Italian pianist Beatrice Rana is connected to Canada

Beatrice Rana. Photo: Marie Staggat

Canada has a prominent place in the heart of pianist Beatrice Rana.

The young Italian (she’s 24) burst onto the international scene with a win at the Montreal International Music Competition in 2011. She is today hailed as a keyboard star, but then she wasn’t as well known to a broader public.

“For me the Montreal competition was absolutely life-changing,” she said by telephone from Rome. “Back in 2011, I was 18 and it was my first experience in a big international competition.

“I arrived in Montreal with absolutely no expectations, so to win, so unexpectedly, such a big prize was really a shock.

“I remember a strong feeling of happiness.” But it was also eye-opening because, Rana says, she realized then that she had a chance to become a concert pianist.

It also began two years of concerts in Canada.

“I have spent so much time in Canada especially in the two years after the competition. I like Canada very much.”

The world of the soloist is not all glitz and glamour. It is also about practicing very hard to prepare for competitions and concerts. Before the Montreal win, Rana says, she was at home working and not really raising her head from the keyboard to look at the world around her.

“You are always at home practicing to be prepared for these big occasions and when they come it is, even though you are very prepared, completely unexpected. Life after the competition is completely different.”

She won the competition with a performance of  Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It became, after, a sort of signature piece for her. The Montreal win was followed by a second place in the 2013 Van Cliburn competition.

“I had played the Tchaikovsky a couple of times before the competition but then winning with such a concerto … these pieces are dear to you because it is a piece that made you win.

“I think we are very lucky as pianists to have such a huge literature and to be able to pick anything that comes to our mind. It’s an incredible resource. It’s fantastic to have so many options but sometimes it can be frustrating. You want to play so many things and there is not the time to learn it all.

“Right now, I don’t want to limit my appetite for music. I enjoy very much discovering new pieces, new styles. I take them as a challenge as well.”

She has said in previous interviews that she is very taken with the story of Robert and Clara Schumann and their close friend Johannes Brahms.

“It’s very easy to get involved in it because there are so many texts, diaries and letters. … And, of course, it was such a happy moment for music — a really revolutionary time.”

To explore that era more deeply, she decided two years ago to tackle Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, which she will perform in Southam Hall on April 4 and 6 in her Ottawa debut.

“I have been fascinated by it. I would also be fascinated as well if there were texts from Bach’s era but there is nothing. You  can’t go inside the house. I think this is part of the Bach enigma. Everyone is so fascinated by the mystery of this man … a man who could look so normal, married with children, working for the church but the music is anything but ordinary.”

She knows of what she speaks about Bach. She released a CD of the Goldberg Variations in 2017.

Herein lies another Canadian connection.

Early on in her musical education Rana was introduced to Glenn Gould’s groundbreaking version of the Goldbergs.

“I love Gould. Like it or not, (his recording of the Goldbergs) is a real thing. He really started a revolution in Bach playing. Music completely subjective. It’s impossible for everyone to like an interpretation but he did a real revolution. Until that time playing Bach was very polite and untouchable. With Gould it became real … with blood.”

That kind of earthy emotion appeals to her.

“It’s difficult to put into words for sure but what I always look for is authenticity of performance, of what is written in the music.

“In this German tradition of Bach, Schumann and Brahms that there is a great formal architecture,” that allows her to work inside that structure.

“The day I chose to play the Goldbergs, I was a bit scared because it was a huge decision to record them. At the same I was sure it was a good choice for me. I knew it would be a huge adventure. I was ready for that.”

Her next challenge will be recording the complete Beethoven Concertos which she will take up next year.

“This project  to play them all with the same orchestra and the same conductor is very significant for me and at the same time very challenging.”

She likes to mix in some lesser known pieces citing her recent performance of Leonard Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety which introduced Rana to the the music of a man so often associated with West Side Story that the rest of his repertoire is not covered all that much, she says.

Rana has been playing since she was a child of four. Her first concert was at age nine. Her parents are both musicians and her sister Ludovica is a cellist. She maintains a sisterly competition with her sister, with whom she often performs. She jokingly says she gets jealous because of the nice melodies the cello is handed by composers.

“For me the piano was absolutely something natural. It was not a choice, it was part of my daily routine. There were some moments where it was difficult but this happens in every kind of career. I have never seriously considered doing something else.”

With her young start and obvious talent, Rana was tagged as a “prodigy.” It is an uneasy, “dangerous,” descriptor for her.

“I think that no one will ever really enjoy this. At the same time I accept the fact that sometimes people need to give a name to something. Actually, I can tell you that once I accepted to be called a prodigy, the time was over and I wasn’t a prodigy any more.”

In one way that was difficult because it meant she was no longer a youngster, not that she’s ancient at 24.

“At some point you understand that you aren’t that young any more; that people don’t get as surprised as they did before. I think it’s very dangerous to use words like prodigy.

“But I don’t want to complain because to have such attention and that kind of wonder is very nice to think of afterwards.”

She also says she was blessed to be raised in a family that was always very supportive and very protective. And that she had a teacher who was no-nonsense and was not blinded by the word.

The teacher kept the student focussed on the page in front of her nose, something Rana appreciates today.

“It was the only way to improve. You cannot lie on stage.”

Beatrice Rana plays Brahms First Piano Concerto
Where: Southam Hall
When: April 4 and 6 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.