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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
Church, 609-951-9553. The annual scholarship benefit concert features
works by Liszt, Albeniz, and others. $5 to $20. Friday, March 24,
Sayre Drive, 609-951-9553. By reservation, $10. Saturday, March
25, 4 p.m.
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