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Lyras Has Own Ideas About Rachmaninoff

Classical music: The pianist brings his personal reading of the Piano Concerto No. 3 to Costa Mesa this week.


Many people today link Rachmaninoff's music with the words "slush pump." But it's hard to know why the pejorative label when you listen to recordings the composer himself made.

Indeed, in his influential book, "The Great Pianists," former New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg called Rachmaninoff "the Puritan."

"At any Rachmaninoff concert, one noted the sharp rhythmic thrusts (these were his trademark), the virility and the sense of sonority that the man had," Schonberg wrote. "And, above all, a musical elegance in which phrases were shaped with exquisite finish. . . .

"There was never any Kitsch to Rachmaninoff's playing, even when the music was Kitsch. So big were his musical thoughts, so aristocratic his instincts that he ennobled whatever he played."

Another Rachmaninoff admirer is pianist Panayis Lyras, who will be the soloist in "the Puritan's" Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Pacific Symphony led by Carl St.Clair on Wednesday and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

Lyras, 45, never heard Rachmaninoff play live. But he knows the composer's performance of the work, which was made with the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Eugene Ormandy for RCA Victor in 1939 and 1940. It has been reissued in a CD set of Rachmaninoff playing all four of his concertos and the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."

"His performance of the concerto is astounding, amazingly quicksilver," Lyras said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Indianapolis.

"But I do not play it anything like Rachmaninoff played it.

"I don't think the composer necessarily had the only say as to how the piece should go, because very often they have a relation to the piece, so close to it.

"Sometimes an outsider sees different aspects of it. I take the score as my guide and have my own ideas."

Lyras and St.Clair teamed up in 1997 for four performances of the work with the Phoenix Symphony. That was the year that Australian pianist David Helfgott, the troubled subject of the film "Shine," came to the United States to tour. Lyras has not seen the film, which depicts Helfgott's troubled childhood, mental breakdown triggered by studying the Rachmaninoff concerto and his eventual recovery.

"The orchestra got tremendous publicity and benefited from his visit enormously," Lyras said.

He agrees with the film's premise that the piece--dubbed "Rach 3"--is one of the hardest concertos in the repertory.

"It's not just the length; it's how much there is in it," Lyras said. "I had a classmate at Juilliard who once counted the notes. There are more than 28,000 notes that the pianist has to play. He also counted the notes in a Brahms concerto. There were fewer--in the low to mid-20,000s. And that's not counting the notes the orchestra plays, which you have to be aware of.

"It takes a tremendous amount of physical and emotional and intellectual stamina to play the work."

A native of Athens, Lyras began studying piano at 4 1/2. He went to the Athens Conservatory at age 6 and came to the United States to study in New York at 12. He graduated from the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with Adele Marcus, in 1977, a year after he became a U.S. citizen.

Although he had won several other competitions, his career got a big boost when he won the 1981 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. It wasn't smooth sailing after that.

"There is a period after the initial splash when things slow down," he said. "Then you question things. It's a very difficult life from many angles. You have to really think about it. That's why in the mid-'80s, I thought, 'Do I really want to be doing this?' " Lyras said he isn't unique in this.

"Most competition winners don't have a huge career. That would be the exception rather than the rule," he said. "Then you have to adapt yourself to your particular goals. Sometimes those change."

Part of his adjustment was taking a teaching position at Butler University's Jordan College of Fine Arts in Indianapolis in 1989.

"I didn't know how much I would like to teach when I took this position. I remember when I was in school, people would say, 'Those who can't play teach.' I didn't realize until last year the vast majority of the pianists, certainly of the 19th century, were all teachers too. Chopin and Liszt were two of the greatest teachers in history as well as performers.

"I find that teaching is an incredible complement to my performing. I have learned more things through teaching than I can recount. I will combine the two for the rest of my life."


Panayis Lyras will be the soloist in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Pacific Symphony led by Carl St.Clair on Wednesday and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. The rest of the program will include Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony and Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration." $17-$48. (714) 556-2787.

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