Pianist James Barbagallo is in Southern California, partly to repay an artistic debt. The American medal-winner in the 1982 international Tchaikovksy competition, who credits the encouragement of a master class teacher with his entering the Moscow contest, says he would like to help other young artists in a similar way.

"I never thought I'd leave the San Francisco Bay Area," the native Californian recalled recently. "But when I was young, I took a master class with Karl Ulrich Schnabel (son of Artur Schnabel, the celebrated Austrian-born pianist and Beethoven interpreter), and he was very inspiring to me. He gave me confidence and courage to go on to Juilliard (School of Music, New York City) and to stage appearances."

In gratitude for that encouragement, Barbagallo has been teaching, and one such open class is scheduled for Sunday, from 2 to 5 p.m., as part of the Sherman Clay series at the store's outlet in the South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. (Barbagallo will offer a recital at Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena, the following evening.)

"I can't give the students a magic key that will change their playing, though I can make suggestions," the pianist, 31, said. "But I can impart confidence and inspire them to go on in music. I can help them and give them, I hope, something they will remember the rest of their lives."

Barbagallo sees another benefit from teaching:

"When you play a concert nowadays, it's not kosher to talk to the audience," he explained. "You do your bit, and the audience doesn't get a feel for your personality. In a master class, though, you can talk, joke or be serious, and so the audience gets to know you better--and that becomes a drawing card for your concerts."

Barbagallo's master class is one of six in the current series, developed at Sherman Clay four years ago by Noemi Pollack, who explained the concept:

"We had two purposes--to give advanced students exposure to different viewpoints and different top-level artists, and to give artists contact with the musical community. The class is designed so that students will walk away with something useful. It's a working situation, like a private lesson. To keep it that way, we limit it to four performers in the three hours. We don't go below age 12, but have no closed-door policy on an upper age: It's open to serious, advanced students on teacher recommendation.

"The audience consists, usually, of about 100 people, 70% of whom are teachers. But music lovers are coming now, too."

Pianists yet to appear in the current series, which has included John Browning, Veronica Jochum and Minora Nojima, are Eduardo Delgado and Horacio Gutierrez. Only two classes have been scheduled in Orange County; the others are at Sherman Clay outlets in Los Angeles or Woodland Hills. But there are plans to expand the number locally.

Pollock gave some examples of the differing teaching methods seen over the years:

"One artist allowed students to play the whole work first, then he repeated passages and told them to play 'exactly like this.' Another would sing, rant and rave as a student performed--and even would hold her hand to direct technically difficult passages. Yet a third worked closely on just one particular Bach dance movement--and used it as a way to discuss all of Bach's music.

"So the whole series is important because it gives students such different approaches. That's exactly what we wanted, and, in fact, the same students usually sign up for all of them, to get the comparisons."

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