Pianist pursues music’s ephemeral ideal

Pianist Roman Rabinovich. Photo: Balazs Borocz 

By Barry Gilbert, Special to the Jewish Light

For Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich, the thrill — and what he has called a “torturous process” — is the opportunity for perfection, even if that opportunity exists for just a sliver of time.

“Every day, I wake up and I change, as everyone changes,” he says. “So you do your best today and then tomorrow it’s not good anymore, so you have to grow with your ideas. And you find new details in the music all the time. You grow with the music.

“Every great piece of music has endless possibilities, and it takes time to explore, and you never reach the ideal. It only can be better and better.”

Rabinovich began studying piano at age 6 in his native Uzbekistan. He made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic and its world-renowned conductor, Zubin Mehta, just four short years later, a heady accomplishment for any 10-year-old.

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“But after that, it’s many, many years of study, and I’m still studying … still growing. You never feel like you’ve arrived anywhere. It’s just a long process,” says Rabinovich, who just turned 28 and now lives in New York. He was interviewed last week by phone from a hotel room in Philadelphia, where he had just arrived with the touring Haifa Symphony.

The symphony, conducted by Boguslaw Dawidow (pronounced Duzzy-doff), will visit Lindenwood University in St. Charles on Tuesday as part of its first tour of the United States. There, Rabinovich will be soloist for a performance of Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943). The piece was groundbreaking for the composer’s career.

Rachmaninov “wrote this piece after a silence of I think five years after the failure of his first symphony,” Rabinovich says. “He didn’t write for a few years, and he was very depressed. The second concerto was the beginning of an incredibly creative period. It’s a gorgeous piece, everyone knows it, everyone loves it. It is very virtuosic, beautiful piano writing. Beautiful colors in the orchestra. Fantastic. The second movement is just … I mean, it’s so beautiful. A fantastic piece.”

Rabinovich came by his music naturally. Both parents were pianists and teachers, so music and music students were always in his home. He began playing with his mother at age 5 and began music school when he was 6. A few years later, he began playing concerts.

Asked whether his parents pushed him into music, he says: “They nudged me. I wouldn’t say pushed. No, I liked it. I was encouraged by them, but I wouldn’t say pushed, no.”

About six months before Rabinovich made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic in 1995, his family immigrated to Israel, but the move wasn’t just for Roman’s music. It was during the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, of which Uzbekistan was a part.

Life in “in Uzbekistan at the time, the end of the Soviet Union, was very difficult,” Rabinovich says. “It wasn’t just (for the) music. Just life quality was very bad. Most of our friends had left at that point, so we moved for a better life. Being Jewish, Israel was sort of a natural place to go.”

Rabinovich came to the United States when he was 17 to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. After five years there, he moved to New York to earn his master’s at the Juilliard School and stayed in the city after school for the opportunities that living there affords a professional musician.

He has already played at the world’s most prestigious venues and with the world’s most prestigious orchestras and actually began playing with northern Israel’s Haifa Symphony six months before his debut with Mehta. He has appeared regularly with the Haifa orchestra since then.

“We have a good working relationship,” he says. “At this point, it really feels like family, especially now I’m with them for already a month on this tour, and we spent a few weeks rehearsing and playing concerts in Israel. So I really feel very close to this group.”

The Gold Medal winner of the 2008 Arthur Rubenstein International Piano Master Competition, Rabinovich last year released his first CD, “Ballets Russes” (Orchid Classics), a beautiful collection of Ravel’s “Daphnis & Chloe,” Stravinsky “Petrushka” and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The solo performances, which he arranged, earned enthusiastic reviews.

Unlike ephemeral live performances, Rabinovich says, recordings are like “a photograph of you at a certain point in your life. I put a lot of work into it. Now, I would play it differently, but I’m still proud of it. It’s a document of this time. Yes, I think it’s a good thing, yes. Because you want to preserve something. Otherwise, everything just disappears.”

Rabinovich is also building a reputation for his painting and drawing, which helps him pass the time on tour buses and planes as well as cleanse his musical pallet. Much of his work, which can be found on his website romanrabinovich.net, is done these days on an iPad.

“I originally got it for the music. I play from the iPad because I’d been having so many … unpleasant situations with the page turner, that I decided I have to control it on my own,” he says, laughing. “So I got this application and a pedal that turns the pages. It’s very easy.

“So I got this, and I looked into drawing applications, and I found one that I like very much called Brushes. It’s so easy to use. If you travel, you don’t have to carry paint or pencils or pastels with you, or notebooks, so it’s very, very convenient. You work with light, a new medium, so it’s very exciting.

“There are a lot of parallels with music. Colors and form and structure and texture and tonalities. A lot of parallels.”