The Arts at Messiah concert series is capping off its season with a recital by the talented young pianist Leyla Kabuli.
Kabuli is a graduate of the Pre-College Division of San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano, violin, bassoon, and chamber music. Kabuli continues to study piano at the conservatory with Professor Yoshikazu Nagai, while also pursuing degrees in electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley as a Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholar.
Kabuli discovered a desire to play piano at a young age, despite a lack of musicians in her family.
“My mom has surprisingly good appreciation of music for a professor of electrical engineering,” says Kabuli, “but she didn’t expect that I would be interested in learning musical instruments, although we always listen to classical music at home.”
When she was 7 years old, Kabuli asked her mother for piano lessons after being “deeply moved” by a concert by legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman.
“I imagined myself as Perlman’s accompanist, playing that beautiful piano on that huge stage,” Kabuli recounts. “My mom assumed that I would quit the piano lessons in a few months, so she initially bought a portable electronic keyboard that didn’t even have pedals.”
Since then Kabuli has earned numerous prestigious awards and accolades — too many to list here in their entirety — including the National Young Arts Honorable Mention, U.S. Chopin Foundation Scholarship, and the Los Angeles Young Musician International Competition. She was also a semifinalist in 2018 Cooper International Piano Competition and the 2016 First International Arthur Rubenstein Youth Piano Competition in Beijing. She has held the keyboard position of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra since 2015.
A highlight from Kabuli’s career was her stirring appearance on NPR’s “From the Top” in a video meant to raise awareness for organizations helping refugees. Kabuli’s family is from Turkey, so she performed a piece by Turkish composer Fazil Say while harrowing images of refugees were projected behind her.
“Fazil Say’s 'Black Earth' sounded very different from western piano music, but also beautifully familiar, with all of its Anatolian motifs,” Kabuli explains. “What made an even bigger impression was the poem that inspired the piece. The original tune and lyrics of 'Kara Toprak' were written by Aşik Veysel, a folk poet who lost his eyesight in childhood. Veysel played the 'baglama saz,' a Turkish lute with knotted strings."
The composition requires Kabuli to reach into the piano and mute the strings with her hand to simulate the sound of the baglama saz. Kabuli will perform “Black Earth” as the climax of her Aug. 10 Arts at Messiah recital, and it is worth catching her performance for this unique piece of music alone.
“The cultural connection makes it very special to me, and I consider playing this piece a tribute both to the poet, and to Say, who brilliantly brought out the emotions of a turbulent life and peaceful resolution depicted in the poem,” Kabuli adds.
Kabuli has performed in some of the greatest venues in the country, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, but it is smaller performances at retirement homes and charitable benefits that are more meaningful for her.
“Sharing music outside of the concert hall brings me a higher level of joy and a sense of purpose,” says Kabuli. “The warm and welcoming setting of retirement communities allows for unique opportunities to form personal connections … Benefit concerts are especially meaningful as they make it evident that music is universally powerful in uniting people for a common cause. The best part of being a musician is volunteering for these events.”
The program for Kabuli’s recital boasts emotional works by Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt. She is also performing “Six Skazki, Fairy Tales, Op. 51" (1928) by Nikolai Medtner.
“It is surprising that these character pieces are not included in recital programs more frequently, and that Medtner’s work never received much recognition,” Kabuli muses. “Rachmaninoff considered it his duty to introduce Medtner’s music to the world, and I find his generous help and support of his lifelong friend equally inspiring as Medtner’s determination to succeed as a composer.
“Contrasting this friendship between two great musicians, Aşik Veysel wrote that he realized his only loyal friend was the Black Earth,” Kabuli adds about the conclusion of her recital. “That humble ending will hopefully touch the audience and trigger memories, emotions, and conclusions based on their own life experiences.”