One of the most visually glittering pianists today, Khatia Buniatishvili steadily appears on television sets, front covers of glossy magazines and every imaginable social media outlet. She certainly attracts attention; on the cover of a recent Schubert release, Khatia takes on the physical persona of the famous corpse Ophelia, prompting a critic to sheepishly ask, “artistic or airheaded?” Unquestionably, she is one of the most highly sought after pianists, and readily appears in the world’s most prestigious concert halls. And it is her appearance in outfits with often plunging necklines that have earned her various nicknames, including the “Betty Boop” of the piano, and “the pop star of the classical music world.” For some, Khatia is a phenomenon “titillating the classical public… shaking and disrupting this fragile world.” To others, she is a “Lady Gaga or Beyoncé craving attention, with fashion as the best kind of projection.” To me, this simply begs the question of what makes Khatia Buniatishvili tick.
Khatia Buniatishvili was born in the town of Batoumi near the Black Sea on 21 June 1987. At that time, Georgia was still under Soviet authority, and life was anything but placid. When Georgia declared independence in 1991, every day became a struggle for survival and for keeping poverty at bay. “Early on, I got a taste of what real discipline is,” she explains, “and of how a human being can develop their imaginary world amidst a schedule that’s busy and difficult both mentally and physically.” Khatia was introduced to music by her mother, who apparently also instilled her with a sense of fashion by “sewing together magnificent dresses for her two daughters from bits of cloth she had managed to scavenge.” Khatia had discovered the piano at the age of three, and her mother would leave a new musical score on the piano each day. By age 6, Khatia first appeared publically with the Tbilisi Chamber Orchestra in the Concerto Op. 44 by Isaac Berkovich, a composer closely associated with the Soviet regime. That highly successful debut resulted in the invitation to tour internationally with the orchestra.
In Tbilisi, Khatia took lessons with the renowned Georgian Chopin interpreter Tengiz Amirejibi, and it was during a local piano competition that she met Oleg Maisenberg. He convinced her to come to Vienna and study with him. She arrived in Vienna full of enthusiasm, and became an eager student. “I wanted to absorb everything I could, and the University had virtually unlimited knowledge on offer.” She still has only praise for Oleg Maisenberg, whom she describes as a magnificent musician of unlimited imagination and depth. “Every lesson was a work of art and remains deeply engraved in my memory.” Khatia’s rise to fame began in earnest in 2008, when she was awarded the 3rd prize and the Public prize by the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master competition in Tel-Aviv. In the same year she was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall, and she issued her first album in 2011 with works by Franz Liszt. Concurrently with her rapid rise to fame, Khatia is determined to follow her own path. And once she sits down at the piano, everything goes, including attitude, emotion, and outfit.
Khatia Buniatishvili is adamant about the freedom of her performances, and she defends her right to “re-appropriate each work and to perform them without necessarily respecting the tradition or model imposed by her predecessors.” The human being stands squarely in the center of her art, as “we can subtly reveal our emotions all the while staying perfectly intimate with our instrument.” Emotion is her guiding and motivating force, and she is in love with complexity and paradoxes, not complications and oppositions. Her music is fundamentally bound to political activism, as she is involved in numerous social rights project, including among others the DLDwomen13 Conference in Munich, or the United Nation’s 70th Anniversary Humanitarian Concert benefiting Syrian refuges. Khatia Buniatishvili refuses all invitations to perform in Russia as long as president Putin is in power. As to Khatia’s musical performances, they have either been called “hauntingly original” or “beyond the eccentricity of Planet Pogorelich.” This fundamental disagreement depends on how commentators interpret the communicative aspects of music, and that surely includes attire and all other performative aspects. We would love to hear your opinion, please let us know.