Oksana Ezhokina plays piano the way she talks. As she launches the staccato opening of Beethoven’s first piano concerto — which she’ll perform with the Tacoma Symphony next weekend — her phrases are direct, forthright, and with a bluntness that echoes her words. But as she switches to a dreamy Scriabin etude, her tone is as veiled and mellifluous as her voice.
The Russian-born pianist and chairwoman of piano studies at Pacific Lutheran University has lived in Tacoma for only two years, yet she’s already a big part of the city’s music scene. This week, she’ll play three concerts in nine days: a collaborative concert with violinist Maria Sampen, a solo for a Second City Chamber Series recital, and the Beethoven in her TSO debut.
Yet the winner of multiple piano competitions and the guest soloist with orchestras and chamber groups across Europe and the United States — and the 10-year artistic director at Leavenworth’s Icicle Creek Center — is remarkably humble about her own work: no website, no public Facebook page, no lengthy biographies.
This week, I chatted with her about how a girl from Ryazan, Russia, came to be heading up the piano department at a Tacoma college.
Q: Your path from a Russian childhood to undergraduate study at Walla Walla University, a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University and a doctorate at Stony Brook University is a rather unusual one. Can you tell us how it happened and when you began learning piano?
A: I grew up in Russia, and started piano at age 6. My family knew I had some kind of musical talent, (although) they weren’t musicians at all. In 1993, when I was 19, after four years at a music high school, I came to America to study. I didn’t know anything about Walla Walla, but I knew I wanted to study with a Czech-born teacher who was there, Leonard Richter. It was one part adventure, I suppose, one part instructional: I was told he was a great teacher, and I wanted to explore the country. I don’t think I knew what I was doing! It was just one of those happy accidents.
Q: What was your early training like in Russia?
A: At that time, the system there was very different from here. Maybe that’s changed now, but when I was growing up you could have music lessons three or four times a week after school — instrumental, solfege, musicology, history. It was all government subsidized, not much burden on the families. Then, instead of a regular high school, there is an option of a specialist professional high school for specific disciplines — you learn the usual subjects, but you also get instruction in your discipline. I got around four hours’ face time with my piano teacher per week — that makes a huge difference. I loved it.
Q: How did you come to be in Tacoma?
A: After my studies at Stony Brook in 2004, I got the job of directing the programs at the Icicle Creek Center for the Arts, where I have been artist in residence for 10 years with my trio (formerly the Icicle Creek Piano Trio, now the Volta Piano Trio). They just had a financial restructure: The job was no longer full time, and I wanted to look for something else. This job came up here at PLU, and it worked out for me.
Q: Do you like teaching?
A: I’ve done teaching all my life, and I love it. It’s a huge source of inspiration; it feeds my soul. There’s nothing more amazing than being in the presence of a student who suddenly gets it, who’s inspired by the score. Being a part of that discovery, seeing them improve and become better people is quite a privilege.
Q: Do you always schedule three big concerts in nine days?
A: That’s just a lack of prudent scheduling! I love playing piano, so I say yes to everything.
Q: The Beethoven is a standard work, but some of your program with Maria Sampen is not. Are you enjoying it?
A: The Korngold “Much Ado About Nothing” is a pleasure to practice — it’s incidental music, to accompany Shakespeare, and he’s a film composer so of course it’s ber-Romantic.
Q: And after this homage concert to Second City series founder William Doppmann, you have a concert in January with Svend Ronning of Doppmann’s own compositions. How are you finding his music?
A: I’m playing his “In Nomine,” and it’s a toccata, very frenetic. But it’s idiomatic, it lies in the hands very well, which is nice. I’ll know more about it when I’ve learned it some more.
Q: How much do you get to practice each day?
A: I try to hit the piano first thing, then I come to school and have a full day of teaching. There’s also quite a bit of computer time for my work here and at the Icicle Creek Center. I try to practice a little more later on. What I would love is four hours a day; that’s not always what I get. If I get two-and-a-half to three hours, I think I’m fortunate. I’m juggling all these pieces, but I love every aspect of my life — that’s why my schedule gets so dense. And it’s partly due to that that I play with a score.
Q: When you actually get free time, what do you like to do?
A: My dog takes up some of my time; he’s a border collie. But if I have the chance to be outside, I will. I love the Cascades, hikes like the Enchantment Loop. You get spoiled when you can roll out of bed (in Leavenworth) and the trail is right there – I still feel like a tourist in Tacoma. I have to get to know what’s around here.
Q: And do you miss Russia at all?
A: I try to go back once every year or two, to spend family time. I usually don’t play, except in 2010 our trio was honored to play the Beethoven Triple with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. That was great — my family came, who hadn’t heard me play for a long time. I think they were proud.
Where to hear Ezhokina
Tacoma concert pianist Oksana Ezhokina is playing three local concerts in just more than a week. Here’s where to hear her play.
n What: “Exploration,” new music for violin and piano
Who: Maria Sampen, violin, and Oksana Ezhokina, piano
Program: World premieres of Mark Phillips’ “Violin Power” with interactive digital accompaniment, and Andrew Mead’s Sonata No. 3 movement VI “In Memoriam M.B.,” plus Stravinsky’s “Divertimento,” Korngold’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and Sonata No. 6 by Ysae
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Schneebeck Hall, University of Puget Sound, North 15th Street and Union Avenue, Tacoma
Tickets: $12.50 general admission; $8.50 seniors, students, military and UPS faculty and staff; free for UPS students
Information: 253-879-6013, tickets.pugetsound.edu
n What: “Doppmann the Pianist,” a five-pianist homage to the late Tacoma pianist and Second City Chamber Series founder William Doppmann
Who: Natalya Ageyeva, Lisa Bergman, Oksana Ezhokina, Duane Hulbert and Jane Harty
Program: Ezhokina and Bergman will play a four-hands version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”; also includes pieces by Albeniz, Bach, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: First Lutheran Church, 524 S. I St., Tacoma
Tickets: $20 adult; $10 students; free for those younger than 18
Information: 253-572-8863, scchamberseries.org
n What: “See Change IV”
Who: Tacoma Symphony Orchestra directed by Scott Speck, with Oksana Ezhokina on piano
Program: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1; also Philip Glass’ “Funeral for Aknaten” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5
When: 2:30 p.m. Nov. 17
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma