Dalia Lazar is a talented pianist from Croatia, who now resides in Connecticut. As a young girl, she was first exposed to classical music at the local concert hall in her home town. Her mother noticed that she enjoyed the music, so she brought her to a local music school where she began to take piano lessons. Right away, her teacher noticed that there was something special about Dalia's musical ability. Dalia spent her youth honing her skills and wound up being one of two students from the former Yugoslavia to be accepted to the prestigious Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in Moscow at the age of 16. Apart from receiving a top notch musical education, Dalia was able to perform all over Russia in the most prestigious venues. Upon completing her studies at the conservatory, Dalia moved to the United States to continue her education at Rice University, and eventually received her Doctorate. At the university, Dalia met the renowned teacher Maria Curcio, and wound up studying with her in London. Dalia was her last student before she passed away. The teaching lineage from Dalia to Maria leads directly to Beethoven. Dalia continues to showcase her talents all over the world. I recently caught up with Ms. Lazar after a fine performance at the Southampton Library on Long Island in New York.
R.V.B. - Hello Dalia?
D.L. - Yes
R.V.B. - This is Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island, New York. How are you today?
D.L. - I'm good... good to hear you.
R.V.B. - Are you in California?
D.L. - I'm actually in Oregon.
R.V.B. - How's the weather over there today?
D.L. - It's actually nice weather. It's not sunny, but it's not raining. They have such a rainy season in the winter.
R.V.B. - We have a very rainy day here today... but at least it's warm. It's like 55 degrees.
D.L. - Ah ha... here as well. It's similar here.
R.V.B. - First of all, I just wanted to say that your performance at the Southampton Library was absolutely fantastic. You played with such passion and you really had full control over the room.
D.L. - Well, I'm so glad you say so. I like when I get this connection with the audience. That's the goal in my performance. I'm glad when this happens.
R.V.B. - Was there any particular reason that you chose those two pieces to play?
D.L. - Yes, because as I mentioned in my short talk... I'm working on all of the thirty two Beethoven sonatas at the moment. I'm learning them, and performing them, and I chose those two sonatas because they belong to Beethoven's creative moment in his life... where they're composed very near one another. That's when all of his great innovative and revolutionary ideas came to life. I chose those two because, they are some of his greatest works in this time of his life. He composed the 5th symphony... one of his most famous pieces in this time, along with these two great piano sonatas.
R.V.B. - Were they the first two that you tackled out of the catalog of sonatas?
D.L. - No, no, no. I have played quite a few already. Some of his late work and his early work. I just chose these two because I thought they go so well together. They are written in a similar tone. They start in the low register, which is mysterious.
R.V.B. - I thoroughly enjoyed them. I was very impressed of your ability to play such difficult pieces by memory. When you plan on learning all of them... What's the process to learn one piece? How long would it take?
D.L. - First I read through it and I look at the music. I might even listen to someone's interpretation... but not a lot. I will listen to a recording of it for example. Then I'll analyze and think about the emotional content of what this composer really wanted to say with this piece. "How do I interpret this?" I'm the interpreter. There's a language interpreter in a foreign language, and it's the same with the music. This is the way I hear it, and the way I will present it to an audience. I try to be as objective and authentic to the content of what the composer wanted to say... what it meant to him, and what this means to me.
R.V.B. - So out of the thirty two, how many do you already know?
D.L. - I would say half. Not all of them are as demanding as these two, but some are even more demanding... or just different. The most challenging pieces I already know.
R.V.B. - Oh ok, so you started with the more difficult pieces. How long do you think it's going to take to complete this project?
D.L. - Well, I'm hoping maybe in a couple of years. I started this year, and I think in the next couple of years I'll have all this work in my hands. There are sonatas that are fifteen minutes long.
R.V.B. - How often do you practice each day?
D.L. - I practice a lot. I practice every day for several hours... about five hours. When I have a performance and if I'm working on a new piece, it can be even more than that.
R.V.B. - That's a lot. If I can ask you a few questions about your childhood... What sparked you into becoming a pianist?
D.L. - I always loved music. When I was very little... around four or five, I would go to concerts. My mother would take me to piano recitals and orchestral concerts. She noticed that I would sit still and listen very intently. I always wanted to be close to a performer in the first row. I just recall those moments. Sometimes my mother couldn't sit through a whole recital without needing a short break, but I would just sit through it and be attentive to the music. So she took me to a music school, and there I said "I would just like to play piano" I think it was from the recitals I attended. When I was small, I think I loved the sound of the instrument. I really loved the tone and the feel of touching the keys.
R.V.B. - Were your parents also musical?
D.L. - No... my parents were not musical. It maybe skipped their generation.
R.V.B. - They must have appreciated music to go to concerts and bring you along.
D.L. - Exactly... yes they did. I grew up in a city where we were very close to the opera house. The concerts and musical events were part of daily life. Being a part of this culture was very important, about your soul and about your heart.
D.L. - A little bit. When I was very little I would wish sometimes, "My girlfriends are playing outside and all the kids are playing outside" but I had to practice. When I was young it was not easy. I had to do my practicing. I had to sit and play and learn all the pieces that I needed to learn. Then I was allowed to go and play outside. It's hard for a young child not to feel this way.
R.V.B. - Did you have one teacher as a child for a long time or did you have a few different one's through your school years?
D.L. - No, I had one teacher. A great, great teacher. I didn't know it at the time how great she was. Looking back, it was luck that I had such a great teacher as a child. She was recognized as such, as well. I studied with her for ten years.
R.V.B. - What was her name?
D.L. - Her name was Oliva Zadobosek.
R.V.B. - Was she instrumental in you eventually going to the Tchaikovsky Institute?
D.L. - Yes, she was instrumental to prepare me for it, and at the time there was a lot involved. There was an exchange program, and she was guiding me through that. She was preparing me in terms of my playing, and the process of convincing my parents as well... that yes, I had such a talent. Since my parents were not musical or professional musicians, they weren't aware if I really had a talent. I had to decide so early about my career. She was instrumental in convincing my parents in the end, that I had such a talent this field, and I do have a future. I had to decide when I was ten years old. I felt like I want to do this. This is the life I want to have, and she was supportive in convincing everyone.
R.V.B. - In your grade school, did you ever have to play any other instrument?
D.L. - No, it was always the piano. They checked if you had a good ear... they check if you had good hands. They look at your physical position for an instrument. It was just one instrument, and very specialized.
R.V.B. - Now when you went to the Tchaikovsky Institute, where you scared - or were you looking forward to it? What were your feelings going into it?
D.L. - I was just so excited. I was looking forward to be able to have the opportunity to go. I had to pass an audition, to be able to audition. When I passed the first audition... the first cut, I was thrilled that I could actually go and have this chance to study in the conservatory. They chose only two people from Yugoslavia. When the second audition came... the main one, I didn't know if I would pass it or not. I traveled two days in a train to Moscow, and I took everything with me, thinking "We'll see... if I pass it, I'm staying there, and I'll be back in a year. and if not?" That's how I did it, and I really looked forward to it.
R.V.B. - Obviously you passed the audition, so did you stay there right away?
D.L. - Exactly, I stayed there right away for a year. The classes started right away.
D.L. - Everything was very demanding right away. I didn't speak Russian, so I had to learn it quickly. The classes were very rigorous. We had piano lessons three times a week. At the time, it was a communist country, so we had a lot of political subjects too, which if you didn't know the language, it was quite challenging to read the Marx works and their books. It was an experience. I learned the language quickly, but it was demanding. The level was so high of playing. Intellectually, it was very strong place culturally. Everybody was very educated.
R.V.B. - Did they give you a wide variety of music to work on, like composers all throughout Europe or was it slanted more towards the Russian side?
D.L. - My teachers there at the conservatory, gave me lot's of Russian music to play... Prokofiev and Scriabin. I did play a lot of Russian music, but at the same time I also played lot's of Beethoven as well. So I did play both. I did lots of Chopin, so I did play everything. I was a little susceptible to the powerful culture I was in. You feel a little small there. The big conservatory is a powerful institution, in culture in Russia, and at the time I was falling in love with Russian music. I think my central European backround, where I was born, and how I started my studies prevailed with the great composers who started classical music. They developed it the most.
R.V.B. - I guess part of your itinerary was to travel around Russia and play in beautiful halls. How did you enjoy that?
D.L. - Yes, you know what I liked about it? The audience. The halls that I played were very beautiful as well... some more, some less. This was the time when the communist system was starting to dissipate. Some things didn't quite work. Sometimes I would go and there was no heat, or the trains were not running properly. It was hard to travel, food lines and so on. It was a hard time in Russian history. What I loved the most was the audience. They were so appreciative, and so knowledgeable, and were just in love with the music. The feeling and desire to have music close in their lives. We have food, and we feed the body, and we need to feed the soul. That's how I felt in those concert halls. That's part of their daily need in a way.
R.V.B. - Was there any particular performance that stood out over others? Any other experience?
R.V.B. - I traveled from Moscow, to this small town about two or three hours away. It happened to be a closed town to foreigners. They might have had something industrial or military there, so foreigners were not allowed. My teacher wanted me to perform there. So he took me there, and in the train he told me to put a scarf over my head and look very Russian. He changed my name, so my name at the performance was slightly changed, so it sounded Russian. I was called "Dasha" instead of "Dalia". I'll never forget that experience. I came out... I played. He told me not to speak a lot because I have a slight accent in the Russian language. The concert went very well, and afterwards the audience came to the reception. Their expression was wonderful, and they loved what I do. I just nodded and said "Thank you, thank you". It was exciting for me to experience that at the time, and just loved it.
D.L. - You know, when you think about life in general, and you go through things that are not so pleasant in some ways... you always look at the good side. I'm very glad I went through that. I learned so much about life... not just about the piano. It was an amazing life school. To be alone and so far from home, in those hard circumstances, leading a tough life... that was good. It does strengthen you, and "It didn't break me" as they say. Many students couldn't withstand the rigorous, tough lifestyle. The dormitories where we lived were hard conditions. It was hard. So, I was glad I was able to do it, and maybe it emphasized that I was doing it because I loved the music. I learned a lot and this was just a stage in life. At the time, I just stuck to the practicing... to the learning, and knowing that it's my goal.
R.V.B. - When you finished your studies there, did you go back home or did you come to America right away?
D.L. - I came here to America right away. At the time in Yugoslavia, the war started. The war in 1992.
R.V.B. - That was a nasty time over there.
D.L. - Yes it was terrible, especially in the beginning. It was such a horrible situation. You really didn't know what was happening, how it was going to develop, what was going to become of it. It was devastating in some parts of Yugoslavia. It was heartbreaking for me. So I came here, because my parents said "I shouldn't even think of coming back". They also closed the borders and it was a very frightening time, so I came here to New York.
R.V.B. - Were your parents safe?
D.L. - Yes, they were safe. They lived in the capitol, and it was not effected as much as other areas.
R.V.B. - When you came to New York, did you have a place to come to?
D.L. - I came here to play on a cruise ship. I boarded a cruise ship... I had some concerts, and when the ship came back to New York, I decided to stay. Some people on the ship helped a little bit, with a place to stay. In a few months, I was able to arrange future studies. I enrolled as a Doctorial student at Rice University in Houston. During this time, I was arranging to stay in the United States, to continue working and playing.
R.V.B. - How long were you down in Houston?
D.L. - I was there for four years.
R.V.B. - Did you enjoy it down there?
D.L. - Houston was good, and the university was very good. I continued my studies, and again I was always searching to improve my artistry. It was a hard time as well, I have to say. I was quite alone there with the artistic guidance. I felt like, I was searching for something, but I didn't know what? I did find this great, great teacher, and I went and studied with her in London. I found her through this story that I read about her in the university library. Maria Curcio came to give a master class in the United States. I went and I played for her. She allowed me to come and study with her. She was a great, great teacher. All the great artists studied with her like: Daniel Barenboim, Leon Fleisher and Martha Argerich.
R.V.B. - From what I understand, you were her last student.
D.L. - Yes, I was her last student. I would travel over the years, and I studied with her, and would stay there with her. She never asked for money from me, and I was so grateful to her. She was very generous that way. I admired her, and I think she loved me too. We got along very well. I stayed with her until the very end of her life. She died, not so long ago. I took her last lesson. I remember I came, and I played for her, and we had a great lesson, and shortly after... like a week or two, she was bedridden, and couldn't do anything anymore by herself.
R.V.B. - I see. I understand you studied with Karl Schnabel also?
D.L. - That was in New York... yes. It's funny how things work out by chance. Karl is the son of the great Artur Schnabel. Artur took Maria Curcio as a protege when he was teaching in Italy, in the 30's or 40's. It's such a small world, that I had these same teachers from the same school. I loved studying with him as well. When I think "Why did I choose Beethoven?". Of course, I loved Beethoven since I was very little. I remember playing it, and playing it well, according to my teacher, who said I have some inclination for this composer... Beethoven. Then I think... "Curcio started with Artur Schnabel. Artur Schnabel studied with a pianist named Leschetizky. Leschetizky studied with Czerny. Czerny studied with Beethoven. I'm removed from Beethoven with just four teachers".
R.V.B. - Now you should be proud of yourself, because you're carrying the torch.
D.L. - Exactly, you just said something that my teacher told me. She said "Take this torch and you carry it on". That's what she told me in one of our last lessons, when I was sitting with her in her living room. We would just sit down and talk about music, in front of the fireplace, in her apartment in London. She would tell me things like this, and I wrote them down so I would never forget them. I still think about it sometimes.
R.V.B. - That's a fantastic story. So once you finished with all the schooling, how did you set about approaching the professional life?
D.L. - All I wanted to do was to play, and become a better and better artist, and pianist. I have high goals in my mind... high ideals of what I would like to be, and what I'd like it to feel. After my studies, I came back to New York. At the time I was married to my late husband, the violinist Lucian Lazar. We played together, and that was a part of my incredible chamber music knowledge, and knowledge in general about music. My husband was such a great musician.
R.V.B. - Where did you meet your husband?
R.V.B. - It all comes back to Beethoven.
D.L. - I know, it was amazing... that little story there. Very shortly after, we got married... within a few months.
R.V.B. - Did you get married down in Houston?
D.L. - Down in Houston, yes.
R.V.B. - Was your family present?
D.L. - No, they couldn't come because it was so far... it was so expensive. We were just students and just did it by ourselves.
R.V.B. - Then you moved back to New York?
D.L. - Yes, I had a concert at Carnegie Hall, and we just said "This is our chance. Let's live in New York and see how it goes". My husband was thinking of me all the time... as an artist, and to get me to play more, and advance my career. He was a great violinist, but didn't want to play so much. He said that I should play. He said "I'm happy when you play. We can play some chamber music but I want you to advance your solo career". So we moved to New York and I had the concert, and little did we know that at Carnegie you have concerts at 2 in the afternoon, another at 4, another at 6, and even at 8. Concerts are happening so much, and there's so much competition. There are so many pianists everywhere. I played a great concert, but it was just another passing show and nothing else happened. So we lived in New York for a while, and then we moved to Connecticut.
R.V.B. - Where in New York did you live? on the east side? on the west side?
D.L. - No, we lived in Sunnyside, Queens. A lot of Eastern European people lived there. It was like ten years ago or more.
R.V.B. - It's just a hop, skip, and a jump, from Manhattan.
D.L. - Yes, exactly.
R.V.B. - You're still in Connecticut today right?
D.L. - Yes, I am. We moved to Westport.
R.V.B. - That's a beautiful town.
D.L. - Yes, it's a great place. As soon as we moved there, we felt very good in a sense that I could practice and concentrate on the work. The sea is there, the nature is there, it's just so peaceful. We were very happy and content.
R.V.B. - What kind of piano do you have at the house?
D.L. - I have a Steinway piano. I bought it a couple of years ago. I bought the Hamburg D concert grand. That was my dream, to have it one day. I didn't think that this day would come so soon, but by luck, I was able to buy this instrument from another pianist who passed away. He was a nephew of George Gershwin, and his widow was selling it. It was a coincidence that I found out about it. It was a fairly new instrument and he bought it just before he passed away. Now it's in my house, and it's an amazing instrument, and I'm very happy.
R.V.B. - When you played at Carnegie Hall did you go across the street to the Steinway showroom?
D.L. - I did go there. I practiced there a couple of times.
R.V.B. - Are you your own manager now? Do your book your own shows?
D.L. - Yes, at the moment now with classical music as it is now, is a hard field. There is not so much financial interest in classical music.
R.V.B. - It seems to be industry wide and not only in the classical field. Everyone is in the same situation.
D.L. - There are very few managers, and they take you when you are already a famous artist. What's the saying that Bernard Shaw said? "Whenever you are on the other side, they throw you a life vest". So, I'm just doing it for myself and one day I will be able to find a good manager. For right now, I do it for myself
R.V.B. - I did see for a time there, you were traveling the world. You performed in Mexico, Israel, Switzerland. I presume that was a few years ago?
D.L. - Yes, these concerts were along the years. In the succession throughout my career. I traveled and played everywhere.
R.V.B. - Were the people down in South America just as responsive, let's say as the people in Europe?
D.L. - Yes, for example when I played in Venezuela... I remember the people loving the music.
R.V.B. - Did you get to take in museums, and site see in your travels?
D.L. - Oh yes, I always make sure I do that.
R.V.B. - Do you have any other things or hobbies that you like to do when you are not playing music?
R.V.B. - Well It sounds like you have a great career ahead of you. You have a lot of work ahead of you with the Beethoven sonatas. (Hahaha)
D.L.- (Hahaha) Don't I.
R.V.B. - Yes, but at least you have a goal. Albeit a difficult goal, but it's a goal. Is there any other composers that you enjoy playing other than Beethoven?
D.L. - I can not say that I prefer. I love all of these composers. Last year I played a lot of Schumann. The year before, I played a lot of Liszt and Chopin. I was immersed in their music and their character. Now I'm with Beethoven. I have to say though with Chopin, Schumann, or Lizst... They wrote so well for the piano. They're considered great composers for the piano and pianists. With Beethoven, he's considered a great mind, genius, and composer overall. His piano sonatas are part of his whole great catalog of music. I think I'm so attracted to his ideals, and to his thoughts, and to his inspirations as a human being. What he's conveying to the human side. He's so great, and I'm attracted to that above all.
R.V.B. - He did produce a variety of compositions: symphonies, chamber music, piano sonatas, and so on. He did it all.
D.L. - Yes, and the idea that runs through all his music is positive and optimistic. Through all the trouble that he went through, which I can relate, and we can all relate. We all have things that happen in our life, and in the end there is a salvation so to speak. There is joy, and he believed in human goodness. I believe it that, and it sticks to me. I'm attracted to that, besides his incredible writing... I think this idea that runs through his music of this ultimate joy, and to take the strength that one has to fight, and in the end there is light. I just love that.
R.V.B. - Dalia, I appreciate you taking this time to speak with me. I wish you a happy Thanksgiving
D.L. - You too, happy Thanksgiving.
This interview was conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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Photographs by Shannon Michelle Photography and used with permission by Dalia Lazar
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