On November 23, Leyla Kabuli will return to the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra (in which she was a member of the first violin section years ago, for two seasons) as our piano soloist for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Below is an interview with Leyla.
Leyla grew up in Davis, California, and she went through the public school system. During her time at Harper Junior High School, she was concertmaster of the school orchestra, directed by Greg Brucker. I had the opportunity of asking Mr. Brucker about his recollections of Leyla as his student, and this is what he had to say about her:
“When she [Leyla] was a part of the Harper Orchestras from 7th -9th grade, she was by far one of the most talented raw musicians and musical minds the school and our program had seen, if not the best musician to come through the program to date. Her talent on the violin was incredible, and that was her second instrument. When she played the piano for the class, we were all absolutely moved. It was magical. […] There is no question we were witnessing a true musical prodigy on the piano. Her kindness, care and concern for others, and her connection to those around her showed a deep wisdom and compassion far beyond her years. And it has been a true pleasure to follow her growth and progress as a musician since, from her amazing performances while at the high school, SF Conservatory, and since throughout Northern California and beyond. She is a true talent, and one of the great prides of our program historically. It was an honor to be a teacher to her, and a true pleasure.”
Christian Baldini: Leyla, it is such a pleasure to welcome you back to the Mondavi Center, and this time in a different capacity. You will be our soloist for this very beautiful and demanding Piano Concerto by Rachmaninov. How does it feel to be back?
Leyla Kabuli: Thank you very much for inviting me to play my favorite piano concerto with my favorite orchestra. It came as a big surprise, and I am honored to be a soloist with the UCDSO. It’s super exciting to rehearse and perform at the Mondavi Center again.
CB: What are some of the features that define this Piano Concerto? What speaks to you in it, and are there any recordings that you really like of it?
LK: This is the ultimate emotional piece that touches the hearts of everyone in the orchestra and the audience.It’s technically demanding, with wide-spread chords. I especially like how the piano relates to the orchestra throughout; at times it’s role is to accompany the other instruments as in the simple flute and the clarinet accompaniments in the second movement. The energy in the third movement is incredible. How could Rachmaninoff express so many feelings in those notes? Among the many recordings, my favorite is the one by Sviatoslav Richter and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in 1959; it’s the composition of one genius performed by yet another genius.
CB: Let’s talk about repertoire. Who are some composers that have influenced you as an artist? Which composers have you had the chance to explore in depth (even at your young age, you are quite an experienced performer!)? And who are those composers and/or works that you’d like to explore more?
LK: I learned many, many pieces from every different era of classical music, but I found that exploring Bach in depth was most beneficial also for appreciating the works of other composers. In recitals, I like to include the works of composers whose beautiful piano music is not part of the standard repertoire. Interestingly, some of the pieces I discovered in recent years were suggested by non-musicians. For example, I got introduced to the piano works of Nikolai Medtner by a friend’s father, who is a famous plant biologist at the Carnegie Institution. Whenever I play Medtner, I also play a few shorter pieces by his extremely supportive friend Rachmaninoff, who tirelessly helped to promote Medtner’s music.
CB: You have already been involved in important social justice work, including your committed performance on From the Top, which was a tribute to Syrian refugees, of “Black Earth”, by Turkish composer/pianist Fazil Say. What is the meaning of music to you? Does it have a role in society? Why is it so important nowadays?
LK: Following my performance on NPR’s From the Top with host Christopher O’Riley, I collaborated with the show on other projects. The music video of my shorter arrangement of Fazil Say’s “Black Earth” was intended to raise awareness for two organizations that help refugees, especially in the Mediterranean region. It surprises me that so many people have seen that video and contributed to these organizations, and some even sent me very touching letters, which all prove that music has the power of uniting communities. The arts connect people in ways that nothing else can, and our cultural diversity serves to enrich our experience. Music provides a means for communication and expression beyond any spoken language. It transcends boundaries, barriers, and all perceived differences between people. I’d like to repeat Leonard Bernstein’s famous quote: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
CB: Besides being a remarkable pianist and an excellent violinist, you also play the bassoon. In addition, you are pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC Berkeley, and I am pretty sure you must be a great athlete. How do you find time for everything, and how do you organize yourself?
LK: I really couldn’t claim to be any of those things. I did prepare for the junior high school basketball team tryouts until my violin teacher asked if basketball meant so much to me that I would risk breaking my fingers, which would mean the end of piano. I tried wrapping my fingers with bandages for a while, but had to quit before the tryouts. In general, I’m not that well unorganized, and my to-do list is hopelessly long. My classes and work as a teaching assistant twenty hours a week are prioritized, and then I try not to get stressed out about the many other things that can’t be finished. One day I hope to find a way to multi-task and parallel-process piano practice with other homework.
CB: Tell us about your first few steps in music. How did you start, and when? Who were the main influences (people, teachers, and also musical experiences) in your life so far?
LK: Actually, performing at the Mondavi Center is very meaningful to me. When I was almost seven, my mom took me to a concert of Itzhak Perlman. Although we listened to classical music at home all the time, the live performance was a completely different experience. I probably understood that Perlman was the main star of the concert, but I was fascinated by his piano accompanist Rohan de Silva and the gigantic concert grand piano. It was very disappointing that I wouldn’t be allowed to climb on the stage and play the big piano right after the concert, and more shockingly, according to my mom, one needed many lessons to play it. In the months that followed the concert, I demanded those lessons, assuming they would take place right there on the Mondavi stage, and that de Silva would be the teacher. Finally, my mom was convinced and we bought an electric keyboard with a wobbly stand from everyone’s favorite wholesale store. Then my life changed when I got accepted by a fantastic teacher in Davis, Angelia Lim, who taught me the joy of playing the piano and even convinced my mom to buy a used baby grand after a couple of years of lessons. When I was ten, in addition to weekly lessons with Mrs. Lim, I started the Pre-College program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) as a scholarship student, first with John McCarthy, and then with Yoshikazu Nagai. In the next seven years at SFCM, I studied violin with Doris Fukawa, and bassoon with Dr. Yueh Chou. I also had exceptional chamber music coaches there, including Machiko Kobialka. Many great pianists coached me in masterclasses and summer programs such as Piano Texas, BU Tanglewood, Colburn Academy, Oberlin, Southeastern Piano in South Carolina, and IIYM in Kansas. As the keyboardist of San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra for four seasons, I was coached in orchestral piano by SF Symphony’s Robin Sutherland; I got to play the piano, celeste and organ in Davies Symphony Hall. I have been so very lucky to receive the gift of music from these extraordinary musicians.
CB: We are the lucky ones to witness and appreciate your talent first hand, Leyla! Thank you very much for your time, and for sharing your extraordinary talent and wonderful energy with our musicians and our audience. I very much look forward to sharing this with everyone at our performance on the 23rd of November!
LK: I really appreciate it that you are giving me this opportunity. I look forward to Rach at the Mondavi Center!
Leyla Kabuli is a third-year student at the University of California, Berkeley, studying Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences and Music. She graduated from the Pre-College Division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2017, where she studied piano, violin, and bassoon as a scholarship student for seven years. She was the keyboardist of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra from 2015 to 2019. Leyla’s piano awards include three consecutive National YoungArts Awards in 2016, 2017, 2018, the American Prize in Piano Concerto, and the US Chopin Foundation scholarship. She won first prizes in the Los Angeles Young Musician International, eMuse, American Prot´eg´e, Wildflower, Pacific Musical Society, MTAC, CAPMT, Kruschke, Mindell, Ghiglieri, Classical Masters, East Bay, Berkeley Etude Club, US Open, and Junior Bach competitions. Other awards include top prizes in Virginia Waring International Concerto, Seattle International, Enkor International, MTNA Piano Duet, Ross McKee, USIMC, and Zeiter competitions. She was also a semi-finalist in the prestigious International Piano-e-Competition, Cooper International Competition, Hilton Head International Piano Competition, Yamaha USASU International Piano Competition, and the First International Arthur Rubinstein Youth Piano Competition. She has performed at Davies Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Benaroya Hall, McCallum Theater, Zipper Concert Hall and other major venues. In addition to the national broadcast of her featured performance on NPR’s From the Top with host Christopher O’Riley in 2016, Leyla collaborated with the show on a benefit video and performed at From the Top’s 2017 Gala. Her Bay Area performances included San Francisco’s Noontime Concert Series as the Helen von Ammon Emerging Artist Award recipient, Ensemble SF Concerts, and Concerts at the Presidio. She was a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, Waring Festival Orchestra, Nova Vista Symphony, El Camino Symphony, South Valley Symphony, Bay Area Soli Deo Gloria, Sonoma Philharmonic, and Palo Alto Philharmonic. Leyla has studied piano with Angelina Lim and John McCarthy, and currently studies with Yoshikazu Nagai of SFCM and with Michael Orland at Berkeley. She attended many festivals, masterclasses and summer programs, including PianoTexas, Southeastern Piano Festival, Boston University Tanglewood Institute, Colburn Academy, and IIYM. As a soloist, active chamber musician and collaborative pianist, she organizes and frequently participates in benefit and outreach events in California and around the country.