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Somewhere in the middle of nowhere

Monday, December 04, 2000
Andrew Clark - Financial Times

Love him or hate him, pianist Alexander Toradze has made waves in Indiana. Andrew Clark is impressed by an unlikely centre of excellence.

The news was bad. Valery Gerglev, maestro of the Kirov, would not, after all, be coming to Souht Bend. He had been ill, he was delayed, he was stranded on the wrong side of the Atlantic. The South Bend Symphony Orchestra would have to survive without him. A local conductor was catapulted into Gergiev’s shoes. Judging by audience reactions, no one noticed the difference.

A musical non-event? Not quite. The concert Gergiev had agreed to conduct was the opening shot of a piano festival organised by his friend, the Georgian pianist Alexander Toradze, whose concerto performances Gergiev regularly accompanies on the world’s great stages. But while Gergiev projects his carrer from a power-base in St. Petersburg. Toradze spends much of his time in the relative obscurity of the American Midwest: for the past eight years he has run a piano studio for hand-picked young professionals at Indiana University South Bend.

In the end, it was Toradze, rather than the stand-in conductor, who saved the day at the recent IUSB piano festival. He swept through the solo part in Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto like an incendiary torch, energising the orchestra and electrifying the atmosphere in South Bend’s Morris Performing Arts Center. It was a reading of spring-coiled insouciance – even faster and more exciting during the last movement encore, by which time orchestra and conductor had audibly relaxed.

When Toradze, 48, burst upon the international stage nearly a quarter-century ago, the legendary Hungarian pianist Lili Kraus made a shrewd prediction. Half the people are going to love him, she said, and have will hate him. That just about sums up critical reaction today. You either succumb to Toradze’s big heart, pounding dynamism and creative daring, or you find his musicianship irredeemably heavy-handed, emotive, exaggerated.

After hearing him play concertos with some of the world’s leading orchestras, and observing him at his festival in South Bend, I fall resoundingly into the formercategory. A man of extremes, Toradze has never pretended to be the greatest interpreter of Beethoven or Mozart – much as he loves them. His natural territory is the late Romantic virtuoso school and its successori – Lisrt, Skryabin, Rakhmaninov, Busoni, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, all of which respond to his outsize personality. All were heard at the IUSB piano festival.

It’s one of the myths of American musical life that nothing happens between the eastern and western seabords. No one could pretend South Bend is a cultural oasis: formerly the manufacturing base of Studebaker cars and now, thanks to Notre Dame university, one of the biggest Roman Catholic centres in the New World, it’s very much Sticksville USA, two hours east of Chicago on the road to nowhere. Before Toradze took up IUSB’s newly endowed Martin chair of piano in 1992, little of musical significance went on there. Today it is a unique breeding-ground for concert pianist’s.

Its uniqueness stems from the fact that Toradze limits his studio to about 20, surrounds them with a dedicated environment and show-cases them in composer-marathons at home and abroad. That part of it is loosely modelled on the old Russian school of studio recitals, where great instrumentalistswould take their students into the Soviet provinces as a tool for promulgating their musical ideas and recruiting new members.

Instead of focusing on a handful of over-played pieces, Toradze gives his protégés challenging, broad-based projects – such as the Stravinsky marathon they brought to the 1997 Edinburg festival. Rakhmanoniv and Prokofiev have received similar treatment. Tchalkovsky is in preparation; so are Dvolak/Busoni and Copland/Shostakovich. The aim of this type of “umbrella” recital is to let younger members of the group pick up on the energy of their elders, and avoid premature over-exposure. Audiences love it – as New York, Mikkeli in Finland and Stresa in Italy have testified.

The atmosphere at South Bend is far removed from the competitive pressures, big-city distractions and sheer size of high-profile schools such as Julliard. Although its members take part in competitions, and several won prizes, the Toradze studio is not a stable for competition horses. Nor is it platform for prima donnas: it works as a close-knit community, with creative ideas flying back and forth, constantly being examined, challenged and criticised.

Some young Americans find it scary – not least because of Toradze’s giant personality. Others are put off by the absence of any academic base to the studio’s work. That explains why a majority of its members come from eastern Europe, where harmony, theory, solfège and music history are already absorbed at secondary school.

Unlike the leading US conservatories, where most teachers have given up performing in public. South Bend encourages Toradze to pursue his career, in the belief that his professional enthusiasm and international exposure provide a working role model. His assistant, Rubinstein competition laureate Alexander Korsantia, takes charge during his absences. There are risks in Toradze’s approach – that his protégés turn out to be clones, that they find it difficult to break free from the studio’s support system.

Judging by last month’s festival, those risks appear to have been minimised. In a blockbuster recital of Prokofiev’s three “war sonatas” Korsantia’s explosive, fantasy-filled interpretation of the Eight sonata and George Vatchnadze’s poetic colonnades of sound in the Sixth had little in common with their mentor’s splenetic attack in the Seventh.

The following night, Korsantia gave a fleet, fresh-minded account of Rakhmanoniv’s Paganini Rhapsody with piano accompaniment: Ketevan Badridze’s Chopin (12 Preludes Op. 28) was fragile, elegant, but never precious; other members of the studio played Brahms and Shchedrin with fire and brilliance; and in the hands of Maxim Mogilevsky and Sveliana Smolina, Rakhmaninov’s Suite No. 2 for two pianos provided a formidable climax. None suffered from comparison with the other. These were all strong personalities and different personalities.

Other snapshots from the festival: Susan Starr, silver medallist in the 1962 Tchaikovsky competition and still virtually unknown in western Europe, freshening the palette of Bach (French-Suite No. 5) and Beethoven (C major sonata, Op. 2 No. 3) with her fast, fantastic fingers; a seminar on piano competitions, exposing the agendas and machinations of jurors; a moving lunchtime account of the Bach/Busoni Chaconne by young Alexei Podkorytov, one of seven visiting fellows.

Not everything was perfect: IUSB’s concert grand left much to be desired, and university bureaucracy is cramping the festival’s potential. But Toradze has proved that cosmopolitanism and high-powered pianism are not exclusive to the big city. Thanks to his example, the piano action is wired up and laid back at South Bend.



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