The incredible, harrowing life of pianist Santiago Rodriguez

Santiago Rodriguez

It was one of the more intriguing operations in America's long, difficult relationship with Cuba: the two-year airlift known as Operation Peter Pan, designed to remove more than 14,000 children from Fidel Castro's communist regime and take them to freedom in Miami.

Without their parents.

Pianist Santiago Rodriguez was one of those children back in the early 1960s. The experience wasn't exactly what his family had anticipated.

"It was sponsored by the U.S. government and the Catholic Church, and my parents agreed to send me because they thought there was no way the revolutionary government would last," Santiago said in a recent telephone interview.

"They thought it would only be a matter of weeks until Castro was out of power," he said. "But as it turned out, I wouldn't see my parents again until I was 14 years old."

A graduate of the Juilliard School and a veteran of Carnegie Hall, Rodriguez will perform Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Lancaster Symphony Orchestra during its upcoming "Rachmaninoff & 1001 Arabian Nights" concert weekend, which opens Friday, May 22, at Fulton Opera House in downtown Lancaster.

After Rodriguez and the other children were brought to Miami, Catholic Charities worked to place them in orphanages and foster homes.

Rodriguez, along with his brother, were sent to Madonna Manor in New Orleans.

"I grew up in the shadow of the levees, but I can say that, being raised in a Catholic orphanage, I had an orderly life, and the church encouraged my playing," Rodriguez said. "It was hard on my parents, though. For one thing, before the revolution we had been rather wealthy, and with the coming of Castro all that money and stability disappeared."

Because Rodriguez's father was a surgeon and thus deemed valuable to the state, it was impossible for his family to leave Cuba even to visit him. "The only thing my family could do was wait until my father got old enough to retire," he said. "Then, once he was no longer useful, they let him leave and settle in an 'approved' country, which in his case turned out to be Spain."

Once Rodriguez's parents arrived in Spain, they immediately petitioned Madrid to let them emigrate to the United States to settle in New Orleans, where they were finally able to see their sons six years after they had put them on a plane to Miami.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez had enrolled at Holy Cross Boarding School in New Orleans and was busy honing his musical talent, preparing for a Juilliard audition following his debut as a teenager playing a Mozart's piano concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic.

"Those last years after my parents came were hard. My father had to start working again, but since he had a degree from abroad, the only job he could find was as an X-ray technician at Charity Hospital," he said. "It was just very difficult for everybody."

Winning a scholarship to Juilliard, Rodriguez eventually moved to New York and began his professional career with a second-place finish at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. In the meantime, his parents left New Orleans and retired, again, to new lives in Florida.

Since then, Rodriguez has gone on to perform with symphonies from Berlin to Finland to Montreal, and has made numerous appearances on PBS and the BBC. In 1993, Rodriguez's unique life and artistry were profiled on "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt."

Following the devastation of New Orleans in 2005, Rodriguez got a call from a schoolmate who had gone back to the Ninth Ward to report that almost everything Rodriguez had known from his childhood in the orphanage was gone.

"Me, personally, I don't want to go back. I don't want to see what happened," he said. "From what my schoolmate said, it's like a war came through, and I'm just worried I'd feel too much of a sense of loss that the place where I spent my childhood is gone."

"When you get older," he said, "everything just gets tougher to take."

Today, Rodriguez concentrates instead on life's artistic challenges - playing the Rachmaninoff concerto, for instance.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was a tall man with large hands, and it was easy for him to stretch to reach distant keys. When smaller people attempt to play what Rachmaninoff wrote, Rodriguez said, it "can be a real physical challenge on smaller hands."

"But I do love the piece. It's warm and lush and very romantic. ... The trick in playing Rachmaninoff is that if you linger too long on the notes, that romanticism starts to turn into sloppy sentimentality," he said. "You have to be very precise when you play his work, always remembering, above all, to be crisp."

Lancaster Symphony's "Rachmaninoff & 1001 Arabian Nights" concert runs Friday through Sunday, May 22-24, at Fulton Opera House, 12 N. Prince St., in downtown Lancaster. For tickets and showtimes, call 397-7425 or visit http://lancastersymphony.org.