“Life is like a piano. What you get out of it depends on how you play it.” —Tom Lehrer
I've never heard of this day before but spotted it sliding by on some social media this morning and decided to make a post because I love the piano and piano music.
I'm just sharing a quick list of my favorite pianists over the course of my journey and you might want to think of yours today.
My father was an early audiophile and bought records from Sam Goody at his first shop in New York. As I was thinking of my list here, I realized that I associate each pianist with either a particular composer or performance.
In the early days of vinyl, there were only so many recordings. Because my father was crazy about Beethoven, he brought home Artur Schnabel's recordings of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas as each volume was released on vinyl. I may as well have been breathing those recordings (and Toscanini's set of Symphonies) through my early childhood.
Once I was trained to properly handle LPs, the amplifier, turntable and diamond stylus, Walter Geisiking introduced me to Debussy, Dinu Lipatti to Chopin, and Van Cliburn to Rachmaninoff.
During the summers, my dad would take me down to the old Robin Hood Dell for evening concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The night that Van Cliburn performed, it rained. All of the Friends of the Dell in the excellent up-front seats scurried off under umbrellas and I followed my dad down the center aisle in the rain where we sat on the cement steps and watched Van Cliburn play up close and personal with water flowing down beside us.
Around this chapter of my musical life, Columbia Records placed a plastic insert in Time Magazine with a recording of Dave Brubeck's Take Five as a promotion for Time Out. I played that thing over and over until the stylus cut clean through the grooves of that flimsy plastic. That was my introduction to jazz piano.
Once I came of babysitting age, I helped a couple of neighborhood doctors with their children and after those children were asleep, I'd flip through their album collection. One evening, I found a recording of Mozart Piano Sonatas and put it on to listen. I kept thinking that I heard someone else in the house. It was dark and I was creeped out. After walking all around the house, looking upstairs and down, I finally realized that what I heard was on the recording. It was the pianist humming along. That was my introduction to Glenn Gould who introduced me to Mozart's piano work and J.S. Bach on the keyboard. In those days, maybe still, he was highly controversial. You either loved him or hated him. I loved him.
Briefly, I worked for John Sears who ran the music department at John Wanamaker's flagship store in center city Philadelphia. We mostly sold pianos there and had a special, separate, beautiful room with high windows overlooking the streets below entirely dedicated to a grand Bösendorfer piano, or maybe two. I can't remember. There were extra keys under a hinged cover at the top or bottom of the keyboard. Able musicians would often glide in to try it out. One day a customer mentioned something to John about a Chickering piano. I remember John Sears saying "Chickering, Chickering... Abraham Lincoln once owned a Chickering!"
That was during the phase I hung out with composers and record store managers who brought me all sorts of wonderful recordings. One of those was Robert Tear's recording of Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel with Gerald Moore providing the accompaniment. That was my introduction to Moore who wrote and recorded the The Unashamed Accompanist, a revelation and delight. Unfortunately, that recording has completely evaporated but, fortunately, Will Liverman and Jonathan King recently nailed that cycle magnificently.
In my early 20s, my then husband gave me one of my best birthday presents ever: season tickets to the Great Pianists series at Royce Hall. I remember breathlessly watching Vladimir Ashkenazy, and saw Andre Watts, maybe Byron Janis and Alfred Brendel. I particularly remember Walter Klein's performance because mid-whatever piece it was, one of the ivories flew off into the audience and at the end of that movement or piece, Klein turned to the audience and asked if there was a piano technician in the house. There was. The key was repaired. The performance went on.
At some point, someone gave me a recording of Ursula Oppens performing Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated. It's a monster performance. I am a serious fan of any sort of counterpoint and the form of theme and variations. This is still one of my most favorite pieces of music. Here's Rzewski performing it himself.
Except for a little Brubeck, the only jazz pianist I was familiar with was Mose Allison because he played the folk circuit and we became acquainted after I traced his hands on a sheet of copy paper with a ballpoint pen one night upstairs at McCabe's. Aside from George Gaffney, I probably watched him perform more than any other jazz pianist. I treasured his every gig but always hated his pick up drummers because of the way they smacked the cymbals. Apparently I didn't mind sharing my opinion with Mose although of course, Mose must have liked them fine.
I can't leave out Keith Jarrett. I wore out a couple of copies of his Köln Concert.
After I suddenly fell head first into the cream of jazz royalty, on any given day, I would find myself, for example, standing between Ray Brown and Joe Williams in the control room of a Hollywood recording studio with Norman Granz a little off to one side watching Tommy Flanagan warm up on the other side of the glass. What a lovely man and lovely player.
Then there was the time I was sitting in the dressing room somewhere near Santa Clara, California while Sarah was making up before a performance. I heard a pianist running through some rehearsals on stage and said, "Wow, Sarah! Who is playing piano out there!? They're fantastic!" Honestly, sometimes Sarah would look at me as though I had just fallen off the cabbage truck. This time, though, she looked at me in her make up mirror and then turned around to look at me directly to make sure she could believe what she had just heard me say. It was Count Basie. When Basie came back to visit, I gushed like, Oh wow! I've never heard you play before! You're so great! Something to that effect. He looked me up and down, walked over, poked me in the sides and said, "Yeah. You're just a young chicken."
In the mid-80's, I had a box seat just behind and overlooking Murray Perahia at the old Asolo Theater in Sarasota, FL. A stunning performance. His recording of Schubert's Impromptus is one of my favorites.
The last great piano concert I can remember is Emmanuel Ax performing one of Brahms' Concertos with the Nashville Symphony. Mighty.
The last piano recording I became obsessed with was Igor Zhukov's live performance (and possibly arrangement) of Cesar Franck's Prelude, Fugue and Variation in B minor.
I've left off beloved pianists and recordings, like Ellis Marsalis, Jr. and his Loved Ones album with son, Branford. But enough is enough. (Except that, thinking of Ellis Marsalis, Jr., I have to say that I'm a fan of Harry Connick, Jr.'s playing, too.)
I'm going to go walk now and listen to that Zhukov recording which I can't seem to get enough of.
More on World Piano Day.