• Grand Piano Series

Concert pianist Mackenzie Melemed—from prodigious start to Finnish

by Sue Wade

Punta Gorda, Florida – February 27, 2021 – At 26, pianist Mackenzie Melemed is a bit old to be considered a prodigy, but he certainly started out that way.

His grandfather bought him a $1 yard-sale keyboard in Paxton, Mass., when Mackenzie was three. No one at home was especially musical, so his parents signed him up for a course advertised by the local Steinway dealer. Before he was 10, the boy was performing classical music despite what he now calls a lack of proper training.

Melemed remembered, “The person who first noticed that was a stagehand at the Tropicana in Atlantic City, where I gave 64 performances as a 9-year-old headliner in ‘Prodigy at the Tropicana.’ I was playing ‘Clair de Lune’ so loudly the stagehand felt compelled to say something to my mother.”

After switching to classical Russian teacher Olga Rogach, the young artist was on his way to winning the grand prize in the Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition in 2007, and performing at Carnegie Hall.

Melemed now holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Juilliard School. He also recently graduated from the school’s two-year Artist Diploma program with Robert McDonald and Emanuel Ax—arguably the most important living classical pianist, who agreed to take him on as one of very few students.

“He’s been a wonderful friend and mentor,” said Melemed. “And that’s despite my falling asleep when I first saw him play. I was eight at the time, so he doesn’t blame me.”

Melemed has performed hundreds of times throughout the United States, Asia and Europe. He’s won the Juilliard School's 2019 Leo B. Ruiz Carnegie Hall Recital Prize, the 2018 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Prize, the 2018 Paris Recital Prize from Poland's Prix de Tarnów Competition, and Third Prize in the first China International Music Competition. He recently joined the roster of Young Artists at the Centre for Musical Excellence and will perform this spring in Indianapolis as an American Pianists Awards finalist.

A musician with a clear aptitude for nonverbal language, Melemed said, “I pick up languages quite easily, too.

“My first time out of the country, I flew Finnair and had layovers in Finland. Everyone was tall and blond, the language had double vowels and umlauts, and I was fascinated. I bought a book called From Start to Finnish and ‘finnished’ it. Then I took Finnish at Columbia University.

“The professor, who was also a musician, thought that Finland would be good for me. It has a great cultural life—classical music, wonderful orchestras, young and upcoming conductors.”

He returned to Finland, learned of a major piano competition, the Maj Lind, and became an overnight sensation while on his way to winning it.

The newspapers said, “A Finn didn’t win, but we think this guy will move here one day, his Finnish is so good.”

He played with four different Finnish orchestras and now, indeed, plans to move there, Steinway and all.

His program while in Florida includes six favorite pieces—the first, Bach’s Partita No. 1.

“I used to always be nervous when I played Bach,” he said. “There’s always some part that trips you up and feels totally new until your fingers end up playing what you need to play. But now I love playing Bach at every recital.”

Next he’ll perform a completely different suite—Bartók’s Suite, Op. 14, a percussive piano piece.

“My heritage is Ukrainian, and my teacher Olga introduced me to Russian pieces, so I’ll include Scriabin’s Five Preludes, Op. 16—eight minutes of beautiful Russian soul music.

He’ll also play two Chopin nocturnes that aren’t often played or heard: Nocturne Op. 15, No. 2 and the underrated but beautiful Op. 32, No. 2.

He’ll end the performance with Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13, “a huge work with a solemn opening theme that then shoots off in 10 different musical directions. It’s fun to listen for the theme in each variation. And it has a wonderful ending that’s perfect for a live recital.”

His Gulf Theater concert is part of the Naples-based Grand Piano Series, now also introducing outdoor performances at Bonita Springs’ St. Leo Catholic Church and the Knickerbocker Estate in Naples.

Mackenzie Melemed, Gulf Theater

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, March 21, tickets $30.

Where: Gulf Theater at the Military Heritage Museum, 900 W. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda.

Information: This Grand Piano Series concert operates at one-third capacity, with 6-foot separation between seating groups. In addition, Gulf Theater fog-sanitizes and wipes down door handles, railings and armrests before and after each show. Staff and guests are required to wear masks in the building and throughout the performance. Hand sanitizer and temperature checks at the door.

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