Most of the soloists who perform in the College of Charleston’s International Piano Series, a stunning display of talent, are young, up-and-coming musicians at the start of an international career. It’s a pleasure to see these fresh faces and a great reassurance to know that the piano continues to reveal its mysteries to new generations.
On Tuesday night, the audience at the Sottile Theatre was treated to an unusual recital by the 56-year-old Jorge Luis Prats, a Cuban national who relocated to the Miami area several years ago and picked up where he left off at 21.
Thirty-five years ago, he overcame serious geopolitical obstacles and traveled to Paris where he won the Grand Prix at the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud competition. The result was overnight stardom. His achievement made all the papers and a shining career lay before him. He remained abroad, studying with renowned teachers in Paris and Moscow and Vienna, then decided to return to Cuba to be with family.
He was stuck. Visa restrictions made it impossible for Prats to develop his concert career. He played regularly for Cuban audiences, but could not travel. There were complicated reasons for his domestication having to do with family obligations and political challenges, he told me the day after his recital. Finally, he managed to get out of Cuba and begin the process of re-introducing himself to international audiences.
He has played all over the world and has shocked listeners with his expressive virtuoso style. He seems to excel at the 19th and 20th century piano repertoire, the stuff written or arranged by those performer-composer types, such as Chopin, Busoni, Scriabin and a number of Latino figures.
On Tuesday, he opened with the stunning 24 Preludes, Op. 11, of Alexander Scriabin, an early work that traverses every key and alternates between dreamy and dramatic, lyrical and flashy. It was an ambitious start to an ambitious program.
Next came Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise, Op 22, and Prats killed it, to use the vernacular. It’s astonishing to watch his hands, beautifully arched over the keys, relaxed, flying to and fro in a blur. It’s a technique that allows him to play for long periods without tiring. He used the pedal perhaps a bit too much, occasionally clouding the flurry of notes — but then again, didn’t this help emphasize the furious bursts of color and sound?
The second half began with Cuban composer Carlos Farinas’ “Tango,” an intense 20th century tone poem for the piano that featured fancy finger work in the service of a broadly drawn and varied tango dance style. The work of another Cuban composer followed. Felix Guerrero’s “Suite Havana” contained the robust flavors of the famous port city, now crusty and decayed after decades of Communist rule.
Busoni’s “Carmen Fantasy” was a wholesale recasting of the opera’s well-known tunes that put the pianist’s flare front and center. Prats brought it to life with humor, pathos and sympathy. The last section consisted of the death theme, and Prats made certain we could visualize the life-blood draining from Carmen’s body through her knife wound.
He ended the concert with three of the 12 pieces from the very difficult “Iberia Suite” by Isaac Albeniz. The work dates from 1908 and might be considered a Spanish extension of the virtuoso style made famous by Franz Liszt. Each piece represents a particular city. Prats played “Jerez,” “Malaga” and “Lavapies.”
The day after the concert he told me he’d been avoiding the suite, concerned about the possibility of stumbling his way across the keyboard because of the immense difficulty. He had programmed the “Iberia Suite” for recent concerts in Japan and Holland but decided to forego it.
In Charleston, though, he conquered his fear and played the work with such determination and skill it was impossible to imagine that he could be intimidated by it. The mental block was knocked down with a triumphant performance that brought the audience to its feet. (Three encores followed.)
Prats is a rare talent, not only because of his extraordinary life story, but because of his extraordinary gifts. The piano, he said, is merely the tool he uses to create music. The music he creates is stunning — it enthralls and amazes, while simultaneously stimulating the mind. Here is a prodigious talent whose experiences in Cuba and abroad are conveyed in each note he plays.
He is now achieving the recognition that should have been his all along. His visit to Charleston offered a splendid opportunity to hear — and savor — a remarkable performer. May he return soon.
The next recital in the International Piano Series is Jan. 15 and features Steven Lin.