Posts filed under:  Great Artists

A Life Worth Living

Mr. and Mrs. Ma in their concertizing days

Early in med school, I put myself on a tight schedule so I wouldn’t have to give up playing the piano. I would attend my lectures on biochemistry and physiology until 5, eat a quick dinner with my roommates, run to a campus practice room, practice until 9, dash back to my apartment, and study until midnight. This might sound admirably self-disciplined, but I didn’t do it on my own. I had a mentor to guide me.

Her name was Tung Kwong-Kwong, and she taught piano at the Kent State University School of Music, along with her husband Ma Si-Hon, who was professor of violin. Even before I started studying with her, I knew — from the way she carried herself and from the brief compliment she gave me about one of my performances — there was nothing frivolous about Mrs. Ma. For teaching and performing, she always wore an elegant Westernized cheong-sam, a style one cannot pull off if one possesses an extra ounce of body fat. She always carried a Coach bag, because, she told me, one could send a Coach bag back to the store for refurbishing and repair.

She was exacting at lessons, and a little mysterious. Interspersed with exhortations on phrasing correctly, she told me about growing up in Shanghai, of bicycling through the streets with a gold bar in the basket to buy her first Steinway piano, of leaving China in 1947 before Mao’s takeover, of her father’s long imprisonment by the Communist party. Though she wasn’t a name-dropper, she knew a lot of fascinating people. She and Mr. Ma had been like godparents to Yo-Yo Ma (though no relation,) and they took me backstage to meet him when he performed with the nearby Canton (Ohio) Symphony.

“Debra’s in medical school,” Mrs. Ma said when she introduced me to him.

Yo-Yo told me that his own sister had finished med school and was rotating through Bellevue Hospital for her residency. Even though he was well on his way to world celebrity, I remember his respect toward the Mas; I got the feeling that with them, he felt he could be himself.

Mrs. Ma’s favorite topic ( besides Mr. Ma,) was her own teacher, the great Beethoven interpreter Artur Schnabel. When she was in her twenties, Schnabel accepted her into his class. Summer sessions were held in Italy, at Lake Como. While other students were out boating, sight-seeing or eating out, she would chain herself to a practice room, determined not to play “woodenly,” determined to make sense of Schnabel’s principles of melodic articulation.

“You’ll get it,” she told me, when I expressed frustration at my inability to phrase something in a compelling way. “You see, if you want it badly enough, you’ll be able to. I had to struggle too.”

She and Mr. Ma divided their time between Ohio and Manhattan, where they had a large teaching studio near Chinatown and a concert series called the Si-Yo Society, on which they performed chamber music with well-known musicians in New York. When they asked me to take part in the young artist division of Si-Yo, I was thrilled to work with other serious young musicians. Their nephew Yong-Zi, a sensitive cellist, and another nephew, exuberant violinist Wing Ho, who’d both survived the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, were core members of the ensemble, as was the powerfully expressive violist Sarah Adams. Under the scrutiny of Mr. and Mrs. Ma’s exacting ears, we rehearsed the Brahms F-minor Piano Quintet, as well as the Dvorak, Mozart and Faure Piano Quartets, over and over again. It was not an experience for the faint-hearted, but the resulting performances remain some of the most satisfying of my life.

Eventually I graduated from med school and moved away. Eventually, Mr. Ma retired from his professorship, and the Mas moved back permanently to New York. We stayed in touch by phone and I sent them a yearly Christmas card. I was puzzled when at some point I stopped hearing back from them, but I assumed they were just busy with their lives.

It was only when Sarah Adams phoned to tell me that Mr. Ma had passed away did I learn that both Mr. and Mrs. Ma had been ill for quite some time. Living alone and childless, their health worsened without their extended family realizing the extent of their decline. They were moved to an upscale retirement community close to their niece Zhen-Mei, and coincidentally, only twenty minutes away from where I now live with my family in suburban Philadelphia.

I phoned Zhen-Mei, whom I remembered from long ago as warm and generous. “She doesn’t remember much,” said Zhen Mei, who oversees Mrs. Ma’s care. “Her Alzheimer’s is pretty bad.”

When I saw Mrs. Ma at the memorial service for her husband, I was astonished by her chic looks, her shorter hairstyle, her figure trim as a teenage girl’s. Whether she could remember me, I didn’t know, though she smiled and spoke to me as if she did. Now that I knew that she lives nearby, I drove over to visit her a few weeks later.

“What took you so long?” she asked, and hugged me.

A black-and-white photo of Artur Schnabel hangs in a prominent place in the small apartment she now occupies at the Hill at Whitemarsh, where a nurses’ aide watches her 24 hours a day. Her concert Steinway grand takes up most of the living room, the front part of the fallboard protected by a length of plastic to prevent scratches on the ebony finish, just as it was covered in Kent. On the lid sit handsome photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Ma in their concertizing days.

Although she can’t remember the past week’s or morning’s events, or my name, she listens attentively when I sit down to to play for her. She takes a seat close to the keyboard as if she is about to teach. And she does teach. She sings the phrases of these famous masterworks by Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, as she would play them.

“Not so short on the second beat,” she tells me, “but more like this —“
“Vary the phrasing, for instance, like this —“

When it comes to music, her mind still doesn’t miss a beat.

I e-mailed Zhen-Mei a few weeks ago to let her know that I wanted to schedule another visit to Mrs. Ma, and learned that she had to be hospitalized because of a bad fall, from which she’d sustained a broken ankle and what might have been a subdural bleed. Her pacemaker had to be re-inserted, and she doesn’t want to eat. I remember Mrs. Ma telling me that Schnabel, at the end, refused to eat. She’s since made a small recovery, and I hope that under the right care, she will continue to improve.

In September I had the honor of performing for Mr. Ma’s memorial concert at Merkin Hall in New York, along with Yong-Zi, Wing (now a full professor of viola at China’s prestigious Central Conservatory Beijing, and a highly influential teacher,) and Sarah (now a sought-after freelance violist in New York and member of the Cassatt Quartet.) Joining us was the marvelous young concert violinist Chen Xi, who was raised in China and educated later at Curtis and is studying now at Yale. Yong-Zi chose the demanding program. Performing the late Beethoven trio and the Brahms C minor Quartet under the Si-Yo banner was a wonderful re-union and brought me the same happiness I’d experienced playing for Si-Yo so many years ago.

After the concert, there was a boisterous party in the reception hall upstairs, where Mrs. Ma, with a pink lily pinned to her chic black suit, was the honored guest. Friends, former piano students, and many family members surrounded her. I’d had no idea, from the vantage point of her milieu in Ohio, what an impact she’d had on so may people, and what a large family cherished her.

To bring music to so many, through teaching and playing, and to have the love one’s family -– that is a life worth living. Bravo, Mrs. Ma.

Read the late Alan Rich’s wonderful commentary on the Si-Yo Society and Mr. and Mrs. Ma.

The Si-Yo Memorial Concert at Merkin Hall, with Chen Xi, violin, Yong-Zi Ma, cello, Sarah Adams, viola (and Isaac Harlan, turning pages)

Diva Power-A Recital by Denyce Graves

Denyce Graves, John Conahan, and Laura Ward

If the devil knocked on my door and said, “I’ll turn you into a great singer, Deb, but you have to give me your little finger – on both hands,” I’d say “yes!” Nothing moves me more than great singing, maybe because my father has a beautiful tenor voice. Growing up, I often accompanied him at church. Despite the fact that his sense of rhythm is quite, shall we say, creative, accompanying singers remains one of my favorite things to do.

Two weeks ago, I had the unbelievable good fortune to fall under the spell of one of the truly great voices of this century, when I was invited by a friend to hear a private dress rehearsal given by the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Ms. Graves was preparing for a lieder recital at the Strathmore Festival near Washington, D.C., and her Philadelphia-based pianist, Laura Ward, arranged a run-through at her church in center city Philadelphia.

It was a cool and drizzly day for June, and the massive doors of the church were locked. Laura herself answered the buzzer and let me into the building through a side entrance. I was uncharacteristically early, and took a front pew seat in the silent church. With all the exits shut, the air inside the sanctuary felt close and dusty. The light filtering through the stained glass windows was dim.

All dusty dimness vanished, however, when Denyce Graves stepped to the front of the church to sing. Though wearing a knee-length dress, she looked every bit the glamorous diva, and I was touched that even for this tiny, impromptu audience, she cared enough to create an imposing stage presence.

That care translated beautifully into her stunning recital, which began with songs by Purcell and Handel and continued with a remarkable interpretation of the Robert Schumann masterpiece, Frauenliebe und Leben. The burnished yet pure timbre of Ms. Graves’ voice soaring above Schumann’s singular, lush harmonies, transported me, and I couldn’t help but weep.

As mezzo-soprano Suzanne duPlantis, who was in the audience, told me later, “That was probably the best interpretation of that song cycle I’ve ever heard.”

On the second half of the program, Ms. Graves again created magic in her set of four standards from the American songbook, which were arranged in anything but a standard way by young Philadelphia-based singer, composer, and arranger John Conahan. Ms. Graves delivered Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and Grand and Boyd’s “Guess Who I Saw Today,” with piercing intelligence, perfect narrative timing, and devastating emotion. Again my tears flowed.

Of course, her great liberty to express was made possible by Laura Ward’s superb intuitive accompaniment. The women generously gave two encores, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” from Samson et Delila by St. Saens, and a spiritual that Ms. Graves grew up hearing her mother sing, “Give Me Jesus.”

Gracious in person, Ms. Graves told me afterward she had been a little nervous because all these pieces were “new material.”

“Don’t change a thing,” I said.

Denyce Graves, through the hard work of honing an incredible gift of voice, embodies the power of woman. I’d wish for any group of oppressed women, anywhere in the world, to be able to hear her sing. They would understand immediately that within them, too, lies power.

Conversations with Paul, Part One

In the words of the late Karl Haas:
“Hello Everyone!”
To celebrate the re-instatement of my website, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite people, pianist and composer Paul Romero. Enjoy, and let’s hope that the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico will also soon be fixed.
* * * * * * *

Paul Romero

Last month, my talented student Susan (a rising sophomore at Bryn Mawr College) said she wanted to learn the rest of the Grieg Concerto, but she was going home to L.A. for the summer, and she didn’t know whom to study with.

“I know just the right person,” I said.

That person is a marvelous pianist who befriended me when my husband and I moved from Ohio to Los Angeles over a decade ago. I didn’t know a musical soul when we arrived. One afternoon, as I pushed my little girl in a stroller along the dusty road of my sister’s mountainous, bohemian neighborhood, I heard the thunderous sounds of a Fledermaus transcription shake the walls of a ranch house we were passing.

“A concert pianist lives in that house,” I told my sister, and I went to investigate.

That’s how I met Paul Romero and his partner, psychiatrist and saxophonist Brock Summers. Paul was immediately impressed that I had studied with Earl Wild for many years and made me sit down to play. Shortly thereafter, he invited me to perform at one of his and Brock’s extravagant musicales. Imagine a hundred or so people crowded into a small but elegant living room with a Steinway grand, and people precariously packed onto a balcony that looks out onto the San Gabriel mountains. Imagine a wide array of performers, from cellists to pianists to singers, performing classical to jazz to Tom Lehrer witticisms, with Paul enthusiastically em-ceeing from the microphone. A happier scene could not be produced by Hollywood.

Paul’s own playing impressed me as well, because of his warmth of tone and expressive lyricism. His singing lines linger in the ear long after the last note dies away.

I knew he would be a perfect teacher for Susan, and I am happy to report that they have hit it off marvelously.

Catching up with Paul over the phone, I’ve learned that he is performing concerts in venues that interest him, and that he’s devoting much of his time to his composing career. He is completing the scoring for the 130th soundtrack of his “Heroes of Might and Magic” series, and has been commissioned to write a symphony based on the motifs he’s composed for this wildly successful video game.

Paul has no doubt carved out one of the more interesting careers of a Curtis Institute of Music alumnus.

Writing this now, I remember his reassurances when I was about to move from L.A. to the Main Line of Philadelphia.

“When I was at Curtis, I had a part-time job working for a florist,” he said. “We used to deliver to the Main Line. It was unbelievably green there with a canopy of thick, old trees. You’ll like it.”

He was right; it turned out to be a good move for us. But I’m glad to re-connect with a great talent from my California past, and I promise more “Conversations with Paul” in weeks to come.

Charm o’ the Irish

Irish Pianist John O'Conor

Irish Pianist John O'Conor

On St. Patrick’s Day, I like to wear green and toast the Irish. Who can resist a culture that has produced writers like James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, William Trevor and Edna O’Brien, as well as such musical icons as the Chieftains, and Danny Boy? Let me now add to that list the pianist John O’Conor, whom I heard the day after St. Paddy’s, at the Philosophical Society near Independence Hall, in another stellar concert presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

Let me first say that Mr. O’Conor defied my visual expectations. The recording that I associate most with him, of John Field’s Nocturnes, demonstrates the utmost in delicacy and grace. Thus I expected a rather wispy person to float from the wings up to the piano. But no. Mr. O’Conor is a substantially built man with a jolly smile who looks like he could captain a rugby team or break up a brawl in South Philly.

The sound that he produces at the keyboard can be, not surprisingly, gargantuan. But what made this performance unique was the way it breathed with life. His interpretations of Haydn, of, yes, John Field, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 110 and the monumental late C minor Schubert Sonata were intensely personal, while clearly delineating the harmonic surprises and the melodic flourishes of each piece. Occasionally his rubati at the ends of phrases, especially in the Haydn and Beethoven, were a bit too prolonged for cohesion, and sometimes I wished for a more subtle gradation of his fortissimos, but these were minor points in an otherwise exhilarating performance.

A few guys in the audience wore full Irish regalia that evening: kilts, knee socks, and fur sporrans at their waists. Several women could not hold back their enthusiasm, and bobbed back and forth in time to the music. Mr. O’Conor rewarded the audience with two encores, both Nocturnes: the famous Chopin E-Flat, and a rarely-heard jewel of a piece, the Scriabin Nocturne in D-Flat for left hand. The Steinway onstage was lush and warm throughout the program, but especially in this last piece.

They say Koreans are the Irish of Asia. If that means I’m a wee bit like John O’Conor, I’ll raise a glass to that.

A sporran

A sporran

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.”