Portuguese pianist Artur Pizarro didn't mince words explaining why he entered the 1990 Leeds International Piano Competition.
"I was at the stage where I needed to jump-start my career," he said by phone from Los Angeles, where he played on Wednesday. "Competitions are not one of the best things for musical growth, but the way the music business is set up, they're a great way to get an agent."
Pizarro's calculations proved accurate. At Leeds, the 21-year-old virtuoso took first place, was signed by an international agency and watched his bookings take off. In the first year after Leeds, he played between 80 and 90 engagements, although he is now content to limit his season to 50.
Pizarro will appear in an Orange County Philharmonic Society-sponsored concert on Sunday. He will perform Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Costa Mesa. Guest conductor Enrique Diemecke, music director of the National Symphony of Mexico, conducts the program that also includes works by Silvestre Revueltas and Alberto Ginastera (see accompanying review).
Pizarro can afford to cast a jaundiced eye at the competition process. Before entering Leeds, he had already taken first prize in Lisbon's 1987 International Vianna da Motta Competition and won the 1988 Greater Palm Beach Piano Competition.
Before entering the Leeds contest, he admitted to shopping for the right competition. In his research, he found that 85% of Leeds Competition winners had gone on to successful careers. He liked those numbers.
"Leeds suited my personality the most. They give you a lot of flexibility in choice of repertory, which allows you to tailor it to your strong spots. It also has never been a competition to champion fast and loud playing, which turns everything into a kind of Olympic circus."
Although he has taken master classes by pianists, he has studied with only one teacher, Sequeria Costa. (Costa has since become Pizarro's stepfather; the young pianist claims to have had no part in his mother's divorce nor marriage to his teacher.)
Pizarro started with Costa at age 5 in Lisbon. When his mentor took a teaching position in Lawrence at the University of Kansas, Pizarro and his mother and sister moved to Kansas to further the young boy's studies.
"My family has been 200% supportive," he said. "Nothing was too much for them. The move to the U.S. put a great strain on the family. In addition to the culture shock, there were financial problems. This was during the time of the revolution in Portugal, and it was difficult for my father to earn money in Portugal to support us in the U.S. at an American standard of living."
Lawrence became a congenial home for Pizarro. By 15, his free-lance income as a pianist allowed him to move into his own apartment.
"Actually, I only moved down the street, so I was not that far from my mother's watchful eye."
Pizarro, who says he is comfortably unmarried, continues to make his home in Lawrence. He put his cash award--approximately $10,000--from the Leeds Competition into a house there.
"I needed to put a roof over my piano, and I wanted to have something to show for having won the competition a few years down the road," he said.
In this week's engagements with the L.A. Phil, Pizarro hopes to redeem his traumatic debut with the orchestra in July, 1991, at a Hollywood Bowl concert.
On that turbulent evening, Russian guest conductor Yuri Temirkanov pursued a course through Rachmaninoff's daunting Second Piano Concerto that left Pizarro battling not only the notes but the entire orchestra.
Pizarro, however, isn't one to hold a grudge. He will play the Schumann Piano Concerto later this year under Temirkanov in Philadelphia.
In his musical philosophy, Pizarro stands up for a musician's right to pursue an idiosyncratic interpretation that flouts convention.
"Too many players strive to be accurate and pretty. They are content to find the one correct way to play a piece and stick to it," he said. "Costa always told me that as long as you are convinced and can convince your audience, you have a right to your interpretation."
Enrique Diemecke leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic and pianist Artur Pizarro in Ravel's Piano Concerto in G on Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The program also includes Revueltas' Suite from the film "Redes," Ginastera's "Variaciones Concertantes" and Ravel's Suite No. 2 from "Daphnis et Chloe." A concert preview begins at 2 p.m. $15 to $45. Presented by the Orange County Philharmonic Society. (714) 553-2422.