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Pianist Daniel Pollack: The artist as mentor

Students are like family to the renowned musician, who does everything he can to help them

Pianist Daniel Pollack: The Artist as Mentor
Daniel Pollack has been grooming concert artists at USC for more than 40 years. (Photo/courtesy of Daniel Pollack)

Concert pianist has never been a “safe” career, but in these digitally disrupted times, it’s dicier than ever.

Daniel Pollack knows that. Though he’s lived the dream, the world-renowned pianist pulls out all the stops for his students at the USC Thornton School of Music.

“I try to help them as much as I possibly can, where I can,” said the longtime professor of keyboard studies. “My students are like my family. I worry about each and every one of them — including those who have graduated. I think: ‘What can I do help them?’ They rely on me a lot, I know that.”

Pollack has been grooming concert artists at USC for more than 40 years. His own career took off like a moonshot in the era of Sputnik. Against the backdrop of Cold War one-upmanship, he was one of two Americans who brought Moscow to its knees by winning at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. The other was Texan pianist Van Cliburn.

After the competition, Pollack concertized around the Soviet Union for two months; he returned for another tour in 1961. So began the Los Angeles native’s love affair with Russian audiences. He became the first American ever to record on the Russian Melodya label. Many recordings followed, selling by the millions. Over the years, Pollack has returned to Russia 16 times for concert tours. During one visit, he played on Tchaikovsky’s piano at the composer’s home in Kline, Russia — a rare privilege.

He’s been called the musical godchild of the Moscow Conservatory, having trained at Juilliard under the great Rosina Lhévinne. In the mid-1970s, Lhévinne taught at USC over four summers, with Pollack as her assistant. To this day, he delights in quoting the “tiny empress.”

Tight-knit artistic community

The students who make up his current studio receive more than advanced, one-on-one instruction in Pollack’s brand of pianism. They gain entry to a tight-knit artistic community and a rock-solid support network.

I try to build a camaraderie.

Daniel Pollack

“I try to build a camaraderie,” he said.

Many become life-long friends. Recently, when Pollack performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the USC Thornton Symphony, a group of his former students came from all over California and Nevada to hear him play. Afterwards, they gathered for a post-concert reunion.

Last February, dozens of Pollack past and current student celebrated the maestro’s birthday at a musical house party. Respected concert artists and young up-and-comers took their turns at the piano. Vladimir Khomyakov was one of them.

The 30-year-old DMA candidate is Pollack’s assistant. He leads a weekly Monday night mini-class that runs anywhere from two to four hours.

“It’s like a little master class,” said Khomyakov, sitting on a piano bench in Pollack’s roomy two-Steinway teaching studio on the ground floor of the Ramo Hall of Music. “Everyone sits here,” he said, gesturing at a nearby sofa, “or on the floor.”

Pollack deliberately skips these meetings.

“It gives the students a chance to play for each other — with critique from Volodya,” he said, using the familiar form of Vladimir.

Khomyakov was just 20 when the two first met. It was 2005, and Pollack was a juror on the Anton Rubinstein Competition in Dresden, Germany, where Khomyakov would take third prize. Three years later they met again in Germany, where the young Russian won first prize at the International Summer Academy of Music. When he came to the José Iturbi Competition in Los Angeles the following summer, Khomyakov already knew he’d been accepted into USC Thornton’s highly selective Artist Diploma program — limited to only four advanced artists at a time, with full-tuition covered by USC Thornton Dean Robert Cutietta.

Rebuilding confidence

The maestro’s approach is firm but positive.

“Confidence-building is very important,” he said. Coming from all over the world, his students — all but three are in graduate programs — are highly gifted and thoroughly trained. Yet they are surprisingly fragile.

“I inherit a lot of students who have come with a lot of problems,” Pollack said. “They’re in tears. They’re nervous. The fingers aren’t strong. They have difficulty expressing themselves musically. I’ve got a big job on my hands.”

He insists his students master all the piano repertoire. Specializing will come much later in their careers, he said. Though a stickler for good technique and stylistic integrity, Pollack is no dogmatist.

The least I’m interested in is that they copy me!

Daniel Pollack

“I want them to maintain their own individuality and personalities. The least I’m interested in is that they copy me!”

Pollack seldom demonstrates his musical ideas at the piano.

“I really want them to get the feel. It reminds me of Lhévinne at Juilliard. She didn’t play that much for us. She sat on the couch 40 feet away and said, “Straighten the fifth finger, dear, you’ll get more tone.”

If a student disagrees on some interpretative nuance, Pollack is open to being persuaded.

Be tenacious, but have a Plan B

Pollack doesn’t confine his mentoring to artistic matters. He sees his task as preparing students for an uncertain future.

“A concert career is very demanding, emotionally and physically,” he said. “My philosophy is: Leave no stone unturned. You have to get out in the trenches. You get knocked down, pick yourself up and try again. If it didn’t work, move on.”

Those who are talented, tenacious and lucky may make a living by their art. But Pollack advises them to have a backup plan. He exhorts them to venture beyond USC Thornton.

“Don’t just come take the class and then say: ‘Leave me alone, I’m practicing.’ What does this university have to offer you? How are you going to grow? There’s so much here.”

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