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Pianist Volkov poised to sound new note


How did Oleg Volkov like the West the first time he visited?

"You can see the result yourself right here!" exclaims the pianist, who left his native Russia two years ago and now lives in Silver Spring.

Volkov, who will give a recital Sunday afternoon at the Walters Art Gallery, came to this country in 1990 to compete in the University of Maryland's William Kapell Competition. It was a competition that the then 32-year-old pianist didn't need -- he had already won several important competitions in Europe and had a flourishing career in his native country. But he wanted to leave Russia and he was scouting out the United States as a place to live. Although he didn't win first prize, he may have won something better: The university's music department offered him and his wife, a musicologist, one-year appointments.

Now that those appointments are over, Svetlana Volkov is teaching music theory and playing the piano at the Washington Ballet Academy and Oleg is beginning to make a career for himself as a concert pianist, while continuing to teach a few students.

It's a far cry from the Soviet system. In his native country, if a musician is considered good by his teachers and is validated by an important competition, he has a career; in this country's free-market system, careers often have little to do with excellence.

"I'm starting all over again," Volkov says. "All those competitions and recordings I made -- I can forget about them. If you're not known here, you're dead. And to convince people that you can do something is hard."

But Volkov has two well-reviewed records out on the MCA label. And last year he became one of the pianists invited by the Steinway company to make a promotional tour with the late Vladimir Horowitz's piano, giving recitals on it in several cities. That instrument was fabled for its brilliant voicing and unbelievably fast action. The conventional wisdom about it was that it played itself, but that -- says Volkov -- is far from the truth.

"If that were true, you wouldn't have needed Horowitz," he says. "The truth is that in order to play that instrument well, you need to be Horowitz -- or at least to try to play in his manner."

Volkov has gotten some good breaks -- enthusiastic reviews in papers such as the Washington Post -- and some bad ones -- he made his New York debut last year on the day of a blizzard and his concert went unreviewed.

But even if life is short, art is long -- and Volkov's not in a big hurry. Years ago his teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, the great Victor Merzhanov, told him that he learned something new about the Rachmaninov Third Concerto every time he played it.

"I told him, 'I don't believe you. You're 60 years old and you've played this piece 180 times in 40 years -- how could you learn anything new about it?' "

"But now I think I agree," Volkov says. "It's hard to keep things fresh, but if you work hard, you always do discover something new."

Oleg Volkov in concert

Where: Walters Art Gallery.

When: Sunday at 3 p.m.

Tickets: $8.

Call: (410) 547-9000.

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