Whether he’s playing for cowboys in North Dakota, housewives in Ohio or a crowd of schoolchildren in Philadelphia, Rudolf Budginas prides himself on his ability to reach his audience.
“I always try to adapt to the situation,” the Lithuanian-born pianist explained.
Budginas, who teaches music at Cuesta College, recently wrapped up an 82-city tour that included stops in Montana, New Mexico and much of the Midwest.
Now back home in Grover Beach, he’s preparing for an April 30 concert at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande.
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The solo show will feature many of classical music’s greatest hits, including Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5,” Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Budginas plans to enlist the audience’s help with a couple numbers, such as Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” He has a few surprises up his sleeve, too.
“Today’s classical music has this reputation for being very stiff and formal,” Budginas said. “I break the wall between the artist and the audience.”
Starting from zero
Born to a family of musicians, Budginas made his concert debut at the age of 9 with the Lithuanian National Symphony. After training with the Moscow Conservatory, he moved to the United States in 1994.
“When I came here I had to start everything from zero,” said Budginas, who completed his doctorate degree in piano performance at USC.
Eventually, he settled on the Central Coast and began building a fervent fan base.
Elisabeth Sarrow and her husband, Mark, first met Budginas at the home of financial planner Diane Blakeslee. Then came a fundraiser at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in Morro Bay, which Elisabeth described as “one of the best musical evenings we’ve had in our life.
The experience inspired the Sarrows to organize “Rudolf and Friends” in 2006. The Clark Center concert sold out, and Budginas became a popular fixture on the Central Coast music scene.
“He has what can only be described as charisma,” said Elisabeth Sarrow, who acts as Budginas’ manager. “He steps out on the stage, he opens his mouth and he connects with the audience just like that.”
Part of the pianist’s appeal, she said, stems from his ability to make centuries-old music fun and exciting. He cracks jokes, creates musical mash-ups and shares interesting tidbits about composers and their works.
In fact, Budginas’ on-stage patter often resembles one of his classical music appreciation classes at Cuesta College.
According to Budginas, such a casual approach would seem out of place at most European concerts.
“In Europe, it would be just ‘go, do and leave,’ ” he explained.
Here in the United States, however, he strives to make audiences feel at home.
“My goal is to involve them and help them forget, ‘This is a show, this is classical music,’ and just have a good time,” he said.
Budginas’ abilities were put to the test during his recent tour, which began Sept. 3 in Lodi. He played in cozy concert halls and massive theaters in 32 states, encountering music lovers of all ages, interests and cultural backgrounds.
In Minot, N.D., for instance, Budginas picked up a black cowboy hat and attended his first rodeo. The pianist said he was struck by the warmth and friendliness he encountered in the tiny Midwestern ranch town.
“They don’t look at you as an outsider,” he said. “They want to involve you.”
In addition to 82 regular concerts, Budginas also performed 73 outreach concerts for students at elementary, middle and high schools — trading his tuxedo for blue jeans, sneakers and a button-up shirt.
“With them, I have to improvise every time,” he said, describing the kids as his most enthusiastic crowds.
Although he relishes the intensity of being on the road, Budginas said he’s happy to be spending time with his wife, attorney Liliana Gallelli, and eight-week- old daughter, Sofia, who was born while Budginas was away.
He’s already introduced Sofia to the life of a professional musician. She made her big-stage debut March 24 in Bakersfield.
“That’s what I’d like to give to my daughter: different places, different discomforts, different challenges,” Budginas said. “For me, everything is a great treasure — even the bad things.”
Budginas will next perform at a fundraiser for the Cayucos Educational Foundation. The show is at 7 p.m. May 14 at the Cayucos School Auditorium, 301 Cayucos Drive, in Cayucos. Tickets are $35; call 756-2787 or go to www.pacslo.orgfor more information.
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.