Beatrice Rana is the kind of performer who may need piano tuners twice over the course of a concert, and not because she plays so hard.
Next week’s Philadelphia Orchestra soloist, 26-year-old Rana, speaks so articulately through the complex mechanics of the instrument that the usual physical distance between her fingers and the piano’s sound seems nonexistent. Achieving that kind of clarity required repeated first aid for the instrument at her Carnegie Hall debut recital this year.
“I always felt that my first voice was the piano. I know that can be difficult to understand. I was born into a family of musicians. From the first day of my life, I never felt the piano was something external. It was part of my daily life. And I can much more recognize my playing the piano than my actual speaking,” said the Italian-born and -trained pianist.
Her performances and recordings, some of the most lauded among her generation of pianists, leave you feeling like you know her personally.
When she plays Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 June 6 and 8 at the Kimmel Center — her first Philadelphia appearance — the typically sleek, efficient piece is likely to sound more conversational. “Everybody has a physical relationship with their instrument, but it’s a little different with the piano because we don’t embrace. We don’t hug our instrument. We just sit there," she said. “But at the same time, I feel that the piano is an elongation of my arms, yes.”
The other main factor in her psyche is having grown up amid opera. Italian musicians are often less filtered than their Nordic counterparts, but Rana brings extra, operatic grandeur to her playing. “Do you know southern Italy? Everybody knows opera arias by heart. And not necessarily people who listen to classical music,” she said. “It’s part of the culture. I feel it in my blood.”
Somewhat incongruously, she’s best known for her top-selling recording of Bach’s un-operatic Goldberg Variations that debuted at the top of England’s classical sales charts with reviews praising, above all, her intelligence.
But specialization isn’t yet possible for her. She performs only 40 percent of the pieces she knows, limiting herself to what she can own with a personal viewpoint that yields distinctive insights, and ones that evolve constantly.
The sea imagery in Ravel’s Miroirs, for example. "I spend summers in my hometown [Lecce], and it has a beautiful beach on the sea. I know the movement of the waves. I know everything because I spend a lot of time on the beach. It’s not the sea that Ravel had in mind. His was probably more colorful, much more stormy. But this is my sea.”
How that imagery is manifested on any given day is open to change. Emotional honesty — whatever it means that day — is an obligation she feels to the piece and to her audience: “It’s impossible to plan everything. We are not the same day by day. We change emotions. We have to be honest with ourselves, and that means being honest with what we feel.”
That explains why there’s not the slightest hint of calculation in her playing. You have to wonder how conductors feel about her sense of spontaneity. It goes both ways.
“Some conductors have asked me for something different … Sometimes I am not very happy,” she admitted. "At the same time, their idea might be better than mine. I like those moments.
“The latest revelation was with [Russian conductor] Yuri Temirkanov, and not because he changed anything. He speaks very little in rehearsal. Actually, he doesn’t speak at all. But with his hands and eyes, he told me so many things. I realized that I wasn’t playing as I would with any other conductor. That was quite intense for me.”
Not that Rana is complaining. But just so you know that she’s human, she probably will.
“I always complain,” she said. “That’s part of my personality.”
Having such a singular talent at a young age, though, was never a burden. She played her first concerto in public at age 9. When her friends were deciding what university to attend, she knew who she was, where she was headed, and, while still a teenager, won the 2011 Montreal International Competition.
The Van Cliburn Competition Silver Medal came in 2013 — and she won it with the kind of playing that’s not characteristic of competition winners, who tend to be technically perfect and interpretively safe. Her repertoire choices were left of center, with little-known Clementi, Schumann, and Scriabin. More mainstream choices, such as Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28, were the kind of pieces some pianists save until age 40.
Live recordings of the various Cliburn competition rounds suggest the operatic side of her personality was dialed back a bit, but only a bit. Being young, she had the advantage of having less to lose. Of course, she chose repertoire to show that she’s a well-rounded musician. But when it was all over, she beat a path to Bach’s hour-long Goldberg Variations – “something I would never consider for a competition."
Rather riskier was her choice to play Prokofiev’s oblique, challenging Piano Concerto No. 2 when making her Philadelphia Orchestra debut during the 2015 Saratoga season — tricky to pull off with short summer rehearsal schedules and even trickier to sell to listeners who were there for the 1812 Overture that ended the concert. Answer: She had confidence in the orchestra, and it was more than repaid.
“We did the first rehearsal, and it was brilliant. It was absolutely ready for the concert. Beautiful sound and beautiful shaping for the phrases. When you experience a great contact with an orchestra, it’s like playing with one person,” she said. “There are very good orchestras, but what I call the real orchestras are ones when every musician plays very much as a part of that one thing.”
Any number of vistas await. She has only recently started playing Brahms in public. Schubert is farther down the road: She loves the music so much, she wants to give it dignity, even though Schubert was her age when he wrote much of what she wants to play. Accompanying singers was a recent revelation — as well it would be when the unorthodox repertoire is Samuel Barber, John Cage, and early Leonard Bernstein.
She returns later this month to Lecce to play Bartok with her teacher Benedetto Lupo but will spend the rest of the summer at festivals, away from Italy, and, for at least some of the time, away from her family and boyfriend.
“Home is where your loved ones are,” she said. “But the piano is another home for me. Every night, I’m in a different city, different stage, different people. What never changes is that I’m on stage to play piano. That’s my home for the day. And I like it.”
Beatrice Rana with the Philadelphia Orchestra
7:30 p.m. June 6 and 8 p.m. June 8 at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts.