Anthony Molinaro was a graduate student at Northwestern University two years ago when his performance at the Naumburg International Piano Competition, which included Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3 (the one that sent David Helfgott over the edge), wowed the judges and jump-started his career. It was a performance fueled by a passion for music that sprang from an improbably ordinary basketball-and-tennis boyhood in the south suburbs. Molinaro won the competition and was catapulted into the high-wire and hotel-room grind of the concert novice. Now he’s on the verge of another leap, a phone call away from a major-label record deal that he hopes will let him take control of his professional life. If it comes through, he’ll cut back on the classical bookings, play more of his own compositions, and launch the little jazz group that’s been riffing in his head.

At 26, Molinaro is as bald as a peeled egg, a motormouth with a repertoire of irreverent opinions who’s been known to surprise orchestras by breaking into improvisation in the middle of a Gershwin or Mozart performance. What’s the difference between classical and other kinds of music? “None,” he says. “The only real distinctions in music are between good and bad.” Who’s to blame for the graying of symphony audiences? “Music teachers. They squander the chance to create audiences.” Whose fault is it that we don’t have great pianist-composers like Rachmaninoff nowadays? “The music schools’. They separate everything and make music academic.” Why is classical music in trouble? “It’s delivered as history.” Also, “Everyone’s playing the same things.”

Molinaro was born in Blue Island and raised through grade school in Glenwood. No one in his family was a musician, but there was a piano in the house. Like a million other youngsters, he took the obligatory lessons along with his other extracurricular activities. The teaching was uninspired and there was no particular pressure from his parents to be serious about it, but for some reason “the music stuck.” When the family moved to the Cleveland area, he added trumpet lessons to his schedule and finally got a teacher who saw that the kid was a fire waiting to be lit. The teacher was Jack Jackmides, a jazz musician who got Molinaro listening to music beyond whatever piece he was learning and gave him a role model to latch onto. “He did something that classical teachers had never done for me,” Molinaro says. “He introduced me to all the great musicians. All of a sudden, I wanted to do everything Wynton Marsalis could do. It pushed me more into music in general and eventually led toward the piano.”

After Molinaro won the Naumburg, “there was one concert after the next,” he says. “That’s great, but it also sucks. For any young classical musician, especially one who doesn’t have huge exposure, you pretty much have to play what you can. You’re trying to make a living, so you play these crazy schedules: one night in New York and the next in Oregon, with different music. It’s not healthy to be practicing ten hours a day and trying to play all these different things just to survive. And the preparation for classical performances can be incredibly stressful. Every time you step onstage, you’re going out there and playing an hour and 15 minutes of memorized music. There’s always this element of ‘How is this possible?’ It’s very difficult to feel like you’re playing your best.”

The implication is clear: anything less than the best is unacceptable. Molinaro may seize control of his schedule, but he won’t be able to change this: in the end, he’s the instrument, a musician because “there never was and never will be another option,” playing the music that “demands to be played,” believing that when he plays it “it’s going to be better than it’s ever been performed,” and then going onstage with the intention of forgetting where he is. “It doesn’t always happen that you’re completely lost in the music,” he says, “but sometimes it does, and that’s fantastic. You live for those kind of nights.”

Molinaro will play a solo concert at 8 tonight in Ravinia’s Bennett-Gordon Hall. The program includes two of the pieces he played in the Naumburg competition, Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 7, along with his piano-only arrangement of the Andante from Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano and his own composition “Yes, I Want to Write a Fugue.” Encores are likely to be jazz. Tickets are $15; call 847-266-5100 (there’s a $1 fee for phone orders). Bennett-Gordon Hall is located in the John D. Harza Building at the southwest corner of Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Roads in Highland Park (use the St. Johns Avenue entrance). –Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jon Randolph.