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Sensitive, smart, and strong, Pasternack is masterful

Benjamin Pasternack opened the Piano Masters series at the Boston Conservatory last night, and a good-size crowd showed up to hear and cheer him. Some probably remembered his 14-year period as one of the most enterprising and completely equipped pianists resident in Boston. Before he left to join the faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1997, he served as one of the BSO's regular pianists in orchestral works and appeared as concerto soloist with the orchestra on 22 occasions in Boston, at Tanglewood and on tour in America, South America, and Europe. It was pleasant to note that many in the audience were young enough to be hearing him for the first time.

Pasternack boasts an unusual combination of brains and brawn, and with an emotional depth charge too. A student of Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Pasternack has the intellectual rigor of the first, the luminous tone and spontaneity of the second. It is hard to imagine a pianist completely at home in the Aaron Copland Sonata who could also delight the students and piano mavens in the audience with elegantly played romantic-period encores -- Balakirev's transcription of Glinka's ''The Lark," Rachmaninoff's transcription of Mussorgsky's ''Gopak," and a stormy Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau.

He led off with Beethoven's ''Pathetique" Sonata, a piece so often slain by amateurs and students that professionals avoid it. His performance was powerful, lucid, sparingly pedaled. He played the first-movement repeat, going all the way back to the beginning. He spun out the slow movement eloquently and caught the pensive, melancholy mood of the finale.

He followed this with Schumann's ''Carnaval," a piece that is sheer joy. In a droll spoken introduction, he remarked that if Schumann were to have written it today, he might have called it ''Spring Break," and featured Mickey Mouse and Homer Simpson instead of Harlequin and Columbine. His playing was full of spirit, character, and surprise, and even the pauses were intelligently judged. He showed, more than most pianists, how the kaleidoscopic effect of the music depends on the rapid rearrangement of the same shards of melody and harmony. And the fearsome leaps of ''Paganini" for once posed no problem.

Naxos has recently released Pasternack's CD of Copland's piano music. His performance of the Sonata was sturdy and stirring. The music requires many kinds of sound from hewn-from-granite to something melting; the rhythms are sometimes stern, sometimes jiggly and jazzy. At the close, as the music slows down and opens out onto an infinite space, he was profound and poetic.

Pasternack closed the printed program with his own supervirtuoso transcription of ''Three Dance Episodes" from Leonard Bernstein's ''On the Town," which feature varied and vigorously stomping rhythms, and, in ''Lonely Town," a bit of heartache. In his intro, he said he didn't know how Bernstein would have responded. ''I imagine he would have pushed me off the bench and shown me a better way," he remarked. ''I had that experience in real life." But it's hard to imagine that Bernstein would not have enjoyed this rambunctious playing as much as the audience did.

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