Bold, Bright and Fierce: Catching Up with Lola Astanova

Ever since she started touring at eight years old, Russian-American concert pianist Lola Astanova has been capturing the public’s attention – be it through her impeccable technique or eye-catching production values she puts into her music videos.
In her thoughtful interview with Mordents Magazine, Astanova shared her opinions on contemporary social media and the world of classical music, as well as the roots of her love for Romantic repertoire.

Mordents Magazine: Considering that many concerts are either delayed or cancelled due to the pandemic, have you started some new projects or discovered some new interests?

Lola Astanova: I’ve been spending a lot of time in the studio, recording several albums and working on my new repertoire. In a way, this “time off” has given me the opportunity to focus on making music without worrying about traveling and touring. So, I’ve stayed pretty busy and productive.

MM: What is the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your biography alone?

LA: I imagine there is more than just one thing. I am a very private person, some may even say reserved or shy. In a way, it’s the opposite of what I look like on stage or on social media, but I like it that way. You may even say there are two Lolas: one – the artist and performer, and the other – the actual person.

MM: You’ve mentioned in past interviews the immense influence of Vladimir Horowitz on you. Can you recall the first time you encountered the music of this great pianist?

LA: I was still a child, just starting out in music. My piano professor used to host these “listening parties” in her home, where she played the rarest and most wonderful piano recordings to her students. She had an incredible collection of vinyl recordings, and I distinctly remember hearing Horowitz’s recording of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 for the first time. I didn’t know anything about him, but I was in awe, and he instantly became my favorite pianist.

MM: Aside from your dedication to classical repertoire, you also experiment with different styles – from electronic music over pop to your own compositions and arrangements. What draws you towards improvisation and composition?

LA: I think if you have it in you, you simply can’t not compose. Music is how I feel the world and how I express
myself. To be honest, I enjoy composing even more than performing someone else’s music, so going forward you will see me releasing more and more original works.

MM: By all accounts, you’re the classical music star for a new age. You’re forward-thinking and modern, but, still – very devoted to the music of the 19th century. When did you first discover your love for Romantic repertoire, and what inspires you in the works of Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninoff?

LA: My love for Romantic music is also rooted in my childhood. Obviously, as any young pianist I had to play my fair share of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, and I think their music is beautiful and timeless, but I was always leaning towards the Romantic composers. Their music gave me a sense of freedom, encouraged self-expression, and even in terms of temperament, I think, the Romantic repertoire is a natural match for my personality and performing style.

MM: You’re very inventive with your choice of performance venues. Your “Ocean Etude” video particularly stands out! How was that? Do you have some interesting anecdotes from concerts or from sets?

LA: Yes, there are stories behind almost every video shoot. For example, while shooting “Love Story” in Venice, it was so freezing cold that I literally had to wear a 40 lbs. fisherman’s coat and winter boots between each take. So, while in the video I am wearing a stylish short summer dress, the condition on the set were not so glamorous. During the shoot for “Ocean Etude”, my piano got hit several times by rather large waves and was almost devoured by the ocean. So, whenever you shoot outside, you can always expect the unexpected.

MM: You’ve performed all over the world. How different are audiences from different countries? Do
you notice any particular changes in your performance reception?

LA: I find that the audiences do indeed differ from country to country. For example, in Russia the public can be reserved at first, and you have to work hard to win them over, but once you do – they adore you. In Mexico people tend to be very passionate, excited, enthusiastic and they really love music. In the United States concertgoers are typically curious, engaged and always very appreciative of the performer. So it is true – each corner of the world is unique.

MM: In recent years, classical music has been steadily moving outside its traditional venues. Back in 2016, Los Angeles Youth Orchestra, led by Gustavo Dudamel, performed in the Super Bowl, marking this event as the first time in 50 years classical music was part of this sports event. You recently had the opportunity to perform as part of the charity tennis tournament Adria Tour. What was that experience like? How do sports fans compare to your regular concert audience?

LA: I love playing the “non-traditional” venues. Playing at sporting events typically generates high energy and
adrenaline pumping more than usual, which is something that excites me while I am on stage. The audience
in Serbia was very warm, indeed. I really enjoyed performing there and hope to return with a full scale concert soon.

Photo by: Misha Levintas

MM: You’re, still, one of the rare modern performers who has leveraged social media to their success. You’ve obviously recognised the importance of social media in the contemporary world – why do you think most other classical musicians still resist it?

LA: I suppose it can be daunting, because social media is a mirror of sorts, which can tells you many things about yourself. And sometimes you may not necessarily wish to hear those things, because they can be hurtful, especially if those words conflicts with your own vision of yourself and the world. I think many classical musicians still live in their imaginary bubble, and operate based on some outdated and restrictive views, which are, frankly, no longer supported by reality. They act out of fear of criticism, they worry about phantoms like competitions or newspaper reviews, which once upon a time could make or break a career, but today are largely irrelevant. In my view, any artist has the right, if not the responsibility, to be fearless, to move forward, to adapt, to change, to challenge…in a way, that is the artist’s purpose in life and one can’t fulfill it out of fear.

MM: Since the nineties, there has been a rise in the trend of classical musicians experimenting with promotional strategies people usually associate with pop music. Violinist Vanessa-Mae, for example, was one of the first more prominent virtuosos to shoot extravagant album covers and film music videos. Of course, with the rise of social media, the backlash to those who choose this path has become more visible and direct. What would be your response to those who think bold fashion choices and a more diverse, dynamic approach to how you represent yourself somehow devalue the art-form?

LA: Today’s performance is not just about the music, but also about the visuals, fashion, etc. All those elements help to create an exciting and memorable experience for the audience. Any musician, certainly, has the right to only play sounds (and some do), but to me that would be like asking a film director to only stick to black and white silent movies lest they “devalue the artform”. I think it’s total nonsense. But in the end any artist can do what he or she chooses, and the audience can choose what they want to hear and to see.

MM: Where do you see the classical music world in 100 years in terms of “seriousness”?

LA: The music will survive for as long as humans will continue to feel. But the performance formats will most
certainly change with only a tiny “conservative” classical music segment continuing to exist like a museum piece, interesting mostly for educators and a small group of enthusiasts. Even today those types of performances are not competitive and can hardly generate excitement or ticket sales even among the older crowd, not to mention teenagers. But the new classical music formats will emerge, and the boldest, brightest and most fearless performers will define it and will ensure the genre’s survival. In fact, it is already emerging, and it’s an exciting time to be a performing musician today.

Astanova with cellist Stjepan Hauser.

MM: How do you deal with the social media following you’ve amassed over the years? And you try to communicate with your fans as much as you can, which means you devote your time reading comments. Do different opinions affect you?

LA: Being on social media can sometimes feel like a full-time job. It does take a lot of time and effort to create
new and exciting content on a weekly basis. But I enjoy most aspects of it, and communicating with fans, reading and responding to comments is fun, so I try to do that as much as possible. As for different opinions – it really doesn’t bother me, because everyone is entitled to have one. As long as I know that what I do is quality – a negative or rude comment will never ruin my day.

MM: What do you think of the label “influencer”? Do you identify with it?

LA: I think of myself as a musician first and foremost. Still, I do recognize the fact that because of a large number of people that watch me, I have the ability to influence opinions and tastes. But I don’t necessarily like the term “influencer”, because over the past few years it’s gotten greatly diluted and devalued.
Nowadays any person with a few thousand followers on social media calls him or herself “influencer”, but
the truth is – very few people actually have an authentic and engaged social media audience. Many cannot create an engaging content, so they resort to buying fake followers, fake likes, etc. For some those stats create a real dependency and become like breathing, but I was never obsessed with numbers. My audience has grown organically over time, and I feel great knowing that every single person that follows me is there because they really are interested in what I do and we have a connection. Otherwise, I would simply consider it a waste of time.

MM: Your Instagram profile can be enjoyed not only as a selection of various classical music interpretations, but also as a digital fashion runway of sorts. What has been your favourite outfit you’ve worn for a concert performance so far?

LA: I have many favorites, but the one that stands out in my mind is my ‘Muse’ video outfit with huge custommade angel wings. Two wonderful theatre costume designers have worked for nearly a week to create those feather by feather and they turned out amazing. Another one was the Dolce & Gabbana dress made with Swarovski crystals, which I wore in my ‘La Campanella’ video. It was specially selected by maestro Dolce for this video and I thought it worked wonderfully.

MM: The audience has gotten to know you in spectacular, impactful stage fashion – at home you’re a little bit more relaxed, but in your casual videos you’re still wearing pumps and skinny jeans. What’s your style like off-stage and off-camera?

LA: I usually stick with one of two extremes: either the full-on glam look with high heels, perfect hair and makeup or the most basic, casual, no-effort-whatsoever look… (laughs). No makeup, my favorite comfy lounge clothes, and a braid. Usually, there is no in between for me.

🔥Lighting round🔥

You’re the expert – what are the comfiest high-heels to play piano in?

  • Gianvito Rossi;

What are your guilty pleasures?

  • Dark chocolate;

What song do you choose when singing karaoke?

  • “You Know I’m No Good” by Amy Winehouse;

Dream musical collaboration?

  • Sting;

Favourite designer?

  • Tom Ford.

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