Rachmaninoff-loving teen pianist from San Ramon ready for Juilliard

Thursday, June 2, 2016 | by Dan Pine
JWeekly Review

Misha Gallant at the 2015 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival in Fort Worth, Texas photos/courtesy misha galant

Misha Gallant at the 2015 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival in Fort Worth, Texas photos/courtesy Misha Galant

Among the mortarboard-topped graduates of San Ramon’s California High School this year will be one who may feel a bit guilty taking part in post-graduation partying. At some point after the June 10 ceremonies, classical pianist Misha Galant will have to go home and practice.

Galant is an accomplished concert pianist, with multiple classical competition victories under his belt. Next year he will enter both Columbia University and Juilliard, where he begins a dual major in mathematics and piano performance.

But first, Galant will perform George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the California Youth Symphony on June 19 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center.

Other teens with his level of talent might have dropped out of high school and gone straight to the conservatory. Galant chose not to follow that path.
“Having a regular education is very important,” Galant says. “It’s important because academics instills knowledge, and it’s important to have friends who are not just into classical music, so you can get their insights.”

Going to a public high school, Galant was surrounded by the pop, rock and hip-hop music of today. But he says he always tries to turn his friends on to the music of yesterday, including the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and his favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff.

“I’m not typical of most,” he says. “I’m always playing Rachmaninoff to my friends, showing them videos, inviting them to my concerts. Most of them get into it.”

He’s atypical in other ways, too. Galant’s mother, Olya Katsman, is a Russian Jewish émigré from Saint Petersburg. She’s been his piano teacher since Galant was 6 years old.

That arrangement has had its ups and downs.
“I was resistant,” Galant remembers of his childhood lessons from mom. “It’s very difficult to have a mother as a teacher. I definitely resisted a lot, up until high school. There were points I just wanted to quit, when I didn’t like it at all. Then something clicked around freshman year. I discovered Rachmaninoff, my favorite composer now.”

He fell in love with the Russian composer’s music, and that inspired him to take his playing to a higher level.

Galant has since won first prize in the Marilyn Mindell, Ross McKee, Pacific Musical Society and San Jose International Piano competitions. He also won Best Classical Sonata Performance at the junior Van Cliburn competition in Fort Worth, Texas, last year.

As a soloist he has performed with the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Utah Symphony and the Santa Rosa Youth Symphony.

He may have resisted as a kid, but today Galant appreciates what his mother gave him musically, including musical bloodlines. His great-grandmother and great-grandfather both were professional pianists in the former Soviet Union.

Galant also appreciates the Russian style of piano teaching, which he says is more exacting than the American approach, which he calls “more big picture.”

“In Russian teaching, there’s a lot of attention-to-detail work,” he says. “You have to have an image behind everything: the harmonies, the intervals, the intonation.”

Galant won Best Classical Sonata Performance at the inaugural junior Van Cliburn competition in 2015.

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Galant won Best Classical Sonata Performance at the inaugural junior Van Cliburn competition in 2015.

Even though many Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union grew up with little religious education, Galant says his mother tried to fill the home with Jewish practice and celebrations, including Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations.

He seems also to have picked up a Jewish dictum about giving back. Galant not only served as accompanist for his high school choir, he also participated in the Music Students’ Service League, which brings talented teen musicians into Contra Costa County hospitals and nursing homes to give free concerts for residents and patients.

“I loved seeing the reactions of the elderly people there,” he says. “You play and see their faces light up.”

Come mid-summer, Galant will pack up and move to New York. He says that based on his observations so far, the climate at Juilliard is “pretty cutthroat,” but he’s up for the challenge.

Actually, there is something of even greater concern to him than the competition at the world’s most prestigious music school: figuring out how to do laundry.

“I’m definitely excited but also pretty worried about becoming independent and having to figure out everything on my own,” he says. “I’ve been pretty sheltered. My mom has taken care of things. Now I’m going to have to learn all my life skills. No more home-cooked food.”