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.
The pre-college division was an intensive program, training young children who were excited and serious enough to aim for the highest level of playing. Even as a young child, I felt a sense of belonging in a community where I could commiserate about having to practice the piano instead of going outside to play like the other children in my neighborhood. My piano teacher, Alla Nakashidze, mentored me for nine years, laying down the foundation of my love for music. She taught me to pour my love into every piece. Our bi-weekly lessons were paired with frequent performance opportunities.
At seven, I performed a concerto with a chamber orchestra - an experience that etched in me an exhilarating sense of excitement and confidence on stage. I knew that it was something special, making beautiful music and and sharing it with others. It felt natural - I felt at home on stage.
I knew that music was going to be my career at age 10, when I won the Balys Dvarionas International Piano Competition in Lithuania. I remember rigorous preparation for an entire year, which to me felt like I was getting ready for the Olympics! At a time when the government had tight restrictions on leaving Georgia, performing abroad was an exhilarating experience and one of the few tickets out, one that I dreamed to have again. I felt a strong sense of purpose when I performed on stage.
Following the competition, I traveled to Germany and Holland to perform concerts, and soon after, I began receiving invitations to study in Europe and the United States. My parents would not send me alone to a new country. Instead, we went together. As the economy continued to deteriorate in Georgia, my parents took a step into the unknown for the sake of my brother’s and my artistic futures (my brother was studying to become an artist). My father somehow was able to obtain a priceless visa to the United States, where we moved when I was 15.