Bravo, Berrocal! C of C Grad Superb in Sottile Recital

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I’ve been burdened with some heavy writing lately (like authoring the liner notes for Spoleto piano hero Andrew von Oeyen’s first international CD release) — and I swore I wouldn’t let the week go by without tipping my hat to Spanish pianist Roberto Berrocal: the former College of Charleston student who was the featured performer in a sizzling International Piano Series recital at the Sottile Theater Tuesday before last. But one can only do so much. Apologies to all concerned for the tardy coverage.

I knew Roberto — one of Enrique Graf’s top protégés — during his student days around ten years ago. Even then, I was very impressed with him, particularly his blazing, near-flawless technique; there was nothing he couldn’t play, and brilliantly. But I sometimes wondered whether his heart was as fully engaged as his busy hands. There often seemed to be more display going on than true artistry.

But what a difference ten years can make. Berrocal — after graduate studies at New England Conservatory — has gone on to a successful career as a concert pianist, teacher and opera accompanist/vocal coach. Super-tenor Placido Domingo even invited Berrocal to join his National Opera in Washington, DC, but he chose to stick with his current position with the New World School of the Arts in Miami. Perhaps the challenges of working with singers has helped to liberate his emotions and taught him something of music’s interpretive ebb and flow — and the way that even piano music should “breathe,” as a singer does. Whatever we have to thank for his musical growth, Tuesday’s recital was the work of a truly exceptional and fully mature musician.

He began his program with Josef Haydn’s Sonata No. 50 in C major: a particularly challenging number that he wrote for a renowned English virtuoso. I wonder if I’ve ever heard more exquisite Haydn in concert. Berrocal’s playing was crystal-clear, elegant and beautifully nuanced — with very natural phrasing and uncanny dynamic control. He captured the tricky finale’s wit and humor perfectly, teasing his listeners with the music’s playful stops and starts.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux came off just as well, but in different ways. Berrocal met every one of the composer’s formidable technical challenges, while projecting the music’s over-the-top emotion, epic sweep and nervous intensity very convincingly. But, more importantly, he laid bare Rachmaninoff’s manic-depressive personality — especially his quintessentially Russian brand of melancholy (Rachmaninoff, like many of his Russian compatriots, was no stranger to long-term misery).

After halftime, it was on to a work I had never heard in concert before: Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s fascinatingly impressionistic and colorful Fantasia Baetica. Written for the legendary virtuoso Artur Rubinstein, It’s based on native themes from the southern Spanish region of Andalusia: the home of Flamenco. Berrocal served it up with the kind of natural flair and idiomatic authenticity that only a native Spaniard could muster.

The finale — Franz Liszt’s show-stopping Spanish Rhapsody — was a very grand finale, indeed. Berrocal dove into this formidable piece with great gusto and skill, astounding his listeners with Liszt’s seemingly impossible keyboard wizardry. I heard him play Liszt when he was a student — but this time, Berrocal balanced his knuckle-busting bravura playing with a sense of interpretive and emotional depth that made the music complete. Check out Roberto’s blazing performance of this piece on YouTube.

You’ve probably guessed by now that I’ve been following C of C’s world-class piano program closely for some time now. After all, the piano’s my instrument, too … but my main motivation is that it’s such an incredibly rewarding process to follow the transformation of talented kids into finished musicians. And I was blessed last Tuesday to witness one of the program’s most brilliant end products. Bravo, Roberto!

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