Anna Peletsis completed her doctorate in music in 2017 with a thesis focused on piano music by the Latvian composer Georgs Pelēcis. She is currently a Montreal-based pianist, conductor and a piano teacher at the Fortissimo Academy of Music and Arts.
Q: Can you please start by telling why you chose to pursue a doctorate?
I think it’s always a good idea to challenge oneself. I was aware that I would be doing something I had never done before and that I would have a unique experience because of the nature of the program.
Q: Can you describe how your music education was organized or delivered before you came to North America? What is it like in Russia?
In Russia there is a specialized music school named after Gnessins that includes pre-school, as well as primary and secondary. So I was there between the ages of 6 and 18. You start very focused in terms of your professional training. If you manage to get through all the hoops—all those exams along the way—then you have a chance to enter conservatory, which is a higher institution. I entered conservatory where I had five years of performance-focused education, after which I went to Royal College of Music in London, where I did my Master’s for two years and then my Artist Diploma which was, again, a program all about performance.
Q: How is the basic structure of the doctoral program different if you compare the Moscow Conservatory to McGill?
If I compare my five years at Moscow Conservatory at a performance program with the doctoral program at McGill, it is drastically different. We didn’t have seminars at all in the Moscow Conservatory. The idea that you’re supposed to not just be sitting and listening and writing stuff down, but that you’re supposed to be actively participating with 10 or 15 people in the same room around a table, right away it was so different to me. I got so shy. Psychologically, it’s immediately presented completely differently. It’s a different environment, different way of studying, different everything.
Q: When you came here, it sounds like you already had a ton of experience and education based on concertizing and preparation. What did you gain from taking a doctorate at McGill then, if you already had so much in advance?
Performance-wise, the learning never ends. There is no end to expanding your experience through contact with a mentor, for example. This is one of the things that I’m extremely grateful to McGill for, being able to study with Professor Marina Mdivani. She was a teacher and mentor of such high caliber as she had way more performance experience than me. What she has done in her performance life is incredible. The Five Concerti by Prokofiev performed in one evening, for instance, sounds incredible, I don’t know if any pianist has ever done that. So to be able to learn from someone who has this “backpack” of achievements, to have her advice, it amazed me.
You think a lot about the work that you are to perform yourself, and you have your ideas, but having her listen from the outside, and with her ears, it really made a big difference. Once, for example, she was at a dress rehearsal in Pollack Hall. She was sitting there, and there was this pause, and she said, “try to appear from somewhere.” With this image, I had a different mindset that immediately changed the way I started the piece and therefore proceeded.
I would also like to name Maestro Alexis Hauser, with whom I was very fortunate to take conducting class for two years. That was something that I had not even hoped for because it was seemingly different from what I was doing. But my third topic of comprehensive exams was related to the way that conducting may influence and inform your piano playing, so it all came together when I was able to take those classes.
Q: What support did you get during your study?
With my third topic of comprehensive exams I was trying to trace the crossover between conducting and piano playing. It happened that Marina Mdivani has actually always been very interested in conducting. In her time as a student she would go and watch conductors rehearsing symphony orchestras, thinking that, as a piano player, with this polyphonic instrument and its many aspects of texture and harmony, she would be constructively influenced by the information she got in these rehearsals. She was very supportive of that specific topic. Professor Stephane Lemelin also supported the idea and offered very helpful insight, some literature to consult, etc.
I was also fortunate that my research supervisor, Professor Chris Paul Harman was very patient, helpful and understanding. Professor Lena Weman, then the Program Director, always was there to offer her help, guidance and encouragement.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the program?
Oh my god. Comprehensive, comprehensive, comprehensive! It [the comprehensive exam] was really so tough. For the written part, all I remember was typing and drinking water and typing and drinking water and trying to make sure I was not too overtaken by the fact that the time was running so fast because I had to do it from Monday, when we would get questions, and send it that Friday by four o’clock. It was extremely challenging for me to stay in the moment, making sure I do the thing in the moment, not getting so overtaken by the fact that I have three days left, two days left, etc.
Then came the oral exam, which also was so different from my Moscow conservatory experience. In that system, we had very specific questions that we knew would be asked in exams, so you prepare specifically for that. Here, I was asking my peers how this oral exam would go. Some people said it would mostly be based on your essays, but others said they can easily go outside your essays and just see how you are able to reflect in the moment. That was something entirely new to me. The psychological effect of not knowing what the questions were going to be was a big challenge. If only I had realized that the purpose wasn’t actually to fail a student, I think I would have done better, but to my surprise and relief, I passed. I was very happy that I passed.
Q: Looking back on the experience since you graduated. Are you happy that you did a doctorate?
With my research, I really attempted something that I would not have necessarily attempted outside the program, such as trying to push myself intellectually. This is something that is full of value in itself, because now that I look back, I find that being very performance-focused is an advantage for the performance itself. But in terms of how well-rounded your personality is, and how rounded your outlook on the world can be, it never hurts to pay attention and try to develop something you didn’t do before. So, yes, I’m definitely happy.
This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.