Oil, Van Cliburn and a Sunnyboy from Rio

José Feghali’s Carnegie Hall debut, 1985

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Oil, Van Cliburn, $$$$$, Salieri, Pearls - and a Sunnyboy from Rio

(Cliburn-Competition Gold-Medalist José Feghali’s Carnegie Hall Debut)

by Rolf-Peter Wille, September 1985

"You really must go!" My brother Hans-Christian, who had invested in an overseas call from Germany, was referring to the Carnegie Hall recital debut of José Feghali - this year’s Van Cliburn Piano Competition first-prize winner, with a VIP gala reception afterwards. Having been a finalist in the same competition himself, my brother claimed he knew who could get me in.

A natural enemy of "gala receptions," American style, I dress up halfheartedly and have a few coffees to kill my jet lag (I have just arrived from Taipei). After miraculously surviving the one-hour subway ride I approach that dark monster - Carnegie Hall. "SOLD OUT / SOLD OUT / SOLD OUT." Shall I commit suicide or fly to Germany and kill my brother? A group of people with eyes like hungry sharks approaches me: "Do you sell, do you sell???" "Do YOU sell, Do YOU sell???" I yell back.

Ten minutes later a limousine stops and two young ladies from Texas pass through the sharks and take their places at the Cliburn Foundation desk. "Do you sell?" do I greet them. "O - you must be Hans-Christian’s brother. Here’s your ticket!" After two or three seconds of disbelief I am transformed from an ugly shark to a smiling young prince.

The Dress circle - I can even see the pianist from my seat! José Feghali looks like the kind of Sunnyboy you would enjoy having dinner with. He enters, still wearing the air of a contestant, nervously adjusting the chair with rapid but relaxed hand movements. The moment he starts to play, though, he is in absolute control. His Haydn sonata is gorgeous. It sounds exactly the way it sounded on television. Some performers who consciously try to create such a light classical style sound slightly artificial. Not Feghali. His playing is easy and natural, the phrasing logically simple, the scalework pearly and flawless. This is the Haydn we love, charming and unobtrusive. How does Feghali do it?

Unfortunately the Villa-Lobos sounds like Haydn again. Where is the Brazilian jungle? Did Feghali become a British gentleman during his studies in London? His playing sounds very middle-European, not at all the daredevil temperament of an Argerich, or a Freire or some other South American. Feghali never loses control; he is always pleasing, balanced, tasteful. Even when the music is not supposed to be like that. Robert Schumann was obsessed with his visions. He went crazy, and "Carnaval" is one of his craziest pieces. His battle against the Philistines was a matter of life or death for him. Feghali’s "Carnaval" sounds too much like a birthday party with lots of happy surprises. His facility in "Reconnaisance" and "Paganini" is beyond imagination, and he still manages to be fastidious and elegant, but this Schumann is disappointingly sane. No demons appear. Feghali should have observed the sharks in front of Carnegie Hall.

The applause is as polite as Feghali, and he plays as an encore Liszt’s "Hungarian Rhapsody No.6," starting right in the middle with the octaves (in Germany they would execute him for that – but this is a free country.)

The gala reception at fifth-floor Kaplan Space is more crowded than the subway at rush-hour. Half of Texas seems to have chartered a plane to come to this real Carnaval. The salad is served with strings of pearls right on the plate (no wonder Feghalis Haydn sounded so pearly). I meet my brother’s friends, and they introduce me to a few VIP’s, including Van Cliburn himself who is the friendliest person in the world. What is he doing in New York?

And then I see Salieri. Salieri??? Yes, the man who killed Mozart. Didn’t they arrest him? No, not in New York! He is standing right there with a drink in his hand, looking exactly the way he looked in the movie. Why is he here? Is Feghali going to become his next victim?

I survive the gala reception. I survive the subway ride home, another miracle. I fall into bed.

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