Universal language

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am

A Buddhist orphanage in Myanmar is an unlikely venue for an acclaimed classical pianist who last year made his debut at Carnegie Hall, but for Victor Goldberg that impromptu performance on a cheap electronic keyboard is a highlight of his first Asian tour.

'Not only the children, but also their mentors had never heard of Mozart or Tchaikovsky before, and their reaction to my playing was overwhelming,' Goldberg says. 'It was a very touching experience indeed. It demonstrated to me the power of music, its ability to go directly deep into people's souls, whether they are highly sophisticated listeners or those who are only discovering what music is.'

The Israeli musician's itinerary, organised with the assistance of Israel's Asian embassies and consulates, includes a free Hong Kong performance on January 16 at HKU Space in Kowloon East. The tour has so far taken in performances on the mainland, in Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines, as well as in Myanmar.

'My tour in Asia has included countries with very different musical traditions,' he says. 'In China there are amazing, huge concert halls. In some places, the people are not yet prepared to perceive complex musical pieces, but it was the only country I came to where I saw a poster with a classical pianist advertising consumer products.'

Still only 33, Goldberg has the potential to be a poster boy himself. An acclaimed concert pianist with a number of international awards to his name, including winner of the 2008 Pro Musicis International Award, as early as his teenage years he was compared to the young Vladimir Horowitz, to whom coincidentally he is distantly related.

'However, I was also compared to other great artists with very different performance styles than that of Horowitz, such as Arthur Rubinstein, Dinu Lipatti, and even Glenn Gould, ' says the pianist.

'What unites them is the sincere expression of their own, unique musical voice and the irresistible power of their musical personality that always found its way to the hearts of the audience. They all possessed that special generosity of the heart that makes a true artist stand out.

'Great pianists of the past are my models, not in an attempt to imitate their technique or performance style, but as an example of what art is all about.'

Born in Lviv - 'a beautiful city which at various points of time belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Poland, Soviet Russia, and currently Ukraine' - he immigrated to Israel at the age of 13, and later received a full scholarship to study at the Juilliard School in New York, the city where he remains based.

'My upbringing is quite international, with strong Jewish roots. I can say with certainty that experiences in all those places have helped to shape who I am musically as well,' Goldberg says.

'Even though I enjoy playing music of different styles and origins, I feel a special connection to the Russian repertoire. There is something about it that must be felt on an instinctive level, and my Russian roots help me better connect with the music of Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Stravinsky or Shostakovich.'

Scriabin's Fifth Sonata is likely to be a highlight of the first half of Goldberg's Hong Kong performance. Described by Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter as 'the most difficult piece in the entire piano repertoire', in Goldberg's opinion, 'to some extent, this particular piece is the beginning of modern music as we know it'.

He will also be performing two relatively recent additions to his repertoire, Mozart's lively D Major Sonata and Mendelssohn's solemn Variations Serieuses. 'The entire second half of my programme is devoted to Brahms' monumental masterpiece, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, which I have been performing with success for several years,' the pianist says. 'This is a kind of a piece that every time I get back to it, I will discover something new.'

As he has at other stops on his extended Asian tour, Goldberg will be making good use of his time in Hong Kong, making a recital recording for RTHK Radio 4, giving master classes, and playing a concert at Discovery College in Discovery Bay.

A passionate performer, Goldberg believes that a soloist must be utterly immersed in the music to truly bring it to life.

'Performing a piece of music is an experience unlike any other. Through an enormous amount of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual effort, performer and music become inseparable, blend together, and create that special energy that is then transmitted to the audience,' he says.

'This is what makes performance an experience rather than just entertainment. This is what the Greeks called catharsis. In order for the audience to be 100 per cent involved in the music, the performer should be involved 400 per cent, and still be in control.'

Jan 16, 3pm, The Theatre, 1/F Kowloon East Campus, HKU Space; 28 Wang Hoi Road, Kowloon Bay. Admission free, but seats can be reserved by calling 3762 0830.