“When I’m playing and I meet people for the first time, we may not speak the same language, but we know the same songs,” she says. “That’s really special.”
This is not to say that language usually is a barrier for Maria – she speaks English, Russian, French and Italian – but music always eases the introduction.
Maria, who has iridescent aquamarine eyes, slender fingers, precise pronunciation and the trace of a Canadian accent if you know to listen for it, has been communicating musically since she was five.
That’s when she started taking lessons from a neighbor in Kovrov, the city in western Russia along the right bank of the Klyazma River where she was born.
“My dad always loved to play the piano, and I used to sing with him,” she says, adding that there was an upright piano in the family apartment. “He still plays every day. At that time in Russia, it was common to play the piano and the violin. The state-funded music schools were free.”
Maria, who is classically trained, continued her lessons and her enthusiasm for the ivories and ebonies when the family moved first to Israel and then to Toronto, where she spent most of her childhood.
After graduating from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, Maria began working as a pianist for the National Ballet of Canada, York University and for other schools and colleges in Toronto.
“It occurred to me that the dancers needed accompanists,” she says, adding that she got her initial job by making a cold call. “At first it was hard because I’ve never taken dance classes. It’s a very specialized career path that has opened a lot of doors for me. I’ve played for a lot of leading figures in the industry.”
Sitting in an outdoor booth of Astoria’s Queen’s Room drinking coffee, she ticks off the “who’s who” list: Yuri Fateev, acting head of the Mariinsky Ballet; Skylar Brandt, a principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre; Sascha Radetsky, artistic director of ABT Studio Company; and Heather Odgen, a principal dancer of the National Ballet of Canada.
Maria has also played with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive and was an accompanist in the final rounds of the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world’s largest and more important ballet competitions. Recently, she started working with dancers at The Juilliard School.
It’s always a treat, she says, to take command of a grand piano.
She’s also had a gig with jazz bassist Paul Gill and has performed in a duo with Conrad Korsch, who was the longtime bassist and music director/bandleader for pop star Rod Stewart.
In 2015, she moved to New York City to deepen her appreciation of jazz, her father’s favorite genre.
“Classical is a totally different language,” she says. “Jazz is more spontaneous. I love to combine pop with improvisation and approach it from a jazz perspective by improvising.”
By the time she moved her keyboards to Astoria in 2018, she had established a harmonious way of making a living doing what she loves.
She plays for ballet dancers in the mornings, teaches private piano lessons in the afternoons and performs at establishments like Astoria’s Last Word and Sonbobs in the evenings.
“What I love about music is that you always learn new things, you always get better,” she says. “There are different ways to play a song. You can always go deeper.”
Maria, who hasn’t been to Toronto since the pandemic, is not sure where she will end up geographically or professionally.
She misses her family a lot, but she loves New York, too. Being in the city has fulfilled her lifelong dream.
“For all the opportunities, it seems everything really is possible here if you’re willing to put yourself out there,” she says. “My end goal as long as I’m here is to find new places to play. I enjoy every moment.”
As she gets up to leave, the man sitting at the next table engages her in conversation. As it turns out, he spent several years in St. Petersburg, Russia, studying visual arts and would like to hear her play.
They exchange first names, and she hands him her card. She tells him she’s playing at The Last Word later. It’s right down the street.
Perhaps she will see him again at the show.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.