Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

He took a risk, but former RM student returns with honor

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Former Darnestown resident Soheil Nasseri, who dropped out of Richard Montgomery High School when he was 16 to pursue a music career, will play at the Kennedy Center on Feb. 23.
Many a man hopes for a victory homecoming to his high school, and world-renowned classical pianist Soheil Nasseri is different only in that he’s getting his.

The man who dropped out of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville at 16 to pursue his music full time will play on Feb. 23 at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C., showcasing a work no one but the piece’s composer, Kaikhosru Sorabji, has ever played before.

While he’s in town, the former Darnestown resident is also making a special appearance at his alma mater during a school assembly on Friday. He plans to open with a little hip-hop for the students before segueing into his classical base.

‘‘I am very excited since some people that I haven’t been in touch with since high school have gotten in touch with me,” Nasseri said last week. ‘‘... People who were not necessarily my friends 20 years ago are now proud to know me, and it makes it feel very much like I’m coming back home having gone off and succeeded.”

Never mind that the 29-year-old has steadily risen to international fame in the last dozen years, giving regular concerts in New York at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and performing throughout Europe and the U.S.

Born in California, Nasseri gravitated to the piano at 3, and was taking lessons by 5, he said. At 10 he moved to Darnestown. He attended Darnestown Elementary and Ridgeview Middle schools while studying piano at The Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C. His teacher then, Eva Pierrou, who lived in Bethesda before moving to Sweden, remains an influence to this day, he said.

At 16, Nasseri performed as a finalist in the National Symphony Orchestra’s Young Symphony Soloists Competition at the Kennedy Center. He lost, but The Washington Post called him ‘‘particularly promising” after ‘‘a vigorous and sensitive performance” and the young man saw the praise as an affirmation.

He dropped out of school his junior year in 1995 to concentrate full time on the piano, a decision that shocked his Iranian immigrant parents, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

He decided on his own to leave high school and said he did so to be an ‘‘unmitigated success as a concert pianist.” Nasseri said that his parents were naturally ‘‘more than a little concerned.”

For two years, he practiced piano in a room above his parents’ bedroom on a trying schedule — playing about 20 hours at a time, then sleeping 11, he said.

‘‘The advantage of living in Darnestown is that you have no neighbors immediately nearby,” he said.

He played recitals for several years in Baltimore, then at 20 moved to New York, where sponsors took him under their wing.

At the Kennedy Center on Feb. 23, Nasseri will perform Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, and the Washington premiere of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s Sonata No. 0, written in 1917. Sorabji’s first major work for solo piano was discovered in the late 1980s. The Sorabji Archive in England loaned it to Nasseri, who performed its world premiere in 2002 at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York and in a recording released by Centaur Records in January.

Nasseri described the complicated piece as ‘‘black with notes.”

At Richard Montgomery on Friday, Nasseri will start with hip-hop, which allows spontaneous collaboration with a group typically less familiar with classical music.

‘‘They’re expecting a classical music concert and they expect me to be uptight because people who are specialized often focus on one thing,” he said. ‘‘But that’s not me. I try to establish for them that it’s OK to have broad tastes.”