Reader's Digest - February 1986, pp. 75-78

[Google Books citation]

Teenage superstar of the piano
 by Rudolph Chelminski

At nine, Dimitris Sgouros was an internationally recognised prodigy. Now he's 16, and experts believe he will be one of the greatest keyboard artists of the century

When Dimitris Sgouros was a baby, his parents noticed that he was fascinated by sounds, listening raptly to the noises of electrical appliances. At four, Dimitris flabbergasted his father, Sotiris, a doctor in Piraeus, Greece, by memorising every phone number in his book of patients. After Dimitris began school, he displayed a voracious curiosity. Clearly, he was intelligent - but he was also different. No one suspected just how different he was.

Shortly after Dimitris's sixth birthday, he and his mother, Marianthi, ran into Despina Georgopoulos, a piano teacher. "Dimitris," Georgopoulos asked the boy, "would you like to learn to play the piano?"

"Why not?" he answered offhandedly.

From his first lesson, Dimitris mastered the instrument as naturally as he breathed. Three months later, he was composing his own music. He was like a puppy that had discovered a bone and wouldn't let go. One day, Dimitris suggested that he learn Liszt's Second Rhapsody. His teacher said he could study the first part, but insisted that the second was far too complicated for a six-year-old. Dimitris listened to a recording of the rhapsody, studied the piano score, and at the next lesson played passages from both parts.

In May 1977, he gave his first solo recital in Piraeus, and at eight he entered the Athens Conservatory of Music. "They had brought him to me for an audition the first time when he was still seven," says Maria Herogiorgiou-Sigara, then Greece's top concert pianist and a conservatory professor. "I was afraid of him. He played with such amazing facility. He had perfect pitch, and he wanted to do everything - everything."

Attending his regular school in the morning and the conservatory in the afternoon, Dimitris lunged with demonic energy into his music studies. He quickly sprinted into higher spheres of music.

At the request of Herogiorgiou and the conservatory, the minister of culture allowed Dimitris to complete the last four years of his musical studies in just one year. So at 12, Dimitris graduated with the first prize and title of professor of piano. Herogiorgiou was asking him for piano advice.

By this time, Dimitris had already achieved international renown. He was nine when Sviatoslav Richter, the great Russian pianist, came through Athens. "Another child prodigy?" he sighed when somebody suggested he hear the Sgouros boy. "I can't give him much time," he said at the studio where an audition had been arranged. "I'm in a hurry."

Two hours later, Richter was still listening. Play this, he was saying, and this and this, and as Dimitris pulled the pieces effortlessly from his head, Richter's eyes grew wider and wider. When it was all over, Richter asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Dimitris replied, "I want to be Richter."

"That you will do very easily," Richter said.

Carnegie Hall. Dimitris was 11 when André Borocz, who organises musical cruises in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, invited him to audition.

"I had thought I would just have him play through a few pieces," Borocz recalls. "I asked him what Beethoven concertos he could play, and he said, 'Any of them.' When he sat at the piano, it wasn't a boy's playing that we heard, but that of an experienced, mature pianist. I knew then that this was a genius."

Borocz signed him up, and Dimitris's career turned from amateur to professional. In September 1981, Mstislav Rostropovich, music director of the Washington National Symphony Orchestra, heard about Dimitris, and his curiosity was immediately aroused. The Sgouros rocket was about to go into orbit.

Rostropovich would be presiding over a Tchaikovsky Festival at New York's Carnegie Hall the following April and wished to present Dimitris to the American public. When Dimitris and his mother arrived in New York, Rostropovich asked the boy what he could play.

"I know the four Rachmaninov concertos," Dimitris assured him, "and the Grieg, and the five Beethoven, and Schumann and Brahms and ..."

But he insisted on playing the most spectacular and technically difficult of all, the Rachmaninov Third - the one that the composer said he had written for "elephants" of the keyboard. Rostropovich let Dimitris have his way. "We can start rehearsing right now, if you like," said the young pianist.

"It's a miracle!" exclaimed Rostropovich, when he finally listened to Dimitris play.

And so it was that Dimitris made his American début, whipping through the titanic concerto with the authority of a seasoned virtuoso. When it was over, he bowed through 15 minutes of curtain calls, with interruptions for two encores.

Before 1982 was over, Dimitris had played with Rostropovich again, given a solo recital at the Newport, Rhode Island, music festival, appeared on American TV and toured the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and West Germany. But his most moving performance was for the smallest audience: one old man. Artur Rubinstein, the greatest of the romantic pianists, was himself a child prodigy who had given concerts in the nineteenth century. He invited Dimitris to his Geneva home in October. When Dimitris finished, Rubinstein pronounced him a better pianist than himself. A baton was passed: two months later, the maestro died at 95.

Video games. In the years since, success has followed success, interrupted only by the normal activities of a boy's life. Marianthi and Sotiris Sgouros are trying to avoid the dangers that stalk child prodigies: too much praise too soon, too much easy success, one-sided development of a single talent at the expense of a general education, exploitation by adults. So Dimitris continues to attend school in Piraeus and is top of his class. He leaves for concerts only during holidays or long weekends. At home, he enjoys cycling, swimming and playing boisterously with his younger brother, 10-year-old Costas.

Dimitris navigates between the world of the child and the world of the adult. At one moment he speaks perceptively and gravely about the beauty of music and the responsibility of the artist. A second later he is a boy again, giggling as he shows how he can bend his thumb and fingers all the way back to his forearm. Learned discourse on Beethoven or Schumann is followed by breakneck matches of video games.

To those critics who suggest that his parents are carrying him too far too quickly, Sotiris and Marianthi reply with laughter, "We don't push him - he pushes us. We have to hold him back." Dimitris's photographic memory is a continuing source of wonder. Even before he was a teenager, he had only to read through a score once to commit it to memory, perfect to the last notation. Guy Jonson, a senior professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London who gave Dimitris advanced tutoring, reckons that the young man's mental archives now contain virtually the entire standard repertory of Western piano music. Says Jonson, "I don't know of any other living pianist with such a capacity."

Allied to Dimitris's photographic memory is an innate sense of music and a peerless technique. His oversized hands stretch with ease an octave and a half. Says Yannis Ioannidis, director of the State Symphony Orchestra in Athens: "You can find pianists who have perfect pitch or wonderful hands or great strength or an extraordinary memory, but he has them all. There is no one else like that."

Several of those who have worked with Dimitris predict that in a few more years he may become an important orchestra conductor. Dimitris himself refrains from predictions. "I'm an artist now, not a prodigy," he says. "I know what I was born to do and that I will do it. Nothing in life is easy - and music is the most difficult of the difficult. If I do it with all my heart and soul, the future will come all by itself."



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