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RECITAL REVIEW

Pianist Rudolf Budginas

COMEDY WITHOUT RELIEF

by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 9, 2012

Getting noticed in the classical piano world is a daunting task. With an avalanche of young artists, each seeming to play the Ligeti Etudes or the Liszt Sonata while texting a friend, novelty is an important part of getting audiences and having concertgoers pay attention to you.

Santa Rosa Junior College faculty pianist Rudolf Budginas has developed a unique parody of the formal piano recital, and he presented it Nov. 9 in the College’s Newman Auditorium before a packed house of titillated and bemused listeners. His production and antics were new to me, but the tipoff was that the program sheet didn’t list specific musical works. Bach was listed as a “Prelude” and Chopin as “Revolutionary.” Clearly Mr. Budginas was going to do his will with their music. He eventually did so with aplomb and a stage presence that puts Lang Lang, Oscar Levant, Victor Borge and George Antheil to shame.

Mr. Budginas’ entertainment is balanced and deceptively delivered in an offhand manner, interspersed with bits of pieces he has chosen for humorous effects to illustrate his verbal commentary. He rarely plays a piece all the way through, preferring to take a work like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and play it at the keyboard with a bongo drum set and cymbals in a knockoff of Turkish composer Fazil Say’s “Black Earth.” The comments he made before every piece ranged from the educational to the childish and the musically slanderous. For some listeners, the effect quickly wore thin.

Adding to Mr. Budginas’ pianistic efforts was a two-minute harmonica solo of his own variations on the theme from Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony, with copious physical gyrations. He also made repeated fatuous comments about his native country (Lithuania) and opined that Beethoven had trouble writing themes. People laughed and wanted more. Mr. Budginas loves an audience, and this night they definitely loved him.

All this would be peripheral if Mr. Budginas could seriously interpret important music. Alas, he cannot and he isn’t a pianist who rises above the mundane. He began the recital with Chopin’s C Minor Etude from Op. 10 (Revolutionary), a surprising work to start with, and overpedaled the whole piece, sacrificing clarity. In Beethoven’s Op. 31 D Minor Sonata (Tempest), he played only the last movement, all too loud, with stodgy phrasing and a lack of rhythmic subtlety and grace. He eschewed tonal color and never parked his left foot on the shift pedal to generate instrumental shadings and subtlety.

Next Mr. Budginas coyly chose the initial C Major Prelude from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” He started with a rock-solid tempo and tonal richness that quickly collapsed when he skipped into some jazz variations. There was no nod to a ritard at the piece’s most memorable point. Instead, he just plowed ahead. An “Ave Maria” by Caccini followed, played in a saccharine manner with gauche New Age flourishes and harmonies.

The first half ended when Mr. Budginas went into battle with Liszt’s Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody in D Flat. He skipped the entire introduction and began this wonderful work towards the recapitulation, with the famous and demanding single-note and octave repetitions. He could not technically maintain the tempo, finger staccato and control this music needs, so he slowed everything down, again omitting sections of the music in order to hammer a bombastic conclusion in a tasteless display. The audience, happily sprinkled with students and College staff, gave him a standing ovation.

For presumably many reasons a number of people left at intermission, including this reviewer, and what Mr. Budginas did in the second part with Tchaikovsky (announced on the program as “Black Swan”) and the music of Brubeck, Glass, Gershwin and Schubert must be conjectural. That the pianist is a delightful actor in his craft of comic audience arousal and provocative musical snippets is indisputable. But for music-making of passionate elegance, majesty and refinement, this concert had little to offer.