November 20, 2018

The Rubinstein legacy, from piano to stage

“The first and last bullfight I ever saw was with my father and Picasso,” actor John Rubinstein said via cellphone on his way home from the set of “Perception,” a new TV series in which he plays an FBI agent.

The Picasso line would make a pretty good opener for a memoir. Indeed, Rubinstein has a lot of stories to tell, not only about being a Tony Award-winning actor for “Children of a Lesser God,” but also about growing up the son of legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who died in 1982 at the age of 95. 

The actor will be guest speaker on May 15 at the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater in Santa Monica for the latest installment of “Westside Connections,” a conversational classical music series now in its sixth season. 

Conceived by Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s (LACO) concertmaster, Margaret Batjer, who also hosts and performs at the event, “Westside Connections” explores how music relates to other disciplines. “A lot of people I approach freak out,” Batjer said, “because they figure classical music is not their style, but we don’t necessarily want classical musicians.”

Batjer said she looks for Los Angeles-born or -based artists, like Rubinstein, who can speak about the rich cultural history of the city and how music in general inspired them. 

“As a young musician, Arthur Rubinstein was always my inspiration,” Batjer said. “I listened endlessly to his recordings and went to as many live performances as I could as a young girl in Philadelphia.”

Batjer said she had met John before, wondering how he found his own voice growing up the son of such a strong character. “What made him choose musical theater and acting as opposed to becoming a classical artist?” Batjer asked.

“If I had become a concert pianist, I imagine that would have been much more difficult,” Rubinstein said. “Maybe that’s why I stayed away from a primary career in music, because I saw so much. I saw what the top of the line was, and I didn’t know if I would be up to it. I didn’t feel that way about acting. I felt I could compete.”

The music on the upcoming “Connections” program  — Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat major (Op. 27, No. 2) and Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C major (Op. 87) — were works dear to the great pianist’s heart.

Jeffrey Kahane, music director of LACO, said he’s performing Chopin’s Nocturne as a nod to Arthur Rubinstein, who was perhaps most identified with his fellow Pole. “Rightfully so,” Kahane said, “but his Brahms was equally great. He had a way with Brahms that was so natural and spontaneous.”

Pianist Christopher O’Riley is scheduled to join LACO’s principal cellist, Andrew Shulman, and violinist Batjer for the Brahms Piano Trio. Kahane, who won the grand prize at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv in 1983, will also perform Rachmaninoff’s Sonata, also with Shulman.

“Winning the grand prize in the Rubinstein cemented things, in terms of building my career,” Kahane said. “That’s when I began to get engagements with major orchestras. [Arthur] Rubinstein was one of my gods. I was 9 years old when my father took me to hear him at Royce Hall. I sat in the front row, and at the end of the concert he reached out and shook my hand.”

Kahane said he strove to emulate the elder Rubinstein’s elegant, penetrating and colorful tone as a young pianist. “He looked like a man who was so comfortable in his own skin,” he added. “He had such an incredible aura of health about him, which was remarkable for a guy who loved to drink wine and smoke cigars.”

Rubinstein agreed with Kahane’s portrait. “He was a wonderful man to have as a father,” he said, “because there was so much to him. If you paid attention, you got a lot.”

The actor, who also plays piano and composes — his film scores include “Jeremiah Johnson” and “The Candidate” — said “the music followed me.” When his father died, he began spending more time at the piano. At one point he could play one of Chopin’s daunting scherzos, as well as Brahms’ vast Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor.

“I was doing a TV series at the time,” Rubinstein recalled. “A piano was bolted to the floor of my trailer. I was practicing a lot during those years.”

Although he never went to a conservatory or studied music theory and harmony, he picked up the knowledge from “sitting in the orchestras when my dad rehearsed and made recordings. “

He has a special fondness for his father’s recordings of the Chopin waltzes. “I turned the pages for him at the recording sessions in Rome in the early 1960s,” Rubinstein said. “He made several takes of each one, and I’m sitting there following the music, desperately trying not to blow it for him.”

Rubinstein said his father always attended school plays when he was in town, including his eighth-grade “Macbeth.” The actor added that his father introduced him to many luminaries over the years. “I have seen, dined with, played the piano for and hung out with a tremendous number of really famous people. That is no credit whatsoever to me,” he said, “but it was exciting and created good memories.”

The actor said his parents were not religious. “They viewed organized religion as harmful, and the cause of so many tragedies and wars,” Rubinstein said. “But my dad was a very proud Jew. He never played in Germany after 1914. He demanded that he be buried in Israel. He always played there and never took a penny.”

“Westside Connections” continues on May 15 at the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater at New Roads School in Santa Monica.