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Piano four-hands: (l-r) Winther and Pleshakov. Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Working in Concert
Vladimir Pleshakov and Elena Winther have created an innovative venue for classical music in Hudson—and made a home for themselves in the process
By Shawn Stone

Why Hudson?

That’s the obvious question to ask internationally renowned pianists Vladimir Pleshakov and Elena Winther, who left France in 1999 to found the Pleshakov Music Center on Warren Street in downtown Hudson.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Hudson. On the contrary, this Columbia County city has been undergoing an artistic renaissance for more than a decade. It wasn’t the first place they looked, however, when they set out to find space for a recording studio and a home.

“We went down to Georgia,” Pleshakov explains. All they could find in the Atlanta area, however, were warehouses.

Eventually, they looked to the Hudson Valley.

“I found out that Key Bank was about to put this bank up for sale,” Pleshakov remembers. This was in the summer of 1999. “The bank was still functioning. . . . We didn’t really know what the acoustics would be, because all I had a chance to do was come to this place after closing hours and make all kinds of noises, clap my hands and yell, but I thought it might work.”

Pleshakov and Winther realized that this stately 1920s building could serve not only as a recording studio and a home, but as a concert venue as well.

“We made some small improvements in the acoustical configuration, more or less intuitively,” he notes. “We have some experience in acoustics, and (could recognize) the pitfalls to avoid.”

Leading a tour of the building, it’s obvious that Pleshakov loves this old bank. He even did some of the renovation work himself, uncovering parts of the original, ornate floor in the performance space downstairs, and the beautiful original ceiling in the what is now the dining room of their apartment upstairs. With a combination of pragmatism and luck, Pleshakov and Winther have preserved some of the best elements of the building’s two incarnations—architectural features from both the original ’20s design and the ’50s remodeling—and made this a unique and welcoming space. The building has three vaults—they’ve even turned one into the control room for their recording studio. (The main performance hall doubles as the studio.)

Pleshakov just wishes someone were interested in buying all those safety-deposit boxes they’re stuck with.

The Pleshakov Music Center has, over the course of its three years of operation, become one of the most interesting classical music venues in the area, and a vibrant part of the scene in Hudson. The 300-seat auditorium regularly hosts notable solo musicians and chamber ensembles in concert. (Pleshakov argues that the scale of the room helps create a sense of intimacy between the artists and audience.) More recently, Pleshakov and Winther have hosted limited-seating performances in the living room of their apartment. And unlike many of the local venues, they’re busy all year long.

“We have completely different backgrounds in many ways,” Pleshakov explains, referring to his wife and himself, adding, “and in some strange way very parallel backgrounds. Elena was born in California, and I was born in China.”

What they share first is music. He made his debut at 16 as a soloist with the Sydney Symphony. She made her debut at 18 with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Arthur Fiedler. They met and dated briefly as teenagers; they met again in 1984 and married two years later.

Looking at Winther, he says: “What else did I do in my life besides chasing you?” They both laugh at that.

Pleshakov was born in Shanghai in 1934. It was, he says, “the twilight of the good days. When I was 6, things went downhill with the Japanese occupation.”

Pleshakov’s father, who had trained as an aviator and engineer in what was then called Petrograd (later Leningrad, now St. Petersburg), had left Russia in 1922. He worked first for Ford, then for a utilities company in Shanghai. (“He had a reasonably good position.”) Pleshakov’s mother also was Russian, though his parents met in China.

“In Shanghai,” Pleshakov remembers, “the city was still international and was split into zones. I was born in the French sector—the police and government of that municipality was French. I learned French as my first language, along with Russian.”

This prepared him, he laughs, for when he moved to France decades later.

Later in Shanghai, the family moved to the British sector, where, he says, “everything was very, very, very British.”

With the Japanese occupation, the family moved to the Chinese sector: “Finally, I realized that Shanghai was a Chinese city.”

The Pleshakovs moved to Australia in 1949, where Vladimir finished high school. When the family emigrated to the United States in the mid 1950s, Pleshakov enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley, where he trained in musicology and dabbled in science.

“One of my (scientific) ideas as a brash young student,” he says, “started a research line that lasted almost 10 years. I’m very proud of this.”

Pleshakov’s main focus, however, was music. When he was living in California in the late ’60s, serendipity led him to his first opportunity to record. He was invited to a party in a Russian home, he remembers, and composer Vernon Duke was there. Duke, who gave two of the world’s great cities a pair of signature tunes with “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York,” had been born Vladimir Dukelsky in Russia. Duke asked Pleshakov to play for him, and, after listening for a minute or two, said: “I’m going to start a record company, and I want you to record [20th century French composer] Paul Dukas’ sonatas.”

Pleshakov wasn’t convinced: “I said OK. Then, about seven months later I get a call, ‘Are you ready to record Paul Dukas’ sonatas?’ ”

The ironic part, he remembers, is that he recorded other works for the label first; it was a few years before he finally recorded Dukas. (When the Dukas album was finally released, it was praised by The New York Times, and a critic for Saturday Review called it the album of the year.)

Through the years, Pleshakov explains, he has recorded almost 120 pieces that no one else has recorded. These works were neglected not because they aren’t interesting or worthy, but because they were hard to obtain. For example, a few years ago Pleshakov remembered that, as a young music student, he had seen Rachmaninoff’s own transcriptions of the great composer’s orchestral works. After a little digging, he realized that these had been forgotten. He contacted the publishing company, and they had no copies at all.

“I had to go one step beyond what normally people would do,” he explains. “I had to call the founder of the company, who was retired, and he found it in his own collection.”

The result was a world-premiere recording.

Winther smiles and says: “That’s what they mean when they say, ‘Never take no for an answer.’ ”

That’s the attitude Pleshakov and Winther have toward the future. Their goal is to keep moving forward, expand their network on contacts among performers and in the community, and work on building a regional audience.

“This quality of, ‘of the elite, for the elite’ is a huge barrier,” says Pleshakov. “Our main thrust should be to develop audiences among the young, [bring in] retired people for the daytime concerts, and [attract] the adults who have never, never gone to the trouble of figuring out what a concert is like.”

Diversity is the key, explains Pleshakov: “Basically what we have to do is always put a new wrinkle to everything we do; find a new hat to pull a new rabbit out of every time.”

They recently received a grant from a California foundation to stage a series of concerts around the region with some of their vintage pianos. (This is an impressive collection that includes a 1789 London-built pianoforte of the kind Mozart played, and a Civil War-era Steinway still in need of restoration.) Eventually, they would like to create a foundation that would include the building, the pianos and his extensive collection of musical scores and reference books.

“When we’re gone,” Pleshakov says, “ we’d like to see this place go on.”

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