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'The undertaker' cracks a smile

For award-winning Russian pianist Alexander Kobrin, who gained a reputation for a grim countenance during the prestigious Cliburn competition, life's not all doom and gloom.

Published February 2, 2006

Last June, when Alexander Kobrin was playing in the finals of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the Russian was characterized as "the undertaker" on the competition's lively blog for his solemn expression during performance.

His style was in contrast to the photogenic manner of some of the other finalists, including a trio of attractive young Asian woman, notably audience favorite Joyce Yang, and a hyper-emotive Italian, Davide Cabassi, who was Kobrin's best buddy among the competitors.

Kobrin had the last laugh, winning the gold medal of the prestigious competition in Fort Worth, Texas; Yang took the silver medal. The 25-year-old Russian didn't mind the less-than-flattering label he got tagged with.

"It was a lot of fun to read about myself as "the undertaker.' It was pretty cool," Kobrin said last week from London, where he had a recital.

"I think it's just the impression people have of Russians. Being very serious on the stage, not smiling. Look at Davide. He was smiling all the way through while he was playing. I was the opposite. I think it's a cliche."

Kobrin will give a recital at 8 p.m. Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, playing works of Brahms (Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, and Fantasies, Op. 116) and Rachmaninoff (Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39). On Sunday at 1 p.m., he will teach a master class that is free and open to the public in the Murray Studio Theater at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

The idea of Kobrin being dour and forbidding was exaggerated, and he is relaxed and friendly in an interview, speaking fluent English. But the Russian piano tradition can be heavy, and the Cliburn Foundation is working to lighten up its gold medalist.

"Alex is actually starting to smile a little bit," said Maria Guralnik, general manager of the foundation. "It's against his nature and training. But he realizes that one small, shy smile does a lot to welcome Americans, who are much more visually oriented, into a performer's world. On the other hand, he has made a strong case for not being somebody he isn't. I do a lot of talking to get people to realize that the personality is in Alex's music first. If they listen, they will get to know him."

A highlight of the Cliburn competition was Kobrin's performance of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There was something inherently Russian about the way he played it, though he doesn't think that only a Russian pianist can get at the essence of such a work.

"It could be that Russian people can understand Rachmaninoff's feelings about this piece more than others," Kobrin said. "At the same time, everyone who has the same feelings about his own country and his own life could produce the same level of emotion."

It is no surprise that Kobrin's list of favorite pianists is topped by the great Russian, Sviatoslav Richter. Asked what he loves about Richter, he answered, "Everything. The sound, the structure, how he sees the piece. Even if you don't agree with something, it just affects you so much. Also we have a birthday on the same day, March 20."

After the competition in Texas was finished, Kobrin and Cabassi met with Cliburn at his mansion, talking and watching a DVD of the American's triumphant tour of Russia in his youthful prime.

"We were so lucky, me and Davide. We spent about seven hours with him. He's such a great person. It was just a huge thing for both of us to be there. It was amazing."

What did he learn from Cliburn? "You understand that you have to work so hard," Kobrin said.

Kobrin's recital this weekend comes after a short break in Israel, where his wife, Katia, and their 3-month-old son, Mikhail, live. "Everything came at the same time. The competition, the child, everything," he said.

In the past, Cliburn medalists would sometimes play as many as 100 recitals and orchestra programs a year, and some of the young pianists burned out. Now the foundation is trying to groom its winners more carefully, with Kobrin being limited to about 50 bookings a year.

"There's been a lot better emphasis about not launching immediate stars but starting careers slowly," Guralnik said. "So we're not so worried about the New York Philharmonic until years later. There's not that drive to have too many high-profile dates. If they happen, and somebody can handle them, then terrific. But we're much more careful about how we position our artists."

It has been a learning experience for Kobrin to play as many as four concerts a week.

"I'm trying to play every concert as my last one, to do the best I can," he said. "I'm nervous before each concert. Everything is different every time. The audience is different, the acoustics are different, the piano is different. You are different every day. Sometimes you breathe slower, sometimes faster, and it affects your playing."


Pianist Alexander Kobrin plays a recital at 8 p.m. Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $30, $35. 727 791-7400 or

[Last modified February 1, 2006, 09:05:07]

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