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From YouTube To Royal Albert Hall: The Ukrainian Justin Bieber Of Classical Music

Lang Lang look out!

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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