I first became acquainted with pianist Benny John Plasencia over four years ago, during his freshman year at the College of Charleston — not long after he came here from his native Peru on scholarship to study with piano guru Enrique Graf (who runs one of the country’s finest piano pedagogy programs). After hearing him informally, I was immediately impressed with both his technical ability and innate musicality, and I thought his future at the college certainly looked bright. But then — though we still heard occasional comments about his extraordinary talent — we heard rather little from him in performance, aside from occasional memorable Piccolo Spoleto appearances (you can hear several of them HERE). While I never discussed it with him in detail, it seems a debilitating eye condition and associated problems were conspiring to keep him away from the concert stage.

But Benny was still very much around, keeping busy as a student: pursuing strong academic sidelines in foreign languages like Russian and German (and perfecting his English, too), while appearing occasionally as a keyboard collaborator or accompanist. I wasn’t the only one who wondered if we’d ever get a full solo recital from him. Thus, when he recently announced his impending senior recital, I was determined to be there — especially when I found out what he would be playing.

So — along with a small, but select crowd — I showed up at the Simons Center recital earlier this month to hear him play two very demanding works: JS Bach’s Partita No. 2 is one of the German master’s finest (and trickiest) keyboard works — and then there’s Russian pianist-composer’s near-impossible Piano Concerto No. 3, heard with a second piano serving as an ersatz orchestra. This work is widely regarded as one of the world’s two or three most infernally difficult and exhausting concertos. It seems Benny was looking to make up for lost time — and to prove that he has what it takes.

The Partita — a six-movement suite of stylized dances — came off very well: Benny has a bold, yet sweet touch with Bach. I was surprised by his speedy, yet legato approach in the dramatic opening Sinfonia movement, once the dramatic opening passages were past. His playing was clear and fluid, with deft handling of Bach’s magical, but tricky counterpoint. He was supremely expressive in the following Allemande, bringing out the music’s heady content, with all of its inherent grace and elegance. He infused the next-to-last Rondeaux movement with an elfin lilt and spirit — before rendering a headlong and exciting gallop through the final Capriccio, with fleet and flying fingers that missed very few notes. It wasn’t quite perfect (what live performance ever is?) — and I wished for just a bit more delicacy to his playing here and there. Still, I could listen joyfully to Benny’s Bach all day.

And, ah — the Rachmaninoff! Remember, this is a work of legendary difficulty — requiring nearly superhuman dexterity and stamina. The composer “gave” the work to super-virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz not long before he died (at least according to Horowitz), because nobody else could pull it off like he could. In the movie Shine (dramatizing a true story), the work’s notorious, knuckle-busting demands drove an already troubled young artist over the brink into insanity. Few college-level pianists are accomplished (or brave) enough to even attempt it. But Benny dove, head-and-fingers-first, into this seething musical cauldron — and, in the end, emerged not only intact, but triumphant.
Again, it was hardly flawless — but then I’ve never heard a perfect performance of this piece, not even in the best recordings. He appeared — quite naturally — to be laboring grimly as he plowed through some of the most difficult and spectacular passages — but, every now and then, we saw little smiles creasing the corners of his lips as he played, as if to say, “Yeah, I nailed that one!” And he accomplished much more than just hitting most of the notes — often at breakneck tempos, to boot. His understanding of Rachmaninoff’s tortured psyche shone through from beginning to end, in emotionally wrenching, ultra-romantic passages that caught the music’s often fevered neuroticism and melancholic resignation.

The performance’s only major frustration was hearing the piece with the orchestral part coming from a second piano. While local piano standout Irina Pevzner played her considerable part splendidly (she’s Charleston’s favorite “piano orchestra”), the overall sound tended to get a bit mushy and indistinct when both pianos were going hard and heavy: unless you knew the music well, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing what. But that’s how you hear concertos in most college settings.

So, finally, with this daring display of pianistic skill and deep musicianship, Mr. Plasencia has indeed proven himself to be a young keyboard artist who must now be taken seriously — and as someone who reflects distinct credit upon his school and his teacher. Mr. Graf’s proud smiles and comments afterwards certainly bore that out. While we may have wondered if such an evening would ever come to pass, it was certainly worth the wait. Bravo, Benny!