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A Musical Retreat for Promising Pianists

Posted on 30 July 2010

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By Vee Benard

Now in its fourth year, the Sag Harbor based Vladimir Nielsen Piano Festival, under the direction of concert pianist Victoria Mushkatkol, is quickly finding its place as one of the many exceptional artistic and musical offerings of the Hamptons’ summer season.

The festival, described by the organization’s executive director Dr. Robert Maimone as a “not-for-profit foundation and festival that seeks to educate under-resourced international pre-college through college-aged musicians,” is a month-long concert series consisting of seven performances in various locations around the East End. 

The festival is dedicated to the philosophy and method of 20th-century Russian pianist Vladimir Nielsen, who, among other accomplishments, enjoyed a 60-year tenure at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Nielsen, a “prolific performer,” was Mushkatkol’s teacher and mentor during the time she was a student in the former Soviet Union.

“He was a very important figure for many generations of pianists,” said Mushkatkol, who described it as her “great fortune to meet and learn from him.”

Continuing Nielsen’s legacy of encouraging aspiring musicians to pursue their gifts, Mushkatkol has shaped the festival so that it offers a select group of talented young pianists between the ages of 10 and 25 the opportunity to engage in an intensive music program in a supportive, educational environment.

“The students support each other and grow through this program,” said Mushkatkol, who mentioned that the “intense” program of study, a complete immersion in musical pursuits, can prove tiring for young musicians. “They feel, share, learn from each other. It is a human experience and a musical experience.”

In addition to this nurturing environment and “family-feel” (so described by Mushkatkol), the festival, which is located in a private home just outside Sag Harbor, also boasts musician-friendly facilities like sound-proof practice rooms, a “great hall” for both indoor and outdoor performances and recreational amenities like pool and a Jacuzzi. The students stay at the home during the festival and eat home cooked meals made by Maimone’s wife, Ali.

“We are located up in the hills of Noyac,” elaborated Maimone, “and there is such a cozy Americana feel. The house was architecturally designed with the students in mind. From the concert hall to the French balconies, it’s just a great fit for the music and the students.”

The festival, which hosts between 13 and 15 students each year, picks its participants through what both Maimone and Mushkatkol describe as a “very difficult process.”

“It is hard to say no,” sighed Mushkatkol, who added that the growth of the festival in both quality and quantity of its participants has forced the auditioners, herself included, to become more selective, judging applicants based on “the two criteria of skill level and seriousness of purpose.”

“There is a bit of notoriety about this program,” added Maimone, who attributed the increasingly large number of applicants to this fact.

“We accept students based on their musical ability, their maturity and their integrity. We need people who are going to represent both our future and the future of classical music,” he said, adding that the festival also maintains a focus on students from low-income backgrounds. In addition, he notes they “are looking for people who will push the paradigm of classical music. We want to see people who will push it and embellish it.”

This year, the festival will host both returning participants and what Mushkatkol calls “fresh blood,” as well as musicians from esteemed musical institutions from Juilliard in New York City to conservatories across the states and Costa Rica, Russia, and China.

Arguably the most intriguing feature of the festival, however, is its pianos. Steinway & Sons, the festival’s exclusive sponsor, has furnished the house with 12 grand pianos on which the students can practice, an unparalleled opportunity if one considers that Steinways are the ‘cream of the crop’ in the piano world.

“We are currently fundraising to purchase these Steinways,” explained Maimone, “which is where the ‘not-for-profit’ comes into play.”

This year, the 12 pianos will be joined by a 13th instrument, a “Steinway D Concert Grand,” which, according to Maimone, “has been played by every premier concert pianist you can imagine.”

“It is an honor and a privilege to have it here,” said Maimone of the Steinway D, which has been featured in the New York Times and was the subject of James Barron’s book “The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand.”

“We almost feel unworthy,” he chuckled.

The Vladimir Nielsen Piano Festival, located at 64 Laurel Trail, Sag Harbor, will present seven concerts in coming weeks, starting with the “Artistic Director Recital” a performance by Victoria Mushkatkol on Saturday, July 31 at 5 p.m. at the festival location. The next concert will be at Guild Hall on Tuesday, August 3, at 7 p.m. The Southampton Cultural Center will host a concert on August 19. All other concerts will be offered at the festival location. There is a $15 charge per concert. For information call (631) 899-4074 or visit www.nielsenfest.org

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