May 1, 2005
A Pianist and a Concerted Effort
By PENELOPE GREEN
FOR the last seven years, Katya Grineva, a Russian-born concert pianist, has been living in an offhand way in a tiny studio apartment on First Avenue with a twin bed, two stuffed animals and her beloved 100-year-old glossy-black baby grand Steinway.
With a concert schedule that keeps her moving half the year, performing on cruise ships as well as in concert halls around the world, she didn't much mind the apartment's size (300 square feet) or notice what landed where when she'd unpack her bags in the few days she'd be home between engagements.
Mail would pile up on her tiny desk; her refrigerator would fill with plastic containers of salad from the deli; and then she'd be off again, to French Polynesia, or Paris, or maybe the West Indies.
"I love these ships," she said. "I'm peaceful. Imagine - I have a beautiful room, and they clean it twice a day."
Her own apartment (rent $1,009 a month) wasn't messy so much as neglected, undecorated and unloved - at least until last March. While Ms. Grineva was away on a three-week concert tour in Louisiana, three friends performed a semi-extreme makeover on her apartment, reworking what had looked like a teenage girl's bedroom (except for that gleaming Steinway) into a serene backdrop worthy of a renowned - and adult - concert pianist.
Ms. Grineva is known for her liquid, dreamlike renditions of romantic classics by composers like Chopin, Schubert and Liszt. She's been playing since she was 5, when her Moscow neighbors took her along to a music school audition with their own children and she was accepted too.
"I loved it so much from the beginning," she said, "that I can't understand why everyone is not doing it, not playing piano. Later I realized when you perform you give yourself up to God. That's why you do it. That's why I don't care that I have such a small apartment."
Now 34, Ms. Grineva has been in Manhattan for 15 years. She traveled back to Moscow for the first time last February, when her father, Yuri Bukin, a cancer researcher, died suddenly of a heart attack on the day she signed the contract for her annual performance at Carnegie Hall (to be held this year on May 12). Roiled by her father's death, and by the sickening feeling of loss mixed with a flood of emotions for the place she'd grown up, Ms. Grineva returned to Manhattan for two days, unable to unpack a bag or sleep properly or even think straight, and then flew to Louisiana.
"I left the apartment in a mess," Ms. Grineva said, "because my state of mind was in a mess."
She also left her apartment key with her friend Rodica Cristea; Ms. Cristea had been renting out a room in her own apartment, and Ms. Grineva thought her friend might welcome another spot to sleep.
"I knew something was up," Ms. Grineva said, "because she called me to say she'd been up all night, reorganizing my kitchen cabinets."
Ms. Cristea also phoned Stephanie Charczenko and Lisa Collodoro, all friends linked by love of Ms. Grineva, Ms. Charczenko said - "and by the fact that we are all anal-retentive."
Ms. Charczenko continued: "We had this idea of a makeover or metamorphosis because we thought Katya really needed to be cheered up. We wanted to do something special for her so she would have less to worry about."
What first struck Ms. Charczenko were the bare bulbs of the chandelier that were hanging starkly, unremarkably, in the center of the room. "That got me thinking," she said, "and when I found silk shades for them everything started rolling." Creamy, filmy lace curtains were next, as romantic as one of Ms. Grineva's performance gowns, handmade for her in Paris. Ms. Charczenko found an iron and glass sconce she filled with votive candles, and gilded mirrors from antiques stores near Ms. Grineva's apartment.
Ms. Collodoro was in charge of the bed, of finding its cover, and damask and satin pillows in Ms. Grineva's favorite blues and greens. Ms. Cristea was the scourer and scrubber and kitchen magician; she deployed a collection of vases like sculptures on top of the cabinets.
Ms. Charczenko organized the little desk with its raft of unopened mail, stacking Ms. Grineva's books on spirituality in the shelf above in neat, horizontal towers, and creating a system of folders for mail and papers so they cling to the wall in neat wire brackets.
They worked together each weekend for all of March and tended to drop in separately during the week. Remember that they are all, as Ms. Charczenko put it, as talented at organizing as Ms. Grineva is at playing the piano.
"That said," Ms. Charczenko continued, "there were times when one of us would return to the apartment and completely redo what that other person just did. Can you imagine three women 'fixing' each other's decorating ideas? Oy, what a challenge that was."
The night Ms. Grineva was to return, the three lit votive candles on every surface so that the apartment glowed like a birthday cake. She walked through the door, stunned to find Champagne and food and the expectant faces of her three friends.
"I was shocked," Ms. Grineva said. "It was an act of love. I never would have asked for it. I can't believe it. Look at my desk. Look at these things that belonged to me" - she pointed to a small marble-topped table next to her bed - "that I never used. Look at my vases."
Ms. Grineva sat before her piano and began to play Rachmaninoff's Elegy, a sampling from the Russian portion of the program she has planned for Carnegie Hall, a concert she will dedicate to her father. Her fingers rippled over the keyboard, Rachmaninoff's music filled the room, and the apartment was suddenly much larger than it had been a moment before.
Ms. Grineva said she loves its new look and is determined to keep it as orderly as it is now. She's almost happy to stay here, she said: "But wouldn't it be wonderful if it moved around, like my ships?" (Ms. Grineva, who performs on ships owned by the Radisson Seven Seas, Silverseas and Celebrity cruise lines, left for the Caribbean last Wednesday.)
"Wouldn't it be wonderful to wake up in Chelsea?"