Polina Bespalko was a student at the renowned Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Russia and already an acclaimed piano soloist when Moscow’s first Jazz club opened in 1998. Now, 20 years later, Bespalko invited the Jazz club’s founder, Igor Butman to perform during the current 2018-19 Xavier University Music Series, which she oversees.
As a student, Bespalko was initially focused on Classical repertoire. “But my teacher, Nikolai Petrov, did a lot of piano improvisation and I listened to some Jazz recordings,” she says. “I didn’t really know the artists or much about Jazz, but I’m a Jazz listener now.”
Bespalko arrived in Cincinnati in 2001 for graduate studies in piano at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, where she received a Master of Arts diploma. She then completed her doctorate in 2013.
“Jazz was a new discovery for me and I tried to listen to as much live and recorded music as I could,” she says. “In between studies, performing and the birth of my daughter.”
Xavier’s series offers unique opportunities to hear outstanding Classical pianists and Jazz musicians in an intimate setting. During the 2006 and 2007 sessions, Father John Heim, S.J. — the founder of the music series and a huge Jazz fan — invited her to be a featured artist.
A year later, in 2008, Xavier appointed Bespalko coordinator of the piano department; following Father Heim’s retirement in 2014, she took over the music series. She’s met the challenges of identifying talent, negotiating contracts and bringing in new audiences — all in a second language for her — with the same commitment she brings to her own performances.
“My goal from the start is to bring in great names and to raise the bar. No matter what the genre; if music excites me, I go for that,” she says. “Good music is good music, and when an artist can bring out the emotion and get that connection with an audience, then it’s accessible to everybody.”
She’s also tweaking both the Classical and Jazz rosters by bringing in artists at the top of their game who will challenge audiences with their repertoire and performance styles.
“So far, no one has left our concerts saying they were bored,” she says with a laugh. “They may not have liked it but I know they’ve had an emotional response. And that’s what we’re after.”
This season’s lineup is wide-ranging, both artistically and internationally. The great bassist, bandleader and composer Christian McBride kicked off the series on Oct. 28. Next, on Nov. 16, drummer Mark Guiliana will make his Cincinnati debut with his quartet Space Heroes at the Music Resource Center (located in East Walnut Hills). “Mark is an amazing drummer who’s collaborated with some of the biggest names in Jazz and Rock,” Bespalko says. “He was a force on David Bowie’s last album Blackstar.” The New Jersey native has previously collaborated with two other artists that will perform during the series.
In January, saxophonist Butman brings his Moscow Jazz Orchestra for a Benny Goodman tribute. “He’s my personal idol, the man who brought Jazz to Moscow,” Bespalko says. “And it will be great to hear Russians playing Jazz.”
Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen, who Bespalko has followed for years, has been another one of her bucket-list artists. Come March, they finally got him on the Xavier schedule. Cohen and his quartet will perform original compositions that Bespalko characterizes as avant-garde and compelling.
The Jazz Series concludes in April with another of Bespalko’s idols, pianist Brad Mehldau, who has collaborated with some of the top names in Jazz and Electronic music (including the aforementioned Guiliana), as well as being featured on film soundtracks. She hopes the program includes selections from his most recent release, After Bach.
“He takes off from Bach keyboard pieces, improvises on them and creates these Jazz introspectives that are like reading someone’s diary,” she says.
Bespalko also oversees the school’s Piano Series that features Classical pianists and coordinates outreach efforts to area high schools with master classes, teacher workshops and concert tickets.
She also performs frequently throughout the region — and not only to keep her piano chops in shape.
“I am absolutely committed to bringing live music to my new hometown, Cincinnati,” she says. “It’s an incredibly rewarding experience for the performers and for me.”
For more info on Xavier Piano Series and Xavier Jazz Series, visit xavier.edu/musicseries