It used to be that his playing wasn't the only thing about Santiago Rodriguez that was hot. The Cuban-born, American-trained pianist got bent out of shape whenever he saw less talented players achieve celebrity.
"Now I find all the things that used to frustrate me hilarious," says the 39-year-old virtuoso, who will play Franck's "Symphonic Variations" tonight at Goucher College with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra. "I realized that I was worrying so much that I wasn't enjoying what I love to do -- which is to play the piano."
No one in the know ever doubted that Rodriguez could play the piano. His is one of the two or three names that always come up when aficionados talk about the great talents that never seem sufficiently appreciated by the general public, by orchestra managers and by record executives.
Rodriguez took care of the third item by himself. He and his wife, Natalya, started their own record label -- Elan -- for the pianist's own recordings, which have been praised in publications from London to Tokyo.
As for fame and orchestra dates, Rodriguez says, "years ago Jorge Bolet told me: 'Never try to force anything, always practice hard and always be a humble admirer of the repertory -- people will come.' "
Bolet knew whereof he spoke. That great Cuban-American pianist, who died last year in his late 70s, had to wait until he was well into his 60s to be appreciated for talents that had been obvious for decades.
"But the important thing about Jorge was not that he had to wait so long, but that he was so good always -- whether in lean years or fat years," Rodriguez says. "He knew that when you make music it doesn't matter where you are. When you start worrying about where you're playing and whom you're playing with, you're not paying sufficient attention to the music and you're losing whatever it is that's special about you."
It's not as if there's any reason to feel sorry for Rodriguez. He's a tenured professor at the University of Maryland College Park, he plays all over the world and he's well-known enough to put across projects such as one this spring in New York and in several other cities: In three concerts he will play all the major solo piano works of Rachmaninov.
"There's no special reason to do it -- no anniversary or anything like that," Rodriguez says. "It's just that it's joy to sit down and play Rachmaninov's music. It's nice to have a little unabashed romanticism after this year-long hemorrhage of Mozart's music we're having because of his bicentennial."
As for the future, "things get better year by year," Rodriguez says. "I'm enjoying myself now more than ever before. I like to think about [Arthur] Rubinstein. He was in his 50s before he became really well-known. But when you read his autobiography you realize that he was having just as much fun playing concerts on rickety uprights in little towns in Spain as he was years later when he was the toast of Paris, New York and London. It was the music that mattered to him."
Santiago Rodriguez will perform at Kraushaar Auditorium with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra at 8 tonight. Call 887-2259.