Pleshakov’s breadth of vision is a revelation to those who hear him on the stage

  • Thursday, November 21, 2013

Elena Winther and Vladimir Pleshakov PHOTO BY SULLY WITTE


Vladimir Pleshakov, a spectacular pianist who has performed in major concert venues around the world including Carnegie Hall, now calls Mount Pleasant home.

His equally-talented wife, Elena Winther, often found seated on stage with Pleshakov, has followed her husband here to support him in his pursuit of yet another dream.

Born in Shanghai, China, of Russian immigrant parents, Pleshakov has lived in Asia, Australia, Europe and the U.S. His piano playing reflects three centuries of uninterrupted tradition of Europe’s Golden Age of Pianism.

The couple has moved to the area so that Pleshakov can serve as the choral director for Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On.

“For us it is sort of a miracle,” said Father John Parker. “The orthodox world is very small place in a certain sense.”

He said he posted a job opening on a small website, orthodoxjobs.com, and Pleshakov saw it.

Parker received an email from Pleshakov and the conversation began.

“Who wouldn’t want to have someone with the kind of talent that he has,” Parker said.

“It is a complete honor that someone of his talent would contact us. On the other hand, we are a growing, small mission-church in South Carolina.”

Parker explained that the church was not looking for a concert-oriented choir.

Parker’s initial concern was that because of Pleshakov’s caliber, his desire would be to make theirs a professional choir. Pleshakov’s only desire, said Parker is to help make the best singers out of the ones they have and worship God. “That made it all the more a miracle in a certain sense,” said Parker.

And while being a choir director is not his main expertise, Parker is honored to have such a man in his presence.

“I am neither a singer (although I do sing), nor a trained conductor,” Pleshakov humbly said. “Rather, I am a musician who happens to compose for choir and therefore can conduct my own (and other composers’) works because I understand the music from within.”

Anyone familiar with his works (or Winther’s for that matter) might call that the understatement of the year.

For example, his piano studies include teachers from the Alexander Siloti school. Siloti, a student of Liszt, and cousin of Rachmaninoff was the one-time teacher of the great master in pre-revolutionary Russia.

A graduate of the New South Wales State Conservatory of Music (Sydney), The University of California (Berkeley) and Stanford University, Vladimir holds degrees from all culminating in Doctor of Musical Arts from Stanford University.

A native of San Francisco Winther has lived in Europe and the U.S. Her playing reflects The Golden Age of Pianism through the influence of Josef Lhevinne a classmate of Rachmaninoff. She studied with teachers mostly from the Josef Lhevinne school. Masterclasses include work with Hess, Schnabel and others. Debuting at 18 with San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, Winther was invited to make multiple appearances with both groups. Playing as a soloist her main interest soon became chamber music. Now a master of the literature for violin-piano, flute-piano, and two pianos Elena has toured extensively in Europe.

Pleshakov’s repertoire is wide-ranging, as is his sense of style. He is responsible for many world premiere recordings of unjustly neglected works from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. He is also an eloquent and highly communicative recitalist.

But his story goes much deeper. Pleshakov’s composing started quite suddenly - about five years ago.

He had some serious illnesses that could have been fatal within a few months had they not been detected and treated radically. He is in complete remission and able to function and doctors have assured him he will die of something else, he said.

But when coming out of anesthesia after the second surgery (which took 10 hours and 10 days of recovery) his life changed forever.

He was bored in the hospital and the only patient at Christmas. He asked for a pen and paper and began writing music. It was complete music in and of itself, he explained.

“I don’t know what generates it, but it is there. Edward Elgar said, ‘all I have to do is listen and it is there.’ That is me.” Pleshakov explained that the end result of that music within his soul is a finished product as in “it is hard to change. It is impervious to change,” he said.

“I can start in the middle and work backwards or forwards. It never goes away until it is fully written and then it fades from the memory.”

He said his greatest fear is to wake up one day and it won’t be there.”So I have to use it.”

The musician

Russian immigrants were deficient in funds, Pleshakov explained, “but I was blessed with their inheritance of culture brought with them and it was the only worldly good they possessed. They treasured it and favored a strong education for children,” he explained. “I was a beneficiary of this and went to French schools because I was born in French sector of Shanghai, China.”

He was a poly-linguist of French, English and Russian simultaneously, dabbling in Latin because he went to Catholic school and also learned a few words of greek.

At age 4, Pleshakov was able to pick out, on a toy piano, radio commercials, bar room songs of Russian and American origin and basically knew more about the world from short wave radio than he said he knows now.

“As far as music is concerned, I was fortunate in having three teachers in succession - two in China and one in Australia - who came from the same background (Russian school prior to the revolution).

I got that inheritance in the philosophy, aesthetics, technique and eventually the composition from the uninterrupted flow of the 19th century,” he explained.

The music

“Music transcends the piano. The piano is the art of it. The general philosophy and aesthetics of music is all one parcel for me,” said Pleshakov.

“People tell me I am quite an expert in finding things in Beethoven and others that have not been emphasized yet. But that comes naturally through this particular training I have received.”

Pleshakov said in his playing he preserves the tradition without making a fetish out of it. “My playing is modern but rooted in things which give my approach to music a multifaceted one,” he said.

It’s called relevance, he said. And he owes it all to his parents who knew the importance of it.

“Any artist of any kind does something he or she can understand. In art, one has to find not something new necessarily in the material or you run the danger of irrelevance. You have to find a new vantage point to look at what already exists.”

Pleshakov said that this is what makes art of interest and perpetually self refreshing and perpetually relevant. “People are always interested in a different point of view with a familiar undercurrent. They suddenly see things differently but understand.”

The catalysts

William Carragan, musicologist and harpsichordist, is known for his research in both baroque chamber music and nineteenth-century symphonic literature.

He studied piano with his mother Martha Beck and with Stanley Hummel, harpsichord with Louis Bagger, and composition with the Russian-music expert Alfred Swan.

He is also a close personal friend of Pleshakov’s, having worked closely with him on his compositions.

He is a contributing editor of the Anton Bruckner Collected Edition in Vienna, for which he prepared a new edition of the Bruckner Second Symphony, in two versions, over the period of 1986-2005. He has also reconstructed the earliest version of the Bruckner First Symphony, which was recorded on Naxos in 1996, and a previously unheard version of the Third, which was premiered in Japan in 2007. From 1979 to 1983 he devoted himself to a completion of the Bruckner Ninth; so far it has been performed in six countries.

He was professor of physics at Hudson Valley Community College from 1965 to 2001, and is the author of a comprehensive four-volume textbook of introductory university physics.

“That explains why I need William Carragan’s perspective on my music,” said Pleshakov.

Carragan became acquainted with Pleshakov’s recordings because he found them to be useful in teaching college music history. Many years later he found Pleshakov had moved to Hudson, New York.

Carragan attended his concerts, struck up a friendship and the two became collaborators on Pleshakov’s composing and getting the music ready for publication and singing by choirs.

“He is a force of nature that way,” said Carragan.

“The music comes out easy to understand and he takes great pains with that.”

Carragan explained that what was produced and published was music that more and more choirs wanted to sing it and that doesn’t happen very often.

“Often a lot is written and most doesn’t get heard. His success was a surprise to Pleshakov as much as it was to anyone else.”

And now Pleshakov considers the church choir and Father Parker the same kind of catalysts as Carragan. They affect all of my music making and everything I do, I think I understand things I never could before or never was interested in before,” he said.

Winther said Pleshakov would be in the basement half the night or he is always scrawling on bank statements or scraps from the waste baskets.

“He has to do it. I know that Vladimir always felt something inside yet it never came out. Perhaps there was a blockage or he just never had the time or privacy.”

The teacher

Pleshakov believes that in all body movements we make as humans there is a lot of unnecessary use of muscle groups.

That holds true in the physical aspect of playing.

And it is not all about just movement. It is also about management of sound when you play a chord.

For example, Winther said that “when I work on something new I have to prepare for as long it takes to feel absolutely free in my movements and free when I play; so I do not think about what I am doing,” she said. “One should be at ease and relaxed not tied up in knots when they play.”

Call it autopilot. The player should become a listener along with their audience.

“The audience wants results and that is the sound, not the outward performance of the pianist or the composer,” Pleshakov said.

“We must always be consumers of music because the music is always for someone else.”

“Our emotions get in the way if we feel the music before we play each note because it is already done. There is nothing left to do if you respond instantly and a micro-second later the sound becomes another entity.”

Pleshakov and his wife both teach master classes that apply to people of almost any level.

“I have developed the skill of explaining this very thing to people and show them how to get rid themselves of the residual garbage they may not even be aware of,” he said. “And the playing becomes more musical because there is less chaos and less things left to chance. At that point the essence of the music can take over.”

“When I work with people I can see ways of helping them without changing their style, approach or technique. I can see the little statistical irregularities, which when ironed out, make music sound many times better.”

The couple is both interested (and able) to work with beginning piano students. “Children are a wonderful source of solace and inspiration to us,” Pleshakov said.

“Our approach often results in a rate of progress which is much faster, but does not ‘cut corners.’ We eliminate obstacles.

“Time is saved. Results - and they happen more often than not - are obvious to all.”

“I think it has really been quite a revelation. One has to be humble and assume you yourself are nothing and things are a gift.

“And you are the carrier of a gift. If you are not using it you are damned and someone else will get the gift by transfer,” Pleshakov said.

“Someone has to carry the gift. The gift doesn’t make you better person. You are not special. We’re all just carriers.”

Taking the keys

Pleshakov takes the reins full time this week.

In addition to conducting services and rehearsals Pleshakov hopes to recruit new singers and create a boys choir.

“For a young church in Mount Pleasant, to have PLeshakov as its choir director - a world class musician - is a great gift not only to parish but to community wide as well,” Parker said.

“Our hope is that for the parish we might be able to share the talents of Pleshakov with the community through concerts at Holy Ascension and we hope he and his wife find venues in Charleston to play their incredible piano music for the Charleston community.”

For more information about private master classes or children’s piano classes email vpleshakov@yahoo.com or call 843-388-4480. For more information about Holy Ascension Orthodox Church visit 265 North Shelmore Blvd. or contact the rector, Fr. John Parker at 843.881.5010.


“Vladimir Pleshakov and Elena Winther are one of the best piano duos to be heard anywhere in the world today” Le Meridional (France)

“Miraculous sobriety from the pianists Pleshakov” Le Provencal (France)

“Pianists Pleshakov and Winther are European heirs to the great tradition of legendary Russian playing” Smena (St.Petersburg, Russia).


Flute-Piano. Two-piano music with Vladimir Pleshakov: world-premieres of Balakirev, Rachmaninoff, Milhaud.

Television documentaries of her playing include Russian Federal TV and KTVU San Francisco.

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