YouTube sensation who’s hitting all the right notes

Annabel Denham
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Annabel Palmer meets Valentina Lisitsa, the pianist who mortgaged her house to fund her career

IT IS a rare thing to get a second chance in your career. This is especially true if your chosen industry is entertainment. But Valentina Lisitsa, the effervescent Ukranian pianist with a thick accent and warm demeanour, has managed to do just that. She may not be everyone’s idea of the classic entrepreneur, but her rise to stardom offers some pertinent lessons on what it takes to succeed on your own.

When opportunities on the competition circuit dried up, she put a self-recorded video on YouTube (which amassed 54m views and counting), mortgaged her house, and personally hired Abbey Road Studios and the London Symphony Orchestra to record the piano concertos of her favourite composer, Rachmaninov.

Lisitsa started playing the piano aged three. She went to the Lysenko music school for Gifted Children and became a professional classical pianist. But music is a ruthless industry, one in which a performer can quickly go from “rising star” to old news. By 2007, she was close to giving up. “I was certain my career was dead”. So she completed an application form for a government job in Washington DC as a news translator.

But divine intervention – in the form of an avid fan in Dundee – stopped her from pressing the “send” button. He offered to help her upload files onto YouTube, and her ascent to fame began. Two years later, she set about her “crazy” recording project. As an unsigned artist, she had to pay for it herself – to the tune of £250,000. So she withdrew her life savings and mortgaged her home. “But the money was being paid to my fellow musicians, and that felt good.”

She thinks that was the best way to do it. “How could I ask others to invest in me if I wasn’t also gambling on myself?” And Lisitsa strongly believes that other entrepreneurs should take note.

But she did raise 5 per cent of the total £250,000 from outside investors, by organising concerts and approaching members of the audience afterwards. It wasn’t the first time concerts helped Lisitsa and her husband – also a pianist and now stay-at-home dad to their son – stay above water. While studying in Texas, their scholarships only covered basic tuition. Cardboard boxes were used as tables, and hours were spent in the supermarket trying to determine exactly what they could afford. Luckily, a friend knew a wealthy group of classical music lovers in Dallas, so Lisitsa and her partner made a business of performing at private events locally.

She describes the recording project as the “most stressful time of my life”. At one point, for example, one of the musicians with a prominent part got delayed in traffic. Close to 80 people were sitting idly at Abbey Roads waiting for him to show up. For two hours “I could literally feel the money draining away like an hourglass. Normally, such things would be covered by an insurance policy, but I didn’t even have that.” Lisitsa’s debut album is released in the UK today, and I wonder if she worries about sales. Not at all, she says. “CDs are just a calling card – I’m here to perform. I have no desire to spend my life in a recording studio.

Last year, Lisitsa made her UK debut. The Royal Albert Hall was keen to book her, a promising indication that classical music is trying to move with the times. The venue is unusual, in that it is able to turn a profit, and organisers were curious: would her online viewership translate into ticket sales? Evidently so. Without any advertising, her concert sold 3,000 tickets almost instantly. She attributes this to her story. “I don’t have any gimmicks, and I don’t do crossover like many of my contemporaries (such as Katherine Jenkins or Vanessa Mae). People come to see me for my story.”

I ask whether, despite the 12 to 14 hours she spends practising every day, she ever makes mistakes while performing. “Of course”, she smiles. “But people don’t notice them.”

Valentina Lisitsa’s album, Rachmaninov, is released today by Decca Records.

Job Title: Musician

Age: Late 30s

Born: Kiev, Ukraine

Lives: Mostly in airports. Permanent addresses are a flat in Paris and an old country mansion in North Carolina

Studied: Indiana University, Southern Methodist University (Dallas)

Drinking: Starbucks Venti coffee of the day

Reading: The Story of Civilisation by Will Durrant

Talents: I can make people cry!

Favourite business book: Arabian Nights, because it showed me the value of having a story behind your brand

Motto: “Just do it – you will thank yourself later”

First ambition: I started playing piano at three years of age!

Heroes: Any person who showed courage when facing death, independent of the outcome

Awards: Certificates or small medals from music competition wins. But previous performance doesn’t guarantee future results