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Competitions, Cuba Leave Bitter Taste : Pianist: Santiago Rodriguez remembers Van Cliburn Competition as a nightmare. And he says he won't return to his homeland until it's free.


Mention the Van Cliburn Piano Competition to Santiago Rodriguez, who won the silver medal there a decade ago, and the emotional strain of that time comes back vividly. He speaks with an elegantly fluid Cuban accent, his words tinged with the tone of harsh criticism.

"It was like one big two-week nightmare," says Rodriguez. "I did the best I could during the nightmare, and I'm glad I got something good out of it--but I was just glad it was over. . "I was already 28, 29 years old when this competition happened, and as far as competitions, this was the top of the line, the most prestigious as far as the attention that was brought upon it. And so what point would there be to go to the Cliburn competition and then go to a smaller competition? You either had to put all your eggs in that basket or forget it.

"Psychologically, if you leave yourself a crack to get out of it--if you say 'Ah, well, if I don't win the Cliburn, I'll do this'--you'll never do well. You have to immunize yourself--it is very tough and disconcerting. So with that I just went into the competition with blinders on and I said 'OK, whatever happens, it's fine, but I just can't do this anymore.' "

He admits that the Van Cliburn second prize "opened up a little crack in this business (for me) in order to make some headway. As much as I disliked the actual process . . . I'm thankful that the opportunity was there." But he didn't take his win too seriously, and that is why, he says, he's still around 10 years later. "It is ridiculous for people to think 'Oh, I have arrived, I've won this competition or I did this.' Nobody ever arrives. . . .

"Your challenges change all the time, but the basic things about getting up every morning and practicing is just what it was before the competition."

The 39-year-old, Cuban-born pianist now performs between 50 and 60 concerts a year and records exclusively for Elan, a record company run by his wife, Natalia. The venture came about after Rodriguez had become dissatisfied with numerous offers from other record companies. Frustrated, Natalia decided to start her own label. She "put a bug into my ear--after I had done the premiere of the Second Sonata of (Alberto) Ginastera--to put a whole Ginastera disc together," Rodriguez explained.

Since then, Rodriguez has made premiere recordings for Elan of works by Surinach and Castelnuovo-Tedesco and has recorded music by Spanish and Latin American composers as well as more mainstream Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Grieg and others.

In addition to running the company, Natalia is also Rodriguez's record producer. "She's the only person I trust as far as producing. She's the only one who'll give me a straight answer--meaning, if it's really bad, she'll be the first one to tell me."

Future projects for the pianist include a series of concerts in New York and Montreal performing all of the major solo piano works of Rachmaninoff and a concert tour of Germany.

The Orange County Philharmonic Society contacted Rodriguez to play Saturday in Costa Mesa after Yugoslav pianist Ivo Pogorelich canceled because of concerns about international travel. Rodriguez's program features Mozart's Sonata, K. 330, four pieces by Chopin, and "out-of-the way Spanish music: Falla's 'Cuatro Piezas Espanolas,' Soler's 'Fandango,' and Ginastera's Three Argentine Dances."

When the subject of Cuba is broached, a bitterness enters his voice. After Castro took over, the 8-year-old Santiago was sent away by his parents, not to see him again for six years.

"The reason that they sent us (to America) was that the education in Cuba was getting quite severe in (promoting) the Communist credo. They were not only telling the kids a bunch of lies, but (the teachers) were not very good; they had kicked out the most successful teachers, which at that time were nuns and priests. They got rid of them very quickly to try and do away with religion."

He and his brother were sent to an orphanage near New Orleans. "My father, being a doctor and surgeon, (in Cuba we had lived) quite a splendiferous life, with a chauffeur and maids. I will never forget the first trip I made into these dormitories at the orphanage: just kind of sitting there going 'Oh my God, my bed doesn't have a room. It's just in a big room of 30 or 40 beds.' And they put your clothes in with everybody else's clothes, each morning you (had) to pick out a pair of socks and underwear from the general pile.

"At the same time it was a very mind-opening experience to have to come up from the other side also. I am very happy that I was just able to be an ordinary child and not be pampered, to not have any of the easy way of life."

He says he won't return until "Cuba becomes free."

His conversation keeps returning to the subject of "the dirty work" of a concert pianist: practice. 'The legions of stories about (Sviatoslov) Richter I never (forget). If he got mad at himself because he screwed up a concert or something, he would just stay in the hall the whole night and practice. Hell, if Richter has to do it, you know I have to do it.'

* Santiago Rodriguez gives a recital of works by Mozart, Chopin, Falla, Soler and Ginastera at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $14 to $40. Presented by the Orange County Philharmonic Society. Information: (714) 556-2787.

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