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Putting Muscle Into His Work

Music: Pianist Leon Bates, who will be featured at Performing Arts Center tonight, is also a 'maniacal' bodybuilder.

February 17, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First there was "Pumping Iron." Then came "Pumping Iron II: The Women." And now that Hollywood has discovered classical music can be a huge sell, screenwriters all over are "Pumping Ivory."

Or at least they ought to be. Possible star? Pianist Leon Bates.

"Bodybuilding is my hobby, but it's very much a maniacal involvement," said Bates, 46, who appears tonight in Costa Mesa as soloist with the Chicago Sinfonietta.

"In many ways, bodybuilding is much like music. It demands a great deal of an individual. You must give it a great deal of concentration in order to make progress. It demands long-range thinking--the goals you achieve are not achieved overnight--and quite a bit of time, at least two hours a day.

"And a certain degree of development and balance can make the image of the human body into a beautiful artistic statement."

Bates allows that at this point he has a fair amount of muscularity, and that it even shows under his concert garb. But the artistic statement he'll focus on at the Orange County Performing Arts Center has to do exclusively with Gershwin's Concerto in F.

The 45-piece Sinfonietta, led by founding music director Paul Freeman, also will perform the Overture to Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and four dances from Alberto Ginastera's ballet "Estancia."

Bates' interest in bodybuilding grew out of participation in playground sports and street football while growing up in Philadelphia, where he continues to make his home; he began at age 18. His bench press is up to 325 pounds; he can leg press 950. But then, bodybuilding isn't all that sets him apart from most pianists.

Consider that Bates, who plays about 100 concerts a year, and Andre Watts are the only black American pianists to be in regular international demand. (Bates recently performed concerts in South Africa, Rome and Monte Carlo.)

"I would put it this way," Bates said. "We are the ones people would identify with most quickly in terms of name recognition . . . [but] I would want to be careful about putting myself in an exclusive group. Many, many African Americans are involved in classical music, and there are many trying to make a concert career on a more limited basis.

"The point should also be made that the young pianist [Pittsburgh-born] Awadagin Pratt is crossing that threshold as a result of winning the 1992 Naumberg Competition. He's certainly a welcome addition in the ranks."

*

It's that other pigeonhole--as a weightlifter--that has Bates wary. He may be a heavyweight pianist, but that doesn't mean his Beethoven is always muscular, his Gershwin merely athletic.

"There are physical benefits in terms of stamina, the ability to sustain and pace yourself so that in a two-hour recital you're still at your best for the last composition on the program," Bates noted. "It gives me all the power I might want in terms of loud or bombastic passages.

"But in no way should that confuse the issue as to the ability to be gentle. It doesn't take away any of that ability. I don't go around breaking pianos--that's the farthest thing from my mind. You don't lose sensitivity. That's in your heart and consciousness."

* The Chicago Sinfonietta presents works by Rossini, Gershwin and Ginastera tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Leon Bates is piano soloist. $10-$37. 8 p.m. Preview lecture at 7 p.m. (714) 556-2787.

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