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One hundred up - the Cuban maestro with the silken hands

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Jorge Bolet

Jorge Bolet

Jorge Bolet

Chopin and Liszt gave us some of the greatest piano music of the Romantic era. One of their greatest exponents was a virtuoso from Cuba.

Jorge Bolet was born in Havana 100 years ago today. Back then, there weren't the same tensions between Cuba and the United States, so when the youngster showed a talent for the keyboard, there was nothing to stop him securing a place at the recently founded Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, now renowned as one of the world's leading conservatories.

Bolet blossomed. After graduation, he toured Europe. He won an International Piano Competition in New York, and performed with the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra under its star conductor Eugene Ormandy. But a career in the concert hall failed to materialise. Instead, he went back to Curtis to teach.

World War II intervened. On the point of being drafted in the United States, he was recalled to Cuba to be enlisted in the army there. He ended up back in Washington as a military attaché.

A change of government in Havana cost him his commission, so he made himself available to the United States again. By the time he'd finished his training with the Americans, the war had ended and he was posted to Tokyo as part of the occupying force.

There, he would conduct the very first Japanese performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Japanese operetta, The Mikado.

Back in civilian life in the United States, his attempts to kick-start his career never really got off the ground. Though his appearances would invariably attract positive reviews, it seemed there was no place for him on the concert roster.

In the absence of engagements, he'd take what he could. One commission was to perform the soundtrack on Song Without End, a movie based on the life of Franz Liszt, which starred Dirk Bogarde as the great Romantic composer. But this didn't help much either, for it earned him the reputation of being just a Hollywood pianist.

Approaching his 60th birthday, it seemed the wheel had finally turned. He got a recording contract with RCA. A seminal recital at Carnegie Hall in 1974 is still available on disc today, but sadly it wasn't enough to keep him with the label. A change of management made him surplus to requirements.

But it changed his status. People now knew the name of Jorge Bolet. Following a recital in London, he was picked up by Decca, and the most fruitful period of his career began.

It was undoubtedly one of life's anomalies that it took him until well into his 60s to be discovered. A tall man with velvet hands, a master of expressive technique, his popularity should have been assured years before.

It was source of some frustration that it had taken so long, and meant he had to keep working past the point where he would have liked to be taking it easy.

As well as performing, he continued teaching, as Head of Piano at his alma mater Curtis. He gave his final recital in West Berlin in the summer of 1989, and passed away the following year at the age of 75.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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