Sam Rotman plays the music of dead men.
To be specific, he plays the music of dead men from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Claude Debussy and Wolfgang Mozart are all among his repertoire, but he especially focuses on Ludwig van Beethoven, sometimes playing entirely Beethoven concerts. The classical pianist has traveled to 60 different countries, played more than 2,800 concerts and will play a series of concerts on the Kenai Peninsula this week.
Rotman said he learned to love music from his mother, who could not play herself but simply loved to listen.
“She didn’t ask me if I wanted to play, she just wanted me to enjoy the music,” Rotman said. “I started piano when I was 9 … When I was 11, I really enjoyed it, and I decided I wanted to be a concert pianist.”
He said he became focused on Beethoven when studying music at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City through a teacher there. The year 1970 was the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, and Rotman said he wanted to play a series of concerts featuring only Beethoven’s music. He did so; now he is invited to play specifically Beethoven, he said.
One of the most remarkable things about Beethoven is that all of his pieces are still played, Rotman said. Other composers wrote hundreds or thousands of pieces of music, of which only a select few are regularly heard in concert halls today, he said.
“He was the first really, really professional musician,” Rotman said. “He began to just write music that was what he felt, not what he was supposed to write. I find his music very extreme. When it’s dramatic, it’s very dramatic. When it’s delicate, it’s very delicate. When it’s poetic, it’s very poetic. He seemed to be writing everything on an extreme level, because he wasn’t writing for entertainment. He was writing for the power of the human emotions and spirit.”
On his visit to the Kenai Peninsula, he will play in a number of churches in Nikiski, Kasilof, Kenai and Soldotna. A resident of Phoenix, Rotman was giving a concert last year when one of the attendees approached him and asked if he would be interested in playing some concerts in Alaska.
Each concert will likely be a mix of Beethoven and some of Rotman’s other favorites: Russian and French composers. The variety of different styles can be complementary, he said — for instance, Rachmaninoff and Debussy wrote music around the same time but took very different tacks.
“Rachmaninoff is very passionate and very strong and very opposite (of Debussy), but they were writing at exactly the same time,” Rotman said. “One is writing this very powerful Russian intense passionate music, and Debussy is caressing the keys and droplets of sound.”
One thing he won’t do is write his own music. The aversion stems from a composing class he took at Juilliard, where he learned he had no talent for writing his own sonatas, he said.
“I was a total disaster — I couldn’t burp out a good note,” Rotman said. “It was torture for (the teacher), for me. And after five weeks he saw me in the hall, he said to me, ‘Mr. Rotman, you’d be excellent at the music of dead men.’”
After decades of playing it, he’s still not tired of it. The passing time drills home an appreciation for it in him, he said. Many of the composers recognized their work as a gift of God and bore a “consciousness of the divine,” he said.
Rotman had his own encounter with the divine while at Juilliard and became a Christian, he said. He does not play Christian music, but he said he will share his faith story at the concerts on the Kenai. He will play at the First Baptist Church of Kenai today, Kenai Bible Church on Friday, Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna on Saturday and Lighthouse Community Church in Nikiski on Sunday, all at 7 p.m. except for the Nikiski concert, which begins at 6 p.m. The concerts are free and attendees can make freewill donations, he said.
About a week later, he’ll be on the road again. He travels 22 weeks of the year, but his concerts take him to havens of classical music like Poland or to places not typically associated with classical piano, like Cuba or Rwanda.
“I wanted to be a pianist, but to be honest, I’m very thankful, very humbled that the Lord has opened up this traveling and sharing,” Rotman said.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.