From Russia with Love: Moscow’s rising star brings his talents to West Michigan

Kalamazoo and Moscow are colliding this month when a Russian piano virtuoso is performing with the Gilmore Keyboard Festival.

Nikita Mndoyants said he was approached with an invitation to play in Kalamazoo by Pierre van der Westhuizen, director of the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, who came to know Mndoyants after he won the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 2016. At the time, van der Westhuizen was the director of the Cleveland competition.

Speaking from his home in Moscow where he was scheduled to play a concert, Mndoyants said he and van der Westhuizen became good friends.

“After that competition, I came to Cleveland several times to play concerts organized by the organization in Cleveland,” Mndoyants said. “When Pierre became the director of the Gilmore, he wanted me to play a recital. It is a great honor and pleasure for me to come to Kalamazoo. I know it’s one of the most important festivals in the United States. It’s one of the highlights for me.”

Mndoyants' performance in Kalamazoo will include sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms and Haydn, in addition to an original composition titled Intermezzo.

As a composer, Mndoyants received first prize at the 2014 Myaskovsky International Competition of Composers in Moscow and 2016 Prokofiev International Competition of Composers in Sochi, Russia.

Curtis Cunningham, director of marketing and public relations for the Gilmore, said it’s rare to have a Rising Star play an original composition during a performance, but Mndoyants is a talented composer in addition to being an accomplished pianist. He said the choice of music is up to the performer, and they decide what they have available and what they’re working on.

“The unique thing about the Rising Stars series is that it features people who are kind of on the way up, but established to a certain degree,” Cunningham said. “The goal is always to see them before they reach that next level.”

Pianist Magazine said of Mndoyants, “There comes a time when a rising talent comes onto the scene so polished that there isn’t much to say other than to simply applaud it.”

Cunningham also said Mndoyants has a strong command of his playing.

“He’s kind of an old-school Russian pianist,” Cunningham said. “He’s secure in his ability to play. He’s not flamboyant, but he does have a presence.”

Mndoyants grew up in a musical family and began playing the piano at the age of six, attending the Moscow Conservatory, a special school for children with outstanding musicianship. His father was a professor at the conservatory and won the prestigious Van Cliburn Piano Competition in 1977.

“That competition was very important to my family,” Mndoyants said. “Thirty-six years after my father won that competition, I was a finalist in the Van Cliburn. My mother is also a pianist.”

It was almost a given that Mndoyants would make a career in music.

Although he has traveled extensively over the past three years, the January performance will be Mndoyants’ first visit to Kalamazoo. He said he enjoys meeting new people and seeing new places while perfecting his craft.

“I appreciate the combination of the pleasure of playing and also of the way that I can share the art with the audience,” he said. “It’s important that I choose compositions that I like very much. It’s very interesting to see how people react to what I’m doing.”

Now 29, Mndoyants said his preparation for a performance involves studying a piece and refreshing it. It’s a matter of learning the program and preparing beforehand. Concentration and precision are key.

“It’s a slow review of the works just to clean up and refresh the program,” Mndoyants said. “The long-term preparation takes place in different ways, such as working the details or playing whole pieces just to feel how to handle the whole work, like a big building. Especially for this program, the preparation is important because the last sonatas from Beethoven and Brahms are huge pieces that demand a lot of attention and power.

“To handle them together is just like a whole piece. Because it’s so long, you have to have great concentration for this.”

Mndoyants is bringing this show to Wellspring Theater for a one-night show. Cunningham said the venue provides an ideal setting for pianists like Mndoyants because it’s small and intimate and gives the audience an opportunity to get closer to the artist. It’s exactly the opportunity you might not have in just a few years.

“You get to see them in a small, intimate setting before they hit the big time,” Cunningham said.

Nikita Mndoyants
Gilmore Keyboard Festival
Wellspring Theater
Jan. 13, 4 p.m., $25