Yeoman Interview – Maksim Štšura

Multi-award-winning Estonian pianist, composer and music scholar Maksim Štšura performs extensively as a soloist and chamber musician. A former student of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre and RCM where he gained a master’s degree and artist diploma, Maksim is currently undertaking doctoral studies at the RCM focused on the piano transcriptions of contemporary orchestral scores. In 2015, his critically acclaimed duo with violinist Michael Foyle won the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe Duo Competition in London and Salieri-Zinetti International Chamber Music Competition in Verona.

What inspired you to start learning the piano?
My family is a musical one – my father is a conductor and my mother a musicologist. As I was growing up, there was always music in our home and as a result my first humble attempts in composition, diligently documented by my parents, came about at the age of five. The choice of piano as an instrument was probably due to my subconscious realisation that if I was going to keep composing, I would need an instrument with polyphonic texture.

Did growing up in Estonia help or hinder your musical development?
Despite the country being on the outskirts of the Soviet Union for almost 70 years, Estonian music culture is and has been very diverse and vibrant. It is rooted for example in the tradition of the Song Festivals, dating back to 1869, where folk songs and dances are performed by thousands of participants. One shouldn’t also ignore the fact that Tallinn was one of the few capitals behind the Iron Curtain where audiences could hear works by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, which were banned everywhere else. Shostakovich’s symphonies too would receive their third performances (following Moscow and Leningrad) by Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s and 60s. In my home country I was given excellent education in music theory and history and also had wonderful principal study teachers.

What piano did you start learning on, and what do you now play?
The first must have been a ‘Red October’ upright which actually produced a reasonably pleasant sound. Currently, because of the nature of the music business, pianists often don’t get to choose the instruments they’re playing. Wigmore Hall gives you the most wonderful Steinway in top condition but when travelling around Europe you sometimes encounter quite curious brands (I once played a Hyundai piano!) and some of them can be tricky. This challenge teaches you adaptability.

Do you get nervous playing a concert hall piano you’ve not played before?
After many years of playing concerts one becomes familiar with the features of different pianos. I know what sound or key action to expect from a Steinway or a Yamaha. On the other hand, an unfamiliar but good instrument might give a performer the unexpected joys of exploring its acoustic capabilities in the process.

How do you prepare for a big performance?
The old-fashioned way of studying the repertoire, knowing the scores and composers’ intentions inside out and believing your interpretation is the best. When you’re on the stage, it’s all about communication – getting the message across with clarity and confidence. I find it easiest to achieve this when I’m completely absorbed by the process.

Your performances have been described as “packed with passion”. Which composer moves you the most?
I’m always trying to immerse myself in whatever piece I’m working on at the moment and that inevitably leads to emotionally charged interaction with the musical material. My favourites are perhaps Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev and also contemporary composers.

Which three words do you think best describe your playing style?
Although it is difficult to distance myself from what I do (critics always find better adjectives), I would probably say thoughtful, energetic and engaging.

You’ve won numerous national and international competitions. Which one has best help springboard your musical career?
Perhaps the Estonian National Piano Competition, which I won in 2008 – it gave me the motivation and encouragement to pursue my artistic goals further. It also marked the end of my Tallinn period as I went on to do my Erasmus exchange in Hamburg the following year. In more recent years, organisations such as The Musicians’ Company, City Music Foundation and Kirckman Concert Society have been instrumental in helping me gain a better understanding of the music profession and reach out to promoters and wider audiences.

Tell me about your involvement in the award-winning Foyle-Stsura Duo
It has been a privilege to work alongside Michael in the last four years. He’s an extraordinary musician with great insight into musical structure and expression of various styles and periods. We are especially proud of some of the things we are doing – for example, we both perform our recitals from memory (we did it for our New York and Wigmore Hall debut performances in 2016), which contributes to an in-depth understanding of the score and intensifies communication within the ensemble and with the audience.

You’ve achieved so much success already. What is next?
My priorities for the upcoming year are to complete my doctoral research at the RCM as well as keep focusing on the Duo and other chamber music collaborations.

You can find out more about Maksim Štšura – http://www.foylestsuraduo.com/maksim-stsura/