What do you suppose classical musicians listen to when they’re relaxing at home? For pianist Natasha Paremski, 33, the answer is: Pretty much anything but classical music.
“After I finish hours and hours and hours and hours of whatever 400 piano concertos I’m working on, it is so not my idea of a good time to sit and listen to more classical music,” says the internationally acclaimed soloist, who’ll perform this weekend and next with The Florida Orchestra at the Mahaffey Theater.
Anyway, Paremski reports, she and her significant other, cellist Zuill Bailey, “listen to classical music with different ears. It’s not just something in the background.
“For something in the background, we both love old jazz. We love the great ‘80s, ABBA, the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. That’s what we listen to. When my friends and I put on some Whitney Houston, we scream our lungs out. And Mariah Carey. And Queen.”
Hailed by critics for her fiery blend of sensitivity and fearlessness (“by turns pensive and tempestuous,” raved the Chicago Tribune), the Moscow-born Paremski has been playing professionally since she was a tot.
Last week, she was named Artistic Director of the New York Piano Society.
“Of course I listen to classical music,” she admits. “Sometimes I’m like ‘I haven’t listened to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances in a long time,’ and I’ll put on three recordings and I’ll think ‘What could possibly be better?’ It’s just this joyful thing. It’s different than screaming at the top of your lungs to ABBA. That’s fun too.”
“There’s a profound quality to classical music, unlike any other art form,” she says. “And you can put on all the recordings in the world that you want, but no recording will ever replace you actually going into the concert hall and feeling the vibration of the instruments. They’ve actually done studies – there’s science behind it. The vibration of music, of instruments, is healing.”
Helping the Tampa Bay community heal, of course, is part of the Florida Orchestra’s mission statement for the current, abbreviated season, which finds just 25 percent of Mahaffey seating being utilized for safe spacing.
Saturday and Sunday (Jan. 23 and 24), Paremski will join conductor Michael Frances and TFO for Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” She’s been playing this complex piece, she reports, since she was 12.
“Rachmaninoff,” Paremski says, “is such a brilliant orchestrator. The orchestration here is just magic. It’s his most symphonic piano concerto. It’s just so colorful; it’s like Technicolor. Rainbows of color.
“And it’s so fun to play around with that. With every orchestra it takes on a whole different life for me. With every conductor’s vision and interpretation. It’s so much fun.”
Paremski’s visit to St. Pete extends through the following weekend, Jan. 30 and 31, when she’ll join the orchestra for Ravel’s Piano Concerto.
Why is she playing for two weekends? Because TFO asked her to: “A live concert to a 25 percent audience? Yes please.”
Although she’s performed once or twice in recent months, these appearances will mark Paremski’s first time with an orchestra since March (for the record, she was in rehearsal with the Wichita Symphony when the pandemic arrived). “Solo is solo,” she explains, “but to feel that overpowering machine to your left … I guess you don’t realize how much you loved it until you’ve lost it. I always loved it, but I’ve never gone so long without being onstage with an orchestra.”
She admits she’s not a fan of virtual performance. “It’s a complete nightmare when you can edit,” she laughs, “but when you can’t edit, it’s actually a psychological horror story. It’s awful. And one week of doing that would burn me out for like a month and a half. I wouldn’t even look at the piano. I wouldn’t touch the piano.”
She and Bailey spent the majority of their isolation time at the cellist’s home in Texas. Paremski reports she improved her cooking skills and learned to garden. “From June 20 to August 10, I literally had nothing to do with the piano. I had something coming up in September, so Aug. 10 I’m like awright, gotta get back to the piano now. And I was back in shape within one day.”
She wasn’t concerned about losing musicianly momentum, or the atrophy of the muscles in her hands and fingers.
“The thing is, I’ve been practicing a million hours a day since I was 3, and I had this incredible training that I’m so grateful for. I had this Russian piano school training. That school, it’s so rigorous. It’s so strong – coming from that system, it would take a really long time for things to unravel.”
She’s been asked, she says, if she spent the summer learning new repertoire. “Learning new repertoire is all I’ve done since I was 3 years old,” Paremski laughs “This was my forced sabbatical.”
In a weird way, she was grateful for the break. “Leading up to the pandemic, I was performing a lot, and I was playing a lot of repertoire. I mean, it was nonstop. It was like come home, you have two days to bring back this concerto, do laundry and run off to the next thing. A couple of seasons ago, I think I put away something like 14 different piano concertos over the course of three months.”
Paremski emigrated with her family to the United States when she was 8. And that, she explains, is why she does not speak with a trace of a Russian accent.
“Now I’m like, I kind of wish I’d never gotten rid of the accent,” she says. “At that time, I was trying to fit in so much. My mom has this most amazing, charming Russian accent – I’m so jealous! I can’t do that now. I can’t do like Hilaria Baldwin and start faking a Russian accent. I think all my friends would block me.
“In my blood, I’m 100 percent Russian. But I’m also 100 percent American.”
Details and tickets are here.