Big-name institutions like the Juilliard School or the Curtis Institute of Music are well known for grooming super-sized musical talents. But Park University? Most people have probably never even heard of the small school just outside Kansas City, Mo., yet it has helped at least two young pianists win prizes at major competitions in recent years: Kenny Broberg, silver medalist at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and Behzod Abduraimov, 2009 winner of the London International Piano Competition.
Abduraimov, 28, who will make his debut March 3 on the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series, has nothing but praise for Park’s International Center for Music, where he serves as artist-in-residence. The program was founded by Stanislav Ioudenitch, a co-winner of the gold medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn competition. Since then he has since gained as much attention for his teaching as his performing.
Born in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic in central Asia, Abduraimov began piano lessons at age 5 with his mother; he later switched to one of the country’s most noted teachers, Tamara Popovich, who died in 2012. When he was 8 years old, The budding pianist played his first concert with other students in his studio. “I loved that feeling,” he said from Kansas City. “I loved the music. It got me really excited. I thought, ‘This is it.’ I know it’s a little early when I was 8, but that’s how I felt.”
When he was 16, he moved by himself to the United States to study with Ioudenitch, also a native of Uzbekistan. The elder pianist has continued to monitor the musical scene in his native country and invited the young talent to the International Piano Academy Lake Como, an elite program where he also sometimes teaches. “After the first master class,” Abduraimov said, “I thought, ‘This is it. This is the person I need to study with.’” He had planned to attend Juilliard but made the switch to Park University.
“It was the right choice, absolutely,” Abduraimov said. “I came here only because of Stanislav Ioudenitch, who is still my mentor and dear friend. The environment was perfect when I was 16 years old and the first time away from my family, my country. It was perfect environment to concentrate and focus entirely on practicing and learning.”
When he was 17, a friend invited him to London to experience the city and perform a few small concerts in several churches. During that visit, he went to Royal Festival Hall and heard the London Philharmonic — his first opportunity to hear an orchestra of such international caliber. That experience stuck with him, and when he began looking at possible competitions to enter, he was drawn to the London International Piano Competition. Not only did its repertoire requirements square with his own preferences, it offered him the chance to perform in the final round with the London Philharmonic, the orchestra he had so admired.
“That was my first and last major competition,” Abduraimov said. “Of course, whenever I went to any competition, I was hoping for the best and trying for the best, but you can never guarantee these things. So I was lucky enough to win it. I was surprised but also, really down deep, I was hoping for it.”
Since then, he has enjoyed a blossoming international career that has taken him to such major orchestras as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, NHK Symphony Orchestra and Munich Philharmonic. “So far, I’m happy,” he said. “I’m busy. There were some things that might have been a little different, but, in general, I’m satisfied. But there is lot more to achieve.”
Although this concert will be his first in Orchestra Hall, he has played three times at the Ravinia Festival: recitals in 2012 and 2017 and a 2017 performance with conductor James Gaffigan and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra. For his March 3 appearance, Abduraimov has designed a program around the theme of love and death. Bookending it are solo piano transcriptions from two big dramatic works: Franz Liszt’s take on Isolde’s Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde, and Ten Pieces from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet.
In between, is Liszt’s well-known Sonata in B Minor, which Abduraimov sees as a “mini-opera,” because of the work’s complexity and passages that can be seen as recitatives. “It’s like story-telling, with so many ups and down — the very dramatic to very intimate climaxes put into one continuous, perfect form,” he said. “What appeals to me about the first half, especially, are the poetic and narrative sides of this music, which in the Liszt Sonata combine with ultra-virtuosity.”
Abduraimov is particularly associated with the music of Sergei Prokofiev due in part to his performance of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the London Competition. Of that performance, a critic for the Daily Telegraph described as “the most enthralling roller-coaster ride of a Prokofiev Third Concerto imaginable.” He continues to perform that and other works by the composer to the point that he is a little worried he might be unfairly pigeonholed as a Prokofiev interpreter. “I really do love Prokofiev,” he said, “but not only him — many others as well.”
All that said, Abduraimov considers the Ten Pieces to be among the best music that the composer wrote. “It was kind of perfect to switch stylistically and still stay with this theme,” he said. “These 10 miniatures are highly imaginative and they represent Prokofiev’s typical expression of great contrasts.”
He described these pieces as alternating between grotesque humor and touching lyricism. “It’s very interesting and always exciting to play this program for me as a performer,” he said, “and so far, where I’ve played it, it’s been quite interesting for the audiences as well.”