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The science of a superior touch.

Ask virtually any classical pianist if they spend more time pondering the intricacies of Prokofieff and Paderewski or giving serious thought to physiological theories. The likely response would be a bemused stare - from anyone except Claudio Richerme, that is. For the young Brazilian concert artist and music professor, having an intimate understanding of body mechanics is the only way to insure an outstanding performance.

"Most musicians themselves may not look that deeply at physical concerns," says the soft-spoken pianist. "And many piano teachers may not be familiar with physiology. Everything from correct posture to the variations in hand positions is critically important to achieving the optimum level of performance," he states.

For the 39-year-old native of Sao Jodo da Boa Vista, a small town in the interior of Sao Paulo State, researching the mechanics of proper playing has almost become obsessive. "Of course, I've improved a lot," he laughs broadly. "One of the reasons I began the research is because I didn't have very good technique before."

A lack of technique is something no one would accuse Richerme of today. Indeed, it is his ability to convey a variety of moods and interpret the most demanding technical works while maintaining such enviable tone quality that has impressed audiences and critics alike from Vienna to Sao Paulo.

After his Carnegie Hall debut, the New York Times lauded Richerme's "elegantly refined pianism, impeccable technical command and great variety of tones. His finger work is crisp, accurate and texturally illuminating," the review continued. "He makes important musical points with direct, unaffected honesty." The pianist drew particular praise for his interpretation of Ravel's La Valse, moving the Times to praise his ability to execute the taxing work with "subtle washes of tonal coloring" and "an insinuating but controlled rhythmic flexibility that was altogether devastating in its cumulative force."

It would have been impossible to forecast such feats when young Claudio began piano lessons in his hometown with a local teacher, Benedita Camargo. By the time he graduated from the Sao Paulo Music College, Brazil's classical music realized they had a major talent developing in their midst. In the mids-1970s, Richerme solidified his reputation by winning prestigious local competitions and performing with major symphonies throughout Brazil.

In 1977, at the invitation of the Partners of the Americas, he spent six months as an artist-in residence at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, serving as an ambassador of Brazilian music and helping to make the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos and other composers from his country better known to North American musicians. "Only a few pieces by Villa-Lobos are well-known outside of Brazil," he acknowledges. "But he had many masterpieces, and was very innovative. His music has a distinctly Brazilian style, based on folklore and the incorporation of rhythms seldom used in classical music." Naturally, work by the famed composer would become Richerme's stock in trade, in both concert and through recording. "There is a special Brazilian soul in his music."

Richerme's study with Guiomar Novaes, a Brazilian concert artist and highly regarded teacher during the peak of her career in the 1950s, further reinforced the importance of achieving optimum tonal quality. "She was famous for her touch and fine tone quality," Richerme says today. "The New York Times called her |The Lady of the Singing Tone,' and she would sometimes beg me not to listen to certain recordings even though they might have been by highly regarded artists. She thought the tone quality was poor. She absolutely hated what you might call a |hard sound'."

Richerme began to think very seriously about tone quality and how it is achieved. He was well aware that some untrained pianists could achieve a beautiful sound while other conservatory trained artists produced a brittle, mechanical tone that lacked warmth and feeling. "It's somewhat a matter of taste, of course," he admits, "but I began to wonder if there were certain techniques that could be used to produce the kind of tone Madame Novaes preferred." His investigation became serious six years ago when he chose the mechanics of piano playing as the subject for his doctoral thesis. With every new discovery, the study has grown in scope and potential importance to pianists of every age and ability. Richerme plans to publish his research in book form.

"I'm finding out so many things that haven't been researched before," he says enthusiastically. The work at Sao Paulo State University, where he is a professor of music, includes the participation of several anatomy professors to better understand how the muscles involved in playing the piano actually work. Colleagues with expertise in computers are also involved.

Much of what has been learned so far points out the importance of economy of movement. "Many pianists get tired because they work their muscles harder than they need to," he points out. "I've gone back to re-examine some of the longstanding playing technique theories advanced since the 1920s. In attempting to replicate the earlier studies through observations, I have learned that these theories are not quite correct."

Richerme also found useful research that has been given inadequate exposure. "I found one very important investigation about the quality of sound in a magazine so obscure no one knows it," he claims. Through the process of collecting all previous studies, testing them for validity, and adding his own findings, the pianist hopes to produce a solid document on the kind of techniques that have helped him improve his own playing and win an important niche in the highly competitive concert arena.

In addition Richerme's work may also help some concert artists maintain their performing abilities longer. Poor application of body mechanics can lead to stressed muscles, weakened joints, arthritis, tendinitis and other problems. And then there's the question of producing a more beautiful tone. "Scientists used to say there was no way to change the tone quality of the piano with the same intensity of attack," he states. "Today we know very well the influence the kind of touch has on tone quality. It may indeed be a natural ability on the part of some pianists. Now it's something we can break down, analyze and apply to anyone's playing."

As for his own piano playing, Claudio Richerme continues to apply his research to programs that have taken him on tours throughout the Americas and Europe. "You have to realize that there is always a better way to play any piece by any composer," he says with earnest conviction.

Mark Holston, a lifetime musician, writes about jazz and Latin music for a variety of publications.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Organization of American States
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Brazilian pianist Claudio Richerme
Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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