Melemed plays himself into the hearts of Finns.

By Harri Kuusisaari - Nov 30, 2019

Photos: Heikki Tuuli

Translated by Mackenzie Melemed

Original Article HERE


Pianist Mackenzie Melemed has given concerts in more locations in Finland than many of his Finnish colleagues in the past couple of years, and he wants to create contact with the audience by speaking in music and local dialect- in Finnish and in Savo. The open-hearted tactic has been successful, and the Finns have embraced him.


Helsinki, Tampere, Turku, Kuopio, Lappeenranta, Mikkeli, Rovaniemi, Mänttä, Sysmä, Kauniainen. American pianist Mackenzie Melemed lists the places he has performed in the past couple of years, either as an orchestra soloist or as a soloist. And Hämeenlinna and Vaasa will soon be on the way. When he returned to Finland in November, his passport already contained 17 entry stamps.


And that's not all, because next summer Melemed plans to move to Finland if he gets a residence permit. "Maybe I will stay with my friends, the Kohonen family, in Masku first and then look for an apartment in Helsinki," he plans. You will immediately wonder why. Wouldn’t a top musician who is dedicated to a solo career, determined and social in nature, find another place?


“Well, I sleep well here, stress disappears, and the peace inspires me. New York can be so hectic - it feels like you have to be somewhere other than where you are, and do something other than what you’re doing all the time. I have made a lot of good friends among Finnish musicians, which gives me a feeling of home as well. I have been able to fish and I like to eat at Hesburger," he surprises.


Melemed has a rare asset to present the Finnish public: his knowledge of the Finnish language. 

Nor does he hesitate to use it in concerts. In Kuopio he started by talking in the local dialect. In Lappeenranta he spoke about local delicacies, and in Rovaniemi he mentioned his experiences with the wide-ranging temperatures of Lapland.


“As soon as I opened my mouth, I received a loud applause. Creating close contact with the audience through such means will have an impact on the overall atmosphere and the reception of the music,” he says. “Then I can go in and talk about the music and open up its backgrounds. Perhaps you don’t always need to do it with Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, but with more rare works, yes. ”


“Of course, there are a lot of pianists who find it unnecessary to talk, but everyone does their part. I'd rather eliminate the myth of the lonely pianist playing in the dark. Sociality makes this work more rewarding.”


Practice must have a purpose

The starting point for Melemed's career in Finland was the winner of the Maj Lind competition in 2017. Then the media became interested in the skill, and he was able to explain the reasons for his language skills many times. He first heard about Finland during a layover in 2012. The language felt so special and musical that he bought a Finnish textbook during the trip. Then he studied it for three years at Columbia University, and his correspondents and friends there took care of the rest.


The media attention received by the Maj Lind Piano Competition winner led Melemed to approach Finnish orchestras and festivals with emails written in Finnish. It worked, and concerts began to come. He has done his own sales work because he sees it as a natural part of communicating with people, but now the boundaries have started to come. 


“Aino Turtiainen-Visala from Fazer has helped me and it seems to me that an agent with the necessary contacts could be a smart solution anyway. She might know what would be best for me right now. I get inspired and I enjoy changing programs all the time. It's interesting, but maybe some concentration could be considered there too.”


Melemed loves to tour music competitions and his curriculum is full of them. Last spring, he finished third in China's international music competitions, and next year he is planning more as well. Mackenzie Melemed does not criticize music competitions but sees them as a good way to market themselves and see what happens in the industry. 


“Competitions are much more than just playing to the jury. For example, there was a giant prize at the new China competition, and to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the finals was quite a shock to the music world! They are good places to make contacts and see where you go and what talents are coming. In addition, they usually have high quality streaming services that you can use in your own marketing.”


“China's competition has caused others to raise their prize money. In fact, I used Maj Lind prize money to pay off my student loans! But money is not the key. You can't buy a career for yourself."


Melemed has been competing and performing alongside his asian counterparts since he was a little boy, when he was the only Caucasian participant in an American competition. “Well, they practice a lot, but the amount of training for myself is not important, but its power and focus. Personally, I like to practice short stretches where I set a certain goal. Once that is achieved, I move on to the next. This is more effective than repeating the same thing hourly. I am a goal-oriented in everything I do.”


Melemed’s Development

Mackenzie Melemed got a digital toy piano as a little boy, age 3. His stepfather noticed that he was seriously trying to make music and helped him further. Performances in local schools and retirement homes soon became a weekly occurrence: at the age of 8, he performed Mozart on the Discovery Channel and later played for President Bush at the White House five times.


The first piano teachers were Olga Rogach and Alexander Korsantia. The road eventually took him to the Juilliard School for the teachings of Robert McDonald and then the renowned Emanuel Ax.


“When I was little, I just played without the systematic classical technique that Rogach then put in order and opened my finger position. With Korsantia, I found my voice and my musical passion. McDonald gave a final touch to my technique by teaching me how to play with less effort. Ax again is a musical mentor and friend, with whom I am in constant contact."


Melemed has always been interested in a variety of things. He wanted to study computer science and languages, and initially he wanted to do a double major. "Music took me down the road, though, but I believe that having options is good for any musician,” he says.


An important milestone in his career is December 13, when he makes his New York debut at Carnegie Hall in Weill Hall. 

It was a prize at the Juilliard School. Melemed likes unusual programming, and this concert is exactly that.


The program begins with one of Bach's Preludes and Fugues, then followed by those by Mendelssohn and Shostakovich. Then there are the Sonatas of Scarlatti, Beethoven and Medtner, as well as suites by Bach, Bartók Poulenc and the Israeli-American contemporary composer Avner Dorman.


“The red thread is metamorphoses of musical forms throughout the centuries,” Melemed explains. “In the case of the Preludes and the Fugues, I also wanted Mendelssohn, whose work is not well known. The archivist at Carnegie Hall doubted they had ever been performed there.”


“Sonatas begin with their simplest, Scarlatti’s short AABB-shaped works. Beethoven, on the other hand, excitedly condensed the later three-part established form into his two-movement Sonata in F Major Op. 54.


It's one of my favorite Beethoven sonatas, though practically the least played. Medtner, on the other hand, compacted the form into one movement, organically bringing together Russians and Central Europeans.”


Melemed became acquainted with Avner Dorman's music during a piano competition where he played the composer's etudes.“ They were tremendously difficult, quickly jumping around the keyboard, and even notes running in mirror image backwards at the halfway point; a bit like Ligeti. After hearing the performances, the composer came to admit that he couldn't play them like that himself, and I ended up recording them,” he says.


“The third sonata I play at Carnegie Hall is influenced by techno, and the second sonata has Messianic and jazz echoes. I like this multi-style, and I plan to commission a piano concerto from him soon.”


Spiritual native music

Melemed's ancestors are Russian-Jewish, and he has begun to find these roots more and more in his concert programs. Often, concerts include greetings from America - and Finland.


“I feel that playing Russian repertoire is at the same time my journey. In Kauniainen I remembered both American expats and natives. As an encore I played the Horowitz “Stars and Stripes Forever” arrangement. It was a thank you to my first teacher who would perform it every year at the annual 4-Piano Gala in my hometown." Finnish music at Melemed's concerts has mostly been represented by Sibelius with his small songs, but he has also played Palmgren's River Concerto and plans to bring in more Palmgren.


“And possibly Aarre Merikanto and Einar Englund, whom Matti Raekallio recommended to me. I am also inspired by French culture - I speak French and my cousin has lived in the country for a long time. This is how the links are formed; things that are close to me.”


With the Kuopio City Orchestra, he played a new concerto by South Korea’s Jeajoon Ryu last season, which he also recorded with the Ralf Gothóni and Sinfonia Varsovia.


“I want to highlight works that deserve to be heard. In competitions, the same dozen works rotate year after year. It grabs both the jury’s and the audience's attention to open up the piano repertoire wider. And it doesn't hurt my career: From performing the Ryu Concerto, I got my foot in the door in both Poland and Korea and I played at Warsaw’s National Philharmonic Hall without making the finals of the Chopin competition!”


Melemed's 17 Finnish entry stamps are quite numerous, given that he has not been to Chicago or New Orleans at home. When talking to him, it turns out that he knows almost half of the Finnish music scene. "I can't walk around Helsinki Music Center for long time without seeing a familiar face,” he admits.


“Finns seem to have a certain sense of community as a resource. Let's take a look at the brilliant types of young piano academics who are competing with each other, but who also seem to have fun with each other and encourage each other.”


Melemed started teaching at the age of seven when he was teaching his friends' parents who wanted to learn how to play the piano. Well, he does not take this as a merit now, but nowadays, he has begun to inspire students at the Helsinki and Turku Conservatories.


“I don't want to tell students how they should do things, but to give different paths to the structure and lines of the music.

Of course I can say what I would or would not do. All of what I have learned different teachers, is part of me. I can spread this forward and offer an extra push to the performer according to what each piece requires from the artist. The time for actual teaching will come.”