Competitions do not make great musicians, but the prestige of winning can give a talented performer a leg up. This was the case for Santiago Rodriguez, who won first prize at the William Kapell International Piano Competition in 1975 and then took a Silver Medal at the Van Cliburn Competition in 1981. Saturday night was a homecoming for the Cuban American pianist, who taught at the University of Maryland for 30 years, when he gave a recital at the Clarice Smith Center that opened this year’s Kapell competition, for which he serves as jury chairman.
Rodriguez certainly showed this year’s contestants how it is done, with an assured technique and interpretive depth in a program that played to his considerable strengths. There was virtuosic power, displayed in one real showpiece, Moszkowski’s “Caprice Espagnol.” Even here, Rodriguez’s approach was about subtlety of touch more than flash, playing up the sentimental, even clownish aspects of the piece. In a revelatory reading of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 (B-flat minor, Op. 35), Rodriguez took the daring parts more cautiously than other pianists, but the coloristic exploration of sound was memorable, especially in the percussive thunder and pealing knells of the funeral march and the haze of blurred notes in the fourth movement, crowned by a soft, pearly final chord.