At the end of April, an amazing story started circulating on several classical music sites.
A pianist had endured a prolonged episode of heart failure during a performance of Stravinsky and Shostakovich with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, but finished the April 23 concert anyway.
Anyone who knew him was not surprised to learn that the musician was Alexander “Lexo” Toradze, the founder of the former Toradze Piano Studio at Indiana University in South Bend.
His commitment to his art was so intense that he couldn’t see how a heart attack was reason enough to stop acting.
Afterwards, he posted video footage, making gleeful remarks from his hospital bed.
It was shaping up to be a feel-good story, but on May 11, Toradze died at his home in Granger, in the house he shared with partner and fellow pianist Siwon Kim. He was 69 years old.
Edisher Savitski, a graduate of Toradze’s studio who now teaches at the University of Alabama, described the dread he felt watching a video of his teacher’s last concert.
“Honestly, I don’t know how he played those songs in this state. He was so committed. It will serve as his swan song,” he said by telephone from Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia, just after Toradze’s funeral last weekend in his hometown. “I knew it was bad when he couldn’t get off the bench when they were done. He usually jumped up when a concerto ended.
Born May 30, 1952 in Tbilisi to composer David and actress Liana (Asatiani) Toradze, the pianist graduated from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow in 1978.
He was already a rising star in the Soviet-controlled Republic of Georgia when he traveled to Texas in 1977 to compete in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
His explosive style delighted many participants, but first prize went to a more conventional virtuoso, and Toradze won the silver medal.
However, second place was still enough to launch his name internationally. He yearned to be freed from the constraints of Soviet rule, and eventually made a dramatic defection in 1983 while touring Spain with the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra. He escaped his KGB guards, entered the American Embassy in Madrid and requested asylum.
A few months later, he was performing across the United States as a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In 1991, he was named the Martin Endowed Professor of Piano at IUSB. His piano studio Toradze attracted pianists from all over the world, many from Georgia and other countries of the former Soviet bloc.
“His defection was a symbol of freedom,” Savitski said. “He was an ambassador for freedom, and his free spirit was also reflected in his game.”
Toradze’s personal freedom, however, also weighed on him: his father died suddenly three days after a day-long interrogation by the KGB initiated after father and son spoke to each other for the last time, by telephone.
“Every musically meaningful action I take, I apologize to him,” Toradze told The Tribune in a 2009 article about the WNIT public television documentary “Kicking the Notes the Toradze Way.” “Revisiting my father’s death is a daily occurrence for me. It’s almost as if I had to justify his sacrifice for the common goal of serving the music, serving our family and also serving the young people, whom he loved very much, his students, and I love mine too.
Toradze’s journey:WNIT Television throws notes on Toradze’s journey in a 2009 documentary about the pianist
In the United States, Toradze married and had two sons, David and Alex, with pianist Susan Blake. The marriage ended in divorce in 2002.
In a larger sense, his family was the only group of studio members. As someone who had to say goodbye to his homeland after his defection, Toradze was well aware of the value of this surrogate family system.
“He built an international reputation for the studio, but he was also very determined to make it a home for these students,” said Marvin Curtis, who served as dean of the Raclin School of the Arts during the final years of the time of Toradze. on the campus.
Curtis also pointed out that although many students were Georgian, they understood a wide range of backgrounds. Curtis described the difference Toradze made in the life of African-American pianist Joseph Bush, who was able to perform a concerto as a guest with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra at one of many SBSO concerts over the years. years, featuring Toradze and his students. guest soloists.
With his students:Toradze performs Prokofiev with SBSO
“This opportunity has changed Joseph’s life,” Curtis said. “It was the first time he played with an orchestra. He had worked so hard. His parents came from Connecticut and they could hear him play Prokofiev with a real symphony.
Toradze designed his studio both as a teaching institute and as a touring and performance opportunity for his students with annual tours of Europe and, occasionally, the United States featuring him and his students. Additionally, several of his students served as church pianists in the South Bend community.
Longtime SBSO music director Tsung Yeh, emailing The Tribune from Singapore, recalled what it was like when Toradze himself took on the role of soloist.
“Lexo hit me like a torch of fire,” Yeh said. “He showed endless passion, new ideas and light. It was a lot of fun dealing with his sudden changes in tempo and dynamics during a gig. What dramatic and moving musical rides we have had together!
A local gig:Review: SBSO and Toradze studio confirm a special bond
After a hiatus that began in 2014, Toradze eventually retired from IUSB in 2017. He received the Governor’s Arts Award in 2012 and was inducted into the South Bend Community Hall of Fame in 2014.
Ketevan Badridze, currently the studio’s acting president, came to the US to study with Toradze in 2000 and knows his style as well as anyone. She said that although Toradze has a reputation of being a strong and powerful player, this may be a misconception. Nor does this necessarily apply to his students.
“He said to the students, ‘Never become me.’ The whole point of his teaching was to approach each of us individually. He would never push us to be like him,” Badridze said. “He was an emotional player, which meant he could approach a piece differently every time he played it. He was radiant and very honest in his performances, and people often saw aggression in that.
A particularly ambitious creation of Toradze was what he called his “monocompositor” festivals. Rather than simply selecting a few compositions by Scriabin or Rachmaninoff for a themed concert, Toradze and his students would present interpretations of each work the composer wrote for the piano.
In some cases, these concerts, often held in prestigious European venues, could last eight hours. Sometimes they took two days.
“Listeners could hear all the works, and they would also hear so many different ways that each of us would interpret the works,” Badridze said. “There were no other piano studios doing this kind of stuff. Bob Demaree, who was dean of IUSB when the position was created, wanted the studio to become big. That’s why they hired Lexo.