Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      April 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 1


A Marathon Music Man

By Elizabeth Hunt

Alexander Toradze is Martin Professor of piano at Indiana University South Bend.
Photo courtesy IU South Bend Department of External Affairs

How do you engage large audiences in the works of great composers? Design concerts that feature a few overplayed chestnuts and aim to get audiences home in time for E.R.? Forget that, says Alexander Toradze, Martin Professor of piano at Indiana University South Bend. Instead, he says, give audiences more—more context, more depth, and above all, more music.

For the past several years, Toradze has been organizing “music marathons,” concerts lasting six to eight hours or longer that focus on the work of a single composer. With as many as a dozen performers taking part, including students from Toradze’s piano studio as well as guest artists, the marathons have also featured expert commentary by well-known music critics and scholars. Sometimes they include examples from film and television to show how popular culture has used the featured composer’s music. Whatever the combination of information and performance, says Toradze, it all adds up to an exciting event for listeners.

“When you give the public a powerful, coherent evening of music with a deep approach, they respond,” he says. “When they see very meaningful program notes and a lecturer who has interesting things to say, this appeals to audiences. The public is thirsty for these kinds of performances.”

Toradze does not see the length of the concerts as an obstacle for lay audiences. Listeners are caught up by the complex portrayal of a composer’s lifework that emerges, according to Toradze. “The public doesn’t get tired, they get energized,” he says.

Toradze has produced more than a dozen marathons so far, featuring, among others, works by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. The idea for the music marathons grew out of Toradze’s work with the members of his studio, talented young pianists who come to South Bend from around the world to learn the art of music and business of concertizing. Shortly after founding the studio in 1991, Toradze began to take his students on the road and to work to develop them into what he calls “a traveling concert ensemble.”

“This has deep roots in concert life and in the educational traditions of Europe, especially Russia,” he says. “It is the perfect way for young musicians to get to be on stage and to get to know other musicians, other teachers, and people who will be important in their careers.

“Then I began to dig deeper, to find new ways of engaging the audiences,” Toradze recalls. Following discussions with the musicologist Joseph Horowitz and the critic John Ardoin—Toradze’s ‘think tank’—the concept for music marathons emerged.

Toradze’s professorship and his studio share the twin missions of performance and pedagogy, so the benefits the music marathons offered to his students appealed to him. Rehearsing for the concerts provides excellent exposure to a composer’s complete works.

“Each musician may only play an hour or so of the concert,” says Toradze, “but by participating in rehearsals, they know that composer’s repertoire extremely well by the time of the performance.”

Hearing others play a composer’s work very differently—as often happens in the marathons—can also be instructive for his students. “Instead of a teacher telling you, ‘Play it this way’ or ‘Don’t play it like that,’ you can hear for yourself how others interpret the music. You can decide how you want to play it.”

Toradze also points out that the concerts provide students access to well-known musicians. “My students have performed in the same festivals and concerts series with some very big names,” he says. “They have the opportunity to meet with them directly, and these musicians always respond very well to my students.”

Toradze’s marathons are garnering international attention. Last summer’s Rachmaninoff marathon, performed at Italy’s prestigious Stresa Festival, earned highly favorable notice from the International Herald Tribune, which touted the advantages of hearing a composer’s work “in such a concentrated form” and applauded the “pianistic brilliance” of the performances.

Toradze stresses that the music marathons are only one aspect of the training his students receive. “Besides the themed programs, they are working on a very traditional piano repertoire,” he says. “They have to play a whole range of works, and they work very, very hard.”

Toradze’s students also take part in some of the world’s best-known piano competitions and have earned prizes at the Arthur Rubinstein and other famous competitions.

Nor are marathons the only dates on Toradze’s schedule. With fifty to seventy concerts each year, he stays very busy “taking the name of IUSB around the world.”

“As far as the marathons, I try not to overparticipate,” he says. Still, it’s easy to see that Toradze finds the music marathons as stimulating as their audiences do. “It’s very invigorating to be around them and to participate,” he says. “It’s fun.”

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