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Interview with pianist Roman Rabinovich

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In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.

At the age of ten, Roman Rabinovich made his debut with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Winner of the 2008 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, he is a former student of Ari Vardi, and an alumnus of the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School. Rabinovich's debut album "Ballet Russes" was recently released, and includes his own transcriptions from Ravel's 'Daphnis et Chloé'.

This weekend, the Haifa Symphony Orchestra continues its American debut tour in Northern California: Rabinovich performs Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 tonight in San Raphael (tickets), and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 on Sunday at Stanford University (tickets). Below is a transcript of our San Francisco conversation with pianist Roman Rabinovich.

EH: I read that you were born in Uzbekistan. What was your musical upbringing like ?

Rabinovich: Yes, I was born in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. I believe it’s the fifth largest city in the former Soviet Union. It’s culturally very rich, as a lot of people from all over Russia and Ukraine - the larger cities, at least - came during the Second World War to escape trouble. Tashkent was safe, and many of them ended up staying, establishing a thriving intellectual community of artists and musicians. I attended the same music school as Alexei Sultanov and Yefim Bronfman.

Both of my parents are piano teachers. I started with my mother at the age of five, and she practiced with me until I was twelve or so. I had music all around me growing up – recordings, students of my parents, etc. – so it was always very much a part of my everyday life. I wouldn’t call myself a prodigy. I was playing some concerts from a young age, but I was never exploited or anything like that. One of the first recitals I attended, the one that made quite an impression on me was Daniel Barenboim playing Schubert Sonatas in Israel.

EH: You’ve studied with some very famous teachers. I would love to hear a bit about your time with Seymour Lipkin at Curtis and Ari Vardi before that. What were their contributions to your development as an artist ?

Rabinovich: Their contributions were huge, to say the least. I went to Ari Vardi at the age of twelve, and I stayed with him for five years. It was the first time I actually encountered a great musician. He’s a wonderful person with a very wide range of interests – you can talk about anything with him - and he’s very warm as well.

When I arrived at Curtis, I was amazed by Mr. Lipkin’s devotion and seriousness – in the best sense of the word - to get as much into the composer’s mind as he could. He’s in his late 80’s now, and he still practices many hours a day, and continues to learn new music. A few months ago, I heard him doing three completely different programs in the same month. This is a very inspiring thing to see, a lesson for a young musician.

EH: Which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand ?

Rabinovich: For my hand, I must say the second, Opus 10 No. 2 (laughs).

EH: In 2008, you won the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Israel. Your biography states that you gave a recital on the 30th anniversary of the great pianist’s death. He passed away years before you were born, but what does Mr. Rubinstein mean to you ?

Rabinovich: He’s one of the gods. He was such an incredible personality, a great musician and pianist who lived a beautiful, fascinating life. His biography is very inspiring, and I’m fortunate to know his daughters, to hear stories about his life, unpublished recordings of his, etc. What a genius he was! Some say he wasn’t the most perfect of pianists, but I think when he wanted to play perfectly, he could; it just wasn’t an obsession of his time. Every concert of his was inspired, and he played with such incredible freedom.

EH: Speaking of freedom and recordings, what are your thoughts on the aesthetics of this generation of musicians ?

Rabinovich: I think much of it has become one-dimensional, unfortunately. There aren’t many individual voices today. The first half of the century produced so many great pianists with their own sound. You can tell a Horowitz, a Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, Rubinstein, or a Richter from the very first notes. Today, many people sound the same. It’s not too interesting.

People forget that art – be it beauty, passion, or expression - is not about perfection. Of course it’s nice that everyone plays well today, but it seems that people are now more afraid to take risks, to look for new sounds, new ideas in the music. If you listen to Rachmaninoff’s recordings, nobody plays like this anymore! He had the greatest technique, just like Lhevinne. In addition to technique, though, these pianists had an understanding of music because they were composers as well. I certainly don’t think that they had less technique than today. The general level of mechanics is probably higher today, but Rachmaninoff’s technique was perfect, or close to it.

On the one hand, we have so many beautiful recordings to choose from; on the other, people are listening to recordings for ideas rather than looking into the score itself for new ideas. In general, the fashion today is a bit superficial. I’m sorry, I know this sounds very pessimistic (laughs). It sounds very dark, but I do acknowledge that there are some very great pianists today, too.

EH: How much time do you devote to painting, and who are some of the artists who have captured your imagination over the years ?

Rabinovich: I started painting when I was ten, and I’ve been doing it ever since, all the time. It’s something very important to me, and it’s very much a part of my everyday life. I never studied formally, but I’ve learn from books, from museums, from fellow artists, and of course, from doing it myself. Everything we see influences us. When I was young, Picasso was tremendous – I can’t seem to escape him, still – but there were also Cezanne, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Freud and many others as well.

EH: Your debut album was just released, and the selections are wonderful. Please tell us about your piano transcription of parts of Daphnis et Chloé.

Rabinovich: I came to this work through painting, actually. I got to know Ballet Russes through a Russian painter, Léon Bakst, who worked with Diaghilev and made decorations and costumes for Daphnis and other productions. When I was looking for a third piece for my album, I suddenly remembered the decorations that I saw in Daphnis, and fell in love with the orchestrations and brilliant colors of this sensuous music. I had the crazy idea to play it on the piano, and decided to arrange it myself. I used other pieces by Ravel as models, works like Le tombeau de Couperin and La Valse, both pieces of which were rewritten for orchestra and piano. It took me a few weeks to write it down, but I began playing the transcription a year or so before recording it. Pieces need to live with you, to become “yours”, so to speak. The other pieces on the album are Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and Prokofieff’s Romeo and Juliet.

EH: This Saturday in San Raphael, you’ll be performing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Haifa Symphony Orchestra, which makes its American debut. What are your personal feelings on this most famous of works ?

Rabinovich: Right now, I don’t listen to recordings of it because I’m performing it (laughs). Growing up, I do remember listening to the Van Cliburn recording from the Tchaikovsky competition. There’s the Horowitz live recording with Toscanini, at Carnegie Hall, from 1940, and this one has something spontaneous, this wild quality. The second subject of the first movement is just stunning. His recording with George Szell is, of course, also amazing.

It’s a beloved piece for good reason. It’s structurally a bit unusual, with an introduction that never comes back. The counterpoint is impeccable, and it has such lush harmonies. The piano writing is virtuosic, and the piece is structured like a symphony. The beautiful second movement is a shepherd melody, simple and gorgeous, and of course, it all ends with this Slavic, exciting dance.

EH: Roman, thank you for taking the time. Best of luck to you this Saturday.

Rabinovich: Thank you, Elijah. It was my pleasure!

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