In Conversation with Konstantin Shamray
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Byline: Megan Steller
Konstantin Shamray is having a busy week. When we chat, he has just finished performing with the acclaimed countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen for the Adelaide Festival, and is moments away from flying to Queensland for a solo performance of Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Ravel. “It has been hectic,” he laughs when I ask him how he has fared over the last ten days. “I’ve been teaching at the [Adelaide] Conservatorium, too, scheduling students around my rehearsals, but I always say to myself that busy is better than not busy! Last year was a great reminder of that.”
It is a sombre moment thinking about the challenges performers faced in 2020, and the ripple effect that those challenges have had on the industry at large. “I cannot complain about last year,” Shamray reflects, “so many lost their jobs, and I was so fortunate to be working as a teacher. I did a few online performances, and once Adelaide began to return in September, I was able to perform with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.” I wondered how he worked during the quiet period though, because without a definite performance on the horizon, I imagine it must have been difficult to stay driven and positive:
“I invested in my future, to the best of my abilities: practising, learning repertoire. I tried to use the time to do a lot of paced practice; staying active and working on exercises that you never get the time to do when you’re frantically preparing for performances!”
He wasn’t just churning through his Czerny though; Shamray also learned some new concertos that he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to perform. “I learned the Prokofiev Concertos that I didn’t know, so I have a full set now,” he chuckles. “Maybe I’ll get to play them soon!”
When Shamray was young, he spent his time going in and out of the local Philharmonic building in the city of Kemerovo, in southwest Siberia, Russia. His father, a concert pianist who worked consistently with the orchestra, brought Shamray in regularly, where the young prodigy was allowed to walk around behind the scenes and get to know his father’s colleagues. His first concert in front of an orchestra was with this orchestra; Shamray was just 10 years old, and the repertoire was Beethoven’s famous 2nd Piano Concerto.
“It’s my favourite concerto,” he says, “and the experience was unlike anything I’d felt before: I felt like I was not only responsible for myself, but for everybody, but those musicians were giving me this hugely warm feeling of support.” He has loved playing with orchestras ever since.
I ask him about that concerto, and whether he often returns to it: “When I do, and I play it as often as I can, I don’t get nervous. Not anymore! I just feel pure joy.” Does he remember how he played it the first time? “I actually heard it back relatively recently, interestingly! My mum found the video cassette of me playing when I was 10, and the quality of the actual video was really good, I was so surprised! I showed my teacher from that time, and we had a bit of a joke about it – he said ‘I don’t know if you can play like this now!’” There is something to be said for the irreplicable effortlessness young musicians bring to music, and Shamray knows that feeling well. It is one of the many reasons he is so excited to be collaborating with the students of the prestigious Australian National Academy of Music.
“ANAM has truly excellent students, and it’s thrilling to work with young people, because they bring so much energy. They are starting their lives and careers, and everything is exciting, and hopefully easy and joyful! Whenever I play with orchestras made up of younger musicians, I have a lot of fun, and it’s particularly exciting because it’s a really challenging and rewarding program, for both me and them. Audiences love to be challenged and so do we, so it feels like a bit of an adventure.”
The thrilling program spans from 1876 and Mahler’s Piano Quartet (given a 2021 flair by young violinist Harry Ward, who has arranged the piece for this tour) to 2008 for Estonian composer Mihkel Kerem's Lamento. Along the way, we make stops to visit Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, and Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra. The Schnittke is particularly special to Shamray: the composer’s music, and his life during the fall of the Soviet era reflects a time that Shamray knows well, in some ways. The concerto was “written in the late 70s, not long before I was born, and at a time when it became clear that something needed to change in the Soviet Union. The piece raises many questions and emotional concerns from that period. Hope, however, never leaves, despite the tumultuous middle section of this piece.”
Shamray loves the balance between the relatively unknown Schnittke - “Musica Viva’s Artistic Director Paul Kildea discovered the concerto, and I don’t believe it has been performed much in Australia, if at all” - and the Mahler Piano Quartet, rearranged for piano and string orchestra. “There’s only one surviving movement left, and it’s incredibly special to play a work like this. I’ve played a lot of Mahler’s songs, but he wasn’t really a piano composer, so this is quite a unique experience.” There’s something here for everyone, he tells me – for those who love something tonal, and those who are chasing something new. That’s what music is all about: the discovery and the deep listening. And just like that, Shamray is out of time; he has several more hours of teaching, and then another performance, and after that, several press interviews. He laughs as I thank him, “It’s good to be busy!” And it’s good to hear our musicians beginning to say that again.
Konstantin Shamray will tour nationally with the ANAM Orchestra, Harry Ward and Sophie Rowell, Director