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Arts & Leisure - The Other Team in South Bend: Pianists

Sunday, October 27, 2002
Maya Pritsker - The New York Times

One rainy night in May, 20 or so people were eating, drinking and talking non-stop with Finnish, Japanese, Russian, Georgian and some indefinable accents at a long table at T.G.I Friday’s in South Bend, Ind.

The Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in nearby Kalamazoo,, Mich, had just ended, and most of those in the group – members of the Toradze Piano Studio at Indiana University, South Bend – had participated. Some had come from far away. The mood was festive, the atmosphere one of warmth, ease, sharing and knowing, like that of a good family.

“We’re indeed like an extended family, constantly getting support from each other,” said Paivi Ekroth, a graduate of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, who had joined the studio after attending a performance by Alexander Toradze in Finland. “It was like a revolution, I saw his intense connection with music, and I wanted to study with him.”

The Toradze Studio Stirred a sensation at the Gilmore with a Rachmaninoff marathon: two nights, eight hours of Rachmaninoff’s piano music. There were solo pieces and all the works for two pianos and for four and six hands, from the long-forgotten Russian Rhapsody to the “Symphonic Dances” in the two-piano version. Nine performers played these difficult programs with ease, brilliance and plenty of individuality and were greeted by standing ovations. The marathon was recorded life for National Public Radio and for the studio’s first record album.

Other exciting projects awaited, notably two in New York. On Thursday, the studio will play all of Scriabin’s sonatas (including the two earliest, without opus numbers) and “Prometheus” in the three-piano version, all with a special light accompaniment., at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. On Nov. 9, it will present a Bach concerto evening with the Gotham City Orchestra, conducted by George Steel, at the Miller Theater of Columbia University, where the studio enjoyed acclaim with Prokofiev’s sonatas last December. There were also invitations to play in Italy, Germany and Russia, and on the West Coast.
Though it was long after midnight, no one wanted to leave. Amid the jokes, only Mr. Toradze, the leader, mentor, friend, colleague and, for some of his students, father figure , whom they all lovingly call Lexo, looked concerned.

“It is not easy now to combine two touring schedules, mine and the studio’s,” he said, “to manage all these mounting organizational and public relations tasks and to maintain all the time the highest quality of performance while the studio membership is changing and the repertoire is widening. As passionately as I believe in what we are doing, sometimes I have doubts. Does our life realistically prepare them to face their future?”

The studio started in 1991. Indiana University, South Bend, had just established a piano chair and was looking for the right person to fill it: someone with a successful concert career, who could enhance the university’s status, nationally and internationally, and bring in promising students. For years, the university had face tough competition with Notre Dame, its powerful neighbor. In a city where life revolved around football, Indiana University was eager to stake a claim in the arts.
Mr. Toradze, now 50, was living in New York. A true representative of the Russian piano school, with its great emphasis on emotion, expressiveness and drama, he is a pianist with a distinct and powerful individuality.

“ I think I got this position because I was most optimistic about the possibility of bringing the best young talent into the studio,” he said- Whatever the reason, within six months in South Bend, he had attracted a group of young assistants, including Maxim Mogilevsky (a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory), Alexander Korsantia (from the Tbilisi Conservatory in Georgia) and George Vatchnadze (from the Mannes College).
Mr. Vatchnadze is now a professor at the university and M.r Toradze’s right-hand man. Most of the others teach in the United States and Canada and tour widely as performers. Mr. Mogilevsky plays in a piano duo with his wife, Svetlana Smolina, whom he met at the university. But studio alumni rejoin their colleagues on tour or in South Bend, where they can play for one another and ask advice, as in the old days.

Mr. Toradze did not want the studio to became just another teaching class. He had a vision. Having studied at the Special Music School for Gifted Children in Tbilisi and the Moscow Conservatory, he remembered the class recitals, both at home and on tour. These showcases and other performing opportunities had a tremendous impact in forming future artists. Mr. Toradze also wanted to recreate the stimulating environment typical of the top Soviet music schools (especially before the competition craze struck in the mid-1960’s), where students’ lives were saturated with intense exchanges of ideas with one another and with their elders.

“It is easy in these days with computers and recordings to get any educational information,” Mr. Toradze said. “What is lacking is the stage experience, the opportunity for a young musician to get the feeling of an audience, to prove himself as a communicator of musical ideas. Look what Valery Gergiev does at the Maryinsky Theater and Academy. He just throws the young and talented onto the stage, into serious work. We began to do it 10 years ago, though such a thing as a class recital was not in the curriculum here.”
Other things not in the curriculum included communal trips to hear concerts in Chicago and long discussions of everything from family affairs to recent books and the ethics of the music business. Or the annual feast of grape picking and wine making. Or the soccer games. Mr. Toradze proudly points out that the studio’s soccer team has won the university championship three years in a row.
“Soccer is not very good for the hands,” he said, “but it’s great for the brain.”

There are, of course, the lessons. Mr. Toradze is required to spend six hours per semester with each student. He spends much more, despite his intense performing schedule around the globe.
He also uses his fame to get the students performing opportunities. Their first chance to play in New York grew out of one of his appearances at Canergie Hall. Requested to give a master class at Steinway Hall, Mr. Toradze instead offered a concert by his pupils. The response was good, and the students were invited to play at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago.

Then Mr. Gergiev called Planning a Stravinsky festival in St. Petersburg, he needed a program of Stravinsky’s piano pieces. “Why not play everything?” asked Mr. Toradze. Thus the studio’s first marathon.
Such marathons are now a distinctive feature of the stuio’s performing life, its signature. From a pedagogical point of view, they are excellent learning tools (though it is not easy to decide who will play what). Preparing and performing a marathon means going through a composer’s entire repertory, with the most obscure pieces receiving the same attention as the overplayed ones and each piece being placed in a broad musical and historical context. A marathon is also a good way, in competition and comparison with the other players, to shape your own view of the composer’s style and check your perceptions on stage.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the marathons – some longer than five hours – are beloved by audiences and in great demand from concert presenters. One person not surprised is Joseph Horowitz, the studio’s artistic adviser, who helps shape its programs and make them more intellectually coherent, adding commentaries and archival recordings. Mr. Horowitz, a staunch advocate of thematic programming, insists that long concerts placed in educational and historical contexts are more attractive to audiences today than traditional concerts. In the Toradze studio he has found an ideal vehicle.

“It’s a unique concert phenomenon,” Mr. Horowitz said, “which furnishes enterprising presenters with an opportunity to do unusual repertory, virtually on request, with dedicated artists.”
Can you imagine sitting through and evening of Prokofiev’s or Scriabin’s complete sonatas played by a single performer? “Dreadful!” said Mr. Toradze. “But when you have on stage seven or eight or nine pianists of varied age, sex, nationality and personality, it brings a special excitement to the experience. And excitement, that is what we need now.”
These performers can evidently produce it, as witness Michael Tumelty’s response to a 1997 Stravinsky marathon in Edinburgh, in The Herald of Glasgow: “My God, you know you are alive, listening to this highly volatile bunch.”

Expect to hear an especially colourful group in New York. Some are new, having arrived two months ago from Paris and Tbilisi. Some are studio veterans.
Sean Botkin, a graduate of the Julliard School and one of the studio’s star performers, spent three years in South Bend. He just started teaching at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, but he maintains his ties with the studio.

“I grew so much during those three years,” he said. “Lexo showed me how to open up, to communicate with the audience and to explore what is really going on inside the music. I feel now as a completed artist. And the close friendships we made in South Bend will stay with us for a long, long time. Of course, there’s always competition, but no backstabbing. Everything here is entirely about music, about being a better musician.”



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