Ivo Pogorelich stepped unobtrusively from an elevator in his downtown hotel. Hands in pockets and suggesting a certain global youth-chic, the pianist who caused a furor six years ago at the hotly argued International Chopin Competition in Warsaw was not looking for attention.
"I'm glad that time is over," said the tall Yugoslav. "Now, it's possible for American audiences to know me just as an artist, not an object of hysteria. It must be clear to everyone by this time that my success has nothing to do with any eccentricity I've been accused of."
Pogorelich, who plays a recital Tuesday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, was referring to the mob mania he had inspired in Warsaw by losing--not winning--the prestigious contest. Before the final rounds, he had divided the judges into bloody foes. His recital there after the competition instantly sold out, leaving 2,000 screaming fans on the street and 100 gate-crashers to storm the backstage door and surge into the hall. Once inside, they took up rhythmic chanting of his name, "Ivo, Ivo." In the wake of it all, a recording of that performance sold 100,000 copies in three days.
"Yes, it was magic, what happened," he said in his heavy Slavic accent, recalling the elite artist management agencies that pursued him and a career launch that far exceeded what any contest winner could hope for. "But looking back, I'm unhappy with the way the media exaggerated and reported things that didn't happen. I never painted my hair or wore leather pants and boots for performing."
Perhaps not. Pictures don't lie, however. And it's true that, according to his press photos as well as those adorning his Deutsche Grammophon album covers, the piano firebrand resembles a new-wave rocker more than a classical artist. A stark, moody countenance that capitalizes on Pogorelich's flair for spiky-mod haircuts projects a very specific image.
He admitted to posing as a celebrity (a particularly model-like one) for semi-fashion layouts in Vogue and Esquire. "Performing is a job," he said, " my job. So it is important to be in the public eye. I don't care about why people come to the hall, only what they leave with. It's not possible to be an artist if you stay in the closet. The serious musician must be a career musician. He doesn't exist otherwise.
"(Glenn) Gould made bad mistakes giving up the stage. He tried to please just the microphone (by playing only for recordings) and his death was a logical consequence of withdrawing from the public."
But Pogorelich said there is a limit to self-popularization as a means to an end, adding that he believes a megastar like Luciano Pavarotti has gone beyond "decency."
It would be hard to imagine the lanky 27-year-old doing star turns, smiling for the paparazzi, embracing an audience with outstretched arms. His is an otherworldly temperament--a studied innocence, even a vulnerability, apparent as he huddled inside his parka and shivered before absent-mindedly sipping the steaming mushroom soup set before him.
Known for his extraordinary technique and controversial interpretations, Pogorelich said he values individuality above all else. So, besides admiring the late Gould, he acknowledged Horowitz and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli--three starry virtuosos whose musical and personal eccentricities rank nearly as high as their gifts.
When he talked about his upcoming recital program and how he hopes to put his stamp on it, he pointed out how carefully it was chosen. "Everyone knows (Beethoven's) 'Fuer Elise' but I scheduled it because I can make it say something special, something you won't hear from others. And the Opus 90 is a piece that is rarely played. My goal is to impress the audience with a unique point of view, not the usual one handed out by a few well-known personalities, constantly before the public."
That Pogorelich renounces standard approaches and the grand institutions dispensing them was clear in his criticism of Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where his double-bassist father sent him (from Belgrade) for training at age 11. "What they do there is vulgar," he said. "I reject such bad playing. And only now can I get beyond this prejudice to the composer himself."
His real mentor for the past decade has been his wife, Alice Kezeradze, a pianist who is his senior by 14 years. When they first met, he said, "I thought she couldn't read a note of music and the next moment, after she made a point about a Chopin passage, I was begging her to take me as a student."
Pogorelich, Kezeradze and her 15-year-old son from another marriage live in London, where, according to her famous husband, her plans to return to the stage have been postponed due to illnesses and deaths in the family. Several years ago they were to appear as a duo at Ambassador Auditorium, but canceled. He claimed, however, that the event will come to pass.
For now, the pianist implied that he has his messianic work cut out for him.
"I heard a young American woman being interviewed on television and she didn't know who Gershwin was. If that is the case, Prokofiev stands very low and I need to play to as big an audience as possible to improve his fate."