Virtuoso pianist to give concert at Deane Center

WELLSBORO – People discover talents at different times in their lives. Some discover their knack for art during high school because of an encouraging teacher, others realize that their passion for chemistry trumps everything else while studying at college. And then there’s Ukrainian-born musician Irena Portenko, who betrayed skill for the piano at age 3 and then performed with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine by the time she was 8 years old.

In a recent interview with the Sun-Gazette, she described the experience of being a little girl on a big stage.

“I do not remember the details, but my mind holds a memory of being on the huge stage together with a lot of adults,” she said. “Mainly, I recall the feeling of being a leader and noticing that the conductor and the whole orchestra followed me. For a little girl it was both overwhelming and inspiring.”

Portenko was born into a family in which music was either the main focus or a hobby for several of its members.

“I am a third generation of the Conservatory Graduates in my family line,” she said. “My grandmother was trained both at the Conservatory and at the University. My mother, in her turn had graduated from Kiev State Conservatory, which later became my alma mater. The rest of the family either played one or several instruments or found pleasure in singing.”

At first, her mother was resistent to the idea of her daughter becoming a musician.

“When I was born, my mom’s first words were ‘She will NOT be a musician, because it is not an easy path.’ “

But as Portenko’s skill developed, it became harder to deny her fate.

“As I was growing up, perhaps due to my personal capabilities and-or due to the highly artistic atmosphere in the family, my musicality was woken up. I would go to the piano, trying to recreate songs I heard around me. Not knowing what it might promise, by being musical and energetic in that early age I sealed my future back then.”

Portenko was accepted into a “special music school” at the age of six and – listen up young musicians – as a first grader, was required to practice for two-to-three hours each day. So, next time you complain to your parents about playing the saxophone for a half hour, remember little Irena performing more than two hours a day.

“Obviously, this enabled the children to progress and to be ready for outreach performance opportunities, both solo and with the orchestra,” she said.

As a professional musician, Portenko has established a strong connection with 19th Century French master Frederic Chopin, even completing a recording of his “24 Etudes,” which was released in 2010.

“Chopin was a unique musician, wonderful pedagogue and one of the most valuable contributors to the world of piano,” she said. “To play Chopin is a great privilege and a huge responsibility for every musician. I like Chopin’s music for its sincerity, intelligence, rich emotional content, seemingly easy, but very challenging texture to convey in a truthful way.”

As well as playing the old masters, Portenko also likes to perform contemporary music as well.

“To program my recitals, I try to demonstrate a broad range of styles, including both ‘old masters’ and those of our time,” she said. “Being placed together, the pieces reflect upon each other, serving as so-called ‘musical time-machine.’ It takes a listener to a journey throughout the centuries, creating a collage of musical portraits and scenes.”

For her upcoming performance in the Black Box at the Deane Center at 3 p.m. Sunday, Portenko said that she will perform a mix of classics and works that are new to her.

“The theme of his concert is ‘The Art of the Classical Pianist.’ This time I am bringing the selection of music by the great masters as well as the pieces new to my repertoire … I think the live performances are very special as they are about creating a special moment that stays in memory of the listeners.”

The show in Wellsboro came about due to the fact that Portenko taught at Mansfield University in the spring of 2006 as a visiting professor.

“Since then I have performed in Mansfield, Wellsboro and Pittsburgh as a solo and chamber music musician,” she said. “I enjoy coming back to the beautiful Wellsboro and sharing my new projects with the audience here.” Tickets for the show are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For more information, visit deanecenter.com or call 724-6220.