Pianist Behzod Abduraimov makes his anticipated CSO subscription debut

Behzod Abduraimov is “absolutely excited” to perform Tchaikovsky with the CSO

Behzod Abduraimov

Evgeny Eutykhov

Behzod Abduraimov was all set to attend New York’s highly touted Juilliard School, a natural destination for the highly promising keyboard talent from Uzbekistan. But, then, the 15-year-old did something completely unexpected.

After just one masterclass at the International Piano Academy, a summer program in Lake Como, Italy, he decided instead to pursue his studies at an almost unknown school just outside of Kansas City, Missouri — Park University.

What the academy and university had in common was Stanislav Ioudenitch, the cowinner of the gold medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. In addition to his top-level performing career, he has become known as a master keyboard pedagogue.

“I decided this is it,” Abduraimov said. “This is the man I have to study with. It was a big discovery for me. The things he told me about — I had never heard before.”

That decision has clearly paid off. Now 33 years old, Abduraimov ranks among the world’s premier pianists. He is set to make his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut Feb. 22-23 and Feb. 27 with guest conductor Hannu Lintu.

The keyboardist has performed twice at the Ravinia Festival and appeared on the Symphony Center Presents Piano series in 2019. His first appearance with the CSO was supposed to happen several years ago, but it had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 shutdown.

“I’m absolutely excited,” Abduraimov said, “and looking forward to finally playing with one of the world’s greatest orchestras.”  

“I’m absolutely excited,” Abduraimov said, “and looking forward to finally playing with one of the world’s greatest orchestras.”

He will perform Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s familiar Piano Concerto No. 1. Although some pianists in recent years like Kirill Gerstein have championed the leaner 1879 version of the concerto, which they believe is closer to the composer’s original intentions, Abduraimov will perform the 1888 version, which is the most frequently performed.

“When I learned the concerto, I was 12 years old, and I played it in Tashkent with the National Symphony Orchestra,” he said. “Honestly, then, I didn’t know that the other edition existed, but I’ve heard it later. I wouldn’t call it too different, actually.”

Abduraimov grew up in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a central Asian country that borders Afghanistan. He began studying piano when he was 5, first with his mother and later with Tamara Popovich (1926-2010), a longtime teacher at the State Conservatory of Uzbekistan and Uspensky Music School. 

As noted earlier, he traveled to the United States as a teenager to study with Ioudenitch, who is the founder and artistic director of Park University’s International Center for Music. “That was certainly one of the best decisions I have ever made,” Abduraimov said.

Just three years later in 2009, his faith in Ioudenitch was validated when the aspiring soloist won the London International Piano Competition and his career was launched. A year later, after touring China with conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, he won another, smaller competition and was signed by HarrisonParrott, a top artist management, and the Decca Classics record label. His career has steadily soared since.

In a 2019 review of an Abduraimov recital in New York City, critic Anthony Tommasini zeroed in on his “stunning performance” of Franz Liszt’s daunting Sonata in B minor, which the composer dedicated to Robert Schumann. “With prodigious technique and rhapsodic flair,” Tommasini wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Abduraimov dispatched the work’s challenges, including burst upon burst of arm-blurring octaves, with eerie command. I was even more impressed by how he conveyed the structure of this single-movement yet boldly episodic piece.”

Though his principal residence is in Tashkent, where he spoke for this interview, Abduraimov continues to serve as artist-in-residence at Park University, and he returns Kansas City regularly when he is in the United States. “I have a lot of friends there, and it’s like my home base in the States,” he said.

Because Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, the country’s keyboard heritage is tied closely to that of Russia, which is known for its big concertos and often muscular style. Abduraimov does frequently play the concertos of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, and he acknowledges a debt to the Russian piano school, but he doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed.

“Of course, it’s pretty close to me because this part of the world had a huge influence from Russia, the Soviet Union, but I play a variety of repertoire, not just Russian,” he said, noting that he also regularly performs works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann.

Abduraimov’s Russian influence and other musical interests can be heard on his second recital album on the Alpha Classics label, which is set to be released in January. For this “very personal” recording, entitled, Shadows of My Ancestors, he chose works that represent three different aspects of his ancestry — personal, musical and pianistic.

His personal side is represented by The Walls of Ancient Bukhara by Uzbek composer Dilorom Saidaminova. “It has a lot of Eastern flavor,” the pianist said, “and I thought it would be interesting for the Western world to be introduced to the music from my native country.”

Providing a nod to his Russian musical ancestry is Prokofiev’s 10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75. And to highlight his pianistic roots, he chose Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, one of the “toughest pieces ever written.” “It’s like an Everest,” he said. “It’s a big challenge for any pianist, but I didn’t choose it because of that. It’s one of the most creative works ever written, with great sonorities and effects.”