Why a Piano Extravaganza?

One of our great delights as a community orchestra serving the far eastern Twin Cities metro is making the acquaintance of other local performing artists and arts organizations.(1) Thus when long-time orchestra hornist Dwight Erickson introduced me to Elena Pirastro, a local piano teacher who was also an immigrant from Russia, I knew almost immediately that we could create a very special program together, focusing on the great variety of piano concerti that have been created over the centuries, while providing the extraordinary opportunity for a group of young pianists to perform with an orchestra, by featuring some of Elena’s circle of students and former students. How could I know this on a first meeting? Because of my own experience in the 1970s as a piano student of another Russian immigrant, Nina Svetlanova,(2) and the 1988 feature film, Madame Sousatzka.(3)

My understanding that working with Elena Pirastro’s piano circle would be a great collaboration was instinctive and immediate. But trying to explain this instinctive understanding is not so easy, and calls for me to think back on what this experience with Nina was actually like, and why all these years later I find it so compelling. The following is the best I can do:


Being a piano student of a great Russian immigrant pianist and teacher connects you to a long, deep and proud tradition of piano pedagogy. Piano Extravaganza Blog-Nina SvetlanovaOne of the great delights of working with Nina was her ability to explain how the brain functioned to learn a new set of skills – well before our most recent ability to conduct in-depth brain research – and so offered a variety of techniques on how to study and practice based on these understanding. I continue to value and use these methods to this day.

The Russian culture has historically adored, supported and highly valued music and other performing arts. Studying with somebody who was raised in that world of deep appreciation allows you to feel deeply valued in your own artistic pursuits and to join a community that treasures the arts. (Obviously this is not what we generally experience toward the arts in our world here and now.)

What I understood of the nurturing that pianists like Nina received as she grew up was that because they were deeply involved in developing themselves as artists they would in turn be unquestioningly supported by their society. Thus as teachers today their support of their students is also thorough and unwavering. For me as a student in the 1970s this might mean that if she thought I was hungry Nina would cook me a meal. If I needed a place to rest or sleep she would likely offer me a spot in her apartment. She might suggest I learn a Mozart concerto in A major because I needed to smile more. Her teaching and nurturing was not just about the piano and not just limited to the hour-long lesson (that would likely run into two hours) each week; it encompassed all elements of my well-being. In return I would unquestioningly help her in any way she requested. This might mean helping her to understand an important document she received that of course was written in the English language that was still so foreign to her, or drive her and her son back to school because she did not have a driver’s license.

It might be that such complete nurturing could become oppressive at times to some, but for me Nina’s mothering ways as a teacher provided me with an utterly secure place to grow as a pianist, musician and young woman.

So what about the film?

Shirley Maclaine had the starring role as a Russian immigrant piano teacher in the film Madame Sousatzka, which appeared sometime after my studies with Nina were completed. I honestly could not tell you much about the film’s plot or characters, but I clearly remember understanding that this character was representing all of the Nina Svetlanovas that exist in the world, and I was utterly delighted to experience that lovely, warm, cocoon of her piano studio as it was depicted in the film.

How this all connects to Elena

Piano Extravaganza Blog-Elena PiastroWhen I met Elena Piastro, then when I saw her engage with her piano students (who she so clearly adored) and the family members that constituted the audience at a recent piano recital, then how I saw not just her current, but also her former – sometimes well-advanced in their development as pianists – students gather around her, I know that the pianists who will perform with us on October 23rd(4) will create a magnificent experience for themselves, each other, the orchestra, our audience and our community.

Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes
EMSO Music Director and Conductor
and former piano student of Nina Svetlanova


(1) One of the most remarkable opportunities the East Metro Symphony Orchestra has as an orchestra serving the eastern twin cities metro area, is meeting remarkable individuals and organizations in our area and creating performing and education partnership with them.  Our 2010-2011 season alone included partnerships with the Woodbury Dance Center, Woodbury Community Theater, the South Washington County School District orchestra program, the choirs of New Life and Kind of Kings Churches as well as New Life Academy, and the Bavarian Musikmeisters.  As we continue to meet our neighbors in the east metro we are able to develop fascinating performance and education projects that not only create interesting performances for our audiences, but create unique experiences for our community partners as well as our own orchestra members!

(2) To learn more about Nina Svetlanova please visit her website at www.ninasvetlanova.com.

(3) Visit Madame Sousatzka at the IMBD website to learn more about the 1988 film.

(4) Piano Concerto Extravaganza! at King of Kings Lutheran Church in Woodbury, Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 3 p.m.