music students pays for their lab class will repay the cost of the upgrade and its eventual replacement within six years. Now that’s something worth singing about.

Xavier Magazine

Piano Man

Kevin Cranley had a moment of panic in the middle of his junior year. He wasn’t sure if he wanted a future in the music business, which is like a Kennedy not wanting to get into politics or a Rockefeller not wanting to get into business.

Music was the family’s legacy. His father, after all, was the president of Willis Music, the largest music store in Greater Cincinnati. Before that, his grandfather ran the company after acquiring it from Mr. Willis in the 1950s.

“I was wondering what I was being called to do from a spiritual aspect,” says Cranley. “So I went to Fr. Bill King (S.J.) and I spoke to him about it. He said, ‘Kevin, there are very few people that can be involved in a business that leads to a more fulfilling life for your customers. You’re going to sell music. You’re going to sell something that really leads to a more enriching life.’ ”

The spiritual—and family—crisis was averted, and today the 1980 marketing graduate approaches every day as an opportunity for him and his employees to give people the gift of music. Since its early days in downtown Cincinnati, Willis Music has sold instruments, sheet music and music lessons. It’s expanded to include seven stores located throughout Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky. And this summer, under Cranley’s direction, it acquired a Steinway & Sons piano dealership, making it the exclusive Steinway representative in the region.

Today, Cranley walks around one of the locations and greets all of the employees by name.

With his tall stance and uncanny knack for face-name recognition, Cranley makes the job seem effortless, even expanding his duties to serve as a chairman for the National Association of Music Merchants and as a part-time instructor for Dale Carnegie Training. He parallels his leadership-training work at Dale Carnegie to his work at Willis, saying that he’s glad to have jobs that help people lead better, more fulfilling lives.

“It’s about being able to help people achieve something they’ve always wanted to do,” he says. We conduct a yearly Gallup poll, and 85 percent of Americans who do not play a musical instrument wish they did. Our challenge is to reach those people and show them that they can make music.”

Xavier Magazine

World Choir Games Friendship Concert

The World Choir Games were held in Cincinnati this summer, bringing 15,000 people from 64 countries to the region. Nearly 1,000 of the participants stayed in Xavier’s residence halls during the 11-day event. Among those competing in the Games: Xavier’s Edgecliff Vocal Ensemble, which earned a silver medal for its perfomance in the mixed chamber choirs competition, and the Kowloon Boys Choir of Hong Kong, which sang during a Friendship Concert in Bellarmine Chapel and then got into the Xavier spirit while posing for a photo.

Watch a video of the World Choir Games Friendship Concert.