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Julia Mortyakova, a member of the Mississippi University for Women faculty since 2012, leads the university’s Piano Ensemble and founded its annual Music by Women Festival. Photo by Jonathan Levin

Person of the Day | Julia Mortyakova: MUW Professor, Award-Winning Pianist

Julia Mortyakova walked through the picturesque medieval streets of Assisi, Italy, on a warm summer day in 2023, clad in an off-white wedding dress as she made her way to the Auditorium Padre Evangelista, a venue located inside a centuries-old church. She was not, however, headed for a wedding, and had in fact specifically chosen an off-white wedding dress so that she could wear it for other important occasions. The occasion that had brought her to Assisi was the Assisi Performing Arts Festival, which takes place over two weeks every July.

Inside the venue, a full orchestra of at least 30 artists from around the world had assembled on a stage located where the former church’s pulpit once stood, all positioned around a black grand piano in the center. Mortyakova seated herself at the piano and waited for the orchestra’s conductor, Catherine Hudgins, to give the signal to begin. The concerto Mortyakova and the orchestra were to play, “Olga Harris Piano Concerto #1,” was one with which she was well familiar, as Harris was Mortyakova’s mother and had written the piece specifically with her daughter in mind.

Julia Mortyakova (seated) performed her mother Olga Harris’ (right) “Olga Harris Piano Concert #1” at the Auditorium Padre Evangelista in Assisi, Italy, in 2023. Catherine Hudgins (left) conducted the orchestra for the concert. Photo courtesy Julia Mortyakova

At Hudgins’ signal, the first movement began, a somber number that Olga Harris based around an encounter she had with a poor village woman singing an old folk song on a cold day in Harris’ native Russia. A trio of bassoon players from the United States accompanied Mortyakova’s piano playing, imitating the melody of the village woman’s song and weaving a story of life in a world that isn’t always happy and where there is always adversity to overcome.

In the second movement, Mortyakova and the orchestra traded melodies that shared a hard beat and rhythmic pulse, which Mortyakova says symbolize the trade-offs of life and the good that comes alongside the bad. For the third and final movement, the melody shifted into an optimistic one, showing that in the end life is good, and that there is beauty in it despite painful moments.

“When my mother wrote this concerto in 2006, she told me what she had on her mind as she composed it,” Mortyakova says. “When you give birth to a child, they are coming into a world they didn’t necessarily ask to be in and that is not always a great place. How do you justify bringing someone into a world knowing they may face war, hunger and pain? As you go through life, however, you will also have wonderful experiences. You will find romance, happiness and laughter, and those things are what make life worthwhile.”
Julia Mortyakova performed at the Assisi Performing Arts Festival in 2023, wearing a wedding dress she specifically chose to wear to concerts. She performed her mother’s “Olga Harris Piano Concerto #1” at the event.

After her concerto ended, the entire audience filed onto the stage one by one, flowers in hand, to congratulate Mortyakova on her performance. For the next two days as she and her mother remained in Assisi, people came up to her in the streets of the small town looking to shake her hand. In particular, Mortyakova recalls a couple from Canada who approached her and introduced themselves as visual artists.

“This couple told me that the concerto had moved them deeply and that it spoke to something inside them,” Mortyakova says. “Even coming from people I don’t know, that is exactly the kind of sentiment you want to hear as an artist. I do at least 10 concerts per season as a concert pianist, hearing how your work moved someone is always special.”

Learning to Play

Growing up in Moscow, Mortyakova began learning to play piano from her mother when she was only 3 years old. She first took to the stage when she was 4, though it was for a vocal performance, and played piano on stage for the first time for her first grade class when she was 7. She spent the next four and a half years at a specialized music school in Moscow before immigrating to the United States alongside her mother at age 11.

Mortyakova and her mother lived in South Carolina for six years before Mortyakova enrolled at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. After graduating she went on to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., where she received her undergraduate degree in musical performance. She received her master’s degree in piano performance from New York University, where she also got her first experience teaching piano to others.

Julia Mortyakova (right) sits beside her mother, composer Olga Harris (left), at Mississippi University for Women’s grand piano inside Kossen Auditorium. Photo courtesy Jonathan Levin

While Mortyakova was attending the University of Miami to pursue a doctorate in piano performance, her mother composed “Olga Harris Piano Concerto #1,” which Mortyakova chose to perform as her final doctoral recital for her degree.

After graduating from the University of Miami, Mortyakova spent two years working as a piano professor at Alcorn State University before transferring to Mississippi University for Women in 2012 where she was hired as chairwoman of the Department of Music.

Going Beyond the Notes

At MUW, Mortyakova teaches both piano and keyboard and is one of the principle designers of most of the university’s piano courses. She also leads the MUW Piano Ensemble and is the founder and artistic director of the university’s annual Music by Women Festival.

Mortyakova recently published her own college level textbook for teaching piano, “Class Piano,” through the Kendall Hunt Publishing Company in fall 2023. Mortyakova’s mother collaborated with her on the textbook, which covers beginning theory, basic technique, fundamentals of piano playing, and artistry, among other topics.

“The core of my philosophy in teaching is to prepare my students for the inevitable time when they’ll need to stand on their own when I can’t be there with them,” Mortyakova says. “My job is to guide their knowledge while helping them be ready to make their own choices, and that means practice first and foremost.”

“More importantly, aspiring pianists need to know that it’s not just about notes, but the freedom to go beyond them,” she adds. “Computer software can play notes, but as an artist you have to share your humanity with your audience. You have to put yourself into your work so (that) you don’t perform the same way as everyone else.”

Mortyakova was the 2012 winner of the Sigma Alpha Iota Career Performance Grant and was named a laureate of the 2014 American Prize for her performance of “Cécile Chaminade.” She is also a recipient of the 2021 Mississippi Arts Commission Performing Arts Fellowship, and in 2023, she received both the International Alliance for Women in Music Programming Award and the Steinway and Sons Top Piano Teacher Award.

She has also published a book titled “Existential Piano Teacher, The Application of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Philosophy to Piano Instruction in a Higher Educational Setting.”

Mortyakova’s husband, Valentin Bogdan, is also a professor of music at MUW. The couple have released two piano duo albums together titled “Journey for Two” and “Music by Women.”

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