“You know, I never suffer about my love life. I suffer about my notes sounding right.” Big Band music blared in the Fat Cat as Katya and I talked about her art. Her real name is Ekaterina Mihailova, from Kyrgyzstan, and she makes her living in NYC as a pianist. She is also, literally, the first person I met when I arrived at JFK. We usually don’t talk about music. Usually, we talk about our love interests and confidentially dissect their flaws late into Brooklyn nights. As such, it felt almost strange to talk to her about music, a subject about which, I discovered, she seems to know a great deal. She said, “Each note of music has a corresponding color, and I’ve always associated the colors with the notes in my mind. And recently, I saw a painting done by this amazing artist who lives in Brooklyn Heights. He devised some kind of mathematical system to paint the colors the way I have always imagined, and… I wanna meet him.”
Katya started playing the piano when she was five at a Russian school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She said she never imagined that playing the piano would become her life until she was 15, and she won the national piano competition, for which the President gave her a stereo and 1000 soms. “Everybody in my school saw it, and after that,” she says, “I was famous,” and she starts laughing. She is very modest and downplays her accomplishments, but she ended up in a prestigious university in Bronxville, NY because of that competition. And, though she is pretty quiet about it, a few people cared enough about her artistic talents to pull some major strings to make that happen.
When I met her, she said she was from Kyrgyzstan, and I said, “Kurdistan?” She didn’t hold my ignorance against me and later invited my friend Joe and I to her apartment for dinner, where she showed us a photo album of her life before she came to America. Pictures of lakes surrounded by rocky heights hinted at the arid environs of her native land. Most exotic for me was the story of her pet hawk that her father won in a card game with a man who lived in a yurt. The pictures portray a skinny teenage Katya holding a gloved hand above her head, on which is perched a robust bird of prey. I was similarly amazed by her ability to play the piano. The first time I saw her play at Barge Music, which is a floating classical venue by the Brooklyn Bridge, I almost didn’t recognize her, because the levity I knew was entirely replaced with gravity. Before she began Tchaikovsky’s ‘Seasons’, she looked disconsolately across the East river through the window, which looks out on the lighted fortresses of the financial district. Her mood was melancholic, even desultory, and she seemed not to notice the audience. The melodies of that concierto spoke to me like no other, and I was moved to tears and full of adoration. After the performance, Katya was all giddiness and modesty and relief. She said she was thinking of her friend’s dog that had recently disappeared and other random stuff.
Sometimes, I can’t grasp how she can be so hard on herself. Last month, I watched as she knocked out compositions by Schumann, Prokofiev, and Beethoven one right after the other.
After the performance and the sincere compliments by the owner of the barge, she complained that she had, “rewritten the second movement of Beethoven,” even though, as a composer friend mentioned, she had nailed the most technical and demanding parts of Prokofiev, which are much more difficult. Katya’s standard comes from her early training under the Russian techniques of teaching music, which focus, she says, on listening to the intonation and understanding the beauty of each phrase and note. Katya said, “Each sound and note have a meaning, and being a good musician is about being able to recognize what the composer wanted and being able to play that way, while expressing some of your own feelings at the same time.” Katya recently auditioned for grad school at the San Fransisco Conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music, and Harvard. She practiced every day for months beforehand, nearly fainted during her performances, and was accepted to every school’s program. NYC is hoping she’ll stay.
Special thanks to Hudson Studios