Why Pianist Roberto Plano turned his back on Italy

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, International Piano 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 13.10.2016

 

Italian piano virtuoso Roberto Plano has made the big career move so many artists dream of – leaving home to find a better musical life elsewhere. Plano’s move leaves Italy behind and takes him to the United States, to an environment that he believes is more conducive to the development of his considerable talents. He brought with him his pianist wife Paolo del Negro and their three young daughters.

A month ago the Planos settled in Holliston, a Boston suburban community with a European flavor, and he accepted his first university position, assistant professor of piano at Boston University. “They offered me a job and I could not resist,’ he said.

In an interview with me that began after his recent performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and continued the next day by telephone, Plano made it clear he was blocked in Italy by a centralized conservatory system controlled by the state. “I felt the United States would be a better way to enter the music world,” he said. “They do a better job than we do.”

The system he wanted to escape was the bureaucratic world of Italian music education. 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”.

Following a recital tour in the United States last year, he felt attracted by the availability of music -- live and on radio and television -- and especially in the school system. “I liked what I saw,” he said. His two elder daughters, 10 and 8, are already in the Hollister school band. 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.”

The personable, unassuming Plano, 37, has pursued a successful career mainly in Europe for the past 15 years since his selection as first prize winner of the Cleveland Piano Competition and a finalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.  He has been active in master classes worldwide and is a much-recorded artist of a wide repertoire of classic and romantic music.

Plano is under a three-year contract in Boston and is providing private lessons for 18 piano majors, “ninety-five percent of them Asian”, he tells me. His aim is to help his students get beyond technique and into the music. “What is often lacking today is personality,” he said.

His own development continues apace. He recalled for me the admonishment of Russian teacher Lazar Berman who asked him at the age of 16 how many concertos were in his repertoire. “Just three,” Plano admitted. Berman bristled and said Russians at 16 tend to have 16 in their repertoire, and keep pace year by year thereafter. Since then, Plano has strived to match his age, and now claims 37 concertos. He is working on Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for his next birthday.

His recent Rachmaninov, a U.S. debut, in a sense, was performed with the Boston Civic Orchestra, and was rhapsodically received by a suburban audience. Plano seemed totally at ease with this music, as his relaxed keyboard manner and the warmth of his interpretation attested. He brought special lyricism to the slow second movement, the adagio sostenuto, a virtual paean to lovers.

Venezuelan guest conductor Francisco Noya directed from memory and never lost his tight link with Plano although this was the first time they had performed together. A standing ovation called Plano back for multiple bows. As an encore, he delighted the hall in the Regis College Fine Arts Center, Weston, by offering the popular Friedrich Gulda jazzy fantasy “Play Piano Play”, a true crowd pleaser.

All of Plano’s playing was exemplary in its note-perfect execution and his subtle rubatos and dynamics. I was impressed by his subdued keyboard mannerisms. He is no head-tosser or a swooner as so many soloists have become today. His strongest physical gestures were an occasional involuntary flourish with his long arms or a slight rising from the bench at a moment of high musical emotion. He will surely make a strong impression on U.S. audiences during his American tenure. He and his wife plan duo performances around the United States


Another version of this article appeared on Boston Musical Intelligencer.


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