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Valentina Lisitsa Delights at 92Y

by Melanie Wong 

Valentina Lisitsa 92nd Street Y

Photo credit: Richard Termine, The New York Times

In a world where piano virtuosos are a dime a dozen, how does one stand out? Easy: By becoming YouTube's most watched pianist. And, with more than 60 million views and 108,000 subscribers, that’s exactly what Russian pianist Valentina Lisitsa has done. Now a notable international performer, Ms. Lisitsa added an even more interesting—and brilliant, I might add—trademark to her concerts: fans have the opportunity to choose her program by voting online ahead of the concert.

This past Saturday night marked the opening of 92Y's 2013–14 season and Ms. Lisitsa's audience-chosen program included a hefty mix of Rachmaninoff preludes, Chopin nocturnes, a Shostakovich sonata, and Liszt's Totentanz.

Ms. Lisitsa—a tall, blonde beauty—was a vision in pink that evening, but it was her deep inner focus that drew in the audience's attention from the beginning. With fastidious fingers and a sparkling sound, she began the evening with Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Major. As she continued to float through the set of preludes, it became evident that her most impressive skill is her seemingly infinite decrescendos and unlimited ability to create ever-softer pianissimos. Of course, this quality was heightened by the unmatched clarity and ring of her choice piano, a Bösendorfer.

Before starting Shostakovich's dense Sonata No. 2 in B minor, Ms. Lisitsa charmed the audience with her own program notes for the piece—taken from her YouTube channel—and explained the work as a "testimony to human suffering." Here again, it was the soft sections that were most thrilling; in particular, the "Largo" movement's haunted weightiness was chilling, and her rejuvenating brilliance toward the end of the "Finale" was notable.

After intermission, Ms. Lisitsa glided through a set of Chopin preludes, ending with three audience favorites: the Nocturne in D-flat Major, op. 27; Nocturne in C-sharp minor, op. posth.; and Nocturne in E-flat Major, op. 9. Over two hours from the evening's start, the end was finally near as she began Liszt’s Totentanz. With almost superhuman stamina, she ripped through the bewitching dance of death with a feverish zeal—a wild ending to the arduous, albeit entertaining, journey. 

The first encore—which audience members chose during intermission by voting in an online survey on their smartphones—was the Schubert-Liszt version of Ave Maria. After the rapturous applause simply wouldn’t quit, Ms. Lisitsa simply shrugged and performed Liszt's La Campanella with just as much energy as she began the night with.  

It was a truly splendid New York début for Valentina Lisitsa, and watching her innumerable hand gestures, each uniquely paralleled to a specific mood and character, was a true delight. Being a true YouTube sensation, she is yet another fine example of a classical musician whose efforts are helping to bring the genre into the 21st century.