- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

Pianist Vassily Primakov has remained calm throughout solo engagements with major symphonies. He’s kept his cool during grueling competitions for prizes both here and abroad. The situation was a bit different last Thursday, however, when the Russian prodigy learned that he would be playing while the legendary Van Cliburn sat a mere six feet from the stage.

“Before the concert, they told me where he was going to be and asked if I felt comfortable with that … it was a little nerve-racking,” the artist, 24, confessed after his performance of Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse” at the Young Concert Artists of Washington 25th anniversary benefit hosted by Italian AmbassadorSergio Vento at his embassy.

Mr. Primakov’s selection was a particularly difficult one, and did not fail to win praise from his renowned colleague.

“Prodigious technique, really wonderful,” Mr. Cliburn said after listening to the entire piece with his eyes closed, a look of sheer rapture on his face.

Knowing his too-nearby gaze would inevitably rattle a young person performing in public is but one of the many considerations Mr. Cliburn has shown junior musicians since he became a celebrity after winning the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow during the height of the Cold War. Over the past four decades, he has devoted much of his time not only to his own highly acclaimed Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, but to Young Concert Artists (YCA) as well.

“He has been the guiding light, the force for excellence and the loving presence … for young musicians from all over the world,” YCA Founding Director Susan Wadsworth told the crowd before Mr. Primakov and his superb concert co-stars, soprano Courtenay Budd and guitarist Robert Belinic, took to the stage.

The famously self-effacing Mr. Cliburn did not fail to deflect credit for YCA’s success in discovering and launching the careers of more than 200 brilliant but previously unknown performers (many of whom have performed at the Kennedy Center during the past 25 years).

“There have always been sponsors and patrons who have created an environment for art to flourish,” he said by way of thanks to guests paying a minimum $300 apiece. “Every opportunity young people have to display their talents is important.”

Svetlana Ushakova, wife of the Russian ambassador, was just as impressed by her young compatriot’s display of piano virtuosity (“You see? Russians are the best”) as she was by her opportunity to meet Mr. Cliburn.

“He is a genius — that’s why he won the first prize in Moscow. His performance put him in orbit like a sputnik,” Mrs. Ushakova said as she twirled to show her interlocutor a magnificent cape embroidered with gold and pearls and trimmed in sable.

The post-concert high diminished after dinner, when the lights were raised for a live auction of no less than 14 items.

It was difficult to resist teasing Bitsey Folger (who co-chaired the event with Dr.Sidney Werkman) as guests seated near the periphery began sheepishly to trickle out.

“I know I’m going to be tarred for this,” Mrs. Folger admitted to general laughter from tablemates.

But no matter, proceeds from the sale substantially increased the evening’s bottom line to more than $100,000 — enough to provide a fine debut for artists who will be appearing at the Kennedy Center in the months ahead.

— Kevin Chaffee

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