There was never a precise moment when Beatrice Rana decided that she wanted to make the piano her career. Like many concert artists, she began taking lessons when she was young and just kept going. “Basically, piano was part of my life since the very first day,” she said. “It’s really a daily presence for me. I grew up with the piano, and somehow it became very natural that piano would be my first choice — not even just my first choice, my life.”
As part of an important three-week American recital tour that will take her to Carnegie Hall for the first time, Rana will make her Chicago debut Feb. 24 on the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series. The fast-rising Italian keyboardist will perform a varied program that offers what she calls three turning points in piano composition. It opens with Frédéric Chopin’s Twelve Études, Op. 25, published in 1837. It is the second of the composer’s three sets of études — a landmark collection that Rana believes every pianist should play at least once.
“So to play the Op. 25 at the start will be a wonderful adventure, because, of course, they are études, so they are challenging on the technical level,” she said. “But as a set, they are, really, an amazing musical masterpiece, because it really is a story, starting from a cantabile, from a kind of heartfelt point of view on life, and ending in a very tragic way.”
Next comes Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs, a five-movement suite written in 1904-05. Rana said that the composer’s approach to the piano served what she called a “wider imagination,” with each section carrying an evocative title, such as Sad Birds and A Boat on the Ocean. In each, she said, Ravel created a spectrum of sonorities that conjure orchestral writing, and indeed, he later orchestrated two of the movements.
The final work, a transcription of a suite from Igor Stravinsky’s celebrated 1910 ballet, The Firebird, is something of the opposite, an orchestral work transformed into a solo piano work. “That’s the challenge of this piece, because you have to evoke so many sounds and so many happenings with just one keyboard,” she said. “The advantage is that you are the conductor of yourself. You can experience more freedom, which is not allowed with an orchestra.”
This solo version was created in 1928 by Guido Agosti (1901-1989), a well-known Italian pianist and teacher. Rana is a big fan of Agosti’s 12-minute transcription, which she describes as “completely crazy” and “absolutely mind-blowing.”
Born in Copertino, a town in what she described as the “high heel” of Italy’s geographical boot, Rana began lessons at 4 and made her orchestral debut by age 9, performing J.S. Bach’s Piano Concerto in F Minor. She earned her piano degree under the tutelage of Benedetto Lupo, the bronze medalist at the 1989 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and later studied with Arie Vardi at the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover, Germany.
The turning point in Rana’s young career came in 2011, when she won first prize and all special jury prizes at the prestigious Montreal International Competition. “Until that point, I was giving some concerts but nothing special,” she said. “After Montreal, I really understood that I could be a concert pianist, and the competition gave me the opportunity to experience that and to understand what being a concert pianist means, which is not just playing the piano but doing so much more.”
That “so much more,” she explained, includes devoting herself to constantly expanding her repertoire and spending a great deal of time traveling and encountering new people and cultures. It also means being willing to deal with a range of practical problems like missing an airline connection and still finding a way to get to a concert engagement on time. “It’s a wonderful life but it can also be a very demanding one,” she said.
Rana’s 2016-17 season was a milestone, thanks to her recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the Warner Classics label. Published in 1741, this landmark keyboard work consists of an aria and a set of 30 variations and presents a range of technical and interpretative challenges. Rana had always played a great deal of Bach and longed to perform this work. When she suggested it to officials at Warner Classics, she was expecting a reaction along the lines of “no, please don’t do it. You’re crazy. You’re too young.”
But the response was just opposite, and after a lot of preparation and practice, she realized her wish and then performed the work at such major venues as Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, London’s Wigmore Hall and Tokyo’s Toppan Hall. “It was really a turning point for me as a musician,” Rana said. “I’m very happy I did it, because once you experience something like that onstage, it’s a very unique feeling.”
The disc debuted at No. 1 on the United Kingdom classical charts and earned the pianist a prestigious Gramophone Award as Young Artist of the Year. “It was a nice recognition for the work I’ve done until now,” Rana said of the honor, “and also it was a way to see that I’m going in the right direction.”
And she added with a laugh, “As we always say, we don’t do these things to please the public, but it’s very nice when the public is pleased.”