Meet Lola

Some absolutely love her. Others criticize nearly everything she does. But one thing is certain: Lola Astanova is a phenomenon. A virtuoso often described as “firebrand” and nicknamed “the million-dollar pianist”, Lola is hardly your stereotypical classical musician. Add to that her interest in fashion, film and pop (yes, pop!) music, and it becomes obvious that no one traditional definition is sufficient and accurate enough to describe this unique artist. But how does Lola view herself and the world of music today? Find out below in her interview with journalist Michael Levine:

Q: Lola, you don’t exactly fit the image of a typical classical musician: no long dark gowns, no sadness in your demeanor. You look dynamic, modern, and quite sexy. Do you purposely try to be different?
A: Not at all. The long-gowned, “rose petals on the keyboard” pianist is just not me. I don’t feel like that, I don’t play like that, and I do not dress like that. In fact, I will never play in a gown. I pick outfits that reflect my personality and that are age-appropriate. That’s all.

Q: But does that sexy image create problems for you in the classical music world?

A: I don’t think I have a particularly sexy image, but I do hear comments about that from time to time. There is this “idea” out there that if a woman is attractive and well-dressed then she cannot be a good musician…a good executive, professional and so on. I am happy to be among the women who are proving that accomplished and stylish are not mutually exclusive.  Excellence trumps old movers whether in the boardroom or the concert hall.  With that said, it is a bit dismaying that some industry insiders believe that a female pianist has to be dressed in a boring chiffon gown and resemble an image on a 16th century tapestry. (Smiles)

Q: You mentioned the word “boring” and that is, probably, how many young people view classical music these days. What, in your opinion, is wrong with classical music?

A: It’s a very broad question that one could write an entire book on. I think you have to separate “classical music” and “classical music industry”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with classical music - it is timeless! But the industry is a different matter entirely. Classical music industry is a strange animal within the music business that exists separately from all other forms of art and entertainment. Its’ biggest problem, in my opinion, is poor management. Many influential managers and conductors behave like underachievers with chips on their shoulders, pre-occupied with petty politics and the state of their own unfulfilling careers. Nothing else. You hear words spoken about higher artistic matters, but in truth the industry is marked by disregard for the audience, lack of creativity, cynicism, indifference and endless restrictions. This is ironic when you realize that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Paganini, Liszt, Chopin, Wagner - the very names who created classical music - were all giants of human spirit - free, daring, fearless and exciting in their expressions. Their legacy and their spirit have largely been tarnished. So change within this industry is inescapable.

Q: So do you have a recipe for recovery?

A: In my opinion, the industry needs to loosen up quite a bit. Traditional classical managers need to take a step back and allow the artists to breathe and take chances. They should also come to terms with the fact that the world today is a very different place than it was 50 and even 10 years ago. That’s first. Then, I believe it is time for classical musicians to finally say out loud that we are in the entertainment business. Intellectual, elegant, thought provoking, but entertainment. That means that classical performers must aspire to go beyond hitting the right notes and beyond academia. Classical music is not a museum piece, but a performing art that lives only through the artist and the audience. So each concert must be a love affair, not a funeral.

Q: When you say that classical music is entertainment, are you afraid that some purists might call you…a sellout?
A: No, I’m not afraid of that. Some might, but I hope to win them over as well. (Laughs) First of all, giving the audience an exciting performance does not mean lowering my artistic standards. Secondly, I have examples like Paganini and Liszt on my side, or, more recently, that of Plácido Domingo, the late Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras. The purists nearly crucified them for doing the “3 tenors”, yet because of that project millions of people around the world have discovered opera.

Q: Do you think classical music is an elite art?
A: Yes, you might say that, but let’s define “elite” first. It is not elite in the sense of social or financial status, which is how most people view it. But understanding classical music beyond its basic emotional elements requires some effort from the listener. I can compare it to traveling: when you go to Italy, the trip can be 10 times more enjoyable if you can speak a little Italian or know about its history and traditions. Yes, that’s more effort than simply buying a plane ticket, but it is worth it. So classical music is elite in the sense that it requires some intellectual effort, but every person is capable of it. As for artists and presenters, it is our job to communicate this music in ways that are exciting and non-intimidating. Classical music is about basic human feelings, emotions, concerns and worries that are experienced by all people every day. So to say that classical music can only be enjoyed by the “select few” is complete nonsense.

Q: How do you deal with criticism?
A: I try to rely on my own ears and taste, and if I am happy with my playing - I don’t lose sleep over it. It may sound a bit cliché, but I really am my own harshest critic.

Q: How do you feel about modern classical music?
A: I presume we are talking about 12-tone music?

Q: Yes
A: Ok, in short - I greatly dislike it! I think that music cannot be born from purely intellectual labor. Music to me is a combination of feeling and reason. And one of music’s most valuable properties is melody. As Mozart once put it: “…Music must never offend the ear…it must never cease to be music.”

Q: Who are your biggest influences in classical music?
A: Sergey Rachmaninoff, Frédéric Chopin, Vladimir Horowitz and Alexei Sultanov. I first met Alexei when I was a child, and he made an enormous impression on me as a person. Then, as a teenager, I heard him in concert and something shifted inside me. That was an important moment for me… since that day I have never played the same.

Q: You have interest in other genres of music, including pop, which seems rather uncommon among classical musicians. Why do you think that is?
A: That’s true, I love pop music. Especially, dance and electronic because I think it is the least explored genre that offers vast possibilities in terms of sound. Growing up within classical music, I used to think that pop was very easy to make and produce. That is until I tried it myself. I think you do not see classical musicians in it because pop music poses completely different challenges than classical. Yes, in some ways pop is a lot simpler and more basic, but it requires versatility and innovative thinking, which, in my view, goes directly against the instinct of a typical classical musician, who is trained to follow the score meticulously. As for me, I like to experiment with other genres because, in a way, it allows me to be two completely different musicians, which I love.

Q: Do you think that venturing outside of classical music might downgrade you in the eyes of some die-hard classical fans?
A: Some may be skeptical because classical musicians are often perceived as being academic, strict and very proper. Some die-hard fans may love that image. But I happen to think that a musician of the 21st century must be versatile, curious, and non-dogmatic. I think the greatest classical artists have always been that way. For example, I can hardly imagine Wagner confining himself to a small set of rules and living his life out of fear of breaking them. Music is an infinite space without limits and boundaries. It is also my passion, and I merely explore those dimensions that attract my creativity. I think an artist must be free to wear multiple hats, and if the work he creates is quality - he will be given his proper due. Maybe not immediately, but overtime.

Q: What’s the funniest question that people ask you?

A: Whether it is difficult to play in high heels. (Laughs)  It isn’t, and I always do.