Ivan the Talented

Concert pianist takes on classical music stereotypes — and the compositions of David DiChiera, too


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"Beware the Ides of March” isn’t usually advice about the weather. Unless, that is, you’re from Michigan. 

Someone should have warned Annalise Dzwonczyk. On a blustery March 15, the Cincinnati-based mezzo soprano stands in the Jam Handy building down the street from the Fisher Building on West Grand Boulevard, sipping hot water from a to-go cup. 

Next to her, donning several layers of clothes, pianist Ivan Moshchuk is rubbing his hands together. In a nearby room, sound engineer Jimmy Dixon sits by a computer, a space heater warming his feet.

Their weeklong “Jam” session is to record 26-year-old Moshchuk’s next album. “Letters & Fantasies” is entirely the works of Michigan Opera Theatre impresario, David DiChiera, including four Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets he set to music.

Booking the Jam Handy seemed reasonable. After all, it was a strange Michigan winter. But a surprisingly spring-like February turned to a wintery March.

DiChiera stopped in a few times during the week. “I’m so thrilled at the talent that came together to [record] my music,” he says. “But it was cold.” 

That’s because the heat was off: The Jam Handy’s old system makes too much noise.

The times DiChiera did visit he was bundled up like “Nanook of the North.” But he’s excited to hear the results. “I can’t wait,” he says, adding that the proceeds go to fund his beloved MOT. 

After the session, Dzwonczyk drove back to Cincinnati for her day job as a wealth management coordinator at First Financial Bank. 

Her commute, however, was one of the shortest of the weeklong parade of international talent. Caroline Siegers, a resident at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, handled audio production. There’s also violinist Yury Revich from Vienna; Ukrainian-born cellist Aleksey Shadrin; and trumpeter Berthold Brauer from Dresden, Germany. Behind the lens for a video: Stewart French from London. There were a few locals: Angela Theis, soprano, from Detroit; and Dixon, who was Moshchuk’s teammate on the Grosse Pointe South High School tennis team. 

Here in the city that gave birth to techno and down the street from Motown studio, Moshchuk is sending a message. Fickle weather might be the result of climate change. But this global gathering seeks to change classical music’s “staid” reputation.

 “We could have gone to Berlin. We could have gone to Abbey Road [where the Beatles recorded]. But we wanted to record in Detroit,” Moshchuk says. “I want to create a new culture of classical music. It needs a new aesthetic. Detroit can be that.”

Plus, he wants to start a nonprofit called “Detroit Sessions” based on artistic collaborations he began last summer that included Shakespeare in Detroit and the ArtLab J dance community. 

Ambitious? Sure. But Moshchuk may just have the chops to pull it off. 

The Making of a Musician 

Moshchuk was born in Moscow in 1990. When he was 4, his physicist father started to work at Wayne State University, then moved on to General Motors. Moshchuk’s mother, Ludmilla, a computer science engineer, took on stay-at-home mom duties.

His parents bought a garage sale piano, and were referred to a piano tuner named Hugh Gulledge. “He came over and saw this piano and said, ‘There’s nothing I can do with this instrument,’ ” Moshchuk says. “Then I sat down to play [at age 6 or 7] … and he said, ‘You know what, I will tune this piano.’ ” 

Gulledge took care of more than the piano. He watched Ivan grow as a musician, then anonymously recommended him for a prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award. And although the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation is based in Kalamazoo, Moshchuk is still the only Michiganian to receive the award. He went on to the Peabody Institute and relocated to Paris as a resident of the Cité Internationale des Arts. 

But he came back home often. 

And he kept in touch with DiChiera, who he met around age 6, through a friend’s mother who worked at the MOT. “I told Caroline [Siegers] I’d love to record four songs that Dr. D had written,” Moshchuk says. “We had a good result, but not the acoustics we really wanted. That was sent to INNOVA [a Minnesota-based record company]. They went wild.” INNOVA wanted a full album. So Moshchuk approached DiChiera for more material.

“He’s mentored me in so many things,” Moshchuk says. “And he embraced this idea of selecting extraordinary young artists from around the world that could come to Detroit. I appreciate his trust.” 

Expanding the Audience

The life of a touring pianist sounds glamorous, but it’s not exactly lucrative. “I’m very grateful that I haven’t been starving ... [it’s] always paycheck to paycheck,” Moshchuk says. Still, he gives back when he can. In 2015, he helped launch a music room at the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program. 

The Detroit Sessions nonprofit is the next step. “It’s not about a record label [or] production company,” Moshchuk says, but rather a “kind of a lifestyle movement that people can gravitate toward and an engine to create a new culture of classical music. Maybe we have our first season here in Detroit,” he speculates. But taking a cue from the old traveling Motown Revue, he’d love to take the show on the road to New York or Berlin.

DiChiera thinks it’s a great idea, especially finding fans outside the confines of the concert hall.  “Going to the opera house sounds rather forbidding,” he says. “ ‘What do I wear? Will I know what to do?’ ” 

Of course, outreach is a cornerstone of DiChiera’s legacy, as is the establishment of the world-class MOT Studio training program. “Dr. D understands that it’s this next generation that’s really going to make a mark in classical music,” Moshchuk says. 

That means breaking a few rules. Moshchuk cites Glen Gould and other “grand interpreters” as inspiration. “The way [Gould] played Bach, people would say it was completely wrong. But that’s exactly the point! This is the mentality that has been so destructive in classical music. We’ve fabricated certain lanes of interpretation that have become ‘acceptable,’ … and we can’t deviate.”

Moshchuk is deviating even further, collaborating with east-side rapper Vincent McWilliams, who also has a “Kill the Hate” clothing line. He says that the forward-thinking McWilliams believes not all messages need to be about women or money. 

“How can we really send a positive message and … come together and influence culture in a different way?,” Moshchuk says. “What I often miss from classical music is that it’s not in the moment. We’re always recording for the archive and doing programs that we’ve done many, many times before. Let’s do something that’s never been done before.” 

Moshchuk has performed in some of the world’s most storied venues, but one favorite memory happened in November 2016, when he performed Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with the combined Grosse Pointe orchestra and choir — in the Grosse Pointe South gym. “I was so moved by the youth and energy of the students,” he says.

At press time, DiChiera announced that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The “Letters & Fantasies” recording was due out in May, just in time for the MOT’s Grand Salute reception and tribute performance to honor DiChiera’s legacy on May 19. 

Not that DiChiera is going gently into retirement. He’s been writing music “since my student days at UCLA,” he says. “Composing is kind of like an addiction,” one he vows to continue “as long as my brain is working and my fingers work.” 

Moshchuk’s next big memory could happen on Sept. 16. Last year, the fear of exposing a Steinway piano to a downpour of rain shelved plans for a concert in Roosevelt Park near the Michigan Central Station. If weather permits, this year’s “Piano in the Park 2” could be like that Grosse Pointe gym performance: memorable if not acoustically pristine.

Moshchuk’s attitude: Who cares? 

“We could really be chasing this perfection … perfect studios and perfect sounds and perfect musicians. But … when you have one experience like that, in a gymnasium, doing Beethoven, you realize just how bigger it is than all of us.” 

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