Corrections or additions?

Author: Elaine Strauss. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 22, 2000. All rights reserved.

Don’t Be Late for this Pianist

Pianist Jose Ramos-Santana likes to plunge into a

concert program with a difficult piece. While some performers start

with an undemanding work that gives them a chance to muster their

forces and to test out both the acoustics and the listeners, Ramos-Santana

has a different approach. For example, he will begin his upcoming

concert for the Steinway Society with Mozart’s Sonata in D major,

K.575. In addition to presenting the standard challenge of playing

Mozart’s transparent music without blemishes, this late composition

heaps on problems by being of larger proportions than most Mozart

sonatas and by incorporating sonorities that approach the orchestral.

"I don’t believe in easing into things," Ramos-Santana says

in a telephone interview from his New York home. He offers himself

no quarter, adding, "If you have the technique and know how to

play you shouldn’t be warming up in front of an audience."

Ramos-Santana appears Friday, March 24, at 8 p.m., in Princeton’s

Nassau Presbyterian Church. The program includes Brahms, Albeniz,

Liszt, and a Gounod-Liszt transcription. In addition to the concert

the Steinway Society also sponsors a master class with four students

Saturday, March 25, at 4 p.m., at the home of Steinway Society president

and founder Mari Molenaar. The society, which celebrates its 10th

anniversary this season, has presented a total of 17 concerts; 42

musicales, 11 student showcases, and 6 master classes.

Commenting on the program Ramos-Santana calls the Brahms selections

"pieces that I feel close to." He considers Brahms a neglected

composer. Explaining his selections further, the pianist points out,

"I always try to include Spanish or Hispanic pieces in my programs

because of my cultural heritage. The Liszt pieces [`Sonnetto del Petrarco

No. 104′ and `Au bord d’une Source’] are fairly new to me. The more

Liszt I study, the more I’m in awe of his inventive and daring harmonic

language. The 20th century owes a lot to him. And his concert paraphrase

of the waltz from Gounod’s `Faust’ is one of the best transcriptions

he ever did for the piano." Drawing a connection between two composers

who appear on his program, Ramos-Santana points out that Albeniz was

a pupil of Liszt.

Ramos-Santana was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He happily gives

his birthday, July 28, yet firmly declines to give the year of his

birth. The "Ramos" component of his name comes from his father;

the "Santana" component, from his mother. Family members were

amateur musicians and music lovers. "I was born in a household

where we listened to opera all the time," Ramos-Santana says.

"A concert pianist lived in the next house, and I used to hear

her. That’s how it started." Ramos-Santana began his piano studies

a month before he turned five with Irma Isern, the pianist next door.

Attending a performing arts high school in San Juan, Ramos-Santana

graduated early, before age 17. His mentor there was Carmelina Figueroa,

a pupil of Liszt. He continued his studies at New York’s Juilliard

School. While in high school he played in the house of Pablo Casals,

the long-lived Catalan cellist, and man of humanitarian principles,

who developed the art of 20th-century cello playing and was a shaper

of several international music festivals. The force of Casals’ personality,

even in memory, is so great that Ramos-Santana fails to maintain his

vigilance when he talks about the renowned cellist, and reveals details

that indicate his age.

Without dwelling on the implications, Ramos-Santana says that he played

for Casals when the cellist was 94, and he was still in high school;

he also lets it slip that Casals died the year after he came to the

United States. Since Casals died in 1973 at age 97, Ramos-Santana

must have met him in 1970, from which it is easy to estimate that,

if Ramos-Santana was 15 at the time, he is now in his 40s.

Casals’ wife Marta, who was more than 50 years his junior, came from

the same town as Ramos-Santana’s mother. She and Casals tried to direct

the course of Ramos-Santana’s study after high school. "Casals

and Marta wanted me to go to Curtis," Ramos-Santana says, "but

I had my mind set on Juilliard because I wanted to study with Adele

Marcus. I had read her articles and they really clicked with what

I believed at the time. I didn’t want to study with [Rudolf] Serkin

or [Mieczyslaw] Horszowski at Curtis, [who were world-famous for

their concert appearances]. I didn’t want someone who concertized.

I thought I needed more of a pedagogue."

As a finished artist Ramos-Santana appeared at Casals’ Puerto Rico

festival, and relished his contact with both the cellist and his wife.

Despite their age difference — they were married when Casals was

80, and he was older than his father-in-law — Ramos-Santana calls

their match "a legendary marriage." "She was completely

devoted to him," he says. From Casals Ramos-Santana made a link

to earlier generations of musicians. "He knew Albeniz, Ysaye,

and Brahms," Ramos-Santana says. "It was inspirational to

talk to him." The Casals festival has changed since Casals’ death,

Ramos-Santana notes. "Casals didn’t like 20th-century music. Now

Krzysztof Penderecki, [the avant-garde Polish-born composer] is the

director and the music runs from the baroque to recent pieces."

After completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees at

Juilliard, Ramos-Santana held appointments at the University of Maryland,

Baltimore; and Smith College. He is currently an associate professor

at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, where he has been

on the faculty since 1994. He calls New York, where he lives, "my

second home. It’s the capital of culture of the world," he adds.

In 1986 Ramos-Santana won the Gina Bachauer International Piano competition.

Competitions, he says, "are a good way of introducing young artists

to an audience, but it’s up to the artist to keep building a career.

That’s the acid test. If you count winners who go on to major careers,

there are very few compared to the number of competition winners.

A competition doesn’t guarantee anything; it just provides an opportunity."

Ramos-Santana is enthusiastic about leading a master class. "When

students are in the spot of performing and having comments made, it

makes a deep impact on them. The things you learn in a master class

format are things you always remember. The impact is greater than

an ordinary lesson."

Ramos-Santana sees danger for students who attempt to play major works

prematurely. "Nowadays," he says, "youngsters rush into

big pieces, and their understanding is not adequate for the maturity

of the music. I find this type of exposure dangerous. It may be good

motivation to enter a student in a competition. But musical formation

should be to make the student an artist, and sometimes they are pushed."

Here Ramos-Santana seems to be presenting himself as a pedagogue,

so I ask him if he thinks of himself primarily as a performer or as


Again, Ramos-Santana sets a tough standard for himself. "I think

of myself as a musician," he says. "As a musician you should

be able to do everything: perform and and teach," underscoring

the words with his voice.

— Elaine Strauss

Jose Ramos-Santana, Steinway Society, Nassau Presbyterian

Church, 609-951-9553. The annual scholarship benefit concert features

works by Liszt, Albeniz, and others. $5 to $20. Friday, March 24,

8 p.m.

Ramos-Santana Master Class, Steinway Society, 287

Sayre Drive, 609-951-9553. By reservation, $10. Saturday, March

25, 4 p.m.

Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments