Prague Post

This article appeared in The Prague Post – Tempo section – December 06-12, 2000

From instant playback to the concert stage

Ex-child prodigy David Syme plays Tchaikovsky at Rudolfinum

By Alan Levy
The Prague Post

He perches on the piano bench like an ungainly swallow, but the sounds that emerge from the Steinway or Petrof are more beautiful than any a nightingale could make. David Syme is a consummate pianist – bold and forceful, subtle and tender, summoning whatever the notes call for, but injecting his own affinity, interpretation and flexibility.

As a 3-year-old piano novice, Pennsylvania -born Syme could already play by ear any music he had just heard. But he resisted formal studies until he was 12. A year later, he played Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with his Michigan high school band. At 18, he was playing Rachmaninov’s Second with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Despite his formal studies at Juilliard and with Jorge Bolet at Indiana University, plus 20 recordings as a soloist with orchestras that include the Royal Philharmonic, London Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony, Syme’s instant-playback capability remains.

From his home in a Detroit suburb, he has played live to millions of radio listeners coast to coast with a daily call-in request show. He also made more than 800 guest appearances in the 1990s.

His repertoire is infinite: “If I’ve heard it, I can play it” – whether his source is a scratchy 78-rpm record or a caller humming a tune from faulty memory. Sometimes on tour, after a concert, Syme, still wearing white tie and tails, adjourns to a piano bar and plays requests.

It is in the concert hall, however, that Syme excels. At the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, a Polish critic wrote: “The most tremendous and best-deserved applause of the entire splendid assembly was accorded to David Syme of the USA. Not in a very long time has there come forth such an artist whose knowledgeable playing has so taken by storm the rapt attention of the public.”

Praising his “exquisite control of tonal and dynamic shading,” The Glasgow Herald said that “David Syme evidently views the piano as a limitless resource of color and nuance.” The Boston Globe labeled Syme “a soloist who commands a big tone, the requisite sweep in a fire -breathing approach.”

In Prague, with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, Syme plays only The Big Ones. At private, invitational concerts in Prague Castle, he performed Liszt’s extroverted, virtuoso First Piano Concerto last April, and Gershwin’s jazzy 1925 Concerto in F Major for Piano – with echoes of its immediate predecessor, Rhapsody in Blue (1924) – in October following five performances of the concerto on the orchestra’s tour of Great Britain.

On Friday, Dec. 8, in Dvorak Hall at the Rudolfinum, with Paul Freeman conducting, David Syme will go public with Tchaikovsky’s bold and melodic, but challenging and demanding First Piano Concerto, which had its world premiere in Boston in 1875.

This is the piece whose playing has become the benchmark of the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow ever since the first winner in 1958, American pianist Van Cliburn, was catapulted to fame by his dynamic rendition; another winner, in 1962, was Vladimir Ashkenazy – who now conducts the Czech Philharmonic. Syme played it at the competition as the U.S. representative in 1978. In his hands, the lush, sweeping introduction – popularized as the song, Tonight We Love – will glue you to your seat until the resounding ending lifts you right out of it 40 minutes later: applauding all the way.

Alan Levy’s e-mail address is