My August 11th Steinway Series recital at the Smithsonian American Art Museum will feature rarely performed gems by trailblazing female composers. This concert is especially meaningful to me because my first concert after moving to DC in 2017 was part of the Steinway Series, my first opportunity to show my art to this city. This time, I am using this opportunity to showcase works that have not been performed as often as their artistry deserves—because women composed them. They also represent a wide variety of styles that showcase the range of women’s compositional creativity across time, fitting well with the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative: “Because of Her Story”
Francesca Caccini was a uniquely gifted musician and composer, the first woman to ever compose and publish an opera. Thankfully for us, Florence in the early 1600s was ruled by two women. Though composition was a field reserved for men, the women in power recognized her talents and raised eyebrows by promoting her to the highest paid musical position at court. I was immediately drawn to her music, particularly the aria for voice and lute, Lasciatemi qui solo, for its depth of emotion and surprising freshness of harmonies. The haunting melody and the darkness of the text are daring for this period. Four hundred years later, her music is still moving.
I’m preparing one of my favorite pieces, Ravel’s "Une barque sur l’océan” from Miroirs, for a recital in Florence. The work evokes a small boat on the ocean being swept by waves and currents. It is a source of endless beauty and joy to perform, as well as a pianistic challenge. But this masterpiece might have never been composed without a pioneering work Liszt, an earlier composer, composed at the Villa d’Este in the hills near Rome a few decades before. I visited the villa on my way to Florence and discovered a chain of inspiration that led from a 2nd century emperor looking for respite from the oppressive heat and politics of Rome, to a renaissance cardinal with grand ambitions, to Liszt seeking sanctuary, and then to Ravel’s quest for a new musical language.
Though my parents had enrolled me in English lessons in Georgia, I had to look up every other word in my textbooks to complete my first high school assignments in the U.S. I didn’t sleep very much in those first months, but I soon caught up, finishing high school a year early, and never let my work at the piano slip. After winning a few local competitions, Logan Skelton, a professor at the University of Michigan, took me on as a student and prepared me for the grueling work needed to play at the level demanded at international competitions and conservatory auditions. In my senior year I went to New York alone, and came back with an admissions offer and a full scholarship at Juilliard. Though I had no connections, I became the first person from Georgia ever to gain admission.
My musical life began in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union My mother, a collaborative pianist at the Conservatory, was part of the city’s vibrant artistic culture and ensured I was always immersed in music even before she enrolled me in the pre-college division of the conservatory at age six. Since my father directed a local theater, I grew up surrounded by actors and designers as well. The bustling artistic world contrasted jarringly with an economy in tatters. Sometimes, life was literally dark, with lack of electricity, no running water, and long lines at the grocery store to buy bread. But some of the most vivid and happiest memories of my youth are practicing on my beautiful Steinway grand piano on dark winter nights with no electricity, lit with a tiny lamp and warding off the cold with an oil fueled heater.