A Concert Pianist’s Sleight of Hand
Interview with Igor Lipinski
4/23/2021 • Reading Time: 9min
About Igor Lipinski
Polish-born pianist Igor Lipinski made his U.S. debut with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on NPR’s Performance Today.
Graduate of Eastman School of Music and Northwestern University, Lipinski is an Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Oklahoma where he continues to reimagine the traditional format of a piano recital.
Lipinski’s Piano Illusions took him across the world from Hong Kong to New York City, presenting his unique show of music and magic at festivals, concert halls, and symphony orchestras including Rochester Philharmonic and Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra.
Interview with Igor Lipinski
Tell us about your introduction to magic. Did it happen to coincide with your early piano studies?
Growing up in Poland, I first saw magic performed by my great-grandfather. He wasn’t a professional magician per se, but he was a great storyteller and did simple magic that left a great impression on a 6-year-old. When he passed away, I inherited a book on card magic from his drawer and that’s when I first realized I can actually learn what he did. I became obsessed with magic.
It all felt like a great treasure hunt. Imagine the pre-YouTube times of early 90’s: magic was much less easily accessible, especially in Poland. I recorded every magic show that aired on TV, including early David Copperfield specials, on chunky VHS tapes, and played each show back in slow motion, so I could reverse-engineer the magic. Because there weren’t any magic shops in Poland, I remember traveling all the way to Vienna, Austria, and skipping all the sightseeing that a 12-year-old should check off his list, and instead of spending hours every day at one of the largest magic shops in Europe, Viennamagic.
I wanted to read everything I could about magic and I literally ran out of books written about it in Polish so I learned English and started corresponding with magicians from all over the world. I became the youngest member of the National Association of Magicians in Poland and would attend conferences and conventions throughout Europe. I started competing with an act I developed that involved performing sleight-of-hand magic to classical music. I think one of the first soundtracks I used was an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. I probably have a VHS recording somewhere at my home, but I would never dare to show it to anyone. I won several competitions, including a Grand Prix Award at the 25th Convention for the National Association of Magicians in Poland.
And through magic, I made many wonderful friendships and mentors. Two Polish magicians that inspired me early on were Tomasz Chełmiński “Salvano” and Michael Konieczny “Vadini”. When I was 14, Vadini generously invited me to come with him to Paris and attend his workshop for a French magician’s club in Blois, the birth city of the father of modern magic Robert-Houdin. My performance at the evening gala became my first international showcase. Two years later, I was invited to Dubai, United Arab Emirates where I performed over 60 shows at the Dubai Summer Surprises Festival with a group of Polish magicians.
As you can tell, I was a serious student of magic and magic was steadily becoming an inseparable part of my life. At the same time, I was of course becoming more and more involved with piano, and I absolutely loved music. At 12, I received the Grand Prix at the Paderewski Competition for Young Pianists and the main competition award was a weekend stay with my family at the Paderewski’s Manor House in Kąśna Dolna, Poland.
Paderewski, who was one of the first Steinway Artists, gave over 20 U.S. concert tours in his lifetime, and traveled the country with his own piano in a private Pullman car train, became a very early influence on my musical upbringing. When I was 16, I met Kazimierz Braun, a professor of theatre at the University at Buffalo, who wrote a play on Paderewski’s life, “Paderewski’s Children”, and casted me in the role of a young pianist. It was an incredible opportunity and my very first time visiting the U.S.A. A day before dress rehearsal, I visited Rochester, NY to attend a masterclass by another Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, at the Eastman School of Music. A friend of mine, Robert Fronckowiak, called the chair of the piano department about my visit, and that’s when I met my future professor and one of my greatest musical inspirations, Douglas Humpherys. One year later, I auditioned at Eastman and started my undergraduate piano performance degree under his tutelage.
I’m curious to hear your commentary in regards to the solitary nature of both art forms.
As you well know, playing on a high level takes years of dedicated practice. For every hour on stage, there are weeks, months, and years of solitary preparation. You simply can’t escape it. Whether it’s practicing card shuffles in front of a mirror or Hanon exercises in a windowless practice room, it takes years before you can perform certain works in front of a live audience. You need to spend a lot of time with yourself and your instrument and your mind in order to have something worth it to say in front of the audience. And a lot of that work rarely ever gets acknowledged. Most technical aspects of magic remain hidden at all times: you hide the blood, sweat, and the countless hours you’ve spent mastering a particular move in order to focus on the effect, on the beautiful. The secret stays with you. It’s quite humbling. Things often look so simple on stage but there’s an incredible layer of complexity behind them. Just think of how many years it takes for a pianist to develop a perfectly weighted, singing, projecting tone out of a piano.
There are certainly many ways to engage an audience as a soloist: magician or musician. What are some similarities & differences?
Magic is often direct, visual, and gets an immediate, visceral response. Classical music is often much more abstract and in order to appreciate it to its fullest the amount you know about it matters greatly.
In my show, I especially enjoy when magic provides context for the piece of music on the program or, vice versa, when a piece of music inspires the magic. Over the last twelve years, I have performed the show with several symphony orchestras. The show features several movements of famous piano concertos, from Liszt’s E-flat Major to Mozart’s D Minor.
One of the highlights is the 18th Variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. I realize that for musicians, the fact that the melody of the 18th variation is a mirror image of the main Paganini theme isn’t very surprising, but for the general public, it may look like real magic. Did the theme just disappear into a thin air? Well, no, it’s still there, but it’s hidden. It’s quite interesting but by revealing the secret of the piece, you allow the audience to gain a new level of appreciation for the music. Of course, the magic happens later. After explaining Rachmaninoff’s compositional thought process, I take on the challenge of writing a theme and variations of my own, asking the audience to select several cards which we then pair to the keys on the piano that make up our melody. After “improvising” a few short pieces based on the audience’s melody, I then turn the theme upside down, revealing a hidden melody, oftentimes Mozart’s Turkish March!
Album by Igor Lipinski
I often feel I have to practice “switching gears”: from speaking to an audience to performing at the piano. How do you practice integrating your magic & music live on stage?
With a few notable exceptions, all my shows are fully scripted: every word, every beat, every moment in the show is perfectly timed. And I practice, for example, ending a piece at the piano— lifting the hands and the pedals—and the precise moment when I turn to the audience to speak. Rehearsing these seemingly irrelevant moments of transition will make the performance look effortless and in control. It’s also good to create a sort of mental subtext, linking one event with another in your head. Everything needs cause and effect in theater: am I speaking about the piece that I just performed or am I taking the audience somewhere else?
This reminds me of a piece from my show. Harold Weller, founder of Las Vegas Philharmonic and a good friend of mine, shared the recording of my senior project with Teller, the great mind from the Las Vegas duo Penn & Teller. Teller turned out to be a classical music buff, he loves Bach–he even owns a harpsichord once owned by Wanda Landowska. Teller was so incredibly generous with his time and invited me to Vegas to work with him on my show. Together, we developed a routine that involves memorizing a shuffled deck of 52 cards and a three-part fugue from Bach’s Toccata in E Minor. I mention it here because it took me about 6 months of daily practice to get the speaking part—that is reciting the cards out loud while playing a complex piece at the piano—to a comfortable level before I performed it in front of the audience for the first time. All of that for a 3-minute long piece of magic!
Two final questions, related or not: What makes a great pianist. What makes a great magician?
For several years, I wanted to record a professional album. The concept of personal sound is very important to me and it’s something I learned to value even more when I studied with Alan Chow at Northwestern. But I was never satisfied with any recording session I have done in the past. So I became utterly, miserably, completely obsessed with figuring out how I can record the album all by myself. I spent every waking moment I had reading articles and books on the subject of microphone techniques and concert hall acoustics. I even reverse engineered microphone placements from archival photos taken at recording sessions from some of my favorite pianists. It was like learning magic all over again and very much reminded me of my time watching VHS tapes in slow motion. I would stay up every night in the concert hall until 4:00 a.m. and recorded hours of audio until I got it right. When the pandemic started and halted my entire tour, I was able to complete the recording with all the extra time that I had, and a few months later I published “Alchemy''. Through the process, I also realized how much I love recording and decided to start my own record label, Vanishing Records. I could have easily written a grant, hired a senior recording engineer, and submitted the project to a well-established label. But what makes a great pianist, and a great magician for that matter, is a certain amount of perseverance, willingness to take chances, and learn a completely new thing. Even if it means going back into the hall in the middle of the night just to record another take.
Brainstorming session with Teller (of Penn & Teller) backstage at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in 2009
About Maryam Raya
Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.
Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.