Since its inception under the guise of the Robert Casadesus International Piano Competition in 1974, the Cleveland International Piano Competition has become one of the preeminent events of its kind, attracting a host of gifted artists from around the world, and putting Cleveland on the map as a destination for aspiring concert pianists. Perhaps its most distinguishing feature is that it affords the four finalists the opportunity to perform a concerto with The Cleveland Orchestra. I recently had a chance to catch up with Nikita Mndoyants, who captured first prize in 2016. Easygoing yet not without a palpable enthusiasm, Mndoyants touched on topics ranging from his triumph in Cleveland to the Russian tradition which he is proud to uphold, his dual life as an accomplished composer, and his packed schedule of upcoming engagements – notably including a Carnegie Hall debut on June 7.

Nikita Mndoyants © Emil Matveev
Nikita Mndoyants
© Emil Matveev
The Carnegie Hall recital is certainly the high point amongst the long list of performances granted to the Competition winner, and Mndoyants describes it as a great event, and the most important for beginning a career, further commenting that is a great responsibility and honor to play in such a great venue. Adding to the sense of the occasion is the start of a partnership with the luxury fashion house Jeffrey Rüdes, who are providing the pianist’s suit and hosting a pre-concert reception in his honor at the flagship store in SoHo.

The program he has chosen is an interesting one, with a first half juxtaposing Beethoven’s late set of Bagetelles, Op.126 with Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. Both are sets of diverse miniatures, and Mndoyants explains that in the Beethoven there is a clear connection to Schumann and the cycles of the Romantic composers, a link which he is keen to explore. The latter half is to open with Mndoyants’ own Variations on a Theme of Paganini, a composition dating from 2007 which he introduced to Cleveland audiences in the first round of the Competition. He mentions that he has been composing quite intensively and is thus eager to present this important element of his musical persona. The program concludes appropriately with a Russian work in the shape of Prokofiev’s mighty Piano Sonata no. 8 in B flat major, which the pianist notes is one of his favorites, as well as being Prokofiev’s “most deep sonata – like a symphony for piano”.

When asked about his experience competing in the Cleveland competition, Mndoyants’ spoke enthusiastically of its celebrated atmosphere, akin to performing in a big festival heightened by the ardent support of the audience. Moreover, Mndoyants’ remarks on the Competition’s “smart programming” that is “not very strict, [allowing you to] play works you like” as certainly evidenced by the wide range of repertoire he presented in the solo rounds – from Bach and Haydn to Taneyev and Prokofiev, by way of Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin. The two-pronged final rounds involve both chamber music – “one of my passions”, Mndoyants notes – with the Escher String Quartet, and the banner event of the concerto with The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey, the latter of which Mndoyants succinctly though aptly describes as a really important moment. He selected Beethoven’s lyrical Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, a work for which he expressed a particular affinity, allowing him to feel the most free while performing and show his best sides.

I first encountered Mndoyants’ playing when a number of years ago I happened to come across a live recording of a recital he gave in Helsinki as a mere ten-year-old, and I was eager to ask him his memories of this. Referring to it as a remarkable event, Mndoyants explained that it was his first full-length recital; initially recorded for archival purposes, the positive reviews he garnered encouraged its eventual commercial release. Even from this early age, the program included some of his own compositions, a nascent sign of the composer-pianist duality he now exemplifies.

A native of Moscow, Mndoyants is heir to a long and distinguished musical tradition. His father, Alexander, was a distinguished pianist in his own right and a finalist in the 1977 Van Cliburn Competition, a feat which Nikita repeated in 2013. Nikita notes his studies with Tamara Koloss at the Central Music School in Moscow a formative influence, as well those with Nikolay Petrov at the Moscow Conservatory, from where he holds undergraduate and graduate degrees, and currently teaches orchestration. Among his other teachers is Alexander Tchaikovsky, with whom he studied composition.

It is perhaps out of this extraordinary milieu from which Mndoyants’ impetus to compose burgeoned, in spite of the current trend of composition and performance becoming increasingly separate disciplines. He suggests that composition is a very important part of musical life, and numerous commissions from colleagues have given him a reason to compose quite often. He admits to having less time for composition recently, owing to his busy performance schedule, yet nonetheless still feels a need to do it, and has recently completed a Violin Concerto, set for a January 2018 première in Moscow with soloist Alexander Vinnitsky. Mndoyants sees composition and performance as inherently and inextricably co-dependent: a performer with a composer’s insight can understand structure better; likewise, a composer has the aptitude for writing with the feeling of a performer.

Those who can’t make it to New York in June need not despair as there are ample other opportunities to see Mndoyants in concert. He has a busy summer with appearances at major festivals both sides of the Atlantic. Stateside, he has an additional New York engagement at the International Keyboard Institute & Festival, as well as at Chautauqua and a further Cleveland performance in a gala concert featuring all four of the 2016 finalists. In Europe, he can be seen at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr (Germany), the Duszniki International Chopin Piano Festival (Poland), and at the Italian chamber music festival Armonia della Sera. Additionally, he has several performances at the Festival International de Musique de Wissembourg in France, a festival with which he has forged a close partnership as artist-in-residence and refers to as a special place, in what will be his sixth appearance. Autumn sees him back in Russia, having this past season made his solo recital debut at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, with an itinerary including the St Petersburg Philharmonic under Charles Dutoit. He will also be embarking on a US tour in October and November, as well as a debut tour of China later this year and of South Africa in 2018. Intense a schedule as this may be, Mndoyants notes that he is still managing to find time to learn new repertoire.

In a competitive field, Nikita Mndoyants brings something unique which, to my mind, is due in no small part to his reverence for the great tradition from which he comes, as well as the penetrating vision he offers into performance from a composer’s perspective. I look forward to crossing paths with him again, and witnessing the blossoming of an already remarkable career.

 

This article was sponsored by Jonathan Eifert Public Relations.