Getting to Know 2020-21 Rising Star Mackenzie Melemed

September 14, 2020

In just five days, we’ll be enjoying Rising Star Mackenzie Melemed’s virtual concert, streamed live from the Wellspring Theater in Kalamazoo at 4 PM EDT. Can you believe it? We sure can’t! In order to get you ready for his performance, we had a virtual “Q&A” with the 25-year-old pianist to learn more about him.

Let’s start with an icebreaker: what is something we wouldn’t be able to guess about you just from looking at you?

Mackenzie Melemed: Well, right now I am actually living in Finland! My residence visa was approved after months of waiting and delays due to COVID. When I went to Europe for the first time in 2012, I fell in love with the strange Finnish language while on a 23 hour layover. I purchased a beginner language book, and the rest is history! I won the Maj Lind competition (Finland’s international piano competition) in 2017, and studied Finnish at Columbia university for 3 years during my undergrad years. I have a fantastic penpal who has now become, with her parents and siblings, like a second family to me. I have had many opportunities to grow my career with performances in concert halls and with the Finnish orchestras (they are all incredible). I hope that this residence will continue permanently, as I establish a European base going forward. Pian nähdään Kalamazoossa! That means “see you soon in Kalamazoo.”

We’ve heard this is going to be your first time in Michigan! What are you most looking forward to doing while you’re here for your visit?

MM: This is maybe a trick question, because due to COVID, I think my options are a bit more limited! I really have missed playing in a concert hall, as obvious as it may sound. I will really appreciate once again being able to practice (and perform) on a fabulous instrument in a wonderful performance space. 

You lived with your friend, violinist Max Tan, in New York. What are the best and worst parts about living with a fellow musician (especially during the recent pandemic)?

MM: I have really gotten to know Max quite well during our long quarantine together (March-August). In addition to knowing his musical style, I have also gotten to know him as a person, his eating habits, sleeping schedule, and I think we can predict each other’s movements and tendencies quite well now, however good or bad that may be! We didn’t know each other SO well before the quarantine actually, because we were both traveling at different times and not overlapping much at home. 

You’ve performed concerts around the world. What has been your favorite venue to play in and why?

MM: The most memorable venue so far I believe was in Beijing at the National Center for the Performing Arts. It was the finals of the China International Music Competition in May, 2019, and I performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nezet-Seguin. The combination of the hall and the performance situation was really nothing I could ever have imagined or anticipated being able to experience at this point in my career. 

You were recently named as a 2021 American Pianists Award finalist and are the recipient of many awards, such as the Juilliard School’s 2019 Leo B. Ruiz Carnegie Hall Recital Prize. Have you had any moments where you’ve had to pinch yourself because you couldn’t believe what was happening?

MM: A few moments really stood out:

  1. Getting the phone call from Juilliard when they emailed to say they had some “questions” about my application for the Ruiz Recital Prize. They didn’t have any questions, it was a surprise congratulatory phone call that I would be making my Carnegie Hall recital debut! 
  2. On the Zoom call with Joel Harrison, CEO of American Pianists Awards and the rest of the finalists. We were shocked when we found out that the organization was giving the excess funds (due to COVID requiring a downsizing of the organization’s plans for the festival) DIRECTLY to us, ultimately awarding us with $50,000 (normally $50,000 only for the winner and $20,000 for the other 4 finalists). This was a real stunner…
  3. Getting to the final, final round of the China International Music Competition, and rehearsing with Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra the next morning (running to the 24-hour practice room to spend the next many hours in utter panic preparing Rachmaninoff/Paganini). 

I’ve read that your music career started at the age of three when your grandfather bought you a keyboard at a garage sale! If you had any advice for young pianists just starting out, what would it be?

MM: Definitely one major point: Play what you LOVE. Play what makes you happy, motivated, fulfilled, passionate. I have always been drawn towards music I felt a real connection to. Without that connection, there’s no way that your music will touch your audience, and there’s no way that you would feel inspired in performance as well. That will hopefully keep you on track in addition to the inevitable external “reinforcement” from parents :).

A huge thank you to Mackenzie Melemed for his candor! Make sure you get your ticket for his live stream concert, happening Sunday, September 20 at 4 PM EDT. A Live Q & A will follow with our Executive Director, Pierre van der Westhuizen. We hope you’ll be there (virtually)!

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