Last year, 25-year-old Chicago native Anthony Molinaro became the first pianist in five years to win the prestigious Naumburg competition for young classical musicians–one of whose sweetest rewards is guaranteed concert dates across the country. The cornerstone of Molinaro’s talent, based on tapes I’ve heard and on what his former mentor Ursula Oppens has to say, is his unconventional outlook. His peers went to Juilliard and other big-name conservatories, but though he was well qualified to join them, he chose the University of North Texas, which offered him a handsome fellowship and let him take courses in jazz; he cites Keith Jarrett as an inspiration. Molinaro does seem to be an improviser at heart–all the more surprising when you learn that he started in the Suzuki regimen at age four. Though he’s a natural for the freewheeling Romantic standards of Chopin and Liszt, Bach and Prokofiev have also benefited from his on-the-spot rethinking. His take on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, though not as idiosyncratic as that of his idol Glenn Gould, is filled with precise, quirky turns of phrase. But it’s that warhorse of Russian Romanticism, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3–the one that precipitated David Helfgott’s nervous breakdown in Shine–with which he’ll introduce himself here this weekend. (The other work on this Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra program is Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 8.) Guiding him in this rite of passage is Victor Yampolsky, a Russian emigre who can be a touch flamboyant himself. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 PM, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 1977 South Campus Drive, Evanston; 847-491-5441 or 847-467-4000. TED SHEN

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