Pianists bring classical music to life through storytelling

sgilman@newsobserver.comMarch 3, 2014 

Matthew Harrison and Vlada Yaneva performed in Clayton on Valentine’s Day.


Seated side by side, their fingers fly over the keyboard, and their long locks – his blond and hers dark and glossy – snap back and forth as they sway to their own music.

Pianists Matthew Harrison and Vlada Yaneva have a fresh vision for classical music: sweep it from swank pedestals for an intimate show and tell with the audience. In their concert series, Masterworks Conversations, the husband and wife weave a series of related pieces and introduce each one with a bit of music history.

“We like to think of it also as storytelling through music,” Yaneva said. “Having that arc of a story to engage the audience on a deeper level so people don’t feel intimidated by classical music, but feel connected to it and realize that the people who composed these pieces, yes, they were incredible geniuses, but they were also human beings like we are – moved by the same emotions, living the same life struggles.”

Harrison, for example, loves to tell the story of Polish composer Frederic Chopin. “There are strains of the American Revolution in his story; there is his immigration to Paris and the loss of his homeland,” he said.

Having Polish heritage himself, Harrison feels a special connection to Chopin. He said Chopin, through his music, created a unique voice that helped save a nation “on the verge of being lost and forgotten.” Chopin wrote exclusively for piano, and his highly technical music contains elements of folk music from his homeland.

Folk music brings Harrison and Yaneva to life.

At age 14, Harrison, who was a competitive golfer in Florida, heard Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Fantasy.” “The piece just drove me up a wall. I mean, it’s got everything in it,” he said. “My entire world just flipped, and I got very into piano.”

The 15-minute piece is mystical and fantastic. It is also gypsy-inspired, full of “the free, creative impulse,” Yaneva said.

It changed Harrison’s life. He started practicing piano and ended up at the Manhattan School of Music, where he met Bulgaria native Yaneva. The two became study buddies and later concert colleagues. A love for folk music followed them to their wedding, held at a historic site in the mountains of Bulgaria. It was complete with Bulgarian folk dancing.

“We basically had a village wedding,” Yaneva said. “It was awesome.”

Yaneva grew up with music in her life. She began playing violin as a small child, but when she was about 5 years old, she watched a television airing of a grand piano concert. “I was just smitten with it,” she recalled, and she begged her mother and grandmother to buy her a piano. They told her they couldn’t afford one.

She responded: “I’m not going to play anything else but piano. It’s going to be piano.” The adults were surprised at her insistence, but finally bought a piano for her. At age 6, she enrolled at the National School of Music in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her training was intense, and she graduated with high honors.

When her father acquired a U.S. Green Card and told her she could have it, she told him: “If we are going to the United States, we have to go to New York. I won’t go anywhere else.”

To New York she went, where she met Harrison.

Today, the couple has a studio in their home in Manhattan where they give private piano lessons. Harrison also teaches at the Manhattan School of Music pre-college, and Yaneva teaches at New Victory Theater, which brings art into the lives of inner-city kids. They give concerts, they travel, and no matter where they go, they bring their knowledge and love of music.

If you attend one of their concerts, you may hear of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s visit to Paris when his mother died or the first time Johannes Brahms heard gypsy music. You may also hear how Karol Szymanowski hiked the Tatra Mountains and wrote down drinking song melodies.

On Valentine’s Day this year, they played a Paris-themed concert at the Wagner House in Clayton. Just as much as they love playing in concert halls in their home town, Manhattan, they love coming to Clayton.

“Number one, Southern hospitality,” Harrison said. “I love it. The people, they really enjoy what they hear, and they are just really just enthusiastic.”

They hope to return and play again. Wherever they play next, they will continue to push “outside of what a normal classical music concert is,” Harrison said, to make their audience laugh, cry, engage in the music:

“It’s not just something you hear in Carnegie Hall.”


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