Performing Arts

Romanian pianist Raluca Stirbat to make U.S. debut at Miami International Piano Festival

When Raluca Stirbat makes her American debut Friday night at the Miami International Piano Festival, there will be more on the repertorial menu than the usual recital boilerplate of Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven.

Stirbat is appearing in this weekend’s “Discovery Series” of the Miami Piano Festival. The festival opens Thursday night with pianist Rachel Cheung, continuing with Stirbat Friday night and Leonid Egorov on Saturday.

A proud advocate of her Romanian compatriots’ music, Stirbat will be bringing works of two of her country’s finest composers: George Enescu and Mihail Jora.

Enescu is best known for his Romanian Rhapsody No. 1. Written when he was 20, the colorful orchestral showpiece with its indigenous Romanian folk melodies has been a pops staple for the century since its premiere.

But though he remains best known for the Rhapsody, Enescu wrote a great deal more music that is less well traveled: the opera Oedipe; three symphonies; two string quartets; and sonatas for violin, cello and solo piano.

“Everybody knows the Rhapsody,” Stirbat said from her home in Vienna. “But the piano sonatas are really great music, too, and very little known abroad.”

Friday night, she will play Enescu’s Piano Sonata No. 3, a late work far removed from the populist brilliance of the familiar Romanian Rhapsody.

“It’s a fantastic piece,” she says of the sonata. “It’s an amazing and complex piece, a mixture of Neo-classical and yet also Romantic with some jazz in places and Romanian folk song. It’s very complicated in alternating between symmetry and asymmetry.”

Stirbat mentions that Enescu greatly appreciated his time in the United States, where he performed extensively and earned great acclaim and popularity.

“In America Enescu was very happy because the people loved him and appreciated him, first of all as a composer,” Stirbat said.

Stirbat’s advocacy on behalf of Enescu extends beyond music. She founded the George Enescu Society in 2011 and has launched an international campaign to save and preserve Enescu’s Memorial House in Mihăileni, Romania, where he wrote many of his masterpieces.

“We have raised the money to restore it, and now we hope to make it an international music academy,” she said. “It’s a very wonderful project.”

Even less familiar than Enescu’s sonatas is the music of his friend and compatriot, Mihail Jora.

“Jora had great influence on Romanian musical life in the first half of the 20th century,” said Stirbat. “He was a composer, conductor, pianist, teacher. He was director of the Bucharest Conservatory He was a very complex personality.”

Jora also had his share of tragedy in his life, said Stirbat. “He suffered greatly under the Communists, and his wife was imprisoned.”

Stirbat will perform Jora’s Joujoux pour Ma Dame (Five Pieces for piano). The music is “slightly ironic,” the pianist says of Jora’s suite.

“There are resonances of different composers like Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Bartók and Enescu. But he is playing with the styles and he is making his own expression of harmonies and colors. It’s very demanding but also a great pleasure to play it.

“I love the harmonies. For example, in the slow movement he makes a kind of tribute to Debussy, but his harmonies are much more complicated and very chromatic. The contrasts are big, but they’re not cheap,” she adds. “They’re very elegant and very noble.”

Also on Stirbat’s program is Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, a Romantic keyboard cornerstone. The composer didn’t supply a program for this dramatic work, but Stirbat, who did her dissertation on the sonata, has an individual take on Liszt’s epic canvas.

“I feel there is sort of a Faust story [in the sonata],” she says. “ I can hear themes for the man, for destiny and very obviously a theme for Mephisto and then a theme for love.

“You can play with it and imagine anything you want. The main thing is to convince the public and make this half-hour seem like five minutes.”

Like other classical artists, Stirbat has carved out an online presence for herself by savvy use of social media. Her YouTube channel has several videos on it, including the Jora suite and a flame-throwing final movement of Moritz Moszkowski’s Piano Concerto in E major.

Next month, Stirbat will complete her three-disc set of Enescu’s piano music, which will be released in the fall on the hänssler classic label. “It will include really every single, finished piece that Enescu ever wrote for piano.” Other future plans are to perform more Beethoven (“He is my God”) and learn the Alban Berg Sonata.

Even though she has been living in Vienna for two decades, she remains a proud Romanian artist.

“After my studies, I stayed here. I love the city, and I love the music and the opportunities,” she said. “It’s quite a quiet city. I mean you are in a capital, but you don’t have all the stress that you usually have in a big city.”

“And it’s also not very far from Romania.”

Raluca Stirbat will make her U.S. debut at the Miami International Piano Festival playing music of Liszt, Beethoven, Enescu and Jora at 7:45 Friday night at the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach. The festival also features Rachel Cheung Thursday night, Leonid Egorov Saturday, and a collaboration with the Manny Perez vocal studio on Sunday. miamipianofest.com

For complete coverage of classical music, go to SouthFloridaClassicalReview.com

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