By Mark Travis
The Grand Piano Series in Naples, Florida will present a recital by the Italian-born pianist Roberto Plano on Monday, March 2 at the Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church. Dr. Plano was the winner of the Cleveland International Piano Competition (2001) and laureate at numerous other international competitions such as the Sendai International Music Competition, the Honens International Piano Competition, the International Piano Academy Lake Como, the Twelfth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, The American Prize, the Top of the World International Piano Competition, and the Concours Géza Anda. He appears regularly as a recitalist, chamber musician, and concerto soloist all over the world and is an Associate Professor of Music (Piano) at the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. I spoke with him briefly about his musical development and the thoughtful program that he will perform for the Grand Piano Series:
MT: I saw a photo of you as a small boy in front of a little keyboard on your website. You couldn’t be more than three or four years old. What first drew you to the instrument?
RP: Yeah, I think I was four in that picture. (laughs)
Well, I don't come from a musical family. I have two older brothers and my parents tried with them. They had music lessons… guitar too… but nothing serious and my parents didn't know anything about music. It was actually my godparents who gave me that keyboard for Christmas (I think when I was three) and I still remember exactly the position in my house where it was and I remember constantly spending time with it, figuring out melodies because I have perfect pitch. So my parents really didn't understand what was going on, but they could see that I was interested in music and it's just unbelievable; they understood that it could be something interesting for me.
So they asked the local music teacher to give me a few lessons and after about six months, the teacher said that I needed a real instrument and a better teacher; she realized that she could not do anything more than just teach me the notes.
My parents didn't know anybody in the music world, but I started to have music lessons in a more serious setting--first privately and then in the music school. After that, I went to the Music Conservatory in Milan and that's how things started to become really serious.
MT: So at what point, then, did you and your family start to understand that this wasn’t just a hobby for you, but a real vocation?
RP: Well, I have to admit that when I was a teenager, I preferred playing soccer to playing the piano. (laughs) I knew I had some talent, but I was really not practicing enough. Then I met a teacher who told me that if I just started to work harder and believe in myself, then no door would ever be closed to me in the music business. So I understood there that something had to change and it was around the same time I won my first competition [in Stresa.] I was 15 and had no clue that I might win. I think it was there that I realized that my teacher was right and I think that was the point.
MT: So was that maybe the best piece of advice you received as pianist? To not underestimate yourself or others?
RP: Yes, I really think so. I mean this this teacher wasn’t anybody well known in the music world; he was just a very nice man who recognized talent. He didn't know how to help me develop it, but he knew how to inspire. Actually, he later became my colleague when I took my first teaching job in Italy.
MT: Your recital with the Grand Piano Series in Naples, Florida will seat you before one of a very few Fazioli F308s available for public performance in North America. Did the instrument factor into your programming decisions at all?
RP: I actually know Mr. Fazioli very well and I'm very fortunate to have a deep relationship with him but I’ve only played on an F308 once and not even in recital. So this will be a first for me and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve been to the Fazioli factory a few times and the F308 isan unbelievable instrument. It has a fourth pedal, but I won't be using it because I’m not used to it. Fazioli makes the most “alive” instruments. The length of sound and beauty of sound is unlike anything I’ve experienced with other pianos. It’s hard to have a bad sound on a Fazioli, to be honest (which can present its own challenges at times), but yes, I guess the whole program will be probably really suitable for this instrument. Well, except maybe for the Rhapsody because in the Rhapsody, I would love to have some deliberately bad sounds for effect! (laughs) Anyway, I'll try to work with that, but all the tones and colors and dynamics will be enhanced by this instrument.
MT: You have a fascinating program lined up with works by a wide variety of composers, from Respighi, Chopin, and Liszt to Villa-Lobos, Ginastera, and Gershwin. What do you see as the thread connecting these works?
RP: I wanted to design something that could link my experiences and so I started thinking about Italy as a as a common thread for the first half before going to the Americas for the second half. I chose Italy because it’s my native country and America because it’s my adoptive country.
MT: I notice you’re featuring a couple of opera transcriptions.
RP: Yes, I felt I needed to feature works by some composers more popular for the instrument, so I thought about Chopin, but I wanted to find something rare that showed Chopin's love for my country. And so that's where I came up with the idea of opera transcriptions—Norma for Chopin and a Trovatore homage by Liszt. Both pieces show a strong Italian influence.
MT: Respighi was a most gifted orchestrator and arranger. Do we see a similar approach to colors and textures in his piano music?
RP: Well, not really because his piano pieces are more like salon works or something similar that you would never expect based on his large-scale symphonic works. But he remains a great story-teller in music, as you’ll hear in this Nocturne.
MT: Ginastera was born in Argentina, but to a Catalan father and an Italian mother and he also lived for a time in Switzerland and the U.S. This doesn’t sound unlike your story, in terms of him being a man of the world.
RP: Yes, absolutely. Also from what I know, these pieces were composed while he was studying with Aaron Copland in Boston, which is another connection with me and with the United States; before going to Indiana, I tought two years at Boston University so I know the place very well.
Ginastera is a composer that I love. I played a lot of his music when I was younger and it really helped me in competitions. This piece isn’t so well known, but it features some new techniques. He asks the pianist to bang on the piano with the palm of your base hand. So it's a very percussive work, but full of genius ideas. I really love it.
MT: You also programmed music by a man who is perhaps South America’s best-known composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos. I think many—myself included--associate him more with the cello and guitar, so I’m curious to hear more about this work for piano.
RP: While I love much of his music, some of it can be a little uneven at times, but this is a work that shows who he is as an artist clearly. I also think it's a great connection between this and the Ginastera that I will play as they're very similar. They are like dances, both of them, and it shows the common thread between Brazil and Argentina.
MT: For those not “in the know,” it may be surprising to see Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as part of a solo piano recital. Where does this arrangement come from?
RP: Apparently, there's a lot of confusion about that. So the score that I have says that it's Gershwin’s arrangement. We're not 100% sure that it is, though. The orchestration is a mess. We don't know exactly what happened or who may have helped with it. Anyway, the genius of the piece remains. Since I so frequently perform the version for piano and orchestra, what I try to do with the solo version is to imitate the sound of the different instruments. I'm not afraid to add things or to improvise something and just have fun because it's a wonderful piece of music. He asks for the pianist to be really versatile and it's very difficult piece. I mean, it's really difficult--especially the piano version because you have to be the orchestra as well. So yeah, it's a challenge, but I love it.
MT: Will you have any time to relax and enjoy the culture and scenery in Naples on this trip?
RP: Unfortunately, it will be a very quick trip. This spring is really complicated. It's exciting, but very complicated with a lot of traveling for concerts with orchestra and solo recitals. Plus, in the meantime, I have 22 students at Indiana University with spring semester and all the recitals. It's probably the busiest time I ever had in my life. So I'm looking forward to when I can come back and enjoy the city a little more.
For more information or to purchase tickets for Roberto Plano’s recital, please visit www.grandpianoseries.org.