Don’t Stop Her Music

Lola Astanova lets her piano do the talking.

by Heather Carney Dec 2014 Also on Digital Edition

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Lola Astanova saunters down the red carpet wearing a Balmain gold metallic mini-dress and over-the-knee black heeled boots. Her hair is pulled high into an elegant, bouffant ponytail. She waves and smiles flirtatiously with doe-like eyes and slightly pouty lips.

She may not be a Kate Moss, or a Victoria Beckham. But the cameras eat her up like she is. It’s her second appearance of the season with the Miami Symphony Orchestra. She’s a mesmerizing hit, captivating the audience with her stunning looks and her exuberant flare on the piano for the inaugural concert at the Trump National Doral, which is the real reason she’s walking the red carpet.

That was three days ago. Today, the famed-classical pianist is at ease in her part-time Jupiter home (when she’s not traveling, she splits her time between here and New York City). She’s wearing skinny jeans, a white long-sleeve top, and, of course, heels. Astanova claims that she doesn’t own flats.

It’s these quirks – her knack for fashion, her drop-dead gorgeous model looks, her dynamic playing style, and her intelligent creativity – combined with her innate ability on the piano that have propelled her into an international starlet. It’s also made others quick to criticize – everything from her dramatic playing style to her daring sense of fashion.

“I don’t know where this tradition comes from that women should be dressed in long gowns, long black gowns,” she says of the attire for classical performances. “When you don’t do that you’re almost crucified.”

Astanova doesn’t fit the mold of today’s buttoned-up, conservative classical pianist. And that’s what makes her so intriguing.

The 29-year-old got her start on an upright Riga piano at her home in the former Soviet Union. By age 6, she was attending Russia’s prestigious V. Uspensky Specialized School of Music for Gifted Children, studying under the respected professor Tamara Popovich.

It was immediately apparent that she had a gift. She had perfect pitch. She had a great sense of rhythm. And music truly captivated her. But that’s not to say it was all a piece of cake.

“It was very competitive. It was very strict,” Astanova says of the school. “Of course, you are afraid when you are little and you are expected to do so well, but I guess the good thing about it is that you learn how to be responsible and you learn how to be an adult early on.”

Growing up happened fast for Astanova. By age 12 she was performing internationally and was quickly named a prodigy of the 20th century. By age 22 (when the average millennial is still reeling from their college years) she made her U.S. debut in Neiman Marcus’ Classical Superstars Fantasy Concert. She played at the Moscow State Conservatory and eventually, Carnegie Hall in 2012 – a notable milestone for every musician. “Carnegie Hall ... you have that little voice in your head that says you made it,” she says.

But perhaps the turning point in her career really came in 2009 when she uploaded to YouTube her own rendition of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music.” In it, her fingers bounce high up and down, flying across the piano keys, her arms moving at a rapid speed. It’s the same way she’s been playing since she was a child.

The video helped her reach a formerly untouchable audience for the classical music industry, showing viewers a style and a perspective of music that was like nothing else.

“I always say that a modern musician should be curious and not be afraid of breaking the rules. … I do not hear classical music as proper. I do not hear it as academic. I don’t think about the rules when I’m performing,” Astanova says, adding that she loves house, electronic and pop music.

Some of her musical icons outside of the classical realm include Madonna, ABBA and Queen. She calls their music “timeless,” much like the classical music of the 19th century that she loves to play, like Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

It’s these two opposite universes that attract her, she says. That’s where the magic happens. Still, this daring viewpoint incites criticism and judgment from classical purists.

Astanova says that like being a fashion-forward pianist, people forget that improvisation and creativity are nothing new in the classical music world.

“People like Paganini, people like Liszt, who were known as the greatest virtuosi of their time, they would make transcriptions of popular songs,” she says. “I’m not, by any means, being innovative in this way.”

But, she says wistfully, this creative spirit is dwindling in the industry.

“Classical music in a way has gotten more conservative and strict and more academic. Back in the day … there was a lot more freedom,” she says.

Astanova is on a mission to liberate the industry. She has plans in the pipeline to cross genres again and launch projects outside of her traditional classical music schedule. “I’m not going to be able to resist,” she says. “There are so many things that I’m excited about artistically.”

She wants to ensure that 20 years from now there will be an audience for classical music – that it won’t be too late.

“It’s hard for me to personally picture a young person sitting in a velvet red chair for three hours listening to sonatas non-stop,” she says, adding that the way to change that is to be creative and to not be afraid to take risks. “Because the music itself is timeless. Classical music really is. It has stood the test of time for so many centuries.”

In part, Astanova’s bold sense of style is a visual reminder of the risks she takes with her music (“I love Pucci. I love lace – it’s very sensual,” she says.)

“I think it was Tom Ford who said that dressing well is a form of good manners, and I agree with that,” the pianist says. “To me, I always felt that classical music and fashion go together so naturally. I think that Chanel goes perfectly with Rachmaninoff.”

Again, she goes back in history, citing that many famous 19th century composers were the “dandies of their time.”

“Puccini was known to be the greatest dresser, and Rachmaninoff would always look stylish. And Chopin would buy the most expensive gloves that he couldn’t afford,” she says of her icons.

So historically speaking, Astanova isn’t the one who is stirring the pot, or who has lost her way. Rather, she’s following in the footsteps of her forefathers. She’s looking back while propelling the genre forward.

She explains it best when speaking of her favorite composer, Rachmaninoff: “It’s the emotional aspect of his music and all the harmonic language that just captures me. It’s the never-ending quest. It almost feels like his music is restless, never settles. It never arrives in a peaceful place. It’s something that I can relate to right now, this stage of my life. Constantly being in a search. It never really stops.”

With Astanova, that’s the one thing that won’t change.