A Home for the Classics



By Marianna Levine

Hidden away on a quiet cul-de-sac in Sag Harbor is the summer home of Dr. Robert Maimone, executive director of the Vladimir Nielson Piano Festival and his musical family. They have turned their light and airy summer home into a nurturing environment for gifted young pianists from around the globe, most of who attend the Juilliard pre-college program with the Maimone’s 14-year-old son Matthew. This year will mark the second annual Vladimir Neilson Piano Festival concert series with 5 p.m. concerts starting Saturday, August 2 and ending with an August 23 gala performance and clambake.

“It’s a special joy to hear young musicians perform. They’re so fresh and vibrant, and you wonder at how extremely talented they are,” Dr Robert Maimone enthuses.

The Festival’s artistic director, Victoria Mushkatkol agrees, stating, “I love teaching pupils this age. They’re playing for the love of the music. They’re idealists. The rest will come later.”

And it is precisely the pressure of the notoriety and strenuous discipline that comes with being a young musician that led the Maimone family and Ms. Mushkatkol to arrange a welcoming and relaxing educational experience for these international pianists right here in Sag Harbor.

The whole Maimone family opened up their home in Noyac to about a dozen pianists aged 11-24 last August, after extensive renovations to their home, which included the refocusing of the house’s great room into an indoor/outdoor performance space large enough to incorporate a concertsized Steinway and seating for about 150 people. They also re-fashioned their basement into eight soundproof practice rooms with smaller Steinways, all donated by the festival’s sponsor, Steinway & Sons. The Maimones decided to locate the festival in Sag Harbor because they had always dreamed of one day residing here. Dr. Maimone relates how “my wife, Ally, and I fell in love with this area early into our relationship, and at the time I promised her that some day we would buy a house here.”

A few years ago, as they were driving their son Matthew to and from the city for piano lessons, they were inspired to bring the music and Matthew’s teacher back to Sag Harbor. Matthew’s teacher, Ms. Mushkatkol, an international concert pianist since age 10, further explains how the Festival was created: “the Maimones had the idea that I should come out to teach and that perhaps we could expand my teaching to include more pupils in the summer, and they were incredible in making it all happen so fast.”

It was during Matthew’s studies at Julliard that the Maimones’ became aware of the many families who struggle to foster their children’s amazing abilities.

“When we heard what some of the students and their families from other countries sacrificed to develop their talent, we realized how very blessed we were to be born in this country. Sometimes an entire village will collect money to send a child to study in America, and we realized we wanted to share our resources and help in whatever way we could,” said Ally Maimone, who cooks and manages the household during the Festival. “It’s our honor to take care of these students, and let them focus on their music.”

And the Maimones’ have indeed shared their resources through turning what was initially just a practical idea for their son into a non-profit foundation for other young musicians.

Victoria Mushkatkol explains that “it has become almost a requirement to succeed very early on as a classical musician, and therefore there is a lot of pressure on young performers. The initial idea behind having these students come out to Sag Harbor was to have a relaxed environment where the students could collaborate and discuss music and life with their peers. Lessons are not limited by the traditional formal structures – there is a lot of flexibility in their schedule and we’re open to all ideas. We can go with what the individual or the group needs.”

And this idea of integrating life with one’s art was at the core of the festival’s namesake, Vladimir Nielson’s teaching approach. Nielson, who was Mushkatkol’s teacher and mentor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, is considered to be one of the great music teachers of the 20th century. He has exerted a tremendous influence on current composers and conductors, as well as classical pianists, and for this reason Mushkatkol said, “I took on a great responsibility in naming the festival after him,” but she also explained that the Maimones wanted her to teach in the spirit of his instruction, meaning that character and integrity are as important as musical technique in becoming a performer, and that in this day and age of performing super stars, young musicians must continue to understand that the “personality of the performer is secondary to the composer, and that each composer has his own language that the pianist must come to understand.” Mushkatkol hopes that by being out in a serene and beautiful setting the students will find the time to develop into artists of strong character as well as excellent musicians.

Dr. Maimone has great dreams for the future of the festival, including possibly creating a permanent conservatory in Sag Harbor. However, one of his primary concerns is to reach out to the community, and perhaps “heal with music.” The concerts are part of this outreach, and the Maimones are making their home handicap accessible so that all children and adults feel welcome to attend the young pianists’ concerts. Mushkatkol muses, “Vladimir Nielson’s recitals were attended by people from all over the world, and they were very special events – magical.” The Maimones and Mushkatkol are trying to create and share that same type of musical magic right here in Sag Harbor.

For more information about the Vladimir Nielson Piano Festival, go to www.nielsonfest.com