Lola Astanova may not be the most famous classical pianist in the world, but she has managed to gain a devoted following by performing Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt in provocative attire.
Over a half-million people follow Astanova on Instagram where she frequently poses in low-cut tops, miniskirts and stiletto heels. She writhes over the keys, eyes closed in ecstasy, in a sultry YouTube performance of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” that has more than 20 million views. Classical purists may tut-tut that music should be heard and not seen, but Astanova’s style has earned her one very big, very important fan: President Donald Trump.
A native of Uzbekistan and now an American citizen, Astanova was picked to play the National Anthem at the White House’s Fourth of July concert, one day after her 36th birthday. There were a few grumbles, but Astanova’s performance was largely ignored at home. Russia, however, was paying attention. Sputnik, an Internet news site backed by the Russian government, ran a news item under the headline “Pianist Lola Astanova Says WH Concert Broke Ice Between US, Russia.”
It’s a bit of a mystery as to how Astanova wound up at the White House. The invitation came through an outside producer for the Hallmark Channel, which televised the concert. “She was not recommended by the White House. The referral was sent to me via the music industry,” Kristi Foley, head of Pleasant Street Entertainment, who sent Astanova the invitation on behalf of the National Park Service, tells Rolling Stone. Foley did not respond to follow-up messages seeking the name of the individual or company who referred Astanova.
It’s a rather amazing coincidence that of all the working classical musicians in the United States, the one chosen for the White House concert was a Soviet-born pianist with a Russian fan base who has known Trump socially for several years.
Astanova and Trump first met when he served as chairman of her January 2012 Carnegie Hall debut, a benefit for the American Cancer Society. Days later, Astanova delivered her first of many performances at Mar-a-Lago for a hospital fundraiser that featured a Russian caviar station and vodka slide. Not long after that, she was back again at Mar-a-Lago performing for an American Heart Association benefit. Trump caused a stir during an auction when he pledged $50,000 to the charity “in the name of virtuoso pianist Lola Astanova,” according to one account.
“The President and the First Lady have always been very cordial and complimentary regarding Lola’s performances,” Astanova’s manager and producing partner, Misha Levintas, tells Rolling Stone via email. Astanova was in Israel dealing with a family illness and could not be reached for comment, Levintas said.
A prodigy in her hometown of Tashkent, Astanova left Uzbekistan in 2001 and moved to Houston to study piano. “I left my motherland because it is better to be a complete failure in democracy, than an icon for millions in despotism,” she once said. On December 30th, Astanova returned to Tashkent for a concert reportedly paid for by the Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov, whose close ties to the Kremlin led two Republican senators to request that the Trump administration sanction him. Earlier in December, Astanova performed in Moscow with Emin Agalarov, a Russian pop singer. Agalarov — “aka Mr Moscow,” Astanova called him — helped set up the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between a “Russian government attorney” with “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort.
“Lola is not a politician, partisan, activist or lobbyist and has no plans to become one,” Levintas says. “She is a musician, and while in her professional capacity she has performed for countless famous, wealthy, and influential individuals, families and organizations (as do most music entertainers), she does not know these people beyond those social functions.”
In 2007, Astanova offered her talents in luxury retailer Neiman Marcus’ Christmas catalog. Nearly $1.6 million would buy a private performance by Astanova and Russia’s Kirov Orchestra (she also offered to throw in the Steinway used that night). No one bought the concert, but the publicity landed her on NBC’s Today show and got Astanova “tremendous exposure in wealthy circles,” Levintas told The New York Times.
Her entry into Trump’s world soon followed after she met Patrick Park, a regular fixture of Palm Beach’s society pages. Park took an interest in Astanova and used his connections to promote her career. (The Wall Street Journal described Park as Astanova’s “paramour.”) Many of Astanova’s performances were benefits for charities supported by Park, who did not return a message left seeking comment.
Park is also a friend of Trump’s. He estimated that he has chaired close to 200 fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago for various charities. After his election, Trump picked Park to be his ambassador to Austria, reportedly because he believed the county’s musical heritage made him a good fit. Park, who once said he has seen The Sound of Music “like, 75 times,” was initially excited about the opportunity. “I’ve always wanted to live in the Von Trapp house,” he told the Palm Beach Daily News. He later turned down the ambassadorship, saying the timing wasn’t right and citing his obligations to his family business. His relationship with Astanova also came to an end.
What’s next for Astanova? Concerts and a new solo project that will feature electronic elements.
“Lola’s fans know and love her for her performing ability, her style and her on-stage charisma. Beyond her current family obligations, Lola’s focus is 100 percent on her music,” Levintas says.
Seth Hettena is the author of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History.