Health concerns can’t keep pianist from Rachmaninoff |

Health concerns can’t keep pianist from Rachmaninoff

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

When Rachmaninoff’s first symphony was received as an unmitigated failure – thanks in good part to conductor Alexander Glazunov being loaded on vodka for its premiere – the composer lapsed into a seven-year gloom. With the help of hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl, however, Rachmaninoff overcame his self-doubts. He landed fully on his feet with 1901’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which he dedicated to Dr. Dahl and represented a high point of Rachmaninoff’s creativity.

Heidi Curatolo isn’t about to equate herself with the Russian composer, whose piano-playing was as celebrated as his composing. But the 26-year-old Aspenite has a feeling for Rachmaninoff’s down years.

This weekend, Curatolo appears as soloist with the Symphony in the Valley, and she views the concerts – Saturday, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Waldorf School in Carbondale, and Sunday, Oct. 19, at 2 p.m. at the Mountain View Church in Glenwood Springs – as her own comeback.

“Not that I want to compare myself to him, but I also had a seven-year period of illness,” said Curatolo, who spent two summers, 1998 and 2000, studying at the Aspen Music Festival and School, and moved to Aspen from her native Brooklyn two years ago. “Hopefully, this is my return. A return to health, at least.”

While attending Brooklyn College, Curatolo began suffering stomach pains and a lack of energy. Most everyone, doctors included, dismissed her health problems as stress-related. There was good reason to think so: Curatolo studied piano and kept a busy performing schedule, on and off campus, on piano and violin. After graduation, she started a three-year masters program in math education, during which she also taught math at a junior high and continued to perform.

Curatolo did all this while watching her weight plummet, and sometimes having to lean against the walls to walk. When doctors informed her she was anorexic, Curatolo took her case into her own hands. She searched the Internet and realized she had Crohn’s disease, an auto-immune condition that afflicts the intestines. At times Curatolo was close to death.

Curatolo hasn’t allowed the disease to stop her from making music. Taught by her mother, a Suzuki method violin teacher, and trained at various top Manhattan conservatories, Curatolo performed all through college. She studied in Aspen in the summer of 1998, her first extended period away from Brooklyn. Three days after finally being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, she played her graduate recital, which she remembers as one of her better performances. She planned to return to the Aspen Music Festival in 1999, but was hospitalized for a month. She came for the summer of 2000 instead.

Since moving to Aspen in 2001, Curatolo has maintained her typically busy schedule, even as her health is a day-to-day concern. She has built a violin studio with some 15 students, and also teaches piano to several young musicians. She has performed at all the Aspen Choral Society concerts since moving here, and will serve as associate concertmaster for this winter’s presentation of Handel’s “Messiah.”

And Curatolo hasn’t abandoned her career as a math teacher. After arriving in Aspen, she noticed Aspen High School was being expanded. She walked in to see if the school needed a math teacher; Curatolo was offered a one-year position. When that position expired, she moved to Basalt High School. She is taking this year off from teaching to see if her physical condition might improve.

For her first appearance as a soloist in the valley, Curatolo will, of course, play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the one that marked the composer’s return. Curatolo says it wasn’t her idea, but was programmed by Wendy Larson, Symphony in the Valley’s conductor and artistic director, and a good friend to Curatolo. The orchestra was scheduled to perform the piece last May, but when Curatolo had to have surgery in April – her fourth in the last two years – the concerts were postponed. Just as Rachmaninoff dedicated his creation to his doctor, Curatolo’s performance is dedicated to the doctors who have saved her.

The program also includes works by Beethoven, Dvorak, Rimsky-Kursakov, Robert Washburn and, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, Berlioz.

No matter the circumstances, Curatolo finds plenty of reason to be enthused about playing Rachmaninoff’s piece. The second Piano Concerto, she said, is virtuosic and melodic, and is familiar to audiences because themes from the work have been used in several popular Hollywood tunes. She also finds it provides a unique opportunity for interaction with the orchestra: “A lot of times the piano is more the accompanist and the orchestra the soloist, and they intertwine and take turns,” she said.

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