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By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
They have come to peddle organic nutritional supplements, personal aura photography, massage treatments, hypnosis education, holistic gems, spiritual path readings and better living through all things metaphysical.
But amid the din of sales talk and ethereal CDs playing at exhibition tables, a striking, blond-haired woman is busy working the back of the room like it's a Vegas resort.
She has blue eyes, bright red lipstick, spiked high heels and a form-fitting green evening dress. And she pounds away at a $75,000 Bluthner grand piano with a most unusual selection of material: Samples of Chopin's Fantasy Impromptu, Beethoven's Tempest Sonata, Russian and Hungarian folk melodies, Frank Sinatra's My Way, Unforgettable by Nat King Cole, swirling New Age originals with names such as Ocean Story, Gypsy's Dance, Aurora: Fantasy in E-minor -- and her most requested tune, Billy Joel's Piano Man.
No matter that only a dozen or so casually clad spectators have wandered over and taken a seat.
They fix their gazes on a performer who could pass for a '40s screen starlet dressed to kill on a night out at the Copa Cabana. She's not quite a dead ringer for Jessica Rabbit, but Oksana Kolesnikova could be her musical Russian cousin.
She sits at the grand, hands darting across the ivory, then virtually attacking the keys in a crescendo of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in E Minor. Her shoulders sway and surge forward as she works the piano. She stares ahead almost in a trance, as her Italian-born husband and manager, Alessandro "Alex" Concas, trains a digital video camera on her.
"She is awesome," says a booth browser named Sheralyn Marsden-Lynn, whose interest in reflexology brought her to the expo. "I feel a loving presence flowing out from her. I feel more than just the music; she projects a beautiful inner vibrance."
She is a Russian with a distinctly American story: an unknown artist striving to make it big in the music business. Of course, not many boast a repertoire in which Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Led Zeppelin go toe to toe with Bach, Mozart and Schumann. But they all share the same American dream, even if this one happens to have sprung from Russia and Rome.
"For those of you who would like to hear full versions, stop by my booth. I'll play you any of them, or any ones you request," she tells the listeners, her words tinged with the accent of a person born in Siberia and raised in Kazakhstan -- before settling with her family in St. Petersburg in 1993.
They are relentless in pursuit of gigs wherever there are audiences -- bookstores, malls, concert halls such as the Palladium, the Home Shopping Network, a steady stream of special events and private parties, even a 6 a.m. concert last month for surprised, sleepy-eyed patrons at an Einstein's Bagels in St. Petersburg.
"Ninety percent perspiration, 10 percent inspiration," Concas says. "That's the good old American saying Oksana and I always use."
What a country
They live in a modest home in north St. Petersburg that displays symbols of their passions in life: a big musical note attached to the front door, and a small American flag hanging by the living room.
As youngsters, each fantasized about America.
She was a little girl in Russia studying classical piano from the age of 5, winning her first competition at 9. But once a week, she loved to watch an overdubbed, mid '80s sitcom starring Yakov Smirnoff called What A Country.
He was a teen in Italy, entranced by the hit show Happy Days and the cool "aaaayyyy" of the Fonz.
Now, here they are, going on three years of marriage, and building Oksana's career -- which currently features one CD of classical works and two more (a classical/Russian folk and a New Age CD of originals) scheduled for release next month, a slick Web site (www.oksana-k.com), bookings around Florida and plans for a tour in Europe next year paved by Concas' business contacts in Italy.
For a young Oksana, America always struck her as "almost like a paradise." She first heard about rock 'n' roll from her piano teacher in Kazakhstan. He told her how he had been expelled from a communist conservatory for practicing Great Balls of Fire.
Oksana's father was a water polo coach, her mother a school teacher. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, they believed the best chance for Oksana and younger siblings Eric and Sofia, also pianists, was the United States.
"So they left everything behind to bring us here," Oksana says.
They arrived in Miami, tried San Francisco -- it had looked nice on American TV -- but chose St. Petersburg on the advice of a train passenger they had met. Oksana, speaking almost no English, attended Lakewood High, St. Petersburg High and Northeast High, from which she graduated in 1997.
When U.S. officials informed them they could not stay in the country, the Kolesnikovas were prepared to return home. "But then it was like a miracle," Oksana says. "The very next day, they got a letter saying they had won the lottery for a green card. Just like that we could stay."
After entering SPJC, now St. Petersburg College, she won the Florida State Young Artists Symposium Competition contest for junior college students.
"What I remember most about Oksana was how dedicated she was and how hard she always worked," says professor John Steele, head of SPC's music department. "She was always the first there in the morning to ask for the keys to the practice room."
The school used her last year in a video showcasing its lavish new performing arts hall -- opening with Oksana, dressed in an elegant evening gown, walking slowly to a grand piano on stage, taking her seat and beginning to play with her typical abandon.
At FSU, she also won praise. "A talented pianist," says her former professor Leonidas Lipovetsky. "I always thought she might move in the direction of popular music."
For Concas, the direction always pointed to America. He taught himself to read English by translating song lyrics by the Beatles. "I could recite the words to Rocky Raccoon like a rap song," he says. "It took me months to learn that the words to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da didn't mean anything in English."
When he was 18, he got a clerk job at a U.S. naval base in Italy and was allowed to study English in the wing of a room with ties to the University of Maryland. "That became my college education," he says.
Concas came to the United States 15 years ago, and landed jobs in sales and marketing. He now teaches Italian to corporate clients from his home, where he has proudly framed the U.S. citizenship certificate that he earned last year.
Always quick to offer friends his secret recipe cappuccino, Concas can barely contain his exuberance when talking about Oksana. He has told the story of how they met countless times: a group of his friends decided to throw him a surprise party for his 37th birthday. For ambience, they hired a young student to play piano.
"I saw this wild, beautiful Russian woman playing my favorite music, and I fell in love right there," he says.
At first, they tried to maintain a professional relationship. He signed on to manage her bookings.
Six months later, just after she had finished a Valentine's Day concert at a Border's bookstore in Tampa, Concas proposed. The crowd cheered, and the whole thing was caught on tape by Spanish network Univision, which Concas had invited.
He eagerly fetches a video of the event and pops it into the VCR, playing the big moment when Oksana says yes. "I was too shocked to cry," she says. "He was very romantic about it. Italian nature, you know."
They were married in 1999 at the Palladium in downtown St. Petersburg. Oksana played a piece called Voice of Life that she wrote for Concas. "I think," she says "we were meant to be here together."
Testing the market
Concas can't stop smiling when she is in his presence. They hug. They joke. He listens to her practice for hours on her Wurlitzer upright -- a gift from a man who heard her play soon after she arrived in St. Petersburg. She had left her piano behind in Kazakhstan.
"I am so lucky," Concas says.
He's always thinking of ways to promote his wife.
When it came to her Web site, he spent thousands of dollars to commission the classiest site he could.
To thank Einstein Bagels for providing free catering at one of Oksana's shows, he came up with the idea of the 6 a.m. concert. He also called a local television station and got coverage. He produced a CD for an Italian pianist and friend in Tampa named Ugo De Ambrogio, and designed the case so that a photo of Oksana and link to her Web site appears when the CD is removed.
He cranks out endless e-mails to businesses and venues in search of bookings.
For the health expo, he managed to get Central Music in Largo to loan the Bluthner. And rather than simply have Oksana perform, he set up a booth. Anyone wanting a song by Oksana could don headphones and get a free, private concert on her Yamaha electric. They could also browse Oksana products: CDs or an autograph book, complete with an Oksana photo.
Then there is that steady, eclectic mix of gigs.
"I'd say it's a good strategy," says Ginger Warder, whose Dolphin Talent agency manages national acts from its St. Petersburg base.
Making it as a new age artist isn't an easy task, since the genre has been increasingly squeezed out of the smooth jazz format, and only a handful of big names are selling records.
"An artist like (Windham Hill pianist) George Winston isn't getting played on the radio anywhere," says Carol Archer, a music editor at Radio and Records magazine, an industry barometer based in Los Angeles. "So new age is somewhat of a shrinking target for a new artist to hit. And pianists who don't sing just aren't getting airplay these days.
"That said, an artist like her can still have a viable career performing and touring and selling CDs independently. Especially, if as she says, she ties in with something like the Home Shopping Network. And if any independent artist can sell 50,000 copies of a CD, many major labels will want to get to know them."
Oksana was invited to perform on Home Shopping in May after a network official saw her at playing at the Radisson Hotel and Convention Center in Clearwater. Concas says he is in talks with HSN to make Oksana a vendor, allowing her to appear occasionally and pitch CDs on air to millions of viewers. The couple insists they are not looking for a major label deal, preferring to retain autonomy as an independent act. Their goal: pursue bookings at celebrity and high-end corporate events, and develop an international reputation, aided by the Internet, as more independent artists are doing nowadays.
"I think some people don't take me seriously at first, like maybe I can't really play," she says. "But then I show them I can."
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.
From the wire