Posts for:  January 2010

Lebewohl to a Titan of the Piano

Earl Wild

Earl Wild

Earl Wild passed away Saturday, at the age of 94. He was my most brilliant teacher and one of the funniest and most remarkable people I’ve been privileged to know.

I grew up listening to Earl Wild’s recording of Rhapsody in Blue with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops; as a child, I mistakenly thought he was a jazz pianist. Then, as a teen, I heard him play the Chopin F minor Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center. Everything about that performance surprised me -– for one, that Earl Wild the “jazz pianist” played Chopin and also, that a concert artist could look like a debonair English lord, with his height, his white hair, his dove-gray business suit, the small, elegant steps with which he crossed the stage. Most striking of all was the grace of his playing: although I was not an astute listener back then, I recognized at the final note that I’d heard something of immense beauty.

Fast forward a decade or more to Columbus Ohio: at a campus record store, I bought an LP of Earl Wild playing the Tchaikowsky Concert Nr. 1 and the Liszt Mephisto Waltz, released by a small label called Quintessence. Not sure why, as I was steeped in Beethoven and Mozart at the time. But the minute I heard the slow movement of the Tschaikowsky, with its innocent lyricism, and his electrifying rendition of the Mephisto Waltz, I knew I’d never heard piano playing like this. It wasn’t the technique that floored me (though that was amazing) it was the gorgeous phrasing and the perfect motion of all the lyrical sections.

You can imagine my shock, when, a week later, leafing through an issue of Clavier magazine, I saw a full-page ad announcing that Earl Wild would be artist-in-residence at Ohio State University, less than a mile from my house! The solo recital I heard him give there a few weeks later (shortly before I gave birth to my daughter Alysa) is still one of the best I’ve ever heard: his Rachmaninoff Preludes still shimmer in my memory.

Even with an infant at home and working shifts in the E.R., I was determined to audition for and study with him. He heard me play just the beginning and the coda of the Chopin F minor Ballade and accepted me into his class. Thus began a six-year tutelage that shaped me as a musician.

As a teacher, he was both an innovator and a stickler for the minutest detail. He could play any piece in the piano repertoire, so he could demonstrate exactly what he wanted at the second piano. My innumerable scores of the pieces I studied with him (from Haydn to Chopin and yes, Rhapsody in Blue) are marked with countless instructions for fingerings, pedalings, phrasing, voicing, balance, where to slow down and speed up, which inner voice should imitate the French horn, where to “let go” so the piece can fly.

My husband Tom and I were granted the honor of hearing him perform many times at his home, and I sat in on several of his recording sessions as a page-turner. Once, while he was waiting to record a take, a train in the distance sounded, and without a second thought, Earl reproduced the dissonant chord on the piano before beginning to play.

The memories are many, and beyond the scope of this blog post, but here are just a few: hearing a private recording of him accompanying Lily Pons in the song “Estrellita;” his photos with Maria Callas; the Beethoven Sonata marathon he presented of all his students (we played until 1 a.m., to a packed house tempted by free pizzas donated by Pizza Hut, and wore powdered wigs in the publicity photo shoot;) visiting him in Santa Fe where he was good friends with its founder John Crosby; turning pages for the premier of his Stephen Foster “Doo-dah Variations” with the des Moines Symphony, flying back from Des Moines with his entourage on a private jet…

Earl had an irreverent sense of humor that was quick and apt. Once, when a favorite student complained that her “hands were so small,” he asked, “well, how big is your brain?” When someone else asked if it really was “correct” to re-distribute a chord so it was easier to play, he chided them: “Of course! Playing the piano is hard enough.”

About that, he was never less than honest. He practiced many hours a day (“if I don’t practice, my income goes down”) to achieve perfection at the keyboard. But his work was also his love. I know that he loved everything about the piano as well as the efforts of his fellow pianists — even when he was listening to a student performance, he was completely absorbed, focused, and energized.

So I will not say “rest in peace.” I will say, “Earl, may you thrill, trill, and ‘doo-dah’ forever.”

Wizard Hamelin astonishes at the Kimmel Center

Marc-Andre Hamelin

Marc-Andre Hamelin

One of the joys of blogging is that I get to write about remarkable artists and cultural events that fly below the radar of mainstream media. However, on occasion, exceptions will be made, and there’s no better case for it than a concert played last night by Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presented Hamelin at one of my favorite halls in Philadelphia, the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, to a packed and enthusiastic crowd. Even though a review will no doubt appear in the Inquirer, I feel it’s my duty as a pianist to opine about one of the best concerts of the season, or of any season, for that matter.

Hamelin began with Alban Berg’s one-movement B minor Sonata, in an interpretation that was clean and transparent — more delicate angles than curves, more Capriccio than Salome. This was simply the warm-up act to an astonishing offering of the Liszt B minor Sonata. Hamelin’s speed, power and virtuosity gave this piece what it deserves and so rarely, by necessity, can get –- a breathtaking sense of direction that made one forget that bar lines had ever been invented. I have never heard the difficult parts of this piece played so convincingly and so fast. As a result, the scope of this long one-movement Sonata, one of the most important in the piano repertoire, was clear, fresh, and compelling.

The second half of the program began with four of the virtuosic Preludes from Debussy’s second volume. In these pieces, as well as those that ended the program, a selection of Hamelin’s own etudes, the pianist exploited the full range, color, and technical capacity of the Steinway at his command. His encore, the Haydn C Major Fantasy, was humorous and brilliant –- you’ve never heard Haydn like this, on the verge of full orchestral bombast yet winking with Charlie Chaplin-like pratfalls.

I take my hat off to Marc Andre-Hamelin. You’ve inspired me to give up blogging so I can practice more — almost!

New Year’s Gift — Diabelli Variations

The beautifully decorated Church of the Holy Trinity. Piano awaits.

The beautifully decorated Church of the Holy Trinity. Piano awaits.

Not many pianists would attempt to perform Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations at all, let alone right after Christmas, and especially not a few days after getting married! But Matthew Bengtson, just wed, tackled Beethoven’s monumental late composition fearlessly. I was one of the fortunate to hear his sensitive and virtuosic rendition on December 30, along with my daughter Alysa, home from Germany, and her friend Miriam, a recent graduate of Reed College. Both girls are accomplished musicians and gave the concert four thumbs’ up. I asked Miriam for a few thought about Matt’s program, which began with Schumann. This is what she had to say:

The conquering pianist and happy bridegroom

The triumphant pianist and happy bridegroom

“Matthew Bengtson’s interpretation of Schumann’s Nachtstücke, op. 23, four short pieces inspired by the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, transmitted the sense of the uncanny that links the Nachtstücke with Hoffmann’s writing. Speaking to the audience before he played, Bengtson explained that the final movement, Einfach (Simply,) is Schumann’s way of commenting on and summing up the rest of the piece. As in Hoffmann’s famous story “The Sandman,” the narrative voices of Einfach are convoluted and often overlap, and create a doubling that mimics the conflation of characters and their autonomy (or lack thereof).

“The Nachtstücke cast an interesting shadow over Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, as another example of the uncanny, or Das Unheimliche (literally the un-home-ly.) It shows how a composer is able to take something familiar and make it ‘strange.’ Beethoven wrote these variations in response to a competition held by Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli, who composed a simple theme for thirty-two prominent composers of the day to embellish. The quality of ‘making-strange’ is inherent in any set of variations on a theme, but especially apparent in these variations. Beethoven moves Diabelli’s simple waltz through thirty-three variations, taking the music so far from its ‘Diabelli home’ that it becomes completely Beethoven. ”

Alysa said she was particularly moved by the later slow variations, whose spiritual nature were in keeping with the concert’s setting, the intimate Church of the Holy Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square. Roses, trailing evergreen, cascading ribbons and white candles (rather than the typical poinsettias) and a full-sized nativity scene at the altar captured the Christmas spirit. The concert was part of the Brown Bag lunchtime series offered every Wednesday at 12:30. As the audience quietly ate their sandwiches and munched on cookies, their tummies were nourished as well as their souls. It was an uplifting way to finish the holiday season and begin a new year.

Alysa and Miriam discuss the program at home

Alysa and Miriam discuss the program at home