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Hosts Make Sure Musician Doesn't Have to Go Solo

Polish pianist and Pasadena couple connect during Rachmaninoff fest.

April 05, 2002|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the crowded lobby, Carol Henry checks her watch. Twenty minutes to go ...

At 8:30 p.m., when the concert hall lights flicker, she and her husband, Warner, head to their balcony seats. Two weeks ago, as a reluctant host family for the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition and Festival, they had not expected to feel this way, this invested. But by Tuesday, the couple had eased right back into the roles that they had buried when their three grown children left home. Here, at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, the Henrys feel like nervous parents all over again. On this mild spring evening, though, the couple's hopes will flutter with cadenzas and pivot on the explosion of piano chords played by 29-year-old Jan Krzysztof Broja. The lanky, boyish pianist is their house guest, and they have dreams for him now. . A competition finalist, Broja is about to step onstage and join members of the Pasadena Symphony. This is his night, after days of playing alone on a grand piano in the Henrys' Pasadena living room, usually in a sweatshirt, pants and socks.

In late March, Broja flew from his bachelor's apartment in Warsaw, Poland, to the couple's 10,000-square-foot home overlooking the Arroyo Seco gorge near the Rose Bowl. He brought only a backpack.

Broja is a little shy, polite with a quick smile, the type that made Carol Henry fly into mom mode. One day, she talked him into taking a ride down Mulholland Drive. Another morning, she got him to take a quick break to watch herons dipping into the koi pond.

Carol Henry keeps him stocked with bandages for his fingertips, which are bruised from keyboard pounding. And he practices 10 hours or so a day, in a living room with 24-foot-high ceilings. Neither Carol nor Warner Henry plays the piano, though all three of their kids took lessons. "This!" Carol Henry says recently, a hand cupped to her ear to catch his powerful opening notes in the third movement of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3. "Listening to this all day, it's just fabulous."

The Henrys urged Broja to play the piano any time, day or night, though he rarely practices past 10 p.m. They had only one request. Could he take a break from practicing on the night of Warner's 64th birthday, when the couple had planned a dinner for 15? Of course, Broja replied. But would it be OK if he played a little recital for the guests? He did and added a surprise. Broja logged on to the family's computer and listened to an online recording of the Beatles song "When I'm 64." He printed out the lyrics. During the birthday party, he had everyone sing along while he played the piece for the first time.

Tonight jurors will announce the top finishers among the six finalists, including a grand prize winner who will receive $30,000, donated by Alexandre Rachmaninoff, the grandson of the famous Russian composer. The first-place winner also will be awarded a grand piano valued at $28,000 and, if organizers can swing it, a concert date at a major U.S. venue. (Organizers include the Russian Ministry of Culture, the city of Pasadena and Master Classes International, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that brings international concert artists to California.)

A recent newspaper article reports that Broja is an audience favorite, along with 23-year-old Alessio Cioni of Italy. The two pianists are the only finalists who have chosen to play Rachmaninoff's notoriously difficult third concerto, a draining piece that was popularized in the movie "Shine."

"I was in tears when I read the [press]," Warner Henry says. "I was so touched for [Broja] ... I've told him, 'You are both controlled and play with great power, and at the same time, you're lyrical and it all comes through.'"

Broja, who performs in solo recitals throughout Europe, says it helps to know that the Henrys are pulling for him from the darkness of the audience. "Of course, this is very important because you feel alone when you're far from home," he says. "When you play a [solo] concert, you're the king of the stage, but you don't know what you're doing when you're in competition."

In Pasadena, for the Rachmaninoff competition, hospitality chairwoman Peggy Phelps spent 11/2 years lining up and visiting 30 volunteer households. Half of the homes had grand pianos; Kawai, the piano maker, loaned grand pianos to the other 15, sending a master technician from Japan to tune the instruments according to each competitor's specifications.

The volunteer hosts include Pasadena-area residents who live in condominiums and bungalows, along with single people and families with children, says Jonathan Glus, the city's executive director of cultural affairs. Glus was overwhelmed by offers from potential hosts, including a retired woman who lives in a small apartment and owns two Steinway grand pianos. "It's very heartwarming," Glus says. "Pasadena, as old as this city is, has the tradition of culture being the center of civic activity. This demonstrates that yet again."

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