Stage: Wednesday, April 24, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Full Bodied

You can be sure that when Antonio Pompa-Baldi plays with the FWSO this weekend, he’ll put everything he has behind his piano.

By LEONARD EUREKA

In the finals of the last Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, three young pianists surfaced who seemed first-place material. After the dust settled, two did share top honors. Gold medals went to the Russian Olga Kern, with her big, lush sound and noble style, and the introspective poet Stanislav Ioudenich. But the Italian Antonio Pompa-Baldi, whose impassioned — one is almost tempted to say operatic — intensity corralled a large Fort Worth following, came in second. We’re talking apples and oranges, one not necessarily better than the other, but Pompa-Baldi did seem in the same league as the first-place winners.

Since the Cliburn competition, his fans have heard him only through the primitive amplification system of the summer concerts in the Botanical Gardens, playing a Mozart concerto. This weekend, however, they can hear him once again in a positive acoustical setting, as he plays the Liszt Second Piano Concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra with Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducting.

At first glance, the selection seems an odd choice for Pompa-Baldi. You would think that the First Concerto would have been his first choice — the piece is pure virtuosity, showing off a pianist’s skills as well as anything written. In a recent phone conversation, however, Pompa-Baldi said bluntly, “I really hate that [First] concerto. It’s a showpiece, and that’s all. The Second is totally different. It develops poetic ideas and takes them to their logical conclusions.”

Pompa-Baldi’s performing style is intensely musical, some might say flamboyant, and seems ideally suited to the great 19th-century Romantic repertory. His whole body participates in the music — he sways back and forth, a free arm outlining a phrase in the air, his head conducting the orchestra. Asked about this free-for-all style, the pianist said, “I’m so immersed in the music, I’m not aware of doing that. When I see a video of a performance, I’m embarrassed at all the movement, but I can’t help it. I’m so involved, I just respond and don’t think about anything else.” His impromptu choreography stops short of being a distraction and can actually pull you into the performance.

Pompa-Baldi was recently named a Steinway Artist by the illustrious piano makers and has been appointed a distinguished professor of piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music — not bad for a 28-year-old just starting out. After placing high or winning more than 20 piano competitions from the age of 13, he is settling down now to 50 performing engagements this year. He’s also looking forward to a New York recital debut next season in Zankel Hall, the new chamber music auditorium built in the basement of Carnegie Hall, where the venerable Carnegie Cinema used to be. He joins three other top winners of the last Van Cliburn Competition in a four-day festival featuring one pianist each night, a switch from the old gold-medalist-only New York recital given to the winner right after the competition. Competition executive director Richard Rodzinski said: “We’ll let the New York public decide which contestant it likes, after the pianists have had a chance to quiet down.”

In three seasons Harth-Bedoya has laid to rest the question of whether youth is up to building an orchestra as it gets its sea legs — as well as making interesting music. The answer in this case is yes. The orchestra’s strings glisten with new flexibility and strength, and the other sections appear more solid and sure of themselves. To be sure, the young Peruvian will occasionally knock you over in climactic moments with a wall of sound that blurs the instrumental choirs, and other times will accept woodwind entrances louder than wanted. And one wonders about the hastily assembled non-subscription concert this season that featured the antiphonal brass music of Gabrielli interspersed between movements of a Bach Suite for Orchestra that sounded as if everyone was sight reading.

Yet that was the same program in which he and concert master Michael Shih joined forces to create a remarkable musical statement with their performance of the little violin concertos that make up Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, as intimate, personal, and polished a reading as one hopes to hear. There’s always something to brighten a Harth-Bedoya program, and one usually comes away feeling all is right with the world.

The conductor also turned his talents to opera this season, overseeing the Fort Worth Opera’s Romeo and Juliet. He rearranged the orchestra, pulling the strings and woodwinds out from under the overhang and raising the pit more than a foot, which increased the brilliance and balance of his musicians and, unfortunately, brought the fire marshal down on his head. The problem, something to do with spacing, was worked out, but at some point the opera company is going to have to bite the bullet and give up the first rows of orchestra seats to allow another section of the pit, hidden underneath, to be lowered and put to use. It would mean a big chunk of lost ticket income, but the artistic benefits should outweigh other considerations.

To round out the coming concerts, Harth-Bedoya has scheduled Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan, Tchaikovsky’s musical look at Francesca da Rimini, and contemporary composer John Corigliano’s Tournaments.


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