Celebrating Liszt at the conservatory 

Franz Liszt (1811–1886) has done much more than give his illustrious name to my music school in Budapest. Along with Paganini, he was a rock star in his time (virtuoso pianist vs. the "Devil’s Violinist"), created tabloid headlines wherever he went, crossing over from classical music to pop-hero ("Lisztomania"), wrote some fabulous piano pieces and (still little-known) oratorios and turned to religion after a lifetime of easy conquests. Yes, Liszt was quite a guy, but for the last century or so, he hasn’t been getting proper respect.

Enter San Francisco pianist and music teacher William Wellborn, and voilà!, the Conservatory of Music will have a Liszt Conference and Festival this week, with the participation of the American Liszt Society and some major musicians. Wellborn has a great passion for the Hungarian composer, giving master classes and organizing festivals. Last year, he gave an all-Liszt recital on Liszt’s own piano, at Weimar’s Liszt Museum.

The San Francisco event is called "Liszt in Paris," and it focuses on the 1830s and 1840s, when the French capital was a pianist’s paradise. Some of the big names in addition to Liszt: Chopin, Herz, Thalberg, Czerny, Pixis and Heller. Subtitled "Virtuosity, Philosophy, and Romance," the conference and festival open Thursday with a lecture on the Paris setting, and performances of Paganini’s music by artists including conservatory students and Ian Swensen. Gila Goldstein will perform nocturnes and waltzes by Chopin and Liszt.

Thursday evening features a fascinating piano concert titled "A Night at the Opera," with a four-pianist "orchestra" playing an excerpt from Wagner’s "Tannhäuser," Stephen Spooner performing Liszt’s "Reminiscences of Meyerbeer’s ‘Robert le Diable’: Valse infernale," Alexandre Dossin with the "Miserere" from Verdi’s "Il Trovatore," Wellborn playing a Thalberg piano fantasy on themes by Meyerbeer, and many more, leading to the conservatory’s Mack McCray performing Liszt’s "Reminiscences of Bellini’s ‘Norma.’"

In addition to many programs at the conservatory during the weekend, the festival will also offer the West Coast debut of the young Hungarian pianist Péter Tóth, in Old First Church at 8 p.m. Friday. Toth was born in Békéscsaba, a small town three hours from Budapest, and he started playing the piano relatively late, at age 11.

He won a scholarship to the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, and when his career took off — including a Grand Prix du Disque, acclaimed concerts in Europe and Korea — he moved back home. He still lives and practices in the same small apartment in Békéscsaba with his parents, brother, sister-in-law and baby nephew, making the six-hour round-trip train commute to the Liszt Academy where hecan practice on a better piano. Liszt himself would love that story.


American Liszt Society Festival

Where: Most events at San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall, 50 Oak St., San Francisco

When: Thursday through Saturday

Tickets: $10 to $15

Contact: (415) 503-6275 or


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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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