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The Pianist That Wants To Bring Classical Music to a New Generation

By Renée Batchelor

Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili hopes her story will inspire many young dreamers.
Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili hopes her story will inspire many young dreamers.

Khatia Buniatishvili first took up the piano at the age of three, young even by the standards of music prodigies. Today, she is admired not just for her virtuosity and fierce intellect, but also for the daring way in which she has electrified the genre with her compelling personality and her open-mindedness. Her latest album “Labyrinth”, released in October of 2020 under the Sony Classical label, features Buniatishvili’s wistful and beautiful interpretations of pieces by composers ranging from Bach to Brahms to Glass. But while she is steeped in the classical tradition — she earned the first place at the admissions exams of the Tbilisi Conservatory aged 16 and the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts at 19 — she has also attracted audiences unfamilar to the scene with her pop collaborations, notably the one with British band Coldplay on their 2015 album “Head Full of Dreams”.

Beyond her extraordinary achievements in music, Buniatishvili was also chosen by Cartier as its newest ambassador because of her humanitarian work on issues like child development, refugee aid and climate justice. When she replied via email to questions from Singapore in early December, Buniatishvili was in Paris. Despite the relatively detached format of the interview, one of the first things she wrote was, “I am answering your questions and trying to connect with you. My philosophy of life is to be fully in the present. Even when I work on long-term projects, it is the working process and the nuances of every second of everyday life that counts and not the result — even if I have a vision as an entity of it,” she says.

Buniatishvili was born and grew up in Batumi, Georgia and describes her childhood as wonderful. “It was beautiful because I was surrounded with love from my family, books that made my days inspiring and beautiful, music that moved me and my fantasy that allowed me to mentally travel where I wanted to,” she says.

However the quality of life was not always ideal, both from a financial and a security perspective. “The ’90s in Georgia were chaotic. Between civil and regional wars, insecurity and a criminal atmosphere in the streets, a lack of electricity and hot water, sometimes simply a lack of water and the fear of how to pay for the food for the following day... we had to survive in these conditions. It was hard for my parents, but they were strong, and they made it. My mother was not only trying to find a solution to feed us, but also to give us an education. I learned five languages thanks to her. She didn’t want us to lose creativity and joie de vivre,” says Buniatishvili.

Music, and the piano was always part of the family. (Buniatishvili’s older sister Gvantsa is also a gifted pianist). A young Buniatishvili was influnced by books like Dostoevsky “The Idiot” and short stories by Chekhov, as well as music like Mozart’s Requiem. She doesn’t think that they taught her anything concrete, but rather touched her imagination and sense of emotion. “I think, when you are a child or adolescent, a book written by a genius author or a chef-oeuvre of a genius composer, elucidate even more the already profound mind. They lead you towards the essence of life at a very young age  —  to the overwhelming painfulness and tragedy, and overwhelming happiness and love. Later when you grow up, it is those strong emotions that you look for in life,” she says.

When asked about how a usual day might be like, Buniatishvili says that the piano is always a part of it, even if she doesn’t touch the instrument. “Notes and sounds are always in my mind,” she says. Touring might be about airports, hotels and rehearsals, while promotions revolve around photo shoots and interviews. But home is where she finds her creative groove. “When I’m at home, sometimes I’m completely concentrated on music and the piano, or I do different projects like writing, or preparing a new album which means creating the cover idea, writing the booklet, and translating in different languages,” she says. Buniatishvili tells us that she enjoys working closely with translators as there is “an exactitude in every word and their construction is important to me”. Besides recording and editing the audio of her performances, she also thinks of the concept of the accompanying video, down to the script, as well as related photo shoots for the album. “I love doing things myself for my albums because I think the album is a very personal thing,” she says.

The pandemic has taught her to take a break, meditate and relax, but has also deepened her perception of work as well as what she wants for both herself and for others. Perhaps some of the passion that Buniatishvili conveys in her playing and the charisma she telegraphs, even in her email replies, is down to her romantic approach to music. “I open the musical scores as if I open a love letter from the composer personally written [to] me. I see the composers through their music. I follow their emotions, their breath, their thoughts and passions through their music,” she says.

Unsurprisingly Buniatishvili’s attitude towards success is that she is not intrested in it, in the traditional sense. “Success is like the wind; it can come and go,” she quips. “What I want is to be truthful to myself and other human beings, to be free while I’m creating and to live the moment and not to adapt my inspirations to the perception of success or the calculated expectations. I give everything I have while Iʼm on stage, while I create or perform. Art is a human being’s creation to survive the limitedness of their reality. For me, the success is to do what you want to do and how you want to do it and to inspire other people,” she says.

Courtesy of CartierBuniatishvili, who was recently named a Cartier ambassador, wears the brand's [Sur] Naturel necklace in white gold, emeralds, onyx and diamonds.
Buniatishvili, who was recently named a Cartier ambassador, wears the brand's [Sur] Naturel necklace in white gold, emeralds, onyx and diamonds.

Being such a glamorous and passionate figure, her connection with the French watch and jewellery house Cartier makes perfect sense. Buniatishvili says the relationship started with performances for the house at events, but later developed into a sort of shared commonality of values on topics like culture, art and style. “Cartier was the first jewellery brand I heard of when I was a child. The world of glamour and luxury was so far from our reality at that time, living in freezing houses with no electricity in winter. Somehow, I always knew I would succeed in life, I don’t know why — career wasn’t even important to me. But what was important was to be able to thank my parents for giving us a happy childhood, despite all the difficulties, and to offer them the nice and serene life that they so much deserved,” she says.

This reflection leads Buniatishvili to think of how life often bears two sides, like a coin. “Now I am on other side of the coin, enjoying the joy of being an ambassador of Cartier but I will never forget the other hard side of life, I will always be part of those who live in suburbs or have material difficulties. Cartier will open new dimensions for the issues I’m sensitive about — social issues, educational and cultural programmes. Cartier will help my voice to be heard even more and I hope my voice will resonate with other voices in need,” she says. Working on these issues is a natural extension for Buniatishvili because of her background and life experiences. “Coming from where I come from, I feel compassion [when it comes] to human pain and difficulties. I need to be helpful. I want to be helpful while the extreme inequalities exist,” she says.

Because of her strong intellectual curiosity, Buniatishvili is immediately able to see the link between the worlds of jewellery and music. When asked what connects the two she says, “The history.” Fashion and music, along with other art forms have long existed, but Buniatishvili points out that not everything survives time — only the worthy things do. “We listen to Bach, Mozart and other composers today, but we don’t listen to all of their contemporaries. Certain designers create tendencies during one season but cannot become iconic or desirable for the very long-term, but there are timeless designers (real artists and unique personalities) [who] inspire us even after their death. I think the individuality is at the end what defines and makes art so particular — time defines its objective qualities while it still stays subjective,” she says.

When asked about her successful career as well as the challenges of being a woman in the classical music scene, Buniatishvili has a balanced take. She acknowledges that she was told that being an instrumentalist and a woman might not always give her the power to make independent choices, so she would have to rely on big names (often male) to invite her on tours. But she was able to meet wonderful collaborators along the way. Ultimately, Buniatishvili chose to carve out her own path. “I was convinced that I would build my career by myself, by playing solo recitals mostly. I offered all I had to say artistically, and all my love to the public. And the public gave me their love back. I filled all the halls, mostly being alone on stage. And it all worked. Charisma, passion, sincerity, integrity and talent always bring enthusiasm,” she says.

In the era of  accesibility to all genres and forms of music, Buniatishvili hopes that classical music will find its place with the next generation. “I would say the individuals — the genius composers from previous centuries — could open certain emotional and intellectual doors, which may stay shut if we don’t open it. It is like a love that someone might never experience. It may not be a tragedy, but it is sad. I think children should have access to classical music so that they discover this unknown love, that doesn’t really have a name, that isn’t like anything else. I discovered Mozart’s Requiem at the age of seven and today just by imagining the first chords of it, I am moved with the same overwhelming feeling,” she says.

Today, Buniatishvili continues to work on social projects,  “I’m working again together with Philharmonie de Paris on a long-term project “Démos” (Dispositif d'éducation musicale et orchestrale à vocation sociale) which is an educational project focusing on orchestral musical practice. It is dedicated to children aged 7 to 12, living in underprivileged urban areas or isolated rural regions [who] lack easy access to music discovering and music playing facilities. They join a symphonic orchestra and receive a musical instrument for three years. It remains theirs if they choose to continue playing music afterwards,” she says. The end goal is to make classical music a part of every child’s life — whether or not the children pursue classical music is wholly up to them. “That’s their choice. But it is our responsibility to make sure these children didn’t miss out on something wonderful in their lives.”