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Alexander Toradze, Idiosyncratic Pianist, Dies at 69

Alexander Toradze, a Georgian-American pianist and former Soviet defector whose idiosyncratic and bravura performances of Russian composers was either loved or hated, died on May 11 at his home in South Bend, Ind. He was 69.

The cause was heart failure, his health having been deteriorating since 2019, his manager, Ettore F. Volontieri, said.

Mr. Toradze was also stricken with heart failure, as it was later diagnosed, on April 23 during a performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in Washington State. Though he had to be helped onstage at the start because of weakness, he completed the concert and was hospitalized afterward, Mr. Volontieri said.

Mr. Toradze specialized in Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and other Russian composers. His concerts this spring were to include a performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Illinois Philharmonic, scheduled for May 14.

Mr. Toradze, whom friends and colleagues called Lexo, won the silver medal at the 1977 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, though members of the jury were divided, with some finding his playing disturbingly percussive.

The critic Peter G. Davis, however, was among his fans: He wrote in The New York Times two years later that “his playing had the best sort of éclat and brilliance in that it stemmed directly from the character of the music rather than from a desire to show off.”

“His tone,” he added, “was glittering but never clattery; the poise and precision of his interpretation had elegance as well as tremendous visceral excitement.”

In a 1984 review, Donal Henahan of The Times wrote of Mr. Toradze’s playing, “It is the distinctive Russian style of an older generation, still alive in this era of stamped-out international virtuosos.”

Mr. Toradze defected to the United States in 1983, presenting himself at the American Embassy in Madrid for asylum during a tour with the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra. According to the critic and author Joseph Horowitz, a close friend and artistic adviser to Mr. Toradze, it was a dramatic defection that involved highway chases in Spain and an attempted kidnapping by the K.G.B. in a restaurant.

Mr. Toradze in 2001. His idiosyncratic performances tended to divide critics, with some loving his style and others finding it disturbing.Credit…Chris Lee for The New York Times

Three months later, Mr. Toradze embarked on an American tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. During his career he performed with major U.S. orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, as well as the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, among others.

In 1991, he was appointed to a newly endowed professorship in piano at Indiana University South Bend, where he created the Toradze Piano Studio, inspired by the intense, all-encompassing training of Soviet music schools. His studio consisted of former and current students, who presented mostly Russian repertory in marathon concerts in the United States and Europe.

His students also played soccer, and the Toradze Studio team won the university championship three years in a row. “Soccer is not very good for the hands,” Mr. Toradze told The Times in 2002, “but it’s great for the brain.”

A gregarious host, he enjoyed giving late-night dinners and boisterous parties for his students, many of whom he recruited from Russia and Georgia. He retired from the university in 2017.

While he was widely admired, Mr. Toradze’s individualistic approach “was not for everyone — or for all repertoire,” Mr. Horowitz wrote in an appreciation published after Mr. Toradze’s death. “Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto was one piece that could not survive a Lexo onslaught.”

The Times critic Bernard Holland, reviewing a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1988, wrote that Mr. Toradze’s “customary extravagance would have ill fit this music’s classical restraint, so his tactic was to seek the other extreme.” The results, he said, “alternated between the weird and the inaudible.”

Mr. Toradze acknowledged such responses. “I always anticipate outraged attacks,” he said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun in 1992.

Alexander Davidovich Toradze was born on May 30, 1952, in Tbilisi, Georgia, to the composer David Toradze and the actress Liana Asatiani. He attended the Special Music School for Gifted Children in Tbilisi and the Moscow Conservatory, graduating in 1978.

While he was a student in Moscow, Mr. Toradze listened to illicit broadcasts of the Voice of America program “Jazz Hour.” To him, he said, jazz represented artistic freedom. When performing in Portland, Ore., during a Soviet-sponsored tour in 1978, he learned that Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson were to perform twice the next day. Much to the irritation of his manager, he decided to skip a rehearsal in Miami to attend the concerts. Ms. Fitzgerald invited him onstage, where he told her that she was a “goddess for people in the Soviet Union.”

Mr. Toradze’s small catalog of recordings includes a 1998 disc of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, with Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra, and Shostakovich piano concertos, with Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.

Mr. Toradze, a practicing Orthodox Christian, advised young artists to get in the habit of praying before performances. Speaking about Liszt’s variations on a theme of Bach, he told The Times in 1986: “Bach’s cantata describes worrying, complaining, doubting and crying. Many of these feelings were part of my life. But the piece moves steadily and heavily toward a fantastic final chorale in major, with the words, ‘What God does is well done.’ That is my credo.”

His marriage to the pianist Susan Blake ended in divorce in 2002. He is survived by his sons, David and Alex; a sister, Nino Toradze; and his longtime partner, the pianist Siwon Kim.

After defecting to the United States, Mr. Toradze lamented the imposition of strict union rules regarding rehearsal times that could prevent an orchestra from practicing to the end of a concerto, even if the musicians were just a few bars short. But he appreciated the high-quality instruments on offer.

“In Russia, I would play many times on pianos with broken strings or broken keys,” he told the radio host Bruce Duffie in 2002.

But, he added, there are times when the piano is not well, or you are not well, but you go on anyway.”

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