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Cheryl North Interviews Arcadi Volodos

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column - February 4, 2003.

During a radio broadcast in 1939, Sir Winston Churchill said �Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.� These same words seem uncannily appropriate for describing Arcadi Volodos, one of Russia's contemporary sons.

Born in 1972 in St. Petersburg, Volodos has hit the classical music world like a meteor. He is a pianist in the grand, 19th century tradition. Many critics, including myself, feel that he now stands alone on that lofty pinnacle of pianism vacated by such late piano titans as Franz Liszt, Sviatoslav Richter, and Vladimir Horowitz. Volodos alone among the young crop of superstar pianists seems to embody the all-too-rare combination of virtuosic keyboard athleticism with profound musical intelligence and lyric sensibility.

But, after a brief conversation with him following his solo recital at Davies Symphony Hall last Sunday, Churchill's words about Russia resonated in my mind.

Volodos is short, but stocky, and his head is crowned with a luxuriant mass of dark hair. Heavy black eyebrows frame his large expressive eyes. Although he appears downright heroic when at the piano, in person after the concert, he seemed shy, even a little ill-at-ease, with the mass of admirers waiting to greet him. He smiled courteously and spoke bits of English, a little French, and a lot of Spanish and Russian to his many local well-wishers, many of whom were local Russian expatriates. He also posed patiently, albeit a little stiffly, for the shutter-bugs among them.

Interestingly, Volodos has never won, or even participated, in any of the famous piano competitions listed by many of the pianists of his generation.

�I was just lucky that a Sony manager was present when I played at a friend's house in the south of France,� he said. �This manager offered me an exclusive contract and we recorded a CD.�

It was this very first CD that won the prestigious �German Record Prize,� thus launching his meteoric concert career.

Moreover, Volodos never even came close to being a �prodigy.� Unlike Lang Lang, Van Cliburn, Helen Huang or Adam Neiman, (all of whom hit the concert circuits in their pre-teen years), he did not even BEGIN serious piano study until the shockingly late age of 16!

And, here's a clincher: �I have never practiced scales and always got bad marks for technique� he says.

So where did he get all those silvery scale passages, lightning arpeggios and thundering octaves that he releases with such ease during his performances?

When asked that question by a music critic/writer from the German Suddeutsche Zeitung, he answered, �It is the LISTENING, not the PLAYING. I develop a sound image my mind and then I try to project this image in my music. That's all. It's not always easy, but for me it is the only possible way.�

He does not regard himself a virtuoso because of his razzle-dazzle, Olympian technique. Modestly, he says, that for him, such piano feats �are not really difficult.�

�Many people think only because there are really a lot of notes that the pieces have to be difficult. That is basically NOT the case. The big difficulties are in the musical form - it is really about achieving the correct sound image. Once you have this, you just have to play it back.�

Critics worldwide seem to agree with his skills in this regard. �Volodos seems to have a gift for preserving the intrinsic character of each individual piece and its musical values, while exploiting it for maximum visceral impact. It's all a great show, but it's truly musical in every bar,� raved Stereo Review.

During Sunday's local concert, he deftly performed three Scriabin miniatures, followed by a group of seldom-performed Rachmaninoff Preludes and novelties that culminated in his own bravura piano arrangement of Rachmaninoff's orchestral �Polka italienne.� Post-intermission works were a delicate Schubert Sonata in A-flat major; Liszt's �Sonnet No. 123 of Petrarch,� as well as his �Consolation No. 6� and �Il penseroso.� Saint-Saens� �Danse macabre� as transcribed by Liszt, with possibly a bit of improvisation by Volodos himself, completed the breathtaking program.

During his early childhood in St. Petersburg, he was exposed to a good deal of classical music, since both his parents were singers. They started him off studying voice and conducting, along with the usual grammar school subjects. During his youth, he actually did conduct the M.I. Glinka Choir and the St. Petersburg Conservatory Orchestra for a few performances.

It was not until 1987 that he started serious piano training. His progress was so remarkable, that he was sent from the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music on to the Moscow Conservatory of Music where he studied with Galina Egiazarova. Then he went on to Paris where he studied with Jacques Rouvier, and finally to Madrid where he came under the tutelage of Dmitri Bashkirov at the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia.

Since making his New York debut in 1996, he has appeared as soloist with the greatest orchestras and conductors in the world.

Can one do all this in such a short time and still have some sort of �other� life?

According to his agent Steven Gates, Volodos loves tinkering with computers, cameras, fancy digital phones - �just about any technological or electronic that he can find.�

But his primary life activity is indeed piano playing, affirmed Gates.

�Arcadi always tries to arrange for a piano to be set up in whatever hotel room he stays in. And, he keeps at the piano off and on for most of the day. Music always seems to be on his mind.�

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