Pianist in Irvine : Feghali’s Key: Fresh Views and Variety

Times Staff Writer

Since he won the gold medal at the Seventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1985, Jose Feghali has been praised for revitalizing warhorses.

Words such as freshness and a real sense of discovery pepper his reviews.

“I don’t go out of my way to make things sound new,” Feghali said from Denver between concerts. “I don’t think, ‘What can we do different here?’

“But, for instance, the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto is a great piece of music which is (played) to death. To look at that piece and think ‘octaves’ is wrong. It has a lot of very tender and very anguished feelings in it.


“It is certainly not a mature piece of Tchaikovsky’s, but it looks forward a lot to the symphonies and later works. Those elements are frequently neglected.”

Standard repertory--works of Beethoven, Brahms and Debussy--will make up Feghali’s recital tonight at the South Coast Community Church in Irvine to benefit the South Coast Symphony.

The organization had canceled his earlier concert with the orchestra for budgetary reasons. But Feghali agreed to play not only the evening recital for the benefit of the orchestra but also a 2 p.m. program at the Church for Senior Citizens.

(County audiences will also hear Feghali with the Pacific Symphony under Kazimierz Kord on May 23 and 24, 1990, playing Mozart’s Concerto No. 17.)


“I don’t specialize in warhorses,” Feghali insisted. “I try to have a variety in my repertory. All of music has something to say. . . . Communication is the most important thing--with the orchestra, the audience and, hopefully, with the composer.

“I (also) always believe it’s more important to try to communicate what your feelings and interests are than to play something perfectly. There is the moment and what you do with the moment. There is no such thing as perfection.”

Feghali was born in Brazil in 1961 and began taking lessons at 3 because “my brother was having lessons,” he said. His brother, who is 3 years older, became a civil engineer in Rio, like their father.

“I pretty much wanted to be a pianist ever since I can remember,” he said. “But I made the decision to make it my career when I was 15 and moved to London--a new country, a strange country. . . . It was a completely different society, and, of course, there was more music there than I ever imagined possible, and the quality of the music was astonishing. The quality of teaching and concerts was certainly overwhelming.

“It was the best place to be to study and learn the piano. . . . But London is crazy, like L.A. is.”

Feghali now divides his time between London and Fort Worth, Tex., where the Cliburn competition is held. With his busy schedule, he gets back to his homeland only “about once a year,” he said.

Feghali does not consider himself a missionary for Brazilian music: “I don’t think one is necessarily duty-bound to perform one’s own countryman’s pieces. I think it’s important to choose pieces that are close to one’s heart, pieces one loves.”

Brazilian composers he plays include Heitor Villa-Lobos, Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez and Ernesto Nazareth, “the Brazilian equivalent of (Scott) Joplin,” he said.


Feghali acknowledged that competitions are controversial but calls them “a platform in a world today--where things are so competitive--unlike any other where you can be heard.

“You need to show your work to managers, to recording producers and concert producers,” he said. “Competitions are first and foremost a platform for that. However you may disagree about the results, what other paths are there?

“I’m not saying competitions are right,” he added. “It is not a matter of being right or wrong but of being realistic. Competitions have played very important part of musical scene today. Not only in piano competitions.

“The biggest names of piano playing today, 99% of them have come out of the competition route: the likes of Argerich, Perahia, Michelangeli, Richter, Pollini, Zimerman, Ashkenazy. . . . I could go on and on. Thank God for competitions!

“Also, pianists don’t have the same opportunities of going into orchestras as other instrumentalists have. So our workplace is much narrower in that respect. I think competitions, especially in piano, play a very important part.

He was equally insistent about the quality of music-making today and rejected the notion that we are not living in a golden age of music.

“How can one say that? I just heard Richter live in London. What is that if not music at its most transcendental?

“People like Michelangeli, Ashkenazy--don’t tell me that those people are homogeneous. Or Jessye Norman, Placido Domingo, Itzhak Perlman, Andre Watts. . . . I mean, come on.


“I can understand what people are saying, but look at the young musicians coming up. There are a lot of people out there who have a very individual point of view.

“There was a time people were playing ascetically, but I think that’s over. People are tired of hearing people playing the same way. There is a lot of individualism out there. The scope of feelings is remarkable, and that’s basically what I try to do.”

Jose Feghali will play music by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Debussy today at 7:30 p.m. at South Coast Community Church, 5120 Bonita Canyon Drive, in Irvine. Tickets: $10. Feghali will also offer a recital for senior citizens only at 2 p.m. at the church. This program--which will also include music by Chopin and Debussy--will be different from the evening program. Tickets: $7. Information for both events: (714) 662-7220.