Justin Bieber of the piano world

Ukraine-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa, a classical music maestro who glides through Chopin etudes with aplomb, does not baulk at comparisons made between her and Canadian pop singer Justin Bieber.

"At first, when that came out in The Wall Street Journal, it was funny. Then everyone started repeating it and it wasn't," the 42-year-old tells Life! in a telephone interview from Paris, where she was performing.

Her thick, gravelly Ukrainian accent is punctuated by the occasional throaty laugh.

"But actually, his career was, in a way, like mine. He did competitions and talent shows, but that didn't bring him stardom. Then he went on YouTube and his career exploded. So I thought: 'Hey, if this boy can do it, why can't I?'"

With that idea in mind, Lisitsa has launched a career that has so far blazed along the firework-like trajectory of a pop singer, rather than the slow burn of many a classical virtuoso.

Her YouTube channel now has close to 180,000 subscribers. Scroll through her video collection and you will find Snapchat-worthy hand-held camera videos that prompt fans to react with heart-shaped emoticons and smiley faces.

In one video titled Steinway Obstacle Course, she navigates the dark recesses of a concert hall to hunt down a piano before unloading an impromptu performance of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata in a squat.

In another, she films herself playing the German composer's Sonata No. 17 In D Minor, a GoPro camera strapped to her chest.

In more serious videos, she dispatches difficult pieces from composers such as Schumann and Liszt with ease, attracting more than 500,000 viewers.

Next month, Singapore audiences can expect to be tickled pink by the gregarious Lisitsa, famous for cracking jokes at concerts, as she plays at a one-night showcase here.

Teacher Samuel Ho, 25, who discovered Lisitsa through YouTube, is impressed by her "touch and articulation". He adds: "Her technique and skill is impressive, and with the GoPro and squats, she brings a modern twist to piano-playing."

Not everyone is impressed though.

Music reviewer Andrew Clements of the British newspaper The Guardian wrote of her studio recordings: "The qualities in her playing that have made her performances such a hit on the Web don't necessarily transfer well... these concertos are about so much more than faux excitement."

Yet, whatever success she has today is hard won.

Born in 1973 in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to a seamstress and engineer, she first studied at the Kiev Conservatory as a teenager, where she met her husband, classical pianist Alexei Kuznetsoff. They left for the United States in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"There was no food at the time. We would go around picking mushrooms and people had no means to pay for concerts. The only way to be a musician was to leave," she says.

The couple toured the piano competition circuit before settling in North Carolina, where they had a son, Benjamin, now 10.

At that time, their careers were flagging.

She recalls: "I tried many things. First, I uploaded my performance on Amazon, but people started putting sections on YouTube. So I uploaded the DVD myself and it hit No. 1 on Amazon. I was also putting my music on MySpace when it started."

She was willing to put the fruit of her hard work online for free because "the recording industry is moving towards streaming".

"My business as a musician is not to sell CDs... it is to play concerts. And to do that, I have to advertise myself so people will come. The best way to do that is on YouTube.

"Some people call me a YouTube celebrity like it's something bad. But it's something that makes me different and distinguishes me."

Just like Justin Bieber.

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