Pianist Seems Overqualified for Pops' 'Rhapsody in Blue'

Pianist Robert Taub's sophisticated resume bristles with world premieres, compositions by contemporary composers such as Mel Powell and Milton Babbitt. The Mel Powell Concerto for Two Pianos, in which Taub performed last year with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was awarded the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in music, and Taub has just made the first recording of Vincent Persichetti's Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit.

And Wednesday night the 32-year-old New Yorker plays "Rhapsody in Blue" with the San Diego Symphony Pops orchestra at Hospitality Point.

This unlikely progression from the sublime to the overworked prompts an obvious question: "What's a nice guy like you doing in a place like that?"

"I like the 'Rhapsody in Blue'," Taub said, carefully crafting his explanation as if he were answering a question on a grant application.

"I played the piece last summer with the London Symphony Orchestra. That piece captures something I relate with as a New Yorker--like a Woody Allen movie."

If the orchestra's Summer Pops all-Gershwin concert is a kind of obligatory annual ritual, Taub believes he can transcend its casual familiarity.

"My approach to the 'Rhapsody in Blue' is not at all fluffy and light. I take it seriously, and whatever the programming context may be, I think I can make it come off."

Taub's strong identification with 20th-Century American music has changed his approach to more traditional piano repertory.

"Playing new music sheds a refreshing perspective on all music. After all, what we now regard as 'classical' was once new. For instance, when I play Beethoven's 'Waldstein' Sonata, I try to infuse it with the same enthusiasm it had on its listeners at its original opening. I have been very careful to make sure that the music I choose to play reflects my deep convictions about music generally, even though the bulk of my repertory is still Beethoven, Brahms and Rachmaninoff."

Pianists that influenced Taub included Dinu Lipatti, Josef Hoffmann and Artur Schnabel. Schnabel's refined aesthetic has molded his preference for the late Beethoven works as opposed to those from the composer's earlier stormy period. Nor is Taub devoted to the flashy, crowd-pleasing showpieces by Franz Liszt.

"I read a biography of Schnabel in my late teens, and the author stressed that Schnabel was a great musician as well as a great pianist. That distinction stuck with me. A great pianist has control over keyboard, knows how to play the instrument and create a wide palette of colors from the piano. But a great musician knows how to use these tools to really express something in a work of art."

Taub's ability to verbalize his musical experiences will serve him well over the next two years when he serves as Harvard University's artist-in-residence, a post that includes giving solo recitals, performing with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, and lecturing on performance techniques and piano literature.

This week, however, he can put philosophy on the back burner and devote all of his artistic horsepower to five straight nights of "Rhapsody in Blue."

Soprano power. Brenda Wimberly, who made an auspicious local debut two years ago as the Mother in West Coast Lyric Opera's production of Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors," returns this week for two distinctly different engagements. In this week's San Diego Symphony all-Gershwin concerts (Aug. 15-19), she will sing the soprano parts in a "Porgy and Bess" medley. On Monday at 8 p.m., the soprano from Texas will sing a recital of art songs by Mozart, Strauss and Faure in the sanctuary of La Jolla's St. James Episcopal Church. Her recital is another offering in West Coast Lyric Opera's chamber music concerts at the La Jolla church.

Siberian Superstar. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, arguably the hottest new singer in the operatic firmament, will give his debut local recital in La Jolla's Sherwood Auditorium a week earlier than originally scheduled. The golden-voiced baritone will perform a program of Italian art songs and opera arias Oct. 28.

San Diego Opera executive director Ian Campbell signed the 28-year-old singer from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, when he won first prize in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition last summer. Since that dramatic exposure to the West, Hvorostovsky has been inundated with glowing reviews. The New Yorker's Andrew Porter declared him to be "one of the best voices to be heard today," and his first recording for Philips Classics was recently released with no small amount of fanfare.

Light Opera in East County. "Luisa Fernanda," a Spanish-language operetta, properly called a zarzuela, will open 8 p.m. Thursday at El Cajon's East County Performing Arts Center. A popular art form in Spain, the zarzuela is named after the royal palace of La Zarzuela outside Madrid where these entertainments first took place.

"Luisa Fernanda" was written by Federico Moreno Torroba, one of the two great zarzuela composers of the 20th Century. This East County production will be conducted by his son, Federico Moreno Torroba Jr. The San Diego Lyric Assn. and the Grossmont College opera workshop are producing "Luisa Fernanda," which runs through Aug. 19.

Cast problems. Because violist Cynthia Phelps is recovering from a broken arm, her assignments in the opening week of the La Jolla Chamber Music Society's SummerFest will be covered by Toby Hoffmann and festival artistic director Heiichiro Ohyama. Ohyama will take Phelps' place in Schumann's Piano Quintet on the Aug. 17 opening night program, and Hoffmann will substitute in the Beethoven G Major String Trio on the Aug. 18 private gala concert. Society officials expressed confidence that Phelps will be sufficiently recovered to resume her playing duties during the festival's second week.

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