A different sort of virtuoso Sharing the gift: Pianist Vladimir Feltsman plays many a concert, but his eyes are focused far beyond his own keyboard.

November 04, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When he was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, his teacher used to call Vladimir Feltsman a "white crow."

"It meant I was different," Feltsman says.

The teacher, Jacob Flier (1912-1977), was not only one of modern Russia's greatest pianists and pedagogues; he was also a shrewd judge of character. Feltsman, who performs tonight at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, is indeed a world-famous piano virtuoso. But he resembles not a whit the image those words connote.

Instead of living in Manhattan, the center of America's classical music business, Feltsman chooses New Paltz, N.Y., an upstate community in the Catskills where the chief industries are catering to rock-climbers and cross-country skiers and selling crafts to tourists.

Instead of performing the crowd-pleasing Chopin-Rachmaninoff-Liszt repertory popularly associated with Russian virtuosi, Feltsman prefers the intellectual challenges of Bach and late Beethoven. And instead of spending all his energy jetting from concert to concert, Feltsman devotes much of his time to the pet project he has worked on for years: the creation of a school for musically gifted children in New York City.

"We start testing for grades K and 1 this spring," Feltsman says. "We open the following fall."

Not long after his arrival on these shores in 1988, after several years of virtual house arrest in Moscow as the Soviet Union's most famous "refusenik," Feltsman -- never one to refrain from telling the truth -- began to complain about how the United States was failing its most gifted children.

His model for nurturing youthful talents -- musically, at least -- was Moscow's Central School for Gifted Children, which Feltsman had attended as a boy, along with many of Russia's other future musical stars. -- the pianists Andrei Gavrilov and Mikhail Pletnev, the violinist Vladimir Spivakov and the cellist Natalia Gutman. One of the reasons Russia was more successful than the United States at producing first-rate musicians was obvious to Feltsman: Musically gifted children in his native country were encouraged, as they were not in the United States, to challenge and stimulate each other.

"Kids by nature are very competitive -- and that's good," the pianist says.

What isn't so good, he adds, is that musically gifted children in the United States are isolated and made to feel as if they are strange.

"It's one thing for a talented child to take one lesson every week," he says. "But when he or she is among 15-30 colleagues every day, the collegial atmosphere and healthy competition that result act like a growth vitamin."

The school will begin with only two grades, he says, "because what we are doing is new, and we are trying to be cautious."

Feltsman and the school's president have already begun to select faculty. They also have a location at the Helene Kauffman Center for the Arts at 67th St. and Broadway. What he doesn't have is enough money. Beyond a $500,000 gift from the Annenberg Foundation and the $100,000 Feltsman has raised, the school needs an additional $2 million.

But the White Crow has adapted well to the individualistic, free-market economy of his adopted land: "To suggest this, I know, is shameless," he says. "But the name of the school is still undecided and, well, a $2 million donation "

Vladimir Feltsman

When: 8 tonight

Where: Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 8100 Stevenson Road

Tickets: $35-$125

Call: (410) 486-6400

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