Master Piano Recital Series: Serhiy Salov makes music his own

Serhiy Salov. Photo: Julie Beauchemin

Serhiy Salov is from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. As a young child, he says he was seized with a passion for music.

“I’ve dabbled with the piano for as long as I can remember,” he said.

“My first school lesson was at age seven. This was a typical age for Ukrainian and Russian kids to start music school. “But at age four he remembers being mesmerized by music.

“I remember going to concerts with mother and listening to organ recitals. I knew I wanted to be a musician. I felt very safe playing the piano throughout my childhood actually. No matter what happens around you in life music has always been a safe place for me.”

Salov left his home town years ago. Today Donetsk is an industrial city of about four million people. The region is where a war between Ukraine and Russian separatists is being fought.

“I love Ukraine,” he said. “I go back Kiev but I don’t want to venture in that part of the country. It’s a tiny pocket of Ukraine which is so different from the rest. Donetsk used to be a city that no one had heard of in the West. Now Eastern Ukraine is now part of a sad collection of places like Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria. Who would have thought of it.

“A month before the war started I gave a recital there and you couldn’t have predicted what would happen. The people were absolutely serene.”

Salov left home to study in Germany and London and in Strasbourg, France, where he polished his French. Finally to Montreal where he won the Montréal International Musical Competition in 2004, fell in love and soon after settled down. He also studied at the Universite de Montreal.

“My life has moved from East to West.”

He’s now been in Montreal for 15 years, has three kids and is divorced. Life does happen while you are making music and music, specifically, that explores the possibilities of the piano is his passion. On Nov. 28 at Southminster United Church, he’ll be in a four hands recital with his colleague Philippe Prud’homme for an evening of arrangements of music from The Nutcracker and carols for the season. The concert is part of the Master Piano Recital Series at Southminster.

It’s not his first visit to Ottawa. He’s performed here several times.

Salov, of course, plays all the normal repertoire on the piano but he has also embarked on broadening that repertoire in his own way. He’s not alone in this practice, many people take music that may not be for solo piano and adapt the sound. But he considers this as his “niche. I love enriching the piano repertoire,” he said.

To that end he has adapted symphonic pieces such as Debussy’s Nocturnes and Stravinsky ballets, including Rite of Spring and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

It’s a way of pushing the boundaries of what is possible on the piano, he believes.

“I tackle complex pieces.” That may seem a bit disingenuous when talking about a version of The Nutcracker, which he will present in Ottawa. But he demurs by saying  that his chunk of Tchaikovsky’s very popular work is the symphonic battle scene that takes place in the midst of the ballet.

There are other “reductions” of the ballet score, he said, but, he believes his is the only version that approaches it in this way.

“I don’t think anyone has arranged the battle scene in such a way.”

So why Nutcracker?

He was ready for that question, as he’s asked himself the same thing.

“Living in Europe and even in Canada every Christmas I have been asked to perform music from The Nutcracker. I was frustrated by playing the same pieces.”

But, he admitted that “I was oblivious of the beauty of the entire ballet. I had never watched it all until I had children. My two oldest were watching the entire ballet on a DVD” and he listened.

“I found it more interesting than I had thought. It is such an extraordinary blend of crowd-pleasers and very demanding listening moments too.

“People often just listen to the suite which is short and sweet or they watch the ballet and see all the rigamorale and they don’t really listen to the music.”

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is also probably the music that is most played in a live setting. There is tradition of performing it every Christmas in every town. It’s played so much that Tchaikovsky’s name is occasionally not directly connected to the music on posters advertising a performance of The Nutcracker.

That offends Salov.

“I think that’s shameful.” Also he wonders why, in North America, it’s only performed at Christmas. “In Russia and Ukraine, it’s performed year round because it is great music.”

These projects of Salov’s often take time. He says he needs to take the original score on board and allow it to steep in his mind.

“It’s gradual. I started by playing pieces from the traditional suite in quite a reduced version. Then I worked on it periodically over a couple of years.”

This has been his process with other pieces too, such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

In this case Rite of Spring was his PhD thesis. So, “the arrangement was an expression of the passion I have for the piece. It was also an ‘athletic’ interest.”

By that he means he wanted to take on the challenge of bringing “all those musical voices under 10 fingers.”

Salov’s not the only one to tackle Rite of Spring. In the centennial year of the first performance of the ballet in Paris, it seemed like everyone was adapting the score.

Ironically, Salov said, in Stravinsky’s will the composer forbid anyone tampering with his orchestration. That even got Salov into trouble with Stravinsky’s estate after he released his recording of Rite of Spring for solo piano.

“I was contacted by his estate with a request to withdraw the CD and also to give over the copyright of his transcription.”

He paid a copyright lawyer to send a letter and never heard back from the estate.

“With pieces like this, it is like translating poetry. There isn’t anything more complex than translating poetry from language to language. You have to change the approach, reinvent it, absorb it. You have to love it. These are surgical changes that make it suit the piano but at the same time you are trying to be true to his orchestration.”

Just like poems or the characters in novels, a piece of music can have a life beyond its creator, it seems.

The Master Piano Recital Series presents Two’s Company
With Serhiy Salov and Philippe Prud’homme
Where: Southminister United Church 15 Aylmer Ave.
When: Nov 28 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.