When Leyla Kabuli was 6 years old, her mother took her to the Mondavi Center at UC Davis where internationally famed violinist Itzhak Perlman was performing.
But Kabuli had eyes only for the pianist accompanying Perlman. At the end of the concert, she insisted that she must learn to play the piano right there and then.
“The piano was so beautiful I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” said Kabuli, who will be the guest soloist at the South Valley Symphony’s annual Mother’s Day concert at Guglielmo Winery in Morgan Hill.
Kabuli continued to pester her mother for piano lessons, but it wasn’t until a year and a half later that her mother finally capitulated. And even then, the family didn’t have a piano. Kabuli’s first instrument was a $100 electronic keyboard.
She’s grown up since then, and graduated from the cheap keyboard to concert grand pianos. She has racked up dozens of awards and prizes for her playing, even though she is not a music major. Instead, she is studying electrical engineering at UC Berkeley, with a music minor.
On Mother’s Day, Kabuli will perform Rachmaninoff’s iconic Piano Concerto No. 2, part of an all-Russian program for the afternoon. The orchestra will also perform works by Glazunov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich and Solovyov-Sedoi.
The Rach 2, as it’s called, has been on Kabuli’s radar for about three years. She was studying a Prokofiev concerto when she encountered the Rach 2.
“I found myself playing Rach 2 instead of working on the Prokofiev,” Kabuli said. “I didn’t even have the music for it, was just playing the melody by ear. As soon as I started seriously studying it, I couldn’t look at the Prokofiev any more. I didn’t want to spend anymore time on anything except learning the Rach 2.”
The Rach 2’s appeal to Kabuli lies in both the beauty of the melody and the emotions it evokes in the listener, she said.
“It makes you think about your own life,” she said. “It was a turning point for Rachmaninoff, the piece that opened success for him, and then when you hear it, I think it evokes a lot of emotions in people, and I like that. When I perform it, I personally lose myself in it. Every bit of it is beautiful.”
The Rachmaninoff concerto is unusual in that the piano soloist is treated much more as a part of the overall orchestral ensemble.
“It relates very well to the orchestra,” Kabuli said. “I like that several instruments get solo parts, especially in the second half; I love hearing that. It’s a great piece for the soloist and the orchestra.”
The South Valley Symphony performs “Mother’s Day Concert: Midnight in Moscow” Sunday, May 12 at 3pm at Guglielmo Winery, 1480 E. Main St, Morgan Hill. Tickets are $40; kids and students with ID are free. For information, visit www.southvalleysymphony.org.