Knowing the score

It seems the best way to make art is to know life.

Pianist Natalia Troull, well known among Russian musicians, graced the Pepperdine University campus last week, one of a handful of master teachers at the International Piano Symposium presented by Master Classes International.

She seems to live simply and for her art, with frequent breaks for cigarettes and an occasional foray into the pleasures of Malibu beaches.

Troull won the silver medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Competition and has since performed worldwide with orchestras and in solo recitals. She is also a professor at the Moscow (Tchaikovsky) Conservatory, and, last summer, she made her Hollywood Bowl debut.

But her very unglamorous days at the symposium consisted of teaching master classes (to preselected students, in front of an audience) and private lessons (to younger students of the teachers in attendance there). She also performed, listened to lectures by other professors and took a quick look around Malibu.


Student Mikhail Korzhev, born and trained in Russia, and now living in Los Angeles, takes Troull’s 2:30 Thursday master class in Raitt Recital Hall. He plays Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” while Troull sits in the audience reading the musical score. He finishes to polite applause from the audience.

Troull steps onstage and sits at the second piano. She has a deep voice and speaks English remarkably well, tinged somehow with a French accent. She tells him he has “exceptional technique” but that he must tell a story. “What do you see? An animal? What happens to our hero?” she asks him. “Complete the end of our story.”

But, she also warns, “It is possible to tell many things but not leave an impression.” She plays the hero’s walk, and we can visualize him bouncing jauntily.

Next, she suggests, the hero sees a big house, “but a house from a horrible dream.” She directs Korzhev to follow Ravel’s markings. “It says pianissimo [very soft]” she insists. “And without stopping.” She begins playing the passage, and to no one in particular apologizes, “I’m sorry, I didn’t practice today.”

She tells Korzhev to read about Ravel. “He drank a lot,” she says. “He was very sick. He died alone. These are dreams of a very drunken man. Even in his dreams, he heard this terrible noise. Do you know anything about dreams of drunkards?”

Korzhev hesitates. “Not really.”

“Try to find out,” Troull suggests, and the audience laughs warmly.


Troull says she will be satisfied grabbing a quick lunch at the dining hall. The finer restaurants of Malibu don’t seem to interest her. She would love, however, to go to the beach, she says.

But first, she teaches a master class to Niguar Akhmedova, a student at the Moscow Conservatory. There, Akhmedova studies with Mikhail Voskressenksy, another of the master teachers at the symposium.

Akhmedova soulfully plays the piano part of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. “We have small hands,” Troull shares with her. “Rachmaninoff had very big hands. Try to hide,” she says, indicating physical effort in playing. “It must be free.” She listens while Akhmedova tries the passage again.

“In Russia,” says Troull, “we have two opinions. One, Rachmaninoff wrote better than he performed. Two, he was such an excellent pianist, it is more useful to listen to his recordings.” She says she prefers the latter view, cautioning not to copy the playing but to use it as a basis.


The Friday afternoon swim at the beach is a simple affair. What does she need a towel for, she asks? The sand is very clean, and she can dry herself off in the sun before returning to campus for her 4:00 private lessons.

She says she first learned piano from her mother. “Hated it,” she says. She wanted to be a tennis player. But at age 14, her tennis teacher told her to forget tennis.

She has two sons, 18 and 10. Pianists? “Noooo,” she replies. She owns a home on the outskirts of Moscow, near a lake. Her ideal vacation would be to stay home. She also bought a car, and now, she says, she has weight problems.

Enough small talk. The conversation turns to the Doctrine of Separation of Church and State.

After the beach, there’s time for a quick coffee. She suggests drinking it with lemon, no sugar, which proves very different and very refreshing.

Out come the cigarettes. The pack is printed with Cyrillic lettering. She says she prefers cigarettes made in Bulgaria, which she finds in a special store at home.


She teaches a one-hour private lesson to Katherine Chen, 15, of Los Angeles, a student of Roza Kostrzewska Yoder, who is sitting in on the lesson. Chen plays Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme by Paganini.”

As do the master-class students, Chen plays from memory. Troull sits at a second piano next to her and follows along with the score, occasionally playing the orchestral accompaniment.

Troull plays a passage for Chen, accenting the main, melodic notes. “Pronounce, please, every letter,” Troull insists. Chen plays swiftly. “Porridge,” Troull calls it, playing each note cleanly and separately.

“I think the problem is where to look. It’s a very common problem,” she says to Yoder. “When they have time, they look everywhere. When they don’t have time, they panic.” Troull suggests focusing on the left hand during this particular passage.

Troull and Chen play the left hand only, repeating the passage. “Fantastic,” Troull enthuses. “Play 20 times, then play something else for 10 minutes. Then again. After a week …” she smiles. “And try to count only the clean times.”

They work on hand motions, using the whole hand in a rolling motion rather than working only the fingers. Troull shows her how to play certain chords, “like a dog or a big cat,” as if the arms were lumbering forepaws.

The lesson ends, and, for a last bit of advice, Troull tells Chen, “Read a lot of books. It is impossible to be a good pianist and not know about life, about art, about literature.”


Her next student is Tenoch Esparza, 17, a senior at L.A. County High School for the Arts and a private student of Yoder’s. He begins a Chopin Scherzo, and within a few moments she calls him lazy. His eyes twinkle.

She shows him how and when to move from chord to chord. She tells him to play a passage faster, to take a chance. “It’s a lesson. Try.”

She suggests he play Chopin with straighter fingers. “Like spaghetti,” she says. She plays a few notes with her fingertips, showing that this makes the music sound clipped, “like Scarlatti.”

Yoder later teases Esparza about the label “lazy,” calling Troull’s assessment accurate.

But Esparza’s musical interest is very apparent. Catch a ride with him to Starbucks during a break and hear Chopin bursting from his tapedeck. “It’s Rubenstein,” he says reverentially of the pianist.

Troull apparently saw something she liked in him, also. She offers him an additional class in two days if he practices what they worked on.

How many of Troull’s suggestions are a matter of taste and how many are objectively a matter of technique? Yoder and Esparza discuss Troull over coffee. He agrees her suggestions were mostly objective. Says Yoder, “She’s got enough class to say when she’s being subjective.”


At Friday night’s master class, Troull works with Peter Wittenberg, an American who has studied in Russia. He plays the Chopin Barcarolle. “In my opinion, it’s a little too sweet, like a cake with a lot of cream,” Troull critiques.

“For the first subject, try to imagine water. Water can’t move with stops.” She emphasizes naturalness. “Don’t pause before an expected harmony. ‘L.A. is a big [pause] city,’ she says. ‘L.A. is a big [pause] horse.'” The audience laughs. “See, it is unexpected, so you can pause.”

He plays a passage that she says represents a heartbeat. “It must be ostinato [a steady tempo], because if it is rubato [varying tempo], you should go to the doctor.”

Then, she delivers a compliment. “Here, I’ve never heard it this way, but you’ve convinced me.”


Walking down the halls of Smothers’ basement, morning, afternoon and evening, one can hear snippets of various Chopin pieces seeping out of the practice rooms. These students don’t seem interested in the beach.

But in a few years, they will be the teachers, passing on the advice, and the beauty, of the music. Perhaps then, there will be time to better know life — and the score.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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