Peace is on the program for a pair of premieres this week at Herbst Theatre, the site of the signing of the United Nations’ founding charter 78 years ago. Pianist Nikolay Khozyainov will perform the U.S. premiere of his Petals of Peace and the world premiere of San Francisco-based composer JJ Hollingsworth’s Glass Suite, along with other classical selections.
At Hollingsworth’s Forte House in the Outer Sunset district, a bed-and-breakfast and sometime home concert venue, both musicians discussed their part in the Oct. 14 program. The idea for the performance developed collaboratively after Khozyainov had already been booked for gigs in the Bay Area, including a Steinway Society recital on Oct. 7. The pair decided to take advantage of the availability of Herbst on the following weekend.
SF Classical Voice spoke with the two around a table set with snack-filled pieces of radiant green and red pieces of Depression-era glass, the titular inspiration for Hollingsworth’s composition. For several decades she’d been collecting the glassware, mass-produced in the years after 1929. In the past, she’d shared her affection for the collection with Khozyainov, who’d stayed at The Forte House on previous visits to San Francisco.
“She wanted me to appreciate the glass, and one day the idea came to me, ‘Why not make music with it?’” says Khozyainov, a native of far eastern Russia. “And the subject of glass inspired me to commission JJ. When I first met her, I heard some of her orchestral works, but I wanted to have something for piano.”
“It took me a while,” admits Hollingsworth, whose compositions have drawn inspiration from her native rural Colorado and from the flora and fauna of California’s Sierra County, where she and her husband have a second home. “When I set the glassware on my piano, it didn’t do anything at first, but after a while it started speaking.” Hollingsworth decided to deploy extensive use of the sostenuto pedal in voicing the glassware.
“She really made it sing,” Khozyainov attests.
Acknowledging the historical significance of Herbst, Hollingsworth talks about staging the Glass Suite there as setting the scene for a celebration of peace. “We made the decision that it needed dancers. The movements are five colors and patterns of Depression glass, and dancers in pairs are going to be carrying samples onstage and placing them on a table, then crossing behind where Nikolay will be playing to an area for dance.”
The 10 dancers, choreographed by Kimber Rudo, come from the Palo Alto-based Academy of Danse Libre, which showcases vintage social dance forms, often in costume. Their performance with the Glass Suite will evoke the 1930s and ’40s in styles such as the waltz, foxtrot, Charleston, Lindy Hop, swing, boogie, and jitterbug. Rudo notes that Hollingsworth’s experimentations with time and tempo are a welcome challenge.
Khozyainov composed Petals of Peace at the invitation of the U.N. and premiered it in November of last year at the organization’s facility in Geneva. “They told me that, at that time, there were 23 nations at war around the world,” he recounts. “And peace would be the theme of their concert. The image of petals, in my imagination, came from the tradition worldwide of dropping petals from planes or helicopters [for celebrations].”
Khozyainov first performed for the U.N. at the age of 18, a year after placing as the youngest finalist in the 2010 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Last year, he was granted the U.N.’s Gold Medal of Peace.
He will begin his Herbst program with the Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55, No. 1, and the Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, by Chopin, of whom Khozyainov has made a reverential study. “My approach is always to go to the very source of the music,” he says. After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory with a master’s in music, he relocated to Hanover, Germany, at the invitation of professor Arie Vardi, to continue his studies, and he now resides in Geneva. “And when it was COVID time, I decided to learn and perform all the works of Chopin. I started posting them [to YouTube] almost every day, explaining a little bit of the history on the video. And that’s how I and my audience, including JJ, spent the lockdown.”
The Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw asked Khozyainov to participate in recordings of the composer’s works after his appearance at the Chopin Competition, and while there and in Paris, he was granted access to original manuscripts. “Touching the paper, it already changes your perspective. And you can see slight differences [from printed scores] — how he wrote the accents, the crescendos and diminuendos — and you can see and feel the work completely differently. I like the Ballade No. 4 particularly; it’s very passionate, very deep, where he has achieved the highest level of his artistry.”
After Petals of Peace, Khozyainov will present his take on three movements from Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. “Quite often, Ravel would transcribe his orchestral pieces for two pianos and solo piano, but in this case, he didn’t. So I wrote this last year for the 150th anniversary of [impresario and art critic] Sergei Diaghilev’s birth, since Ravel wrote this for [Diaghilev’s] Ballets Russes. Ravel’s orchestration is so colorful, and my idea was to present all these colors on the piano.”
Following Hollingsworth’s premiere, Khozyainov will perform the Piano Sonatas Nos. 9 and 3 by Alexander Scriabin. “The No. 9 is moving toward modern atonal stuff, uncharted areas, so mysterious, dark forces coming out; it could be the devil himself,” says the pianist. “It’s almost the opposite of the Glass Suite, which brings you to light. And I’ll finish the concert with the No. 3, which Scriabin wrote when he was much younger and still in the style of the Romantic era.” After the concert, Khozyainov and Hollingsworth will be selling copies of their scores.
Khozyainov points out that Russia’s war in Ukraine has provoked discriminatory treatment of Russian artists. “Right after the hot phase of the conflict started in February of last year, I had concerts canceled without any discussion in Poland, France, the U.S., all over. There are people who cannot distinguish between an artist and political events that have nothing to do with the artist. When they say there’ll be no concert because you’re Russian, I tell them, ‘I don’t know the president of Russia, and he doesn’t know me either.’ ... In my lifetime, I’ve been privileged to perform for heads of state. At concerts, I’ve had the emperor of Japan, the president of Ireland.” He pauses for a chuckle. “But not the president of Russia.”
Khozyainov and Hollingsworth expect their audience to include expatriate Russians and Ukrainians, to whom they’ve been extending a conscientious welcome. For Herbst tickets, go to the City Box Office website.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this article as originally published misidentified Khozyainov’s city of residence. It is Geneva, not Hanover.