'Two Toy Pianos

In the life of great artists the beginning inspiration, that first spark, the open window revealing the initial beckoning light is always a powerful and enduring moment. Elena Winther and Vladimir Pleshakov are world class pianists, have graced concert stages around the globe, yet it all began with two toy pianos.

Elena was born in Mill Valley, California. She received a small toy piano when she was two. She loved that piano. At four she placed records on a phonograph and sitting before it, was enthralled by the deep emotion of the concert piano. Lessons came at seven. In high school she ushered at an Arthur Rubenstein recital. “I said, that’s what I want to do, I don’t know what it was, just a fire inside,” her smile warms with the recollection.

In the French sector of Shanghai where Vladimir was born to Russian immigrant parents, he was four and sick with whooping cough. His parents bought him a tiny toy piano. His mother overheard him playing, note for note, a cough medicine commercial just aired on the radio. A real piano was soon purchased. Lessons followed at six.

A Russian friend had a crystal radio. One day the boy offered Vladimir the chance to put on the earphones and hear music. A spark, which persists still, ignited within him. He heard and understood Rachmaninoff, “When I play, I feel the inside of the music, like being in someone’s soul.”

Surviving the Japanese occupation, but not Mao, his family fled Shanghai in 1949, traveling first to Australia then San Francisco.

A music store owner in San Francisco gave seventeen-year-old Elena a key, allowing her to practice for a performance with the San Francisco Symphony. There she was alone, locked in, rehearsing when someone began banging on the front door. It was Vladimir. “Funny, how I remember him. He was at the door, tall, thin, a scarf around his neck, very poetic, something out of a novel.” Thirty years later they met again and were married.

Much has been written about them since opening the Pleshakov Music Center here nearly three years ago. We talked about the work, the creative process. When Elena approaches a new piece of music, she first learns the notes, when she’s comfortable with the notes she is then able to let go, to explore, discover the freedom within the music.

Vladimir first grasps what the composer wants to say with the music. He condenses it in his head, then works toward it, “It’s as if there is some creature that takes control of me.”

All artists cherish moments of magic, but they do not come easily. “You have to do the hard work first, that frees you to touch the magic,” Elena explains. “You have nights when it just happens perfectly and it’s truly magical.”

Playing duo pianist, two pianos, two players playing together, they sit far apart barely able to see each other. “It’s playing by the seat of your pants,” Vladimir says. He recalls a recent recording session where both he and Elena were playing Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony, “It’s a terrifying piece, cataclysmic, nine death knells at the end, it is very risky to record nearly impossible for two pianos to play it correctly the first time. For some reason near the end we began to slow down, together, spontaneously without ever looking at each other and we played it perfectly on the first take, unheard of and most difficult. It was a spiritual connection.” As he speaks, the connection becomes perceptible in their eyes. “The pianos meld. You can’t tell which piano is which. I don’t know I’m playing. We absorb each others soul, sort of breathe in each other.” Playing as duo pianists yields a sexually charged emotional union.

Vladimir and Elena are very conscious of the movement and passage of time in music. “I feel I’m riding on a beam of time,” Vladimir explains. “Dimensions are gone, length and width, only time is left. It goes through to your inner being, it infuses you, it’s exhilarating. You believe time stands still, but instead you are riding on it and when it stops you are released.”

The Pleshakovs are passing along their talent to gifted young students. “We must challenge them to listen and discover their own voice in the composer,” Vladimir explains.

“They must accept the hard work and be responsible to themselves,” Elena asserts.
Vladimir smiles, “Sometimes I think we learn more than the student.” Both agree, “We have learned it is most important in playing, not to please others, but to please yourself, it’s not only better, it’s freedom.”

They sit together at the Steinway and toy with Beethoven as I shoot pictures. I am a privileged witness to the festive ease with which they create, the image of two playful young lovers. “What’s your dream?”

“Once, to at least touch the stars of perfection with no need for witness,” Vladimir’s poet reveals.

Elena’s answer is clear, simple, passionate, “To keep playing.”

Greatness from two toy pianos, we’ll talk next time From The Road.

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