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July 8, 2012

Kapell Competition opens with recital by jury chair Santiago Rodriguez

The bar has already been set high for the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition, and the first round hasn't even started.

To launch the two-week event at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the chair of this year's jury, Santiago Rodriguez, gave a terrific recital Saturday night, part of the keyboard festival that runs concurrently with the competition.

Rodriguez, the 1975 Kapell winner, offered a level of interpretive imagination and technical poise that ought to have been inspiring (and maybe a little intimidating) to any of the young contestants who will be vying for the $25,000 top prize this year.

Sure, there are pianists who can play faster or louder -- the primary goals of many a keyboard practitioner. But what you heard in this recital was, from start to finish, a remarkable dignity.

I don't mean it was reserved, stuffy, pedantic or anything like that. I'm talking dignity -- of musicality and bearing (Rodriguez is of the poker-face school, which some hyper-emotive younger players would be wise to emulate).

There was more than enough bravura along the way, but never in an indulgent manner. And the pianist, unlike far too many these days, always maintained beauty of tone.

OK, not always. There was one harsh, whomping attack just before the coda in ...

the finale of Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2. But that explosive articulation was a deft stroke by the pianist, aimed at fiercely underlining the angst running through this music.

There was another startling, electrifying touch in the third movement of Chopin's Sonata No. 2, when, as the Funeral March theme returned, Rodriguez intensified the bass notes to bring out the evocation of solemn, pealing bells. I can't remember ever hearing a pianist make such a bold and telling statement in that particular spot.

The misty, eerie finale in the Chopin sonata also inspired a distinctive touch from Rodriguez. Instead of the expected fortissimo at the very end, he held back, producing barely a mezzo-forte, which created a most haunting effect.

The recital did not open is such striking fashion. Beethoven's "Pathetique" received a mostly reserved approach. Where others mine grand drama from the score, Rodriguez seemed more interested in maintaining taut control and balance.

The lyricism in the second movement of that sonata revealed Rodriguez's flair for phrasing with a vocalist's sensitivity, a quality also richly apparent in the D major Prelude (Op. 23, No. 4) by Rachmaninoff, "Mallorca" by Albeniz, and, as an encore, the gentle Spanish Dance No. 2 by Granados.

There was much to savor as well in the pianist's vibrant account of the "Capriccio espagnole" by Moszkowski, delivered with the kind of sparkling virtuosity and expressive nuance that recalled keyboard artists of long ago.

Rodriguez, who was on the UMd faculty for three decades before becoming chair of the piano department at the University of Miami a couple years ago, interspersed the music-making with disarming remarks to the audience about his program, the competition, the school and its priceless International Piano Archives.

He seemed genuinely happy to be back. Based on this rewarding performance, Rodriguez couldn't return to the Clarice Smith stage soon enough.

The preliminary rounds in the 2012 Kapell Competition start Tuesday; the final concerto round is July 21 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Festival highlights include recitals, master classes, seminars and more, featuring Leon Fleisher and Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, Gloria Cheng, Jeremy Denk, Anton Kuerti and others.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:29 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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