Jorge Bolet -- a pianist of worldwide acclaim; the natural successor to Vladimir Horowitz; a man whose performance is as colorful, flashy and disciplined as Franz Liszt, the composer he most admires.
Jorge Bolet came to the Fairfax Symphony last weekend for three intensive days of teaching, which culminated Saturday night at the opening of the symphony's 24th season with a dazzling performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, Opus 30.
A great hulk of a man with brown eyes, graying sideburns and a gracious handshake, Bolet, a Cuban-American, towers over the music world from his base at the piano department of the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Last Thursday, Bolet met with five area high school students who had auditioned for the honor of enduring the master's critique during an evening master class. And critique he did. He told one youngster, "You are too wrapped up in yourself. You are not communicating a single note to anyone. You sound like you have been practicing at home, worrying about disturbing the neighbors."
Pausing here to hold his hand to his head, there to roll his arms in the music's rhythm, he kept track of each note, each musical shading, each tiny deviation from the composer's page.
"I have an ill-gained reputation," he said, "for being the kind of artist with no regard for what a composer wrote. They think I alter these works out of whimsical caprice.
"In fact, no one studies a composer's text more accurately, more conscientiously than I do. I can tell you every dynamic shading. I can practically write out the score from memory."
It is true, if Thursday night's class was any indication. As the students struggled through their well-prepared pieces, the master picked up on errors of notes ("that should be a G natural"), timing ("you are doing this twice as fast as Debussy called for") and emphasis ("later in the piece you will have a chance to be dramatic; for now, you should play very simply, very clearly").
It was more than 50 years ago that Bolet arrived at the Curtis Institute, a promising young pianist whose technical skill was learned at his sister's side. "As a child," he said, "I would rather stay inside and listen to my sister at the piano than go out and play with my friends. You know there's something wrong with a child like that."
Bolet's fame has been well -- and slowly -- earned. He cannot say the same for many of his young colleagues who take the honors at the dozen or so international piano competitions.
He grouses about these musicians in a voice that is, like his music, explosive, powerful and precise. "They play too fast. They never take a breath. They have no understanding of the acoustical system. Then they think, once they've won these awards, that they have succeeded, that's the way it's going to be.
"Four years later, nobody's ever heard of them," he growls. "It's too much, too soon."
His own rise to fame took the opposite tack, he points out. "I started with maybe two engagements a year, and worked to perfect my playing."
The perfecting continues. As Bolet says, "The more you mature, the higher your standards become. Then you realize that what you're striving for is perfection itself, and perfection cannot be reached. After a performance, I am never satisfied -- never," he explodes. "And that is the trouble with these young musicians -- they are satisfied."
The standards Bolet strives for adhere to his definition of music as "communication between two people through musical notes." He refers to the definition continually, telling a student that his playing of one phrase is fuzzy ("if we were talking, I wouldn't understand you").
If music is communication, what is the role of the musical performer? Today, many view the performer as a machine that turns out a piece of music with mechanical exactitude, communicating precisely what the composer has written.
But Bolet believes the performer's role is to "take that dead piece of music and make it into a living experience. The only way to do that is to know music, to have musical instincts inside you, to know why a composer wrote the piece that way and not another."
This philosophy was evident Saturday night, as Bolet artfully applied his technical expertise to a piece written, ironically enough, by a master pianist who nearly succumbed to the "too much, too soon" syndrome.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, a success at 18 with his Prelude in C-sharp Minor, fell into the pit of failure several years later. His Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, as performed last Saturday, shows the brillance of both the composer's melodic ideas and pianistic ability. It is a piece that none but the best can hope to master, let along interpret.
The rarely performed work was a treat for the capacity audience, especially in the hands of a pianist of Bolet's caliber. From his gentle opening, through the hand-crawling work in the Second Movement, to a brilliant, staccato-sharp, pounding finale, Bolet sat like a man in a trance, bonded to his piano.
The symphony responded to both his genius and the two taxing rehearsals he had put them through, and gave a harmonious, professional backdrop to his playing.
This was in partial contrast to the first half of the program -- a sprightly rendition of the Marche Militaire Francaise by Charles Camille Saint-Saens, which attempted to, but did not quite, overcome the lackluster acoustics of the Fairfax High School Auditorium; and Richard Strauss' ambitious tribute to Friederich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra.