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Greek-German Pianist Kyveli Doerken on Her New York Debut at Y92 on March 28

NEW YORK – Greek-German pianist Kyveli Doerken will perform on Tuesday, March 28 at the prestigious Y92 Center for Culture and Arts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She will be joined by two distinguished soloists, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff. The brilliant trio will perform work by Beethoven, Schubert and Dvořák.

Kyveli Doerken talks to The National Herald about her New York debut, her career in music, the untimely loss of her teacher, distinguished pianist Lars Vogt (1970-2022), and her engagement at the Molyvos Festival on the island of Lesvos.

TNH: How did you decide to pursue a career, or better, a life, in music?

Kyveli Doerken: I started playing the piano when I was very young. I was four years old and I think that it was kind of clear from the start that I was going to at least try to pursue it as a career. I think a very defining moment was when I met Prof. Karl Heinz Kämmerling when I was seven years old, and subsequently, my sister who is four years older than me and also a pianist, when we decided to start studying with him. That meant the commitment of traveling to Hanover, where he taught every weekend whilst going to school in Düsseldorf during the week, I was seven years old at the time, and of course, that did mean that music became the defining factor in my life, that both decided my schedule during the week and during the year just made up absolutely most of my time, and throughout these years, learning from Karl Heinz Kämmerling, and the defining years during being a teenager and an adolescent it was actually always clear to me that pursuing a career as a musician was that the wish, the fantasy. It was absolutely what I defined myself as and what I built my character and my personality around. I have to say, I feel very lucky that I discovered music so early on and I was then actually able to pursue it professionally because I could never imagine doing anything other than this.

TNH: How did your particular interest in classical music come about? Why piano?

KD: I did not grow up in a musical family. My parents are both not musicians. It was actually my older sister who is four years older than me who started playing the piano when she was five years old so I was one year old and I would watch her play, I would watch her go to concerts and play concerts herself and it became something I really wanted to do as well. I chose the piano to be honest simply because she played piano and I always admired her and kind of was the younger sister who always wanted to follow into her older sister’s footsteps, especially in the beginning. So that’s why I chose the piano.

Left to right: Cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, pianist Kyveli Doerken, and violinist Christian Tetzlaff will perform on March 28 at the prestigious Y92 Center for Culture and Arts in New York City. Photo: Courtesy of Kyveli Doerken

In terms of why I preferred classical music, I had really great teachers from the start. I was instantly presented making music as this holistic experience. We went to concerts and we immediately were working on pieces that were musical, that were profound even at a young age, so I never really went into that phase of playing the piano where you just play small tunes or small pieces that don’t have deep musical meaning, I remember in the first year I was playing small Chopin waltzes, or Mozart Sonatinas, or small Bach Minuets so I instantly came into contact with these great composers, and of course that motivated me to continue on that path and as I grew older, I played longer pieces, pieces that were more complex and powerful. It’s very difficult to not fall in love with the authenticity and just beauty of classical music. If you get into contact with it at such an early age.

TNH: Where did you study? How is your art affected by your Greek and German sides?

KD: I feel very lucky with the trajectory of my studies. I would say I had two main teachers. The first one was Karl Heinz Kämmerling, whom I studied with for 10 years between the ages of seven and 17. When I was 17, he passed away and I continued my studies with one of his students, Lars Vogt, who I then also studied with for another approximately 10 years until unfortunately he passed away, just a few months ago. I think my art is affected by my Greek and German sides in the same way that my personality has been influenced greatly by both cultures. I think that growing up in Germany, of course, classical music that is definitely celebrated a lot in Germany was a companion that could be much more accessible to me than maybe if I had grown up in Greece. At the same time I think that a lot of the philosophy that you can find within the great works of classical music is very much influenced by ancient Greek philosophical ideas of what balance means, the juxtaposition between order and chaos, between hedonistic happiness and deep meaning, between excess and discipline. All these different stories that we find, especially in Greek mythology and in Greek philosophy, these are ideas and visions of life that can be found in classical music as well. I think it’s no wonder that many pieces that the composers wrote were influenced directly by other famous Greek tragedies or comedies, and of course, Greek myths.

TNH: What is your creative process? How do you approach a work new to you and how a new (contemporary) work?

KD: For me, I always try to dive as deeply as possible into the text, the notes in front of me. I actually avoid listening to recordings early on, especially if a piece is very famous or very well known, I avoid it even more because I really want to have an as direct an untrammeled connection to the pure text the composer wrote as possible. I think it’s actually the same for a work, whether contemporary or not, in the sense that I really try to take as seriously as possible everything that is written in the text whether it is a tempo marking, a dynamic marking, a character marking, or a voicing marking. I try to understand what the intent is behind the written form of the notes. And then of course, I also try to understand what the intent is behind the piece as a whole, what the message is. Of course, throughout learning the piece, there are phases of focusing more on technically accomplishing it and phases where you are much more involved in purely the musical part of it. But I always try, even when I’m in the phases of technically still learning the piece to always have in mind, the musical vision that I’m pursuing in the end, and I found that with that in mind, usually technically impossible becomes a little more possible.

TNH: Is there room for innovation when playing a piece like a Beethoven sonata, something that so many interpreters have approached before? What is the meaning of playing the great works of the past for an artist? For the audience?

KD: I think that if you are secure within the framework of what the composer has written in the text, and you are loyal to that, there is still great room for innovation and room for differences between different interpretations. For example, a marking like ‘dolce’ or a marking like ‘espressivo’ gives a very clear direction but still leaves open a huge spectrum of potential ways and colors of sound to play it. And then, of course, there is the general symbiosis of your own life experiences, mixing with the intended message of the composer. I think things like your own age, or a current phase in your life, or simply something like with whom you play a chamber music work with can greatly influence in both subtle and less subtle ways, how you going to play a great work of music, despite still keeping a maximum degree of loyalty to the text.

Greek-German pianist Kyveli Doerken. Photo: Courtesy of Kyveli Doerken

I think what makes these great works of music that have been around for hundreds of years, and that we still find great joy in playing, what makes them so great, is the fact that these composers that wrote them obviously had insight into human psychology and into the human soul that anyone that hears or plays these works can learn a great deal from: Insight into the ambiguity of human emotion into the depth of human emotion into the volatility of human emotion, and sometimes the almost schizophrenic nature of human thoughts. All these things that we know to be true, because we experience them, whether it is an everyday life, or in more profound or intense moments of our lives, we find them packaged in these works of music in a way that makes them approachable. Sometimes they give us a sense of hope sometimes they give us strength but more importantly – they always give us a better understanding of ourselves, of our own struggles and our own potential.

TNH: What are your latest performances/recordings and what are your future plans?

KD: I just came back from playing some concerts in Japan. It was my first time performing in Japan and it was an absolutely huge pleasure to be there and to perform there. Earlier this year, I recorded a CD together with my sister Danae. It will be our first piano duo CD together and it’s going to appear later this year in summer with the label Berlin Classics and directly after I come back from this tour in the USA, I am playing a chamber music recital in the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.

TNH: Have you performed in New York before? Tell us more about your upcoming performance at Y92, the program and your fellow musicians.

KD: This is going to actually be my first time in New York in general and also my first time performing in New York. I am looking forward to it immensely. We are going to play a program of Beethoven, Dvorak and Schubert and I’m going to play it with two musicians that have now become very close friends, but growing up, they were actually just musical role models that I’d see on stage and would look up to with stars in my eyes. So I feel very honored and humbled to now be sharing the stage with them.

TNH: In this concert you are replacing your teacher Lars Vogt who passed away so untimely. Do you want to tell us something more about him?

KD: Lars Vogt was not just an incredible teacher that I had the privilege of learning from for 10 years, he is also someone that I looked up to in the way he lived his life, truly to the fullest. The generosity that he displayed to his friends, his fellow musicians and simply anyone he met was inspiring. He had an infectious positive energy around him, he was someone who connected people, someone who gave people chances and believed in them and someone who just simply created light and laughter everywhere he went. As a musician, he was someone who I admired from the first time I saw and heard him, I think when I was about eight years old in the Philharmonic in Essen. I remember for the first time, having heard a pianist play as quietly, and yet piercingly as he did in that concert. I was young, and it struck me, just how silent the entire hall was and just how much attention he commanded with literally the most subtle shifts in his sound.

TNH: You live in Germany, a country that has been a center of classical music for centuries, but you perform also in places like Lesvos, among many others. Is there a difference for the ‘function’ of music between these places? What does classical music means for the ‘Normale Sterblichen’ beyond the two hours of pleasant time in a concert?

KD: I think it’s sometimes almost more special to perform for an audience that has had significantly less contact to classical music. I remember some of the first concerts that I gave on Lesvos where people came and said that it was the first time they ever heard Beethoven, or the first time they ever heard a string quartet or a piano trio. I think that in today’s society where we have so much access to quality performances through streaming platforms and CDs, and simply through the amount of incredible musicians out there, that there is really a burden on an audience member to listen with the freshness, spontaneity, and presence in the moment, that in places where concerts don’t exist as frequently, it happens quite naturally. I think that art always has the power and the potential to transform something in your outlook on life or the inner workings of your personality. As always I think that it depends on how deeply you let the art penetrate your psyche how readily you let it inspire you, and, of course, also how actually inspiring the art is in itself performed. I often hear the assumption that what is required to enjoy classical music properly is some sort of background knowledge on when it was written or on the composer of the piece itself or the structure of the piece. Although I’m sure that background knowledge is helpful, useful or interesting, I’m always very skeptical that that is what truly makes a difference. I think that what you need to enjoy classical music is the same thing you need to enjoy any great art, which is an openness to receive emotions that are strong, intense, intimate and that are transformative. You need curiosity to let your mind wander into places that it might not wander into by itself, and I think you need almost a childlike perspective of wonder that if you let yourself access, you might experience the art in a completely different way, regardless of whether you have any amount of background knowledge or not. It is the task as well as the deep wish of any artist or performer to inspire the willingness inside the audience member to go to these places of consciousness, to inspire the desire to have a transformative experience, and to play so convincingly, so passionately, and so honestly that this transformative experience becomes inevitable.

Greek-German pianist Kyveli Doerken. Photo: Courtesy of Kyveli Doerken

TNH: You and your family have a key role in the continuing success of the Molyvos Festival. Can you tell us about this pioneering festival?

KD: We started this festival around nine years ago. The first edition happened in 2015, and the vision was exactly the idea to bring classical music to a place where it basically had not existed before. It was also the vision of how fitting classical music would be in a place like Molyvos on Lesvos, for the reason that I also mentioned earlier about the Greek perspective and outlook on life, especially the ancient Greek outlook on life fitting so well together with the outlook and vision in classical music. It is really moving to see how every year everyone involved in the festival, the musicians coming to perform, the audiences witnessing the concerts, the team members organizing the festival, the people that live in Molyvos locally, and see the village transformed for a few days, they are all influenced by this incredible symbiosis of the freshness of classical music, and simply the beauty and atmosphere of this magical place that Molyvos is.

Fotios Kaliampakos is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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