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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

A quartet of pianos to tackle Bach for Abu Dhabi Festival show

Louis Lortie and Victoria Vassilenko tell us about their collaborative approach to the classics

Bulgarian pianist Victoria Vassilenko describes the work of Bach as similar to an ocean.
Bulgarian pianist Victoria Vassilenko describes the work of Bach as similar to an ocean.

It sounds closer to Google’s California headquarters than a music conservatoire.

Hidden in the forests of Waterloo, just south of the Belgian capital of Brussels, lies the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel – a place where, for nearly seven decades, generations of classical musicians from all over the world have been trained.

Created by Belgium’s late monarch, enthusiastic art patron Queen Elisabeth, the chapel welcomes batches of a dozen students every three-year cycle to live in residence while being trained by live-in professors with specialities that include piano, violin, vocals, cello and chamber music.

But you’ll find none of the stuffy atmosphere and strict discipline associated with music conservatoires here.

There is no set class schedule; instead, students organise their studies and practise sessions autonomously, with teachers on hand if needed.

Six students will leave these serene and rather rarefied surroundings and head to the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre to perform a series of pieces by German composer Bach tomorrow, playing in various formations ranging from a duet to a quartet of pianos.

French-Canadian pianist and instructor at Queen Elisabeth Louis Lortie – who will join in on two pieces – says the dynamic programme will challenge the students more than the new environment.

“This is a significant mom­ent, as a lot of pianists work alone and you can essentially play all your career solo, if you want,” he says.

“So this is a good occasion for these players to have a musical conversation among themselves. We will pair people together who perhaps have never played together. Some may have a different sensibility to the music so they will have to find a common ground and work together. I think that this will be an incredible experience for them.”

While the performers are students, the Abu Dhabi Festival date is not amateur. Fans of classical music should revel in the skill of the performers, who all arrived at the music chapel with their own proven track record of success.

Second-year student Victoria Vassilenko is already an in-demand performer and recording artist. Born in Bulgaria, the 25-year-old has come both first and second in a string of competitions, including the UK’s James Mottram and Rom­ania’s George Enenscu piano competitions.

“This is why I don’t really look at the chapel as a music school,” she says.

“Of course, we work with amazing teachers but it is more of an artistic experience. We are all artists in residence who share our ideas with each other. Because there are no rules or schedule this will always be a special place.”

Because of that lax structure, Vassilenko is positively stumped when asked to describe a regular day back home. She explains the set-up is needed to accommodate both the teachers’ and the performers’ international tour demands – basically, the classes are on when teachers are in town.

However, for the past week the group has been busy rehearsing in preparation for the Abu Dhabi show, which is just as well, as Lortie explains that Bach’s body of work is monumental when it comes to classical music.

The programme, which will be split into two parts, is made up of six concertos dating from 1685 to 1750. In addition to its sweeping beauty, these also form the Baroque origins of the concerto, which became a popular composition in the early 18th century through Italian composer Vivaldi.

Lortie describes Bach’s work as visionary, and says it served a higher purpose. “It’s difficult to describe Bach’s overall influence because he has done so much,” he says. “The thing about him was that he had a lot of concepts and ideas and he was a deeply religious man. He knew he was supremely talented and he felt like it was his duty to share that talent with the world. He was prolific yet perfect in a way. His work has a sense of proportion that was never equalled.”

With Bach writing more than 1,000 compositions in his 65 years, Vassilenko says approaching his work is akin to dipping into an ocean of knowledge. “It is like studying a complete language,” she says. “And for me it always feels like I am at the beginning ... Although he lived for a long time, the amount of work that he did is suitable for someone who lived for 200 years.”

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After the Abu Dhabi engagement, the students will return to the Belgian chapel to continue fine-tuning their craft.

As one of the institution’s newest instructors, Lortie says returning to the office won’t be so much of a drag. “The other day I looked up from my window and I saw some deers,” he says. “Although our practice rooms are soundproof, they picked up on some of our sounds and just stood there looking at us and wondering what we were doing. And then we came to the window to look at them – the fascination was on two sides.”

The Bach Project will be held tomorrow at the Red Theatre, The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi, at 8pm. Tickets are Dh105 for adults and Dh52.50 for students from www.abudhabifestival.ae