Beatrice Rana and her mother, Maria, both swear that this is true. One day when Beatrice was about 6 months old, she reached over and started playing scales on the piano.
“I know. It’s very hard to explain,” said Rana, the 20-year-old Italian who is one of six finalists in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
At 2, she was tapping out tunes from Disney movies by ear. By 9 she had made her orchestral debut. But Rana says hers is not the story of a tortured, isolated prodigy.
The simple truth, she says, is that the life she was born to as the daughter of two pianists just happens to be the only one she has ever wanted.
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“I was born and I always saw them playing the piano,” Rana said late Monday at Bass Hall after her final performance in the semifinal round. “They were speaking and playing the piano, so I was learning to speak and play the piano. It was just so natural, a part of my life. I’ve never had a single moment of doubt.”
Onstage at Bass Hall, her music has been elegant and often understated. Offstage at the Cliburn, she has seemed relaxed and happy despite the competition’s notorious pressures, highly accommodating with fans and the media.
Her mother has accompanied her to Texas but hardly seems the stage mom type. Instead theirs seems a sisterly companionship between mother and daughter. They finish each other’s sentences and laugh often. After her last performance of the semis, Beatrice Rana chatted by phone with her father, Vincenzo, who has been keeping up with her performances at home in Italy via the Internet.
In that talk, Beatrice confessed a couple of errors to him but seemed more interested in knowing whether he liked her dress. He did.
Her parents met while they were teaching piano at an Italian conservatory and settled in the little town of Arnesano, on the heel of the boot of Italy. When Maria Rana was pregnant with Beatrice, their first child, her husband was preparing for a piano competition himself. Thus, in utero, Beatrice listened to repeated performances of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev.
Maria held her baby daughter on her lap while giving piano lessons. That’s how young Beatrice was able to reach for the keys and begin to play those first memorable notes.
The family soon came to include another daughter, Ludovica, who is 17 and already a recognized talent at the cello. When Cliburn webcast crews recently traveled to Italy to interview Beatrice Rana, they filmed a performance of the sisters playing together.
But Beatrice Rana said her parents never pressured them.
“Actually, on the contrary,” she said. “They know that it’s a hard life. She and my father said, ‘Don’t feel obliged to continue with the piano.’ I just found playing the piano really easy, not just technically speaking, but also for expressing something.
“When you are a child, you go to school and learn to write,” she said. “You have to write something about your mom or your sister or your holiday. For me, writing something was more difficult than telling a story with music.”
Like so many of her competitors, Rana is highly self-critical at the keyboard, though perhaps less so than when she was younger. She has also been careful to cultivate a well-rounded life that begins with her family and a small group of loyal friends.
She and her sister both love art. Beatrice Rana is particularly enamored of the paintings of Caravaggio, because of the Italian master’s use of light. Four years ago, when she attended the PianoTexas institute at TCU, she visited the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth to see her first Caravaggio painting in person, the famous The Cardsharps.
“I was shocked by this Caravaggio that was there,” she remembered. “I stayed like a half an hour. Looking at a real Caravaggio is very different than an art book. There is a reproduction, but not nearly the same power.”
Hockey and the Montreal Canadiens were also loves at first sight. A few years ago on a visit to the Canadian city, she broke her finger in a car door the day before she was to make her first recording. She consoled herself at the hockey game.
“It was amazingly beautiful. It was super good,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I found it much more interesting than football, what you consider soccer. So slow, this soccer. Ice hockey is faster, so much action for 20 minutes, then there is a break, then sweets and cakes, which is wonderful.”
Two years ago she left her family behind in Italy to study with renowned teacher and Cliburn juror Arie Vardi at a conservatory in Hannover, Germany. That presented a new challenge.
“The most difficult thing about staying away from home at Hannover is that there is very many crazy people,” she said. “They think just of music and don’t think of life. This is very, very bad. How can we play music if we don’t know life?
“There is this atmosphere in the school where people come in at 7 in the morning and they don’t go out until midnight,” she said. “These two weeks I have been focused on the piano, but usually it’s not like that. I have a social life. Even with the move to Germany, I speak to my family every day. We talk about concerts, and musical ideas, and food and sports, about everything.”
More tests in that regard likely loom. After winning the Montreal Piano Competition two years ago (then headed by current Cliburn President and CEO Jacques Marquis), Rana has been increasingly celebrated internationally, particularly in Canada. She is already represented by Paris-based Solea Artist Management, and, according to the website, has an engagement to play in Milan on June 12, three days after the Cliburn.
A Cliburn medal would multiply the adulation and demands exponentially. She is the first to play a concerto in the final round tonight.
Rana sounds as if she has been preparing, the happy prodigy working to keep perspective.
“When you win a competition, the real competition starts,” she said. “You have to demonstrate your value at every concert. Actually, I want that every concert be better than the other one because this is what I want to do with my life.
“Like I’ve said many times, I don’t want to go to competitions for the sake of competing,” Rana said. “Competitions can bring you concerts. That’s what I want to do, concerts. I like to be onstage and talk to people with music. Nothing more.”