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Fabio Bidini, 'last teacher' to Colburn School's pianists, thrives 'inside the music'

Fabio Bidini, 'last teacher' to Colburn School's pianists, thrives 'inside the music'
Fabio Bidini instructs Julijana Mijalkovic as she plays in a room at the Colburn School. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Fabio Bidini strode into the rehearsal room and looked over the score.

"There is nothing passive in Mozart," he told student Jongyun Kim, who sat at a piano and struck the opening note of Piano Sonata No. 13. The door closed as Kim played on and Bidini spun into a one-man opera, dipping from tenor to baritone, swaying to arpeggios and lifting his fingers as if pulling an invisible yet glorious thread through the air.

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He whispered. He shouted. He wanted Kim to grasp the nuance, melody, mood; the flow, joy and tenderness of the music. Kim's small, swift hands began anew. Bidini gritted his teeth. Shook his head. The young man smiled, accustomed to his teacher's mercurial temperament, and the way he hovered with the sharp eyes of an angel or assassin.

"When we talk about Mozart we are talking about what?" Bidini asked. "Mozart does not write music to express feeling. He writes music to surprise people, to give happiness. You have to give the music that sense of purity.... Think of when you were 5 or 6 and wanted an ice cream. That expectation of a gift."

Bidini is a master of the master class. With the rigor of a poet and the flair of a magician, Bidini, an international concert pianist, is one of the most intense teachers in classical music. Many of his students are technically superior and have appeared with orchestras and won prizes at festivals from Seoul to Toronto. He is the man who reveals the deeper meanings of the music they play: the exuberance of Mozart, the power of Tchaikovsky, the "tormented, dark, much softer" side of Rachmaninoff.

Bidini's rehearsal room at the Colburn School is a study in ambition, frailties, talent, insecurities and occasional brilliance. The room is bare except for a few chairs, a desk and two pianos that sit side by side: one for Bidini, the other for his student. The student plays, Bidini corrects. On and on it goes through scales, crescendos and silent moments between notes, just before a finger strikes a key hard or slips gently over it to evoke the longing or redemption in the composer's mind.

"I have to be very careful because these kids are very fragile, and they're in a very delicate time of their lives," Bidini, 47, said over a pasta lunch after a class. "I will probably be their last teacher. Once they finish with me they are supposed to be ready to make a living. The responsibility is not small."

Fabio Bidini is one of the most intense teachers in classical music. His one-on-one master classes on piano unfold like tiny operas: he yells, he whispers, he sings, he dances, he grimaces, he smiles, all to get his gifted students at the Colburn School to understand "the soul of the music they play."

Bidini joined the Colburn faculty in September, the first professor to hold the $5-million piano chair endowed by Carol Grigor, head of the school's board of directors. A number of his students have been with him for years and followed him to Los Angeles after taking his classes at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin.

"The first piece I played for him was a Beethoven sonata," said Hye Jin Kim, a South Korean who met Bidini in 2006. "He asked me what colors I saw. I had never thought about that before. 'Oh, my God, what color?' It was new to me. I couldn't answer. I remember he said, 'Gold.' And it did sound like gold. He made me think in a different way."

An unforgiving music world

Rodolfo Leone has been studying with Bidini since 2011. A slender man with curly hair and long, tapered fingers, Leone, 24, practices about five hours a day.

"Fabio says, 'Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent.' He never reveals 100% what he wants you to do. He wants you to figure it out in a Socratic way. He's pointing the direction."

Bidini offers praise, saying "gorgeous" and "you have a beautiful sound." But he is exacting: "Please don't slap the keys" or "I want to hear all the notes, otherwise you're just a mime." He can seem an agitated moth during lessons, fluttering around his students, peering at the keys. But when the right sound rises, his face softens and he appears to float, smiling as if a man who has come upon an unexpected bounty.

The odds that one of his students, no matter how talented, will be the next Evgeny Kissin or Lang Lang are narrow in the unforgiving world of classical music, which, in its tuxedo-sleek way, espouses the Darwinian ethos of professional sports. Artistic and commercial pressures have become more pronounced, said Bidini, as the Internet has "killed the recording industry" and financial constraints have threatened orchestras in the U.S. and Europe.

"The competition in the piano world is absolutely incredible," he said. "I can mention maybe 10 names that are having a severely good career and really make money from it. That's the first level. The second level is miles away from the first level. The second level has say 1,000. In the third level are millions. The difference is luck, intelligence, marketing, the way you look, the way you talk, the way you play, quality, musicianship and the most important thing, preparation."

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Bidini plays 30 to 40 concerts a year and draws on a repertoire of 88 compositions. His move from Berlin to Los Angeles has taken him away from his wife, Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker, a violinist and concertmaster for the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie. He lives in a downtown apartment and on Friday afternoons yearns for Monday mornings when, with satchel and a cigarette, he wanders back to Colburn.

"I'm extremely bored on weekends because I don't have lessons," said Bidini, the son of factory workers from Arezzo, Italy. "I went once or twice to Santa Monica. Yea. Fine. Then I come home and I can't wait to be in school and back inside the music. Music recharges me. Every time there is a possibility to make music, I go for it."

'He made me love music'

Bidini started playing a broken electronic keyboard his father brought home when he was 4. He'd listen to the radio and mimic commercial jingles and pop songs.

"An engineer who was an amateur pianist lived on the third floor," said Bidini, a 1993 finalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. "They asked him, 'Please check my son to see if he's musical.' I was. He made me love music. I could read a score before I knew letters. His name was Luigi Oliviero."

When working with his students, Bidini draws upon word images in his accented English. On a Liszt concerto, he told Leone, "You know how on very hot days when you look far away and everything vibrates in the heat? I want to have that feeling." Later, when he wanted more tension, he said, "It must feel like the devil is looking at you from above."

Many of the images are drawn from an intricate knowledge of composers and their times. He smiled and said Mozart sent "unbelievably vulgar" letters to his sister but wrote music that "came from his brain already perfect.... How does he do it? God knows." On Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, he told Jongyun Kim, "Rachmaninoff was a very sick man, very lonely. He could look out and see the smoke of New York. You have to feel that, tormented, dark."

Kim is a compact man with black hair combed forward as if a mask. His movements are quick and precise. Before a recent Mozart lesson, he and Bidini exchanged a few words and Kim sat at the piano, his hands a blur. Bidini played beside him, studying keystrokes, coaxing melody.

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"He has the most perfect technique of any pianist I have ever seen. What he's able to do with his fingers is simply unbelievable," said Bidini. "He's a sweet guy, very sensitive but he doesn't show it. He's very shy. With him, I have to stimulate the imagination. He has the need to express the music but still doesn't know how."

The son of a homemaker and a chemist, Kim, 25, was born in Iksan, South Korea, and began playing the piano when he was 6. He moved away from his parents to attend schools in Seoul, graduating from the Korean National University of Arts, working with private teachers and traveling to Germany where he met Bidini.

"I have been living alone since middle school. Subconsciously, I had to build up my self-defenses, and this went into my music," said Kim, who finished second in the 2014 Seoul International Music Competition. "I felt 100% the meaning of a score, but I could only produce 80% of the feeling. Fabio tells me I must show everything to the audience."

Kim played on. Bidini whispered that Mozart was elegant, simple; he told him to keep open the dialogue between left and right hands; to imagine that the music was a conversation among a father, his daughters and a suitor. Tension, joy, longing and cunning.

"Ah, this part, it's not the boyfriend. It's the father trying to protect his daughters," said Bidini. "The sound must go deeper." Don't rush, he said, every note has a place, every keystroke a breath. The daughter returns. "There's a phenomenal energy moving inside her thinking." Bidini moved alongside and in front of Kim. He conjured scenes and characters. Kim smiled beneath his bangs, trying to summon all those voices through his hands.

"Mozart is having fun with you," said Bidini.

Kim shook his head and slid into another movement.

"Here, the sound is the joy of a child," said Bidini.

Kim played. Bidini bit his lip. No. He pushed Kim aside and played. Every note must be new, as if heard for the first time.

"If it's a surprise," said Bidini, "it can't be prepared."

Kim nodded. He reached for the keys. A note lifted, solitary and complete.

Twitter: @JeffreyLAT

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