Russian and romantic

Pianist Boris Giltburg makes sweet music with the Ra’anana Symphonette.

Boris Giltburg 521 (photo credit: Eric Richmond)
Boris Giltburg 521
(photo credit: Eric Richmond)
You do not have to be Russian to love the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, but it probably does not hurt to hail from Moscow. Pianist Boris Giltburg was born in the then-Soviet capital, before making aliya with his family in 1990 at the age of five.
Now 27, Giltburg has a slew of awards and competitive prizes under his belt, including placing second in last year’s Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition. He also maintains a busy globetrotting schedule while still finding time to appear in this country. One of the local ensembles that benefits from Giltburg’s polished keyboard work is the Ra’anana Symphonette, with which he performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 around a month ago. He will be on hand again to play the Russian composer’s second piano concerto in the opening slots of the symphonette’s new season on September 11 to 13, at the Ra’anana Hamishkan Center for Music and Art. Omer Wellber will be on the conductor’s podium.
The pianist confesses to having a weakness for Rachmaninoff works. “I have a thing about Russian music in general and in particular, about the work of [Sergei] Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff,” he says, creating an interesting and somewhat disparate pairing of two composers with very different mind-sets.
“I am something of a romantic,” continues Giltburg, referring to Rachmaninoff, “but I also connect strongly with the humor in Prokofiev’s work.”
The work Giltburg will perform with the symphonette next month is one of the most readily recognizable pieces in the entire body of classical music. Pop fans of a certain vintage may recall Eric Carmen’s 1975 hit single “All by Myself,” which borrowed from the concerto’s second movement.
The pianist says the work’s mass appeal partly stems from its ability to connect with the most basic of emotions. “There is something very visceral about the concerto. You feel it inside you. It is so well-crafted and so varied, and has such wonderful harmonies. It is a special experience.”
Interestingly, Rachmaninoff’s readings of his own work – he was considered one of the finest pianists of his day – did not always garner across-the-board praise. “I think he played the second concerto a little more dryly than the more popular approach,” muses Giltburg.
That may have been due to a touch of ennui. “I have the feeling that by the time he got around to recording his work, he had probably played it so many times that it was no longer so fresh for him, and that he was not quite as enchanted with the music as we are today,” he says.
Personal evolution may also be a factor. “As Rachmaninoff got older he related to the music differently,” Giltburg explains. “I think that happens to all of us.”
But it is not just a matter of age and accruing timeworn wisdom, he says. “We mustn’t forget, too, that the musical material is so rich that you can always discover new layers within the works, however many times you play or listen to a piece.”
In fact, if hard pressed, Giltburg says he prefers the first of Rachmaninoff’s four piano concerti. “I feel as if the first concerto was written just for me. It’s like if you were asked what book you’d like to read – a book specially written for you – that’s the way I feel about that concerto. That probably sounds pretentious, but I get great pleasure from playing the piece.”
Giltburg adds that the first work probably benefited from the composer’s youthful zeal and daring. Rachmaninoff wrote the first concerto in 1891, when he was just 18 – although he revised it extensively 26 years later – while the second concerto was completed a full 10 years after the first, when the composer may have been more settled.
“The first concerto is less mainstream, and I think that is the reason why it is less popular than the second and third concerti. The second concerto is far more accessible to the public,” he says. Not that Giltburg has any problem with performing the work with the symphonette next month, mind you.
Rachmaninoff received his first piano lessons from his mother at the tender ago of four. Giltburg is not far behind, having started on his own musical path under his mother’s guidance at the age of five, back in Moscow. In doing so, he is following a long matriarchal musical link. “My mother is a pianist, and my grandmother is a music teacher, and so was my great-grandmother. We always had a piano at home,” he says.
Even so, as a child Giltburg had to stick to his guns to get behind the ivories, and overcome some parental opposition. “My mother didn’t want to teach me,” he recalls. “I think she maybe wanted me to choose a more secure profession. But I really wanted to play the piano.”
The pianist’s obstinacy proved fruitful and he quickly displayed natural talent, in addition to a willingness to keep his young nose to the grindstone. Veteran conductor-pianist Aryeh Vardi took over from Giltburg’s mother when he was 11, and has proven to be a lasting formative influence on Giltburg’s artistic growth. “He impacted my approach to music, in all its aspects – sound and style. Aryeh is not only an exceptional musician, he also has a wonderful approach to teaching. Everything I do today, to a great extent, is the result of the work he and I did together.”
Vardi’s influence will, no doubt, make its presence felt to some degree in Ra’anana in just over a week’s time, when Giltburg plays what he feels is one of the most communicative works ever written.
“There is marvelous interaction between the soloist and the orchestra,” he notes, “and it is a very intense work. There is nothing like that level of interaction in any other classical work.”
In addition to the Rachmaninoff piano concerto, Wellber and the Ra’anana Symphonette will perform Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, better known as From the New World, and an intriguing work by a 34- year-old pianist-composer called Four Minutes in Jerusalem, with the musical sentiments enhanced by screen animation by Tal Anmut.
All the concerts will start at 8:30 p.m. For tickets and more information: 09-745-7773 and