"I think it's absolutely great in this country and this city, that for every taste and interest there is an answer," the native Muscovite says, in English still heavily accented after twenty-seven years in the United States. "I wouldn't stay in a city without a symphony and an opera and a Friends of Music [the local nonprofit group that brings nationally acclaimed classical musicians to New Orleans] concert series."
Faina Lushtak will be honored with the 2007 Lifetime Achievement award at the Tribute to the Classical Arts awards gala on Tuesday, Feb. 27, at the Monteleone Hotel. The Tribute to the Classical Arts is sponsored by Gambit Weekly, WWNO Radio, Uptown Costume & Dancewear, Hall Piano Company and Adler's Jewelry.
Lushtak has more influence than she might admit over the amount and diversity of classical music available in New Orleans. After teaching piano at Tulane University for twenty-four years, Lushtak holds the Downman Chair in the music department, and curates a concert series that has drawn some of the bigger names in classical performance to the city -- bringing them in by, she admits hesitantly, deploying contacts and friendships she's built over decades as a respected player, music festival faculty member and competition judge in international classical music circles. Her influence as a teacher and as a boon to the diversity of New Orleans music has recently been rewarded by Steinway Pianos, which added her to its roster of artists. The addition is a big deal in classical circles -- the venerable company is generally recognized as the top of the game by concert artists and is used exclusively in prestigious piano competitions internationally. According to the company, Steinway provides 95 percent of the world's concert halls with its concert grand model. The company's roster of about 1,300 Steinway Artists are given Steinway pianos and perform solely on Steinways in concert (apparently, in 2002, one pianist named Angela Hewitt was dropped for appearing in concert on a Fazioli model) -- the recognition works nicely as an honor for the artist and a simpatico endorsement for the manufacturer, as well. Along with Lushtak's addition to the elite roster, Tulane also became an official Steinway school, now using only the high-end piano model in music classrooms. Frank Mazurco, an executive vice president of Steinway and Sons, recently attended one of the concerts in Lushtak's beloved piano concert series at Dixon Hall, and with help from the university's administration, Lushtak and Newcomb College Music Department Chair Barbara Jazwinski traveled to New York City to pick out 22 new Steinway pianos to outfit the department.
"The All-Steinway School designation projects the image that we're very serious about music at Tulane and we are committed to having the best instruments in the best possible condition each time they're used, not only for concerts but also for the students in our teaching studios and in our practice rooms," Jazwinski told the Tulane New Wave. Lushtak herself gives great credit to Jazwinski for helping the generous gift come to pass.
"[I]t was like she lifted an elephant to get the pianos, to become an all-Steinway school," Lushtak says. "She deserves applause. She's a very talented administrator." About her recognition as a Steinway artist, Lushtak says little. "It was a total surprise, and I'm very honored," she says.
During a brief talk, a lack of willingness to talk about her accomplishments or her trials -- which are extensive -- is one thing that's immediately apparent. Lushtak began studying music in Moscow at the age of six, and moved to New Orleans with her family to be with relatives as an adult, speaking no English at all. Studying and playing in the Soviet Union, she was a faculty member at the renowned Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. The chair she holds at Tulane is a distinguished one; she's performed under several of those who are recognized as the great contemporary conductors, and when she speaks about her schedule as a judge at multiple international -- and very prestigious -- competitions, it's apparent that she's in great demand.
"I am a pretty honest person, I think -- I think that's why I get asked to judge so many competitions." A hint of winking steel comes out, though, when she adds, "I left Russia because I hate to be influenced, and do what people tell me."
Her recordings and her compositions have been widely lauded by sources no less than The New York Times, though when asked her about her work as a performing artist and composer, she responds by saying that she has to practice a great deal for concerts. What she likes to talk about is teaching; teaching to educating an audience of informed listeners, and then helping provide music performance events in the city for them.
Lushtak's space in Dixon Hall is a cozy corner office with several windows, in the newer, nicer, carpeted addition to the old building. The central focus of the room is a pair of Steinway baby grands; one for her and one for a student. Hers is stacked with sheet music, with a book of Brahms open on top. There's a fat, overstuffed striped couch, a scattering of framed family photos, and a couple of framed posters for her performances at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in New York. It's a comfortable den, well lived-in and neat, and emanates that its occupant loves music. What is it, then, to be such a successful figure in a musical genre that is not the predominant soundtrack of the city you've made your home for more than a quarter century?
Lushtak becomes animated when she talks about her work supporting the New Orleans classical music community. "I've directed for many years a concert piano series," she says. "And this is not New York -- we don't live in New York with Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. These concerts are open to the public, and I'm happy these are first rate. In New York, for this kind of concert, you have to fight to get a ticket. It's necessary for the culture; a symphony, an opera, is something every cultured city should have."
Her appreciation for well-made music extends well beyond the boundaries of the chamber, as well. "I love jazz myself," she says. "I went many times to the Blue Note in New York. I love Art Tatum, and he is a great friend of [classical pianist] Vladimir Horowitz. I have a lot of CDs of jazz, hundreds. Even when I hear rap, sometimes I am interested; you can immediately hear in every genre what is talented and what is not. As long as it is highly professional, highly polyphonic and interesting rhythmically, I am interested in rap."
And sowing the seeds for that informed interest seems to be, in the end, the spark that fuels her as an educator. "At first it was shocking to me to come to the U.S. and see people taking piano to not become musicians," she says. "Children study music in Russia and they finish and that is it, if they aren't going to continue. If I see students continue to perform, or if they become other professions, that is great," she says. "This is a very educated future audience. Educating and having these high standards for people who will not make music their work -- this is our future audience."
Tickets Tribute to the Classical Arts are $40, $400 per table for 10. For information, contact Gloria Powers at 483-3129.