Just across the border, in South Bend, lies a piece of piano heaven
Sebastian Blanco - The Gilmore
It’s not surprise to find two grand pianos in a piano studio. And at the world-class studio it’s not unusual to have advertising posters from students’ international concerts on the wall. A view of a lazy river out the window isn’t all that rare either.
But to understand why a nondescript little piano studio in South Bend, Ind. is buzzing with multiple laguages and some of the world’s best piano students, it’s best to look beyond the piano keyboards to the atmosphere in the rest of the room.
While a professor instructs a prospective student at the Toradze Studio at Indiana University in South Bend, other students mill around the room casually. One checks her e-mail.
Students and professors happily point out that there are two main attractions of this place: the high-quality piano instruction and the relaxed, friendly atmosphere.
George Vatchnadze, a professor at the university and the studio coordinator, said the studio’s atmosphere reflects the leadership and accessibility of Alexander Toradze, the man who founded the studio.
“He plays fro people himself,” Vatchnadze said. “He can ask any person to listen to him. I did that yesterday with Maeve (Brophy, a prospective student visiting from New York City). I have a recital on Friday and I asked her to sit down and listen to me play because I needed to play.”
Vatchnadze said he wanted Brophy not just to sit and listen but to give him feedback as well.
“That’s the way we work,” Vatchnadze said. “That happens all the time. Everybody is interacting on a personal and musical level. I have never seen anything like that anywhere. The way we teach here. I think, is very special. You don’t get this type if interaction between teachers and students (at other schools).”
For the part, Brophy said she was impressed with the studio. “The fact that I want to leave Manhattan for South Bend means that this must be something really great,” Brophy said.
This “really great” studio was founded by an endowment won by Geeorgian pianist Toradze in 1991. Toradze defected from the Soviet Union in 1983 and has been living in the United States since then. Along with the money to establish a piano studio, the endowment included funds for three assistants and several full scholarships.
Vatchnadze, who, like Toradze, is from Georgia, is one of Toradze’s three assistants and now teaches in the very studio where he used to receive lessons from Toradze.
Marathon dedicated to Rachmaninoff
Nowadays, members of the studio perform around the world. They will present a two-night marathon of Rachmaninoff pieces at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival on Tuesday and Wednesday. The first night will involve works for two pianos, and the second night will be dedicated to Rachmaninoff’s solo works and a few compositions for two or three pianos.
Separately from the marathon, Vatchnadze will perform a Rachmaninoff song and chamber recital Monday at the Gilmore with cellist David Machavariani and Metropolitan Opera soprano Olga Makarina.
Russian pianist Alexander Korsantia, another of Toradze’s assistants, will also perform at the Gilmore. His concert is Saturday night with the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra.
The Rachmaninoff marathon will include “a little bit of talking in between” the pieces by Toradze and his friend, music historian Joseph Horowitz, Vatchnadze said. After 11 years in existence, the studio is famous for these marathons of a single composer’s music.
Vatchnadze said the idea for the marathons grew out of a traditional Russian practice in which groups of students would perform a wide variety of music in front of an audience. “In Russia, all teachers used to go and take their students outside,” he said. “They called it class concerts. Those were on the level of great musical events. They didn’t necessarily have the idea of the composer. They were more of a mix.”
Vatchnadze said when he was a student at the Moscow Music Conservatory he participated in these class concerts.
“This tradition, we thought it would be great to it here since we have such a remarkable group of people,” he said. “Our first concert was in Steinway Hall (in New York City). That was a big success.”
In 1996, Valery Gergiev, music director of the Kirov Opera and Ballet and principal guest conductor of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, discussed with Toradze the idea of performing a Stravinsky class concert at Gergiev’s Stars of the White Nights Festival in ST. Petersburg, Russia.
“That was our first major marathon on a big stage,” Vatchnadze said. “It got worldwide attention.”
Since the Stravinsky marathon, the Toradze Studio members have performed marathons in Scotland, Italy, Holland, Russia and Finland and at the Hollywood Bowl.
Toradze said it is important to take his students to perform outside the classroom.
“In Kalamazoo there will be at least eight pianists, maybe nine, who will be performing,” he said. “My studio is constantly on the international road.”
Vatchnadze said each time the studio puts together a new marathon the members have to approach the composer’s work differently. He said with Rachmaninoff there was a tremendous amount of piano music to choose from.
Stravinsky, on the other other; did not write as much piano music, so those works are lesser known than his other compositions, Vatchnadze said. “Everybody knows Stravinsky was a genius,” he said. “But his piano music is kind of an underdog. So we try to push that, and it worked very well, very well.”
The studio also has performed a Prokofiev marathon and is preparing a Bach marathon that will be premiered at Stresa, Italy, later this year.
Studio members feel like a family
Even when the studio members stay in South Bend, interesting things happen. Since 1998 the studio has hosted the Toradze Concerto Institute every two years, which is what made Sean Botkin decide he needed to be a part of the studio. Botkin, a pianist from Seattle who got his master’s degree from Julliard in New York, was invited to the Toradze institute in November 1998 and joined the studio by January 1999.
“I didn’t have any plans to come here,” he said. “I had gotten nominated to come to this Concerto Institute and just from what I saw with the piano studio and Toradze and Alexander Korsantia, they attracted me.”
Botkin, who will take part in the Rachmaninoff marathon, said he knew what he didn’t like about studying at Julliard. “I went to Julliard, before I came here and did my master’s, and people are friendly but only up to a point,” he said. “They are all trying to get their own careers and they don’t really – unless you are a very close friend – they’re not so willing to help you out.”
Vakhtang Kodanashvili, another student at the studio, compared his fellow studio members to siblings. “We are one family here,” he said. “It is a unique place and we have opportunities that are unique. We can play for each other; we can teach each other, not just Toradze.”
Vatchnadze said the camaraderie at the studio is beneficial when the group gets on stage to perform a marathon. “When you have one person for two hours playing, it can get difficult, you know, boring,” he said. “But when you have constant change throughout the entire concert, it makes it very exciting for the audience. Because everybody has their own personalities, and there’s this freshness that come out every time.”
While the studio members speak glowingly of each other; they also are quick to point out how Toradze shaped the studio, especially in attracting Georgian pianists.
“Definitely, there is big power coming from Toradze bringing Georgians, of his own nationality, introducing them to this country and helping them in certain ways,” Kodanashvili said. “It’s kind of hard now in Georgia.”
Toradze put a finer point on the some difficulties in Georgia these days. Georgia is wedged between Russia and Turkey, and trouble is brewing as Chechen rebels with possible al-Qaida connections are in the country, he noted.
“I was born in Georgia, Tblisi, which is exactly where the American troops are now,” Toradze said. “It’s very rich Christian country, very rich in terms of history and religion. Christianity came to that place in the fourth century. Tbilisi itself is 1.500 years old.
“It’s very incredible musically, because they had polyphony in the ninth, 10th, 11th centuries. Polyphony is a technique of music writing where you have several independent voices developing and sharing a harmonic base.”
That definition of polyphony sounds a lot like what goes on at the Toradze Piano Studio: independent artists developing and sharing their talents in a harmonious environment.