When Franklin Larey's fingers fly across piano keys he is loved, revered, and cheered by audiences the world over. Whether it's at Washington DCs Kennedy Center or in European halls, or in his native South Africa, his eclectic fan base cannot seem to get enough of Larey's Chopin or Mozart renditions.
In his genre, he is a star.
The soft-spoken musician who heads the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town (UCT), was in New York recently, gearing up for his first compact disc recording. In between his practice sessions he reminisced with The AFRican on his difficult start.
As a colored or mixed race boy growing up outside Cape Town, he felt no love from the musical institutions and apartheid government of his country.
Growing up in South Africa at that time was kind of weird. Something as simple as going to the post office was there to remind you of the discrimination and segregation. There were separate [entrances], separate facilities. They would frequently not serve you until the whites had been served.
At age 16, Larey escaped his misery through music.
I always wanted to play piano but we in our schools did not have music teachers. I could not go to a white teacher because they would not teach us, he said. Now 42, Larey recalls, I nagged my parents for lessons all the time. They could play by ear but they could not teach me. And of course there was the practical matter of not owning a piano.
Ultimately through a sympathetic neighbor he got lessons, and in 1979 he tried to get into the prestigious University of Cape Town, but he was met with the big N.O. The school was a white institution and Blacks, Indians and Coloreds needed to get special permission to study there. Larey enrolled at University of the Western Cape, where Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu was chaplain.
That school was the first to defy the government on its segregation policies. There he received a music education and in 1982, a psychology degree. He began teaching there and while the anti-apartheid movement was gaining steam, again tried to get into UCT. He was finally able to take lessons there from a professor, Laura Searle, but not in a degree program.
"I was miserable there. I hated UCT. It was a very negative place." He would go from civil unrests, confrontations with armed forces and a state of emergency to a tranquil campus that was oblivious to the world outside its gates.
"Everything appeared absolutely normal. It was very strange," he said. A Fulbright scholarship to the University of Cincinnati was his ticket out. In his decade away, he earned a doctorate at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. Under the tutelage of Frank Weinstock, who understood and was sensitive to his vulnerabilities, Larey began to win competitions within three months of his arrival.
"People all my life up until that time had told me I was not good, that I could not play the piano. At that time the entire South African government message to non- whites was the whole notion that you are inferior."
The world has since come calling. After years of trying to play on South African stages, he is now sought after. The doors that were slammed in his face now beckon.
"The same people who were extremely rude to me, they are now asking me to play concerts in their orchestras and concerts series. It's bizarre," he said. "I have no hang ups about that anymore. I have no ill feelings at the same time I will never forget several moments in my life, the cruelty and absolute rudeness."
Larey, who lives with his companion, William Daniels, 40, a librarian, has come full circle. His CD is scheduled for release on the BMG classical label later this year. It will include a selection of pieces by Brahms, Beethoven, Scriabin and Prokofiev.
Larey's concert career is soaring yet he still has time to teach. He is thrilled that his students, the new generations of South Africans, do not appear to be growing up with that deep-seated inferiority complex. And when he is not playing, he is cooking. "There is a sweet twist to this story, my office is the same one where I played my audition years and years ago and I was told no."