Still electrifying, Mr. Wild


American virtuoso Earl Wild

Today I had the great pleasure of playing some of Earl Wild’s stellar performances on the air, during my Saturday morning radio shift on WRTI-FM in Philadelphia. He was born in Pittsburgh 101 years ago this day.

He died in 2010, teaching until the very end. I was one of the lucky recipients of an almost “secret knowledge” handed down by a virtuoso of the old Romantic tradition, who had heard Rachmaninoff in person many times, and who had studied with a student of Ravel’s, and of Busoni’s. ¬†Earl could explain every aspect of piano playing — from fingering, to nuances of phrasing, to chord balancing, to pedaling, to power in brilliant passages, all the while demonstrating, at the second piano. He knew, by heart, nearly every passage from the piano repertoire. He could talk and do.

Some other things about him, impossible to convey on the air — his charisma and rapier wit. His elegant way of dressing, which never looked foppish, because he was tall and broad-shouldered, with a shock of white hair, and blue eyes that widened or which he rolled to punctuate every story he told. The most colorful ones I can’t repeat, but here’s a milder one. When a new student at Juilliard approached him in distress, saying she’d been turned down by another teacher because her hands were so small she could barely reach an octave, he said, “How big is your brain?” She became his student and went on to have a successful debut at Carnegie Hall, critically praised in the Times for her fresh interpretation of an unusual program that alternated between Schumann and Bach.

Earl was not afraid to tell us students that he practiced — a lot. His income went up with the number of hours he practiced, he said, quite deadpan. Out to dinner, he preferred a Tanqueray martini, up, with a twist. A favorite pre-concert snack was a bowl of chocolate ice cream, which he ate in his bathrobe (why I was at his house while he was getting ready for a concert, I’m not sure, but the memory sticks.) He wrote his marvelous compositions and transcriptions for piano, in part, he said, to ward off the “boredom of practicing.” Earl was a sweet man, but he was not one to sugarcoat the life of a concert pianist.

For one of his recording sessions, I served as page turner. He was recording all the Rachmaninoff Preludes and the 2nd Sonata, on his white 9-foot Baldwin grand piano in his spacious living room in Columbus, Ohio, with its acoustically advantageous cathedral ceiling. He had to record at night, to minimize extraneous outdoor noises, but there were train tracks about a mile away, and a train rolled through just as the recording engineer was doing sound checks. Earl placed his hands on the keys and perfectly replicated the diminished/augmented/whatever chord that the train horn made, mournfully blowing across the flat Ohio plain.

Earl suffered no fools. Any pompous sort unlucky enough to try to cross him would wither and burn under that caustic wit. Consequently, managerial types would not necessarily feel fondly toward him. He was not cliquish or popular with the musical in-crowd. Ever independent, he was the opposite of a “yes” man.

Oh, but how his audience adored him, from music lovers, to great arts patrons, to opera stars, and of course his students. Listen to his recording of the four Rachmaninoff Concerti and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, recorded when he was 50, with Jascha Horenstein and the Royal Philharmonic. Recorded in just five days, Earl told Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, that he had an instant rapport with the orchestra, and making that recording was “a joy.”

Listeners today definitely heard that joy. I received an unusual slew of phone calls and e-mails after playing his recording of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto on the air. Everyone could feel the special brilliance of Earl Wild’s playing; its precision, power, pacing, gorgeous sound, and utter sensitivity, to this day, are something rare. Happy birthday, Mr. Wild — you are still electrifying.


There is one response to “Still electrifying, Mr. Wild”

  1. Thank you for sharing that. I heard you play Mr. Wild and wondered how you keep your composure given what he means to you. Noticed you did not mention that relationship on the air. Audience would be intrigued to know who their radio personality really is!