Aleksandr Hrustevich is a musician from the Ukraine whose speciality is the bayan (that's a Russian chromatic button accordion), an instrument largely unknown in the United States, but gaining momentum in Europe, not least because of Mr. Hrustevich.
In October 2008, the bayanist uploaded a video of himself playing two minutes of "Summer" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, as well as a few other videos. A year later, the Vivaldi went viral, especially after he was featured in Digg and NPR. Concert organizers reached out to Aleksandr to showcase his incredible ability to interpret complex pieces meant for the violin and piano, to the bayan. We recently interviewed Aleksander to discuss being a performer in the age of the internet, and the challenge of arranging music for such an unusual instrument.
Karen Lo: What made you interested in the bayan, especially at such a young age?
Aleksandr Hrustevich: My father was the one who decided that I needed to play the bayan. He liked the music and sound of this instrument, so he bought me the bayan when I was five years old. I'm thankful that my father decided I needed to get a musical education. Of course it wasn't easy to practice each day, especially at such young age. All my friends were playing outside, while I had to go to the music school after my lessons at the high school. After music school, my father wanted me to practice at home. But when I got at the Music Academy, I realized how important music was to me. I wanted to became the best bayan player in the world, not just a simple bayanist, but the best... Now, music is everything to me. It is my biggest passion. If I don't play for two or three days, I feel very bad, like I don't have legs or hands... Music inspires me and it is my air.
Where did you study the bayan, and who has been the most influential on your career?
My first bayan teacher was my father, although he played for pleasure rather than professionally. After graduating from musical school in my hometown, I entered Ukraine's National Academy of Music in Kiev and studied with Professor Vladimir Besfamilnov. When I got into Kiev, I realized that I needed to get the best musical education possible. Not only from my professors, but by attending all kinds of instrumental concerts: piano, violin, orchestra, and those of famous bayanists. My biggest inspirations have been my professors Vladimir Besfamilnov, A. Ckliarov, J. Shiskin, and many others.
What do you find most challenging about your instrument? Do you feel there are any limitations that come with playing a less common instrument?
For me the most difficult task is to get the perfect sound and to make it continue. I think the sound and ability to handle it are what attract the attention of the listener. Not least important is the repertoire – choosing what to play. There is not much music written for the bayan. Usually bayanists choose something from piano or violin repertoire and make the arrangements themselves. It is sometimes challenging to play music that is written for another instrument.
Where else would you most like to perform? So far, what has been the most exciting performance for you?
My biggest dream is to appear at Carnegie Hall in New York City. I think this concert hall is the greatest in the world. So far I have played in many other countries, but the most memorable concerts were in Brazil. I had an intensive six concert tour there and for each concert, the public reaction was so warm, as nowhere else in the world. All performers dream of such an audience.
In the United States, it's quite rare to see an instrument like yours practiced by someone so young. Do you find that to be true elsewhere, or do you think certain countries or audiences are more familiar with the bayan
The bayan was invented in Russia and is very popular there, but now also all Europe is very interested in this instrument and it's widely played.
How have the internet and access to social media influenced your career?
Today the internet has so much power. Everybody can find anybody on the internet. YouTube, for example, is the perfect place for an artist to put their videos and to share their achievements. Exposure to the internet was the first step in my career. Although I had released some unprofessional recordings, I got thousands of views and likes when I uploaded videos to YouTube. These videos drew the attention of listeners from all over the world. I started to get invitations from concert organizers. The internet is the perfect platform for an artist.
Do you remember the first song you transcribed by yourself?
The first transcription was Bach's "Passacaglia" for the organ.
What is your favorite kind of music to transcribe to the bayan? Do you personally feel that there are any specific kinds of music that are especially suited for the bayan?
I like to perform different music – classical, as well romantic, national, contemporary, and jazz. I think that with the bayan you can perform almost all music, from baroque to jazz, and all contemporary styles.
Are there any musicians whom you'd like to collaborate with in the future?
Some time ago I was invited to perform with music legend Bobby McFerrin. He chose me for his performance in Kiev. It was an amazing experience to perform with such a star on the same stage, and to improvise together. I enjoy performing with the best orchestras and I'd like to continuing performing with them. Collaborating with great musicians is always so satisfying and inspiring.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Our thanks to Jurga Mackelaite of New Musical Generation who helped tremendously to facilitate this interview. You can find out more information about Aleksandr and his upcoming performances, as well as purchases his albums at Aleksandr Hrustevich.