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Park University piano student making his KC Symphony debut

There is treasure to be found in the basement of an old church in Parkville.

Behzod Abduraimov, an emerging talent on the international classical music scene, spends his evenings practicing in a room below Graham Tyler Memorial Chapel at Park University.

Next weekend, Abduraimov will perform Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” for his debut with the Kansas City Symphony under the direction of Michael Stern at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

“Given his prodigious technical gifts and his youthfully invigorated musicianship,” Stern said by email, “ this brilliant and beloved showpiece by Rachmaninoff seemed a natural fit.”

London prize winner

Abduraimov has been at Park University for five years studying piano with Stanislav Ioudenitch, artistic director of Park’s International Center for Music and co-winner of the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition gold medal.

In 2009, at age 18, Abduraimov won the grand prize at the London International Piano Competition. He has spent the last three years touring internationally, performing to great acclaim.

Abduraimov plays with a ferocious technical ability, passionate lyricism and incredible energy. His fingers move so quickly they blur; slightly hunched, he pounces at the keyboard, drawing chords up and away from the piano.

In person the young man is quite unlike his performance style. In conversation he is reserved and polite, often deferring to Ioudenitch. He began learning English when he moved to Missouri in 2006, and he gilds his statements with delightfully poetic turns of phrase.

Stern described him as likable and sympathetic; Ioudenitch called him a wonderful gentleman, which he attributes to Abduraimov’s mother. She is a piano teacher in Ioudenitch’s hometown of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and started teaching Abduraimov at 5.

He then studied with renowned pedagogue Tamara Popovich at the Uspensky State Central Lyceum in Tashkent; he made his debut at 8 with the National Symphony Orchestra of Uzbekistan.

Studying with Ioudenitch

Abduraimov met Ioudenitch at Lake Como, Italy, when he was 16.

“He was already formed as a player,” Ioudenitch said. “He had a personality that combines several aspects of what makes a great player he had a power going out, this energy while playing. Already you could see what could be in the future.

“He was ready for new information. You start to realize how much the talent can absorb, what can be done and how fast. In his case, I could feel that he was very flexible, very eager to learn, but he needed a lot of new repertoire, to learn the styles and to improve his technique. It was important to me to sculpt the tone.”

Though he had already been accepted to Julliard, Abduraimov said after working with Ioudenitch, “I didn’t see any other option, only to come here and study with him.”

Studying with Ioudenitch was a lesson in slowing down. They started with a sonata by Mozart, a contrast to the bombastic Romantic-era pieces he was familiar with. He learned the values of the Classical period.

“It is more decorative, more exquisite,” Ioudenitch said. “There are a million things.”

“Each lesson was like a whole new world — a new planet — was opening. After our lessons I would sit,” Abduraimov demonstrated by leaning forward, head in his hands, eyes wide, “and think over what Stanislav had told me. There were so many things, so many possibilities I didn’t know. Slowly, step-by-step, I’d think about it at every lesson I would discover something, like a new sun.

“Stanislav is giving me the real values of music, the traditions that are forgotten about nowadays. A lot of artists don’t know it. They can’t bring it up. The audience doesn’t know what they get.”

Developing this level of artistry takes a lifetime of experience. Ioudenitch said it’s not about making a beautiful melody — the goal is to transmit the composer’s intent.

“These are big constructions with extremely deep feeling, history, background, harmony, knowledge. There is so much to know, to navigate,” he said. “I’m not talking about the piano part. That’s training — a physical exercise. In many cases this physical exercise goes to the top. One may have the ability to push the keys very fast, but that is not great artistry.”

The composer didn’t write a piece “just looking at the stars,” Abduraimov said.

“He had ideas and he put the ideas together, and we transport the ideas to the audience.”

Debut CD and touring

In February, Abduraimov signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca Classics. He recorded his debut CD last summer, to be released in the spring of 2012. The album includes works from Prokofiev, Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns.

“There are no easy pieces,” he said. “It is all serious music.”

Winning in London added a tremendous amount of work to his schedule. With performances in the United States throughout the rest of the year, a conference in Japan in February, a tour of Australia and a recital in Hong Kong in March and earning his artist’s certificate from Park University in May, Abduraimov said, “before I thought I was doing a lot of work, but now it’s totally different but I’m very happy.”

He already has bookings through 2014, but he will still call Parkville home.

“After two days of travel I want to come back,” he said. “It’s my second hometown. The environment is fantastic, and I can practice whenever I want.”

Ioudenitch will continue to mentor Abduraimov, though both maintain international careers. Ioudenitch described how one of his own teachers, Dmitri Bashkirov, was still going to his teacher when he was 60 to get her critique.

“There is always more information,” Ioudenitch said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a big name, you can still learn. We are musicians. We learn our whole lives you have to have the conversation, the analysis, to get better and better. It is important to maintain the pedigree (of great piano playing).”

Both men come from families of musicians. Abduraimov’s 9-year-old nephew also has performed with the National Symphony Orchestra of Uzbekistan.

Preparing for performance

Working with the Kansas City Symphony is a partnership in artistry.

“Musical collaboration and dialogue can happen with a young talent as well as the most experienced performer,” Stern wrote.

“I see my role in providing any collaborative accompaniment to present a point of view off of which the soloist can react.  When there is real respect and understanding, great things can happen.”

In late October, Ioudentich and Abduraimov were putting some finishing touches on the Rachmaninoff. Before their lesson, Abduraimov tidied the studio as he waited for Ioudenitch, making neat stacks of scores and CDs.

Seated at two pianos placed side by side, they rehearsed portions of the piece, conversing in Russian. Though Abduraimov already had the music memorized, they often referred to the score, Ioudenitch addressing each phrase, each stave, making innumerable suggestions and subtle changes. The lesson operated at a breakneck speed, yet with such meticulous precision that it took an hour to work through the opening sections.

“If Stanislav says it’s ready, it’s 100 percent,” Abduraimov said. “I feel confident.”

This past September, Abduraimov turned 21. He celebrated with Ioudenitch over a nice dinner.

“Oh,” he said brightly, “and we had a lesson.”

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