A luscious rendering of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from the Italian virtuoso Roberto Plano and the Boston Civic Symphony lifted us out of Sunday’s gloom. Plano’s relaxed keyboard manner and the warmth of his interpretation attest to his total at ease with this music.
Guest conductor Francisco Noya never lost his tight link with Plano although this was the first time they had performed together. After repeated curtain calls Plano delighted the half-empty Regis College Fine Arts Center, Weston, with Friedrich Gulda’s jazzy fantasy “Play Piano Play,” a true crowd pleaser.
Plano’s exemplary playing featured note-perfect execution and subtlety of rubatos and dynamics. His strongest visual manifestations consisted of an occasional involuntary flourish with his long arms or a slight rising from the bench at moments of exaltation.
Samuel Barber’s “Second Essay for Orchestra” Op. 17, and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, Op. 88 satisfyingly bookended the Rachmaninov. The Barber opened with a charming theme for flute and woodwinds, precisely played by the Civic orchestra, moving into a second theme bolstered by timpani rumblings hinting at war (it was 1942). A fugue then leads into a weaving of previous themes, and a majestic coda. The players never lost their way. The Dvorak, loaded with melodies that emerge, submerge and reappear, is a favorite of the repertoire, notably the horn trills that conductor Noya signaled openly with a fluttering right hand. During the applause he called special attention to the horn section.
When I asked Regis management why such sparse attendance, I was told, “Brady is playing today.” I needed a second to understand that Brady had not replaced Plano on the piano. He was playing something else somewhere else.
It was Plano’s local debut, in a sense, as he has just arrived in Boston to assume his new role as assistant professor of piano at Boston University. He is a major catch for BU. The personable, unassuming Plano, 37, has pursued a successful career in Europe for the past 15 years since his selection as a finalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001. He has been active in master classes worldwide and is a much-recorded artist of a wide repertoire of classic and romantic music.
Plano in under a three-year contract and for starters is providing private lessons for 18 piano majors, nearly all of them Asians, he tells me in an interview. His aim is to help his students get beyond technique and into the music. “What is often lacking today is personality,” he said.
In our interview, I asked him what on earth what would attract a successful Italian pianist, living in Varese, near Milan, that most musical of environments, to become an expatriate American. Plano recalled that he toured the U.S. last year and “liked the system”. He decided to apply for a university position, and BU was his first attempt. “They offered me the job. I could not resist.” He and his wife Paola del Negro co-directed a private music academy for promising piano talent until they closed it down to move to the Boston suburbs.
The system he wanted to escape was the centralized conservatory world of Italy. The level of playing is high, he said, but for the younger generation it is very hard to advance. Recruitment of teachers is based not on merit but on seniority.” He said he decided not to wait for “my time”. He felt the U.S. system offered “a better way to enter the music world.”
He was also attracted by the availability of music on U.S. radio and television and especially in the school system. His two elder daughters, 10 and 8, are already in the school band in Holliston. European schools tend not to have active music programs. “Playing music during school hours just does not exist in Italy,” he said.
“Coming from Italy, we like to think we have the world’s greatest music country. This is not the reality.