Photo: Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir

An Enigmatic Pianist: A Conversation with Kunal Lahiry

Indian-American pianist Kunal Lahiry, a BBC New Generation Artist and 2021 Carl Bechstein Foundation scholar, has left an indelible mark on prestigious stages worldwide, from Wigmore Hall in London to the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. His performances have graced renowned festivals, captivating audiences with his exceptional artistry.

A trailblazer in commissioning contemporary works, Lahiry collaborates with composers like Nico Muhly and Errollyn Wallen, pushing the boundaries of classical music. His innovative projects, supported by grants from the Musikfonds and the Center for Musical Excellence, merge art forms, seen in his captivating ‘Homescapes’ video project with Icelandic soprano Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir.

His dedication to exploring queerness in classical music is evident in collaborations and ventures, showcased in a music video produced with Boomtown Media Productions, supported by the Liedzentrum Heidelberg. Lahiry’s versatility extends to collaborations in pop music, notably with Berlin-based singer Lie Ning.

From prestigious programs like the Royaumont-Orsay Academy to graduating with distinction from the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler, Lahiry’s expertise in art song interpretation is unparalleled. Hailing from Gainesville, Georgia, Lahiry’s international acclaim as an Equilibrium Young Artist, Samling Artist, and Britten Pears Young Artist continues to elevate his musical journey.

In an exclusive interview, Kunal Lahiry shares insights into his artistic vision, collaborations, and upcoming performances, providing a glimpse into his remarkable musical world.

Serenade Team: Given your diverse repertoire and collaborations, how do you approach the process of commissioning and premiering new works by contemporary composers?

Kunal Lahiry: Each new work has its own unique backstory. I seize every opportunity to collaborate with composers whose sonic landscape intrigues me, especially if their style or perspective isn’t widely represented. When constructing a new program, I deliberately create space for fresh compositions. I then inquire with the concert venue, festival, or supporting organization if there’s a budget to include a new commission. Often, they’re enthusiastic, but at times, I seek private funding to facilitate it. Some composers, who are friends, have graciously written music without a fee, though whenever possible, I prefer to compensate them. For instance, during my time on the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist scheme, I received a commission. Wanting to incorporate new poetry, I collaborated with the Burg Hülshoff Center for Literature to co-commission the work.

ST: Your ‘Queer Song Festival’ showcased a unique perspective in classical music. Can you share more about your vision and goals in curating such events, especially considering societal and cultural contexts?

KL: My aim is to create a space in my concerts where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves without any prerequisites. I’ve discovered from conversations with many queer friends that they often feel classical music isn’t relevant to them. Contrarily, I believe this music belongs to everyone. Hence, I strive to establish a safe, accessible, and pertinent environment for queer individuals to engage with classical music. The Queer Song Fest marked my profound exploration into this endeavour.

ST: The concept of a trans*Winterreise is fascinating. How do you navigate the balance between preserving the essence of Schubert’s work and reimagining it for a contemporary narrative of queer identity?

KL: The objective is to craft a new songbook featuring 24 songs by trans/queer poets and composers, tracing the dramatic trajectory of Schubert’s Winterreise while narrating the experiences of queer identity. I intend to commission diverse composers and poets worldwide to capture a broad spectrum of expression. Initiating this, I approached Lyra Pramuk, whose fusion of classical vocalism, pop sensibilities, and contemporary club culture intrigued me. Given her profound affection for Schubert, I felt her perspective would initiate the project. The future commissions hold an exciting unknown for its development.

ST: Your interdisciplinary projects, such as ‘Homescapes’ and ‘Sleep Cycle of an Insomniac,’ involve collaborations with visual artists and explore diverse themes. How do you believe these collaborations enhance the audience’s experience and understanding of your performances?

KL: I’m passionate about creating immersive experiences in classical music. A song has the power to tell stories and evoke characters through poetry. In projects like ‘Homescapes’ and ‘Sleep Cycle of an Insomniac’, I utilized light, sound installations, and set design to transport the audience into a universe existing long before the concert’s onset. I believe audiences gain a multidimensional understanding of music when combined with other disciplines. This format also allows songs to convey different meanings or impacts based on their arrangement. I’m inspired by its potential to touch audiences in ways traditional classical music might not.

ST: As a pianist engaging with young artist programs and academies, what advice do you have for emerging pianists specializing in art song interpretation, especially considering your experiences at programs like the Royaumont-Orsay Academy and the Heidelberg Lied Academy?

KL: Every pianist follows a unique path. I started piano lessons relatively late and lacked the initial guidance to establish a robust technical foundation. Self-learning was crucial, and it took time. Competitions weren’t my forte, but auditions felt more manageable. I applied to numerous young artist programs for song pianists, leveraging them for performance experience and networking. Each pianist must chart their course. In my experience, simply practicing for hours at a university won’t solely build a career.

ST: What are you looking forward to the most in performing in Mumbai and Pune, and how do you anticipate connecting with the Indian audience through your diverse repertoire and experiences?

KL: Performing in India for the first time excites me; I’m eager to share some of my favourite works with the Indian audience. Western classical music often mirrors Indian classical music, serving as inspiration for many composers. During a previous visit, I had a tabla lesson and showed my instructor a video of me playing a piece by Debussy. He discerned Indian influences, which fascinated me deeply. I’m thrilled about the potential connections I can make with the audience through our shared musical influences.

Kunal Lahiry will be performing at the Experimental Theatre of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai on 4th January, at Mazda Hall in Pune on 7th January, and at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai on 8th January.