SCHENECTADY — Pianist Iryna Arbatska, who will debut Saturday as part of the Young Musicians Forum, has traveled a longer road than many — and she’s only 25.
She was born in Ukraine, and her pianist mother recognized that her 6-year-old had exceptional talent when she first sat down at the keyboard. She called Alexander Bugaevsky, the piano professor she had studied with and who taught at the Stolyarsky School for Gifted Children in Odessa.
“I played my own compositions,” Arbatska said from New York City. “He was very impressed. He took me as his only student.”
Within three years, Arbatska was winning prizes at competitions and by 12 she was giving solo recitals all over Italy, Greece, Germany, Austria and Russia, having won the top prize at the Horowitz International Piano Competition for Young Pianists held in Kiev, Ukraine.
WHAT: Young Musicians Forum
WHERE: Niskayuna Public Library, 2400 Nott St. East, Niskayuna
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 386-2249
“While other kids were playing, I was practicing,” Arbatska said. “Mother helped with the discipline.”
That reality wasn’t so bad, she said, because she got to see foreign countries and she met the president of Ukraine, who awarded her a scholarship. Over the next two years, she also did a four-state tour of the United States, was the soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine on a tour of Austria, and did a recital in Volos, Greece, as part of its International Music Festival.
Then her world came crashing down. For almost her entire life, she had been hailed as a prodigy and had loved the special attention and acclaim.
“It became really difficult and traumatic after 14,” Arbatska said. “I was well-known in the Ukraine, but I had trouble accepting myself not as a prodigy but just as a person.”
Despite her discomfort and confusion, over the next four years she continued to compete and achieved much success, including winning the concerto competition at the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina, where she was on full scholarship. She began study at Moscow State Conservatory and won a full scholarship to study at the Mozarteum Academy in Salzburg.
“There had been a lot of pressure but by 18 I’d found my identity,” she said. “I was more confident as to what I wanted to say through my music.”
Over the next four years, she returned to the Eastern Music Festival and won the concerto competition again, earned an artist diploma at Bowling Green State University, won prizes at competitions in Texas and Ohio, recorded her first compact disc and got a full scholarship to the Mannes School of Music to do graduate work.
Feeling at home
After having studied with so many teachers and been on the move for so long, Arbatska finally feels she’s come home.
“I love the atmosphere at Mannes,” she said. “There’s no jealousy. It’s so supportive. They’ve even lent me a grand piano so I can practice at home.”
And her teacher, Arkady Aronov, treats her as an artist and not as a student.
“Having had so many teachers has given me a lot of knowledge to develop a unique understanding of the music and to have a variety of ideas,” she said.
“In the Ukraine, teachers were more technically oriented — how it sounded and the velocity. U.S. teachers wanted me to develop my own personal style. I have my own ideas but many tried to change those. Since I was 16 I couldn’t breathe freely. But with Arkady Aronov, I’m never under pressure as to how he wants it.”
This change has allowed her to expand. Two years ago, she made a successful Carnegie Hall debut, she got married to a fellow musician, recorded another disc, and began to explore new repertoire, especially for the many recitals she does at the school’s behest.
For her concert on Saturday, she’ll perform two pieces new to her: Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No. 1” and Scriabin’s Sonata No. 10, which she said is very mystical. She’ll also play Chopin’s 12 Etudes Op. 25, which she has recorded, and his Ballade No. 4 in F minor. The concert will be her first of the year.
“It’s a pleasure to perform anyplace where people appreciate music, and I like small halls,” she said. “I can feel the energy of the people.”
Her goals for now are to get a doctorate because, although she’d love to concertize, she wants to teach in a conservatory. Competitions are no longer part of the vision.
“I’m not afraid of failure,” Arbatska said. “But I don’t need to do them anymore. I have a huge repertoire and I’m already an artist.”
If she’d had a choice, would she have lived her life the same way?
“I wouldn’t have gone through what I endured — all the emotional breakdowns and the suffering,” she said. “Now I have the best of life. I’m artistically free.”
Arbatska’s recital is at the Niskayuna Public Library and seating is limited, so come early.