Sessions and Obsessions. City Pulse, February 2009

Sessions and obsessions

Sergei Kvitko puts Lansing on the music map

Sunshine climbed through the third floor window of an old Lansing mansion Saturday. A young girl sang, a piano thundered and green lightning flashed across a stack of graphic equalizers. Three groggy flies stirred on the windowsill.

When the pianist played an E flat instead of an E natural, a man in headphones and chin stubble opened his eyes and grabbed a pencil. “It’s like a knife in my heart,” he muttered. “Or my ear.” Sergei Kvitko can’t help hearing mistakes.

As a rule, he only does things he can’t help. “When I’m obsessive, I’m compulsively obsessive,” he said with a grin. Because of Kvitko’s obsessions, the music world is listening closely to the sounds coming from his third-floor home studio, perhaps the most unusual room in Lansing.  

“He’s going to put Lansing on the recording map,” MSU cello master Suren Bagratuni said. “He’s a great contribution to our musical world here.” “He’s an unusual guy, a Renaissance man,” remarked Richard Sherman principal flutist with the Lansing Symphony.

“Being cloistered in his recording studio must fill a deep creative need for him.” Kvitko seems only fully alive at a computer console or piano keyboard. He admitted that during the 2003 power outage, the silence drove him crazy. “I turned my laptop on and let the battery die, just to listen to it,” he said. His stucco-lined loft is part Moscow Metro tunnel, part cathedral. It was a ballroom in the 1920s, and Kvitko uses it now and then for parties and recitals.

Saturday afternoon, the work was routine. A soprano from Grand Ledge High School, Elizabeth Hoard, warbled out a Mozart song for an audition CD.

When Kvitko makes commercial recordings for his Blue Griffin label or others, it’s a different story. He spends intense hours with fellow perfectionists like Sherman, MSU virtuosos Bagratuni and Ralph Votapek playing Beethoven, or the Verdehr Trio, with its thorny world premiere commissions.

“Sometimes I come out of here needing a nap or a drink,” Kvitko said. But they trust him, and not only because of his engineering skills.

“I’ve learned to defer to him, because most of the time, on musical matters, he’s on target,” Sherman said. “He has impeccable sensibilities about what matters in music, everything from sonority to nuance.”

Last week, Kvitko recorded an unusual recital by New Mexico cellist Joel Becktel, who drove to Lansing for Kvitko’s services.

“It took him 25 hours and one minute to get here,” Kvitko said. One minute? “Mapquest,” he explained. Kvitko never knows what he will be miking and splicing next. Becktel played the Bach cello suites on rare baroque cello, entrusting his scholarly life’s work to Kvitko. That same week, Kvitko finished a CD by flutist Danilo Mezzadri, who studied with Sherman and now teaches in Mississippi.

Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse (Left) Recording engineer Sergei Kvitko listens and follows the music as he records Grand Ledge High School student Elizabeth Hoard and pianist Roger Pan. (Above) Kvitko gets Hoard and Pan ready to record in his Lansing home studio. In the 1920s, this room served as a ballroom.

“It was all 21st-century music by Brazilian composers,” Kvitko said. “Strange and gorgeous.”

Kvitko’s cluttered control room is tucked into one end of a long, arched vault that resembles a cathedral nave. At the other end sits a 9-foot Steinway grand on a raised floor — the high altar.

Here unfolds a primal relationship best described in college entry exam format. Cowboy: horse. Antony: Cleopatra. Kvitko: this piano. “I started crying when I played it in the showroom,” Kvitko said. “I couldn’t even bargain, because the salesperson knew. I just gave it away.” As a pianist, Kvitko plays only what he likes to play — a sure blueprint for starvation in the classical world.

Sherman compared Kvitko to reclusive Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. “He likes to play in public, but hates the nerves of performing,” Sherman said. “He uses his artistry to capture the artistry of others.”

When Kvitko does play, it’s not for giggles. For two months last year, he put everything on hold to bury himself in three of his favorite piano pieces, including Mussorgsky’s magnificent “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

He was rewarded in January with a stunning shot of critical acclaim. One day last month, as usual, Kvitko calmly scanned the top recordings of the year, picked by American Record Guide editor Donald Vroon.

There were Placido Domingo, Herbert von Karajan, Murray Perahia, and other names of legend. Then Kvitko saw his own name. “My heart jumped out of my chest,” he said. Vroon called Kvitko’s muscular version of “Pictures” — recorded hundreds of times over the years by every piano legend in the books — “among the best ever made.” Another high-profile review, from Fanfare, called the recording “masterful” and “iconoclastic.”

It was Kvitko’s sweetest moment since he came to Lansing in 1996. He enjoyed teaching music to children in his native Russia, but was disgusted with the classical music scene there.

“In Russia, nobody gives a shit about it,” he said. “It’s impossible to make a living. That’s why Russians are taking over the [MSU] College of Music.”

As a grad student at MSU, Kvitko won two top competitions, but he declined to climb into the performing hamster wheel. “Even when you play something you like, you play it 1,500 times,” he said. Instead, he let his talents fan out like a unit of Cossacks. He became organist at First Presbyterian Church, sound designer for BoarsHead Theater and the area’s first classical concert impresario in decades, launching a Fine Arts Series that mirrors his far-ranging studio sessions. He’s also a skilled composer, and is now at work on a delicate musical score for BoarsHead’s upcoming production of “The Glass Menagerie.”

“The variety of things I do is overwhelming sometimes, but rewarding on so many levels,” he said. He bristles when people ask him how often he “goes home.” “My mother lives nearby,” he said. “My work, my art, my friends, my life are here. I am home.” He has also made himself an indispensable ally to local musicians.

Recently, when Sherman got funding from MSU to make a recording, he approached Kvitko with a tantalizing project: the Bach flute sonatas, played with a piano instead of a harpsichord.

“He’s one of the best flutists in the world,” Kvitko said of Sherman. “But if he goes to Deutsche Grammophon, Naxos — any label — to play the Bach sonatas they’d say, ‘So?’ The world doesn’t care.” “But I care. So what if it’s been done a thousand times. He wants to do it the way he wants to do it”.