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For Ellen Pavliska, The Piano, Like Life, Is A Voyage Of Discovery

Nathan Cone

Talk about a rising star! Pianist Ellen Pavliska did not begin piano lessons until she was 11 years old. Five years later, she was on stage with the San Antonio Symphony. Now 22, Pavliska is a student at the University of North Texas, where she has continued her studies and growth as a classical pianist.

Over the holiday break, she performed a recital at the Tuesday Musical Club, playing Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, and more. You can hear excerpts of this performance below, and in full on KPAC 88.3 FM, at 7:00 p.m this Saturday.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t a love of classical music that brought Pavliska to the piano as a pre-teen in Floresville, Texas. “My best friend at the time was taking piano lessons, and I had always been kind of competitive,” she explains. “We had a little rivalry going when we were younger, and I was like ‘arrrgh, you’re taking piano, I wanna take piano!’ He was on book three of the Hal Leonard beginner piano series, and I was like, ‘I bet I can get to book four before you!’”

Although Pavliska’s first piano teacher was primarily a jazz musician, she credits her with exposing her to classical music, which Pavliska took to immediately. She snapped up compact discs, and listened to KPAC 88.3 FM all the time while growing up. “I’d listen to recordings of these piano pieces, and then, actually being able to play it myself was just so rewarding and fulfilling for me, that I just knew from around age 13, 14, that I wanted to play as much as possible, and learn as much as I can about classical music,” says Pavliska.

Pavliska’s studies eventually took her to the Musical Arts Centers of San Antonio (MACSA), where her talents blossomed under the tutelage of Kenneth Thompson. “It’s really because of him that I’m pursuing [music] as a career,” she says.

It was during her time at MACSA that Pavliska first heard the “Piano Concerto No. 3” by Camille Saint-Saens. “I have to play that piece,” she remembers thinking. In 2009, she found herself onstage playing the music with a great backing band — the San Antonio Symphony.

“It was terrifying!” she reminisces, with a laugh. “But I remember being on stage and hearing, as I had never played with an orchestra before, I could hear the First Violin behind my hear, and I could hear the flutes coming from the back, and it was a complete full stereo experience. And it was incredible being in that soundscape on stage, and being able to play with a full orchestra.”

Nowadays, Pavliska continues to enjoy the experience of performing with others, but in a smaller setting. “I’ve been in a piano trio and quartet for the last three years up [at UNT]. So I think a lot of what I want to do [in the future] focuses on collaboration; playing as much as possible, and bringing communities together.”

Pavliska adds she does want to earn a doctorate degree, and sees professorship as a professional goal. Asked what keeps her going on her path, at first, she jokes that she’s a perfectionist, which helps when studying classical music. But then she adds, in a more contemplative vein, “You’re always striving to really dig deeper with this music. So I think it’s that aspect … whenever you sit down to study any piece, there’s always more to it. It’s realizing that you have so much more to learn, I guess. It’s that journey.”


Ellen Pavliska on Chopin's "Polonaise-Fantasie," Op. 61: It took me a few listens before I fell in love with it.  It’s very free form structure. It doesn’t start with an explosive beginning. It’s hard to wrap your mind around what he’s getting at with this piece [because] it’s very elusive and free. But it’s a wonderful piece. He wrote it later in his life, and the use of the 3/4 rhythm that comes in, that’s the polonaise rhythm, which was a courtly Polish dance. So that’s where his Polish nationalism is coming through. He’s melding the polonaise, which is a very structured form, with the fantasy, which is a very expansive and free form.

Ellen Pavliska on Beethoven's Sonata No. 30: When I first heard it, I immediately fell in love with it. It opens with a ‘vivace’ theme that sounds pretty simple. He’s playing with the relationship of thirds, so it’s a sequence. And then eight measures in, all of a sudden he does something completely different—classic Beethoven! I feel like the more you practice it, the harder it gets, because it’s actually so complex, and the meaning really does change for you, the more you work with it. I feel like I probably won't be confident performing it until I'm 65!

Nathan has been with TPR since 1995, when he began working on classical music station KPAC 88.3 FM, as host of “Tuesday Night at the Opera.” He soon learned the ropes on KSTX 89.1 FM, and volunteered to work practically any shift that came his way, on either station. He worked in nearly every capacity on the radio before moving into Community Engagement, Marketing, and Digital Media. His reporting and criticism has been honored by the Houston Press Club and Texas Associated Press.