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Wael Farouk and the Rachmaninoff piano oeuvre

Wael Farouk was born with extremely short hand ligaments. He can't make a fist, open a jar, or button his shirt, but he can play the complete solo piano works of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who is known for complex and demanding music.

At thirty-two years of age, the youngest piano faculty member in Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA) recently took on the challenge of memorizing and performing all of Rachmaninoff's solo piano works, proving wrong the skeptics who had repeatedly predicted limitations on what Farouk could do at the piano.

"In my opinion, hand size is completely irrelevant," said the internationally-known pianist, who was initially denied entry at seven years of age to the Cairo Music Conservatory because of his small hands and short fingers. "What it takes is a strong technical foundation and a highly developed technique," said Farouk, who is five feet tall with a reach of an octave. Rachmaninoff, by comparison, was 6 feet, 6 inches, his reach spanning a twelfth.

The pianist recently performed nearly twelve hours of Rachmaninoff's solo works during five recitals held over an eight-month period at Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall in downtown Chicago. It was the first time that all of Rachmaninoff's solo works for piano had been performed in Chicago, and a rare piano performance feat in general.

"In my fifty years of being in the music business and going to classical music concerts, I've never been aware of anyone doing something like this—particularly in a single season," said Henry Fogel, former head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and dean of CCPA. "It doesn't matter if he was over six feet tall and had big hands like Rachmaninoff. This would still be an impressive accomplishment."

How did Farouk manage to perform all ninety-eight of Rachmaninoff's solo piano works from memory over such a compressed time period? One answer is undoubtedly his determination. Selected as the most talented child in his native Egypt at eight years of age and making his debut with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra at eleven years of age, Farouk was first introduced to Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto at age thirteen by an instructor who warned him against playing the piece, because it might be damaging to his hands.

"It was like a dream for me. I had an affinity for the music the moment I heard it, and I knew I had to play it," said Farouk, who, at age sixteen, routinely performed meticulous hand exercises at the piano that would bulk up his hands and fingers.

For fifteen hours a day, he practiced, putting one finger down on a key and then lifting and reaching the other fingers on the hand as far as they would go—up and down, up and down, up and down on the keys from an ultra-stretched position.

"It took a couple of hours to do each of the exercises, which essentially are the equivalent of stretching exercises for athletes," he recalled. "It wasn't a picnic, but it was something I had to get done because I had this faith that I could not only play the piece—but that I could add something new to it."

At nineteen, he performed Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto for the first time at the Cairo Opera House in the piece's Egyptian premiere. Before attending college in the United States as a Fulbright Scholar, he learned to play the composer's second sonata, which he played at his Carnegie Hall debut in 2013—a performance that a writer for the New York Concert Review described as "absolutely masterful." He also learned and performed selections from Rachmaninoff's preludes, Etudes-Tableaux, and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The composer's complete solo portfolio, including obscure pieces that are rarely performed, thus became something of a natural progression for Farouk. Still, it took the pianist, who lives in Chicago, teaches at Roosevelt University, and is a doctoral student in piano performance at Rutgers University, two years of intense preparation.

First, he gathered history and biographical information about Rachmaninoff. Then he familiarized himself with the composer's complete canon, including his solo, orchestral and choral works, songs, and chamber music. "It was my goal to always have his music in my ears," said Farouk.

Farouk also got to know the context of each piece the composer wrote so that he was aware of what came before and after. For instance, Rachmaninoff's first piano sonata, known as Faust, Op. 28, completed in 1908, came after he wrote his second symphony, Op. 27, in 1906–07, and immediately before he composed his symphonic poem, Isle of the Dead, Op. 29. The piece was followed by Rachmaninoff's beloved third piano concerto, Op. 30, which he wrote in 1909.

"He [Rachmaninoff] must have had many of these musical ideas floating with him at the same time," said Farouk, who listened to recordings, especially those of the composer performing his own music. "Acquainting myself with all of Rachmaninoff's work, as well as how he himself approached the music and how the works were part of the time period's piano tradition, helped me to interpret pieces like the composer's first piano sonata," he said.

In order to come up with a "best" edition for each piece, the pianist compared all available editions against one another. "In a way, I had to form my own edition. It meant I had to add to the score my own phrasings, my own groupings, and quite often corrections of misprints," said Farouk, who discovered during his research that many of the editions of Rachmaninoff's solo works lack notations for pedaling and practical fingering.

But small hands and stature weren't overriding factors in this process. In fact, Farouk, who has also researched the "pianistic giants" of Rachmaninoff's time, found that some of the greatest, including Josef Hoffman, Leopold Godowsky, and Moritz Rosenthal, also were small men with small hands. "Rachmaninoff regarded Hoffman as the greatest living pianist of his time and even once asked him for a lesson, which Hoffman was in shock about and declined," said Farouk of the five-foot-tall pianist who was known for his ability to project a huge, full sound that could fill Carnegie Hall two times over.

"You have to be acutely aware of how hand, arm, and body are incorporated into playing the music," said Farouk. "If you use your body weight intelligently," he added, "you can fully project the sound, while at the same time protecting the hands from becoming strained."

Recognizing the patterns that Rachmaninoff used in his pianistic language and understanding how the pattern should sink from the hand into the keyboard were essential for Farouk in developing his Rachmaninoff solo program, consisting of five recitals, each approximately two hours in length, that were held in October, November, and December of 2013 and March and May of 2014. 

"I was concerned that the music might be too weighty and possibly an emotional strain on the audience if it was not planned strategically," said Farouk, who opened the series with Rachmaninoff's Corelli Variations, which was actually the composer's last major work for piano. "I believe the piece shows Rachmaninoff at his best in terms of form and architecture," the pianist said.

Three of the composer's rarely performed pieces—the Prelude in D Minor, the Oriental Sketch in B-flat Major, and Fragments in F Minor were presented at the final recital, in part because they were all written by the composer in 1917 as he rode a train to Sweden, leaving Russia for the last time. "The date was important historically and to Rachmaninoff personally, as it was a time when the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I raged," Farouk said.

Balance and flow were also considered, which is why the pianist chose to group three nocturnes composed by Rachmaninoff at age fourteen with Five Pieces, Op. 3, written at age nineteen, and the composer's first sonata, completed at age thirty-five. "I wanted the series to show the composer's journey from his youthful instinct to his mature craftsmanship," said Farouk. "It really was a significant undertaking—much more difficult than programming a single recital with a selection of works."

Harmonic analysis, including a deep understanding of Rachmaninoff's incredible ability to transpose music into any key, also figured into the program's fluid presentation. Vselod Demidov, one of Farouk's first instructors and a student of Heinrich Neuhaus, insisted on the pianist developing fluency in transposition at a very young age. "It was a skill that definitely helped me not only to interpret, but also to memorize, Rachmaninoff's complete solo works," Farouk said. Those skills also have given the pianist much fluency at the keyboard.

"Most pianists are predictable, but Wael is an artist with ideas. His instincts inspire him to make instantaneous decisions that are often surprising," said one of Farouk's instructors, Solomon Mikowsky, who taught Wael at the Manhattan School of Music and at Roosevelt's CCPA. "There is imagination and creativity in everything he plays, yet he always keeps a melody alive and traveling through space. It is like sweetness in your ear and the kind of sound you never could imagine," added Mikowsky, for whom Farouk dedicated his Rachmaninoff solo series.

At Mikowsky's suggestion, Farouk began teaching last fall at Roosevelt while preparing and presenting the Rachmaninoff series. One of the most rewarding experiences for the pianist has been to see the enthusiasm of CCPA's piano students for works they weren't familiar with and had never heard before. "A number of students came to me after the recitals with intelligent questions—as well as determination to learn the pieces themselves," said Farouk. He has assigned several of Rachmaninoff's solo works, including the etudes, preludes, and Musical Moments to his students, believing they are good models for muscular development that can help tighten and sharpen pianists' hands.

Winston Choi, director of Roosevelt's piano program, its forty students, and eight artist faculty members, believes Farouk's use of Rachmaninoff in the teaching studio, which requires close attention to elements of interpretation, including tempo, phrasing, rubato, pedaling, and dynamics, will make the program's students into stronger performers. "Wael is someone with a unique musical voice who has the ability to tell stories at the piano," said Choi. "He plays with color and detail and yet the overriding structure of what he is playing remains intact. Those are the kinds of skills and artistry that students need to become professional piano performers."

Farouk made good on a pledge he initially made as a teen to one day play all of Rachmaninoff's solo works, primarily as a way to honor a composer who has been, in his own life, motivational. "I chose to peg the series to the 140th anniversary of Rachmaninoff's birth, but you don't need an event like that to set an ambitious goal for yourself," he said. "Going through a composer's complete oeuvre makes one better informed in approaching a single work, even if it is the simplest of pieces. I've learned that knowing the entirety can enrich the medium."

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