Walnuts are storytellers, whether we use our words, voices, bodies, music, paints, pastels, or pencils. As artistic students, we learned the impact of sharing our own stories and creating mediums through which we could share others’ stories. As a successful international pianist, Walnut Hill alum Zsolt Bognár has spent much of his professional career using music as a means of storytelling, but eight years ago he added an unexpected venture to his accomplishments.
Since 2011, Zsolt has been working on a new creative project as host of Living the Classical Life, a series of interviews with classical musicians who are at varying points in their professional careers, including such names as Joshua Bell, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Yuja Wang. Zsolt works alongside filmmakers and producers Peter Hobbs and Liz Foley, as well as Jutta Ittner, his mentor and German-language professor from his university years. With more than 60 interviews conducted, Living the Classical Life has found its place as a celebrated and essential contributor to the music world, winning the 2018 Classical Post Award for Most Innovative Classical Presenter.
Zsolt’s accomplishment as an innovative presenter is clear throughout the many interviews that he conducts. He is not only searching for the shining accolades and successes of his guests, but is driven by the opportunity for storytelling and learning to get at the rough edges and the processes of these artists. “I get to ask [the guests] all the things I wanted to know growing up: How do you overcome adversity and stage fright? How do you develop a career? What are you supposed to do after you graduate? And the artists always want to open up to a startling degree.”
Even after eight years of interviewing, Zsolt is ever the artist, continuing to hone his craft and talent for bringing out those most intimate moments from people’s inner worlds. “I grew up as a very shy kid, and I think that taught me a lot of empathy for people. I try to put my guests in a zone where they feel safe to say whatever they want to say. I tell them, ‘Let’s just talk.’ We always love when our guests play their particular instrument for us. We try to put them in front of an instrument. We don’t tell them to play, but some of them naturally gravitate toward it. They’ll play and talk at the same time or alternate. It really brings out their personalities in a fun and personal way.”
Zsolt adds, “What is especially rewarding about doing this project is receiving letters from conservatory students. And they usually say one of two things: Thank you for showing me that there is a path for me in the musical world. Or, thank you for showing me that I am not alone in my struggles. Once we heard that, we knew we had a mission—and that was very nice.”
The impact of shared stories and community was fostered through Zsolt’s time at Walnut Hill. “My time there was so important for me. [For the first time, I was] interacting with a lot of like-minded, aspiring, creative people, who encouraged me to get out of my shell and share ideas. These people, my teachers and my friends, were all so supportive and enthusiastic about any idea I had. It made me a more curious person.”
Zsolt and his team hope to keep building on this project and harnessing the powerful stories of these incredible artists, not just for lovers of classical music, but for anyone searching for their self-worth and their voice.