Oberlin-Como partnership appoints two young pianists

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 30.08.2015

Two outstanding young pianists – one from Hungary, one from Italy – have been selected to become the first Oberlin-Como Fellows, two tuition-free years of study in a new partnership of the International Piano Academy Lake Como and the U.S. Oberlin Conservatory of Music. They begin their intensive courses in late September.

Their teacher, William Naboré, artistic director of the Italy-based Academy, describes them as “two exceptional pianists – brilliant and uncontested. They are very excited at beginning their American experience.” 

Naboré, who negotiated the partnership with Oberlin last spring, plans to be on the Oberlin campus, near Cleveland, Ohio, Sept. 20 “to help put things in place”. He will conduct master classes while there, and is committed to making three campus visits for master classes each year.

The Italian laureate is Luca Burrato, a graduate of Milan Conservatory and earned his master’s degree at Bolzano Conservatory with Davide Cabassi. In 2013, after studies with Naboré, he received his Master of Advanced Studies from the Conservatory of Lugano.

The Hungarian selectee is David Bekker, who graduated from the Béla Bartók Conservatory of Music in Budapest, followed by the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, also in Budapest, where was a student of Jenő Jandó and András Kemenes. Since 2013 he has studied with Russian pianist Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofia. Bekker is a winner of the Hungarian National Piano Competition, International Piano Competition of Kosice and the Béla Bartók International Piano Competition of Vienna. 

Oberlin and the Como Academy will combine their European and American styles -- a natural partnership that they say broadens the cultural base of both parties.  For the academic year beginning in September 2016, young pianists will be selected from worldwide applications to implement the program which will merge Como’s teaching concept with Oberlin’s established conservatory methods.

Naboré has built the Academy’s reputation from scratch while also conducting frequent master classes in China, Japan and Korea. He was recently lauded in Beijing for his methods, and a large outdoor poster was erected describing him as a “Magical Teacher”.

Naboré says his Como culture instills a belief in close relationships between renowned master class teachers and students so that the harsh realities of the music world will be clearly understood – notably “what you have to sacrifice to succeed”. 

Places for Fellows will be boosted to six or seven pianists in year two. Oberlin-Como Fellows will be resident at Oberlin, near Cleveland, Ohio. Applications are now being accepted by post at Oberlin Conservatory for the 2016-2017 academic year.

The program will be launched September 27 with a gala concert in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel featuring three stars from the Como talent pool – the Italian Alessandro Deljevan, the Shanghai pianist Ran Jia, and Cuban virtuoso Marcos Madrigal. 

The Oberlin-Como Fellows will work under a structured program focusing on solo performance, chamber music and collaborative piano projects. Studies outside the music department will be made available and graduates will be awarded an Artist Diploma.

Oberlin Conservatory Dean Andrea Kalyn believes the combination of academic and music studies “will stretch these students beyond technical prowess as they engage in ideas bigger than themselves.”

Naboré is equally sanguine. He says his “eyes lit up” when he realized the potential of the Oberlin liberal arts program combined with the music school. “All the greats – Richter, Busoni, Rubenstein, Arrau – were broadly educated. They knew that to be a real pianist you can’t be just a racehorse.” Today, he laments, the art of the piano has suffered because too many young artists “have gone astray by specializing too soon”. 

The ascendance of piano technique for its own sake has prompted a rethink in many conservatories. Como and Oberlin share the belief that depth of understanding behind a composition brings a special richness to interpretation, separate from pure technique. Alvin Chow, chair of the Piano Department at Oberlin, welcomes Naboré’s like-minded approach.

“Young pianists can sometimes be inspired by the note-perfect performances they see on the internet but they might not grasp what an artist has gone through” to reach the summit. “We agree with Como that the journey is what it’s all about.” 

Chow says Como’s multinational faculty will add a dimension to Oberlin by attracting “piano legends” as master class teachers, although the school has long been known for its inclusiveness. “Opening up to different cultures is part of our DNA,” says Chow.

Como’s faculty over the years has included the elite of the piano word – Dmitri Bashkirov,  Malcolm Bilson, Peter Frankl, Tomas Vasary, Menahem Pressler, Leon Fleischer and Fou Ts’ong.  Recent additions include Stanislav Ioudenitch (gold medal winner at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition), Katherine Chi (winner of the Honens Competition in Calgary, Canada) and Vladimir Mischouk, (silver medalist in the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition).

Oberlin expects to benefit by encouraging the Fellows to mingle with its music degree candidates. “They will inspire our young people not only with their performances but with their work ethic and professional standards,” says Chow. 

The Oberlin-Como Fellows will study with Oberlin faculty as well as participating in master classes organized by Como. Naboré’s unique concept of week-long master classes alternating with free study and practice time has proven effective over the years. He is also noted for his astute selection of students from the thousand-plus applications he receives annually.

Como has been turning out talented young pianists since 2002 and benefits from the honorary presidency of Martha Argerich. A dynamic administrator, Turid Hjelmstad Johansen Prestinari, is an essential organizer and contact at the Academy headquarters in Dongo, Italy. 

Naboré is American but has lived his adult life in Italy and Switzerland. He represents an approach that accepts serious music as part of everyday life. Europeans are naturally closer to the 19th century repertoire, most of which originated in their culture.

About 75 young pianists from Europe, Asia and the Americas have studied at Como.  Graduates come from more than 20 countries and have won an array of top competition honors. An outstanding young Russian, Yulianna Avdeeva, took top prize at the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2010. Others have won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the Queen Elisabeth Competition (Brussels).


Another version of this article appears in the September-October edition of International Piano magazine, London.

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