Pianist Katya Grineva at Carnegie Hall

Katya Grineva brings her audience the spirit and spirituality of Christmas with “Music That Celebrates the Eternal Mysteries.”
Pianist Katya Grineva at Carnegie Hall
Katya Grineva at Carnegie Hall in 2018. She’s appearing again this holiday season. (Andrew Chow)
Kenneth LaFave

“There is much more to Christmas than ‘Jingle Bells’ music. Christmas is about love and spirituality, and Christmas music should invoke feelings of connection to everything, the mysticism and magic of this world,” pianist Katya Grineva says.

True to her word, the Russian-born pianist will perform a wildly eclectic program in observation of the holiday, Dec. 27 at New York’s fabled Carnegie Hall. The recital falls on the third day of the traditional Christmas season.

For her 21st appearance in Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Ms. Grineva has gathered pieces as varied as virtuosic classical scores, the simple transcription of a chant by medieval nun Hildegard of Bingen, a folksong transcription by Greco-Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann, and the unjustly ignored “Poems of the Sea” by Ernest Bloch. Threaded throughout the program are such well-known blockbusters as Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” Chopin’s E-flat Nocturne and his G-minor Ballade, Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s lied “Swan Song,” an allegro by Fanny Mendelssohn, and the “Ave Maria” of Bach-Gounod.

While none of these directly relate to Christmas, they represent what Ms. Grineva calls music that “brings you to a higher level of consciousness.” Not that traditional Christmastide music will be completely ignored:

“I also wanted to give the audience music associated with Christmas, so I am including the pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ and Richard Rodgers’s ‘My Favorite Things.’”

The Start of It All

It is a generous program, to say the least, and we haven’t yet mentioned the two core pieces that sparked the whole program. Ms. Grineva tells the story of discovering them:

“I was asked to open a new concert hall in the Seattle area and prepare a program which was to do with water. This included the Bloch ‘Poems of the Sea.’”

Looking around for more “water” music, Ms. Grineva discovered the second of Franz Liszt’s two “Legends” for piano: “St. Francis de Paola Walking on the Waves,” composed by Liszt near the end of his life, when he lived in a monastery. Intrigued by the serene beauty of the work, Ms. Grineva looked up the first “Legend,” which addressed the more famous St. Francis: “St. Francis of Assisi Talking to the Birds.”

“I became fascinated by the ‘Legends.’ I have a studio in Woodstock where I have a lot of quiet time. I started playing the first ‘Legend’ and all these birds came. One even ate out of my hand. And I thought, I want to bring this kind of energy to Carnegie Hall.” Thus, the program began to grow, “unfolding by itself,” the pianist says.

Ms. Grineva’s connection to Carnegie Hall goes back two decades, when she discovered the famous concert facility after moving to the United States from Russia. For several years, she played an annual December recital there, but she took last year off because of antipathy toward Russian artists.

Russia to America

“There was an anti-Russian feeling happening a year ago, definitely,” she says. Concerts by several Russian artists were canceled. “So I decided to be quiet and wait for it to pass, even though I think I have more Ukrainian blood in me than Russian. There was too much anger.”

The anger “has cooled sufficiently” to bring her back to her favorite concert hall, one that is “perfect in acoustics, perfect in lighting, with the perfect audience chamber.” This will be Ms. Grineva’s 21st appearance at Carnegie.

Ms. Grineva’s Russian training probably had something to do with the wide-ranging menu of pieces on her Dec. 27 program. She began her studies at the Moscow Conservatory at age 15, where every two months, piano students were required to play an entirely new program in front of a jury. She learned to scramble to find new repertoire every two months. Later, when Ms. Grineva traveled to New York to study at the Mannes School of Music, she was startled to learn that American piano students are required to play only one juried program a year. (Ms. Grineva remained in the United States, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen.)

As fate would have it, her upcoming performance will mark the first time since 1947 that the Liszt “Legends” have been played at Carnegie. The pianist 76 years ago was Vladimir Horowitz, her favorite pianist.

Ms. Grineva’s hope for people attending “Music That Celebrates the Eternal Mysteries,” as she has subtitled her program, is simple:

“I hope that whoever comes will be uplifted. There are so many bad things happening today that people need to hear music that has such power.”

A Classical Holiday: Music that Celebrates the Eternal Mysteries Katya Grineva, piano Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium 57th Street & Seventh Ave. Tickets: 212-247-7800 or CarnegieHall.org Dec. 27, 2023, 8:00 p.m.
Kenneth LaFave is the author of “Experiencing Film Music: A Listener’s Companion.”