Valentina Lisitsa performing in London
Valentina Lisitsa performing in London
Manuel Brug

BERLIN – A concert hall or the Internet? For any fan of classical music, the choice is easy. Music is played in the city, in a beautiful hall or chamber.

You dress up a little for a 45 + 45 minute program, plus some encores, and down a glass of Champagne during the intermission. Leafing through the program – perhaps even some socializing – is also part of the occasion. No question about it, this bourgeois ritual is alive and well. And the careers of the great classical performers are still largely made on the concert circuit, nurtured by agents, their recording labels, and the press.

If Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who made her debut with the Berlin Philharmonic last week, is now a part of that universe her beginnings were anything but the same old same old.

She owes her rise to stardom to the Internet, to viewer numbers that – for the classical music world – are dazzling: over 54 million clicks and 73,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel. That leaves even Lang Lang in the dust.

Traditionally, classical artists have been discovered in competitions, or via talent scouts – and it was often unclear why some got their big breaks and others didn’t. The Internet is a much more democratic medium. Everybody can give it a go, with simple modest means, although many purists equate it with selling out.

Lisitsa didn’t sell out. As ambitious as she is tech-savvy, this Kiev native is blonde and pretty – but she’s not a “piano babe,” using skin-tight miniskirts and f**k-me stilettos to build a fan base. Lisitsa has solid, Soviet-style musical training behind her, and she wanted her skill to be the source of her appeal.

It was a long, hard journey that took courage, risk and sacrifice. By the time her big break finally came, it seemed highly unlikely that it ever would, Lisitsa says: "I was 39 years old; if you haven’t made it by then in classical music, you’re dead. You have to be 16 today, the competitions end at 29, and after that it’s curtains." It looked as if she were going to be just another of the thousands of gifted young musicians whose wunderkind status fizzled to nothing.

YouTube Sensation

Lisitsa had her first piano lesson aged three, and held her first solo recital at age four. Her dream however was not to be a musician – it was to be a chess player. But after attending a school for gifted kids she went on to Kiev Conservatory of Music where she met her future husband with whom she sometimes played piano duos. She won various competitions, and a prize she won in Miami in 1991 gave her the idea of pursuing her career in the U.S.

Progress was slow: there were a few concerts in second and third tier cities, and nobody wanted the three CDs she’d self-produced. She got enough rejections by the big record labels and agencies to fill a ring binder. Lisitsa saw no future for herself beyond being simply "another nimble-fingered East European blonde” at the keyboard.

So, after over 20 years of performing, she gave up playing professionally – to become a government employee in Washington. But her music career kept nagging at her. Was that really it? After all the commitment, the deprivation, not to mention her obvious skill? To keep her sanity, in 2007 she started posting videos on YouTube – to soothe her soul, she says, and as a way of maintaining balance and not giving in to despair.

As the number of YouTube clicks gradually mounted, so did her confidence, even if the official music world was still ignoring her. In 2010 she and her husband borrowed some money against the value of their house and hired, at their own expense, the London Symphony Orchestra to record all four Rachmaninov piano concertos.

The first conductor bailed out of the project. There wasn’t enough money for rehearsals so interpretation details had to be agreed on in e-mails. And then when the project was completed – still nobody wanted it! Until the YouTube wave turned into a tsunami.

The record companies finally bit. In 2012, Decca launched to great fanfare the CD and DVD of Lisitsa’s first London mega-gig (8,000 people packing the Royal Albert Hall): a romantic virtuoso potpourri of Rachmaninov, Liszt, Scriabin and Chopin around a fluid interpretation Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Violin star Hilary Hahn chose to tour and make a CD of Charles Ives violin sonatas with her, that won the 2012 German recording critics award. Renowned Vienna piano maker Bösendorfer hired her as an ambassador for their instruments.

Lisitsa is now being marketed by the same music companies that formerly rejected her – at going-on-40 she’s become the "Justin Bieber of Classical Music," a "YouTube Star," an "Internet Invasion". She says she’s also known as "The People's Pianist" and that music lovers can vote on what they want her to play in concert. For the February 28 concert she gave with the Berlin Philharmonic, two variations were available to choose from.

And her Rachmaninov concertos, how did they fare? They were bought by Decca and in the English charts ranked right up there with Cecilia Bartoli’s expensively marketed "Mission" CD. "All the effort," says Lisitsa laughing, "was definitely worth it."

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never."

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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