Behind an immigrant pianist’s patriotic return from trauma
Elena Klionsky knows all about playing through pain.
In the fall of 2018, the Russian-American pianist was just about to undergo her ninth surgery on her upper limbs—all resulting from an incident in 2015, in which she helped her father break a fall—when the White House invited her to perform at its Holiday Open House in December.
“I got [the invitation] the day before my surgery,” she recalls. “I was with my family, and I said, ‘There’s no way in hell this is going to happen. It’s the biggest honor, being a Jewish immigrant and a refugee [from Soviet Russia]. We were exchanged for grain back in ‘74 when I was a child. So being stateless, being a refugee, then becoming an American, loving this country, and being invited to the White House—that was the ultimate gift. But I told my kids, ‘I can’t. This is so pathetic that I finally get this enormous break, and I can’t do it.’”
Cut to five weeks later. Klionsky, in a black evening dress, sat behind a gold-encrusted Steinway with golden eagles for legs and entertained the White House’s executive staff and their families with Liszt’s “Ave Maria” and sprightly, familiar favorites from Beethoven and Chopin. She played for two continuous hours.
“It was hard and painful, but who cares?” she says. “The whole experience was unbelievable. It lifted my spirits so much, and I started believing in myself again.”
The performance at 1600 Penn is the latest career pinnacle for the part-time Boca Raton resident, who played her first concert at age 5, was accepted into Juilliard at 10 and performed at Lincoln Center while in 11th grade. Her professional breakthrough came at age 19, when she played a centennial concert for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, alongside Itzhak Perlman and the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra. She made her screen debut in the 1980 musical “Fame,” and over the next several decades became an internationally renowned concert pianist, touring as a soloist with orchestras, with chamber musicians, and as a duo with Taiwanese pianist Virginia Shiao.
In the process, she’s had to endure multiple physical hardships, the kind that would have ended the careers of less resilient musicians. In 2002, following a concert at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, she suffered a severe injury to her right hand—a freak accident derived from carrying her 4-year-old son for too long (her babysitter had canceled at the last minute). This required two surgeries and years of physical therapy, not to mention the emotional toll of being unable to play the piano.
In hindsight, this injury seems like a resolve-testing prelude to the more devastating accident in 2015, in which she tore both shoulders, rotator cuffs and biceps. This time, she spent 10 weeks in a cast and was sidelined, initially for four months; over the next four years, she has continued to tour sporadically, in between surgeries.
When she couldn’t play, Klionsky wrote a book, Wisdom From My Teachers, a guide for musicians who have faced setbacks and are looking to jump back into the fray. She’s currently soliciting publishers. Her own comeback, culminating in that White House performance, has earned her a poignant nickname: the Piano Phoenix.
“It’s been like a roller coaster,” she says. “You have surgery, you try to come back, you have another one. The difficult thing is you get depressed. You get lost a bit. How do I come back? Do I want to play? Do I want to go through all this? But I do. I discovered that I love it so much that I have no life without my piano playing. I have a great family, I have wonderful kids, a mom I adore. But I’m not me if I don’t play.”