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Cashing In On Moscow Journey

March 18, 1985|MARC SHULGOLD

Doing well at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow certainly didn't hurt the career of pianist Van Cliburn. The same can be said--to a much smaller degree--for James Barbagallo.

Of course, Cliburn captured the gold medal. And he did it in 1958, when beating the Russians at their own game seemed to mean a lot to Americans.

Barbagallo, on the other hand, merely took the bronze in 1982, garnering not a single ticker-tape parade. Nonetheless, the young New York-based pianist has managed to make his impressive performance in Moscow pay off.

But in an unorthodox way.

Luckily for Barbagallo, a film crew was on hand for the Tchaikovsky competition to record the onstage performances and offstage drama. That documentary, seen repeatedly on many arts cable channels (including Arts & Entertainment locally), spent much of its time focusing on Barbagallo.

"The TV thing has done more for me than anything else--even more than winning the bronze," says the pianist, who appears in his local debut recital at Ambassador Auditorium tonight. "The film has probably been shown about 60 times a year in New York. It's meant a lot of free publicity for me."

Oddly, Barbagallo entered the Tchaikovsky on a dare--from himself.

"I had gotten some encouragement from my teachers at Juilliard, but one day I said to myself, 'Wouldn't it be something if you went to Moscow and won?' At that point in my career (he was 29), I realized that I had to get my act together. So, I decided the only way for me to do that was to go to Russia and try my luck there," he says.

"It was a wonderful experience for me, only because I did well. The people were extremely warm. The government rolled out the red carpet for me, although the red carpet for them is like linoleum for us," a reference to that nation's lower-keyed approach to pomp and circumstance.

As he tells his story, the easy-going musician retains a slightly bemused air about him--as if this were all a very funny, very unlikely, dream. He chuckles at such a notion.

"You have to understand where I come from," he notes. "As the oldest male child in an Italian family, you don't go to Juilliard. When I began studies there, my parents always told my friends, 'Oh, Jim's in New York. He's trying to find himself.' Even though all four of us kids had studied piano, I was the only one who stayed with it--the only one crazy enough to pursue it. And I was the only one not married. 'He must be strange,' family friends thought.

"My parents expected me to become a doctor or lawyer. But when I was studying at Cal State Hayward (Barbagallo is a native of San Leandro), my teacher encouraged me to enroll at Juilliard. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be terrific to play really well?' "

While he was back East, family disapproval continued. "My folks were so distressed they almost divorced," Barbagallo recalls. "When I was home I decided not to return to New York. I withdrew from Juilliard and enrolled in Berkeley. One day, my mother--much to my amazement--told me she was wrong."

Now that Barbagallo's career is gaining momentum (he is, in fact, on the Juilliard faculty now), is his family singing a different tune? "My mother is presently working for my management company," he says with a laugh.

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