Valentina Lisitsa, Eastern European tyrants, and “unplayable” piano music

Last night, Valentina Lisitsa hung Gerard Depardieu and Brigitte Bardot out to dry on her Twitter feed:

I didn’t know anything about this lunacy before last night, even though I knew that Depardieu and Bardot are basically French versions of Ted Nugent when it comes to sophisticated celebrity commentary on political issues. But now I know about a new facet of their crazy, thanks to Lisitsa’s eye for the absurd.

In fact, Lisitsa is one of my favorite musicians to follow on Twitter. Like the wry tweets of @richardmarx, the tone of her feed is somewhat surprising, but – again, like @richardmarx – it’s clear that she’s an artist who can easily separate the expectations of her concert audiences from the benefits of being an actual human being of Twitter.

Anyway, the best part of all this was that it reminded me to spend some time on Lisitsa’s YouTube channel. She is, after all, “the YouTube pianist,” a nickname that is simultaneously as accurate as it is horrible.

Yes, she made her bones by building an audience for clips of her playing impossibly difficult and beautiful piano pieces. But, as gimmicky as that seems – talented, attractive female garners millions of views by playing complex classical piano works – Lisitsa’s YouTube presence is a markedly music-centric one.

Take, for instance, one of the clips I watched last night:

Lisitsa isn’t the focus here; sure, she’s the one playing, but you barely see her face, and her presence – though emotional – is hardly melodramatic. What you’re watching is her hands, as they grapple with what she calls “one of the most unplayable pieces of music.” Her hands glide through the thicket of hard-hitting notes with ease, but definitely not carelessly. There’s no casual flash to the clip, no ZOMG HOT CHICK SHREDS LIZST; instead, the viewer is asked to train their attention on the precision and beauty of the piece, and only when you occasionally step back from that do you notice that, holy shit, she’s totally shredding this Lizst piece.

So, while Lisitsa has done a pretty great job of using YouTube to get her name and work out there (and an almost equally great job of using Twitter to keep her fans interested in what she’s doing), her success is not a blueprint for how to use social media to promote classical music to The Youngs. All those YouTube views and retweets would be worthless if Lisitsa wasn’t an artiste who lived and breathed the music she plays so deftly; she’s just smart enough to have figured out a way to make classical music – something that has historically been difficult for “outsiders” to begin to understand – more accessible by emphasizing its complexity and intricacy, rather than dumbing it down for general audiences. (I’m sure your local orchestra’s board of directors could take a lesson here.)


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