On December 28, 2023, the Palace of International Forums hosted a concert of Lola Astanova, a world-renowned pianist originally from Tashkent and a graduate of Uspenka (State specialized music school named after V. A. Uspensky). She has been living and building her musical career in the United States for over 20 years. Astanova successfully runs pages on social networks with 1.3 million followers on Instagram and nearly 100 million total views on her YouTube videos. Social media popularity, the success of Uzbek musicians abroad, differences in music teaching approaches, the impact of strict teachers and her upcoming concert scheduled for February in Tashkent are among the topics Lola Astanova discussed in an exclusive interview with Gazeta.uz after her performance.
— How do you feel after the concert?
— Emotions are overflowing due to that magical New Year mood, the applause and the warm reception. I’m pleased to be here, still impressed by the audience and the hospitality. Overall, I am delighted.
— Today you performed with the chamber orchestra “Soloists of Uzbekistan.” Was it challenging to play a concert with an orchestra you had not worked with before, considering only a few days for live rehearsals?
— We had a good collaboration with the orchestra. Despite limited rehearsal time, we played together seamlessly, worked through everything smoothly, and had no difficulties. I believe this orchestra has an impressive level of skill. The concert turned out even better than during rehearsals, which is always a pleasure.
— In your movie “The Journey to the Theatre of Silence,” there is a scene where you move your fingers in the air. I thought it was your way of warming up your fingers and hands before a performance. Is that correct?
— Yes, you’ve got it right. Sometimes there’s no instrument in the dressing room or backstage. And, of course, hands should be warmed-up before going on stage because the quality of the performance really depends on it. That’s why I warm up. If, for instance, I don’t have an instrument, I can warm my hands, do some short exercises. I don’t even think about it, it just happens naturally.
This hall has a beautiful grand piano, one of the finest I’ve ever played, I believe. It’s not guaranteed that even on the largest and most prestigious stages, like in Carnegie Hall (concert hall in New York — ed.), you’ll find a good grand piano. So I must give credit to this hall — it has one of the best instruments in the world.
— Social media has increased your fame, but how much has it influenced your music career? Considering its success prior to social media, how would you envision your career without it?
— Social media is an integral part of our lives, especially for artists. I believe positives outweigh the negatives. First of all, it allows direct communication with the audience, with your listeners. There’s no need for critics and opinion-givers. The listener can watch, listen and share whether they like it or not, whether they will go to a concert or buy a ticket.
Social networks have their share of controversies. For example, there’s a need to slightly exaggerate things for shares. Many people get fixated on the number of likes, views and followers. While that’s certainly present, if you approach it normally and don’t focus on it, social networks can be a great advantage.
Before social media, my career developed in a classical way: symphonies, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerts with symphony orchestras. Though I must admit that I’m now less drawn to that in terms of academic music. Playing something of my own production, creating my own aesthetics is more interesting for me now. No matter how much we love classics, they’ve all been played. Today, I’m moving in a different direction.
— If I recall correctly, when you released “Love in the Time of Covid,” you mentioned it was your last album of pure classical music. Is that decision related to the declining interest in academic music?
— Yes, it’s certainly related. Of course, this music will always be a part of me, given the many years dedicated to it. My musical DNA started with it. It;s not going anywhere. Though when it comes to my career and development, I want to do bigger concerts, bigger shows. I love the massive sound and I’m full of creative ideas for presentation and arrangements. I’m writing music, and that’s crucial for me right now because creating something that hasn’t been there before is very different from playing the compositions of other artists.
— Visuals and fashions are an important part of your live performances. How much, in your opinion, can they affect the audience’s perception?
- Each viewer takes something different for themselves. Some focus on the music, while for others a concert is just about going out. Certain people pay more attention to the image, the outfit. So everyone reacts in their own way.
I don’t see it as a negative aspect. By presenting both the audio and visual components, the audience can choose where to direct their attention. Though the main thing is that everything should meet the high standards — both the performance and the visuals. Whether we like it or not, this is the reality of today’s world, and we can’t escape it.
— There is an opinion that today having a substantial amount of money is sufficient for becoming a star, performing at Carnegie Hall. Is it necessary to receive education at a conservatory to build a music career, or is being active and creative on social networks enough?
— Being on social networks alone is not enough. Being popular on social media won’t be of any help if you give a live concert without having the skill. And neither can money compensate for the lack of skill. Of course, renting Carnegie Hall can be an option, but it’s a one-time event. No one will come to that concert a second time since people somehow feel when an artist has something interesting to share when they have the skill.
A lot depends on the music genre as well. Many pop artists who have achieved remarkable success without an academic musical background. You can paint a picture with one color, or you can paint it with ten. Malevich painted the Black Square. It all depends on your style. Of course, having a diverse skill set provides more options.
— A number of musicians from Uzbekistan, including pianists, conductors and other performers achieve considerable success abroad. What do you think could be the reason behind this?
— This is indeed true and quite pleasing. I believe Uzbekistan has a lot of talented people and musicians. We had a robust educational system with strong teachers who brought up this generation of incredible artists emerging from here.
You have to support and take pride in that, because getting on the world stage in any business is no joke. I attribute (success) to the system that was established before. For instance, my teachers were individuals of the highest caliber. Now I can hardly imagine where (else) you can find at least a similar system. I believe that’s the reason for these artists' success.
— You received training from the great masters of your craft, such as Tamara Popovich and Lev Naumov. In your opinion, how do Western schools differ in their approach to teaching music?
— Certainly, there is a difference. Our teachers were much stricter, demanding that children work towards results. It seems to me that Western schools lack a little bit of this strictness. For example, in America, you can’t say anything critical to children at all, even if they haven’t prepared for their lessons. They still need to be praised.
I don’t think that’s right. We need to find a balance. We had another extreme where children could get beaten on the hands, which is also unacceptable. At the same time, they need to be motivated. They need a person to spark a burning desire to have some kind of dream and will to achieve something. We really had it in us since people aspired to reach another level, to become globally recognized. I believe it is very important for children.
— So, was such strictness justified?
— Absolutely. And not just in terms of musical education but also in terms of character. Perseverance, (the desire) to go forward, despite the difficulties, and to achieve your goal — that’s part of character. These teachers worked hard to build that kind of character and I think it was 100% justified.
— What has helped you develop and promote yourself as a musician since moving to the U.S. in 2005?
— Of course, I followed the traditional path: countless competitions, festivals and master classes, it’s impossible to list them all. Nevertheless, I always liked more unique projects in terms of scale.
I always saw myself a little differently and wanted a different kind of popularity for myself. Winning a contest involves adhering to some academic rules and I’ve always had a different mode of self-expression. I see myself more as a showgirl probably.
— You played the American anthem at the White House celebration in 2018. Can you share what feelings you were experiencing at the time?
— It was grandiose. Imagine an immigrant, a person who wasn’t born there… It’s a classic story of coming with nothing, knowing no one, having absolutely no money and starting your whole life from scratch, eventually reaching such heights as getting invited to play the national anthem at the White House. It’s one of the most memorable concerts and days of my life.
— How do you feel about the idea of popularizing classical instrumental music? Is it possible to make it a little more popular today outside of narrow professional circles?
— Well, it depends on what kind of classical music. People enjoy listening to well-known melodies, like the “Moonlight Sonata” or favorite soundtracks from movies. At least in America, this is called classical music.
In the conservatory, Beethoven sonatas, Scarlatti, Ligeti etudes are referred to as classical music. In terms of scale and social media views, it’s more challenging as it seems to me that the audience wants something lighter and more accessible.
— What place does Uzbekistan take in your life?
— Actually, I live in the United States, but I was born in Uzbekistan. I am announced everywhere as an Uzbek-American pianist.
My childhood, my first musical and artistic successes are connected with Uzbekistan. So I can’t go anywhere without it. Of course, I can perform on different stages and my life is already evolving abroad. But Uzbekistan is a very special place for me and this will never change.
— Have you ever performed music by Uzbek composers?
— Perhaps I have when I was a student. Now I am very drawn to our national rhythms. They are so unique. I even want to experiment a bit with folk instruments and singing. These rhythms bring me so much joy. I appreciate it more now than when I was a child.
— Your next concert in Tashkent will be held in February. Can you share if there are any ideas and developments?
— Yes, there will be a lot of surprises. I have prepared some special performances for this concert, as the last one was a bit spontaneous. Maybe there was not enough time for some elements. I would like to invite everyone to the Palace of International Forums on February 25. There will be very interesting performances coming as a surprise and I think everyone will enjoy it.
— We will be looking forward to it.
Interviewed by Davlat Umarov.