In music, as in life, Polina Bespalko is on an unwavering odyssey of discovery

“Everybody will tell you I overthink a lot,” said pianist Polina Bespalko, the coordinator of Xavier University’s music program and director of the school’s remarkably robust Music Series. Then, without a hint of irony, she added, “I have thought about this for a long, long time.”

Polina Bespalko (Photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers 2023)
Polina Bespalko
(Photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers 2023)

It’s hilarious. But unintentionally so, as Bespalko is nothing if not serious. It’s not that she lacks a sense of humor. It’s just that she tends to be exceedingly methodical with nearly every aspect of her life. Growing up in the Soviet Union can do that to you. It can make you approach things more critically. And, yes, to overthink. Even more so when you are something of a public figure, as Bespalko was when she was studying at the vaunted Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory in the 1990s.

The Communist government had already collapsed. But Russian society still retained qualities not unlike the cancel culture so prevalent in the U.S. today. A fall from grace can come from the misstep. And when it does happen, it happens quickly. And with devastating results.

All around Bespalko, the Soviet Union was lurching through its final political tremors, from the heavy-handed leadership of an aging Leonid Brezhnev – the leader when she was born – through the relative openness of Mikhail Gorbachev and the chaotic freedom that followed.

So despite her youth, Bespalko was as careful as she was forceful in advancing her fledgling career. She was unwavering in her goals. She had discipline. And direction. And an unerring sense of how to stay within the guidelines of “acceptable” activities. 

Bespalko was already regarded as a promising pianist when she entered Moscow’s Central Music School at the age of 7. That’s hardly surprising, considering that her mother, Serafima, a choral conductor, had begun her formal instruction two years earlier with a regimen that included six hours of daily musical instruction.

Harsh? By our standards of child-rearing, it certainly sounds like it. But to Bespalko, it was “nothing unusual. It was the only life I knew. I already loved music, so it didn’t feel like a hardship.”

But one of the ironies of the Soviet and relatively restrictive Russian system that followed it is that enterprising people were often able to find ways to engineer things in their favor. For many, in fact, negotiating the sometimes-inexplicable Communist bureaucracy was a perfect training ground for life in an entrepreneurial, capitalist world.

Since taking over Xavier’s Music Series, for instance, she has expanded not only the number of performances, but broadened the programming to include jazz in addition to classical piano and guitar. She has even moved four of this season’s 12 presentations to off-campus venues, the new Jazz Quest Series. The season opens on Sept. 6 with a performance by the Dave King/Chris Weller Duo, along with special guest Josh Strange at Northside’s Radio Artifact.

“It’s a season with music that is really challenging in its own way,” she said. “That is no surprise to people who know me – my journey, you see, is more varied than many people realize.”

She was born in Mozambique, then spent several years as a child in Brazil. And though she was quite young at the time, she never lost her passion for what she calls “that soulful music of Brazil. I love world music and ambient, too. I would love to present an all-female mariachi band.”

Currently, she is working on an ambitious program for herself that she hopes to premiere in 2024.

“It will symbolize my journey,” she said. “Musically, this odyssey goes from Rameau to Keith Jarrett.” And then – unexpectedly – she cut loose with a lusty laugh. “I know – it is a very ambitious project. Oh, and I am also working on my own podcast.”

Does she have no limitations? From the outside, it seems she must have negotiated some Faustian deal to have more hours at her disposal than the rest of us.

“That is nothing compared to my daughter,” she said, laughing again. “Nadya is 21 and going to be a senior at the University of Delaware. And that woman – she makes videos and blogs. She is a great writer and works at the Sister City headquarters. She does independent research and reviews theater and food. There was a time she had to keep up with me. Today, that has reversed – I have to keep up with her.”

Perhaps Nadya is unknowingly mirroring her mother’s own experience as a young woman growing up in Moscow.

Back in Russia, Bespalko managed to have an active performing schedule even as she was navigating a daunting curriculum that ranged from “solfège, eurhythmics, music history, music theory, sight-singing – everything.” And that was on top of an intense academic load.

“I played a lot. But my music was very young. I see the same thing when my students are approaching a new piece of music,” said Bespalko. “They create their own interpretations. You expect that. But sometimes that can be very challenging because they are so young. That is the beauty – and the curse – of performing.”

But thanks to her mother and her specialized education, Bespalko was immersed in all manner of artistic expression. She reflects on some of the more memorable artistic encounters of her youth; a vast Chagall retrospective for which her mother stood in line for eight hours to get tickets, a 1996 Moscow performance by Michael Jackson. But there is one that stands out in her mind. Indeed, she thinks of it as having changed her whole understanding of performance. It took place in 1993 when she heard legendary Soviet-Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter play.

“I was 15,” recalled Bespalko, “and oh, my God. I already knew a lot about music and music repertory and all those other things we studied. But I didn’t truly realize the importance and the intimacy of live performance until I heard Richter. Even today, I think of that performance. I think that’s why I feel it is so important for me to bring those artists to Cincinnati so that students – all people – can have those same sorts of experiences.”

Polina Bespalko (Photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers 2023)
Polina Bespalko
(Photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers 2023)

Growth as a performing artist

Bespalko came to the U.S. in 2001. Up until then, nearly every aspect of her education had been built around developing performance skills. That wasn’t enough. She wanted to develop the more scholarly side of her education, as well, to dig deeper into the heart of music and the history that shaped it.

“And I wanted to know more about contemporary music,” she said. “My brilliant teacher, Nikolai Petrov, exposed me to jazz. But in Russia, there was a limit to what I could see and hear.”

That search for musical knowledge brought her to the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, first for an artist diploma and, in 2014, a DMA in piano performance. It was during that time that she met and eventually studied with pianist Awadagin Pratt.

Initially, theirs was a bumpy professional pairing – “like oil and water,” said Bespalko. But with patience, they found ways to work together more productively.

“I was not there yet, mentally, if you know what I mean,” said Bespalko. “I really owe a lot to him. He was curating me as a performer and also as a person.”

There were difficult moments, to be sure. 

“Being told that there are things that need to be changed, for instance, was not easy,” recalled Pratt, who recently left CCM to become professor of piano at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “It all depends on the flexibility of the student. The more success a student has had the harder it is to get things changed. Some high-achieving students get here and think ‘I’m already great. I just want this degree.’ But that wasn’t the case with Polina. From my perspective, when Polina and I began working together, it felt very similar to any new student onboarding. The difference, of course, is that she was already an incredible pianist.”

Expanding her abilities was why Bespalko had come to Cincinnati, after all. She was smart enough to know that there was always room for her to improve. So she was determined that whatever complications there may have been in her initial studies with Pratt, it was worth it to learn from a man she considers “a major artist.”

Clearly, the feeling is mutual.

“There were certain dimensions that I added,” said Pratt, choosing his words very carefully. “By the time she left, she was more a fully developed artist, more capable of doing precisely what she wanted to do and more confident in those abilities. Her playing skill now – the last time I heard her, at least – is just stunning.”

And at 45, Bespalko is still relatively young and in her musical prime.

“But I want more,” she said. “I want more of everything – more performances, more challenges, more presenting, more audiences, more art, more experiences. All we can do is hope and keep sharing. That’s the beauty of our profession. My piano is my best friend. Long ago, I realized that music doesn’t betray you. You can grow with it and play a part with it. I want more of that.”

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