I was about three years old, I remember learning how to
tell the afternoon time of 4:30 p.m. each weekday, from
the opening tag line of a classical radio show that began
with Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.”
That music just galvanized me, excited me every time I heard
it. I looked forward to that excitement every day. It was
obvious that I had some special affinity from music from
an early age that was not easily explained. Soon after,
my brother began to take piano lessons. We had a used baby
grand piano in our living room. The teacher, whose name
was Veronika Wolf, came to our house once a week. I begged
for lessons but she said I was too young. Eventually my
mother forced her to listen to me. I could play all of my
brother’s pieces without instruction, and could read
music notation without any training. Right away Miss Wolf
began to teach me! I’m happy to say that, 45 years
later, I am still in touch with my first teacher who lives
in Israel where she is known as a great pedagogue, a fine
composer, and a former Dean of the Jerusalem Conservatory.
She’s proud of me, and I’ve had the pleasure
of playing some of her very atonal piano scores, too.
love creativity in all its forms and my role models are
hardly limited to fellow musicians. As a pianist I always
wished to follow in the profoundly important tracks of Franz
Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, Dinu Lipatti, Clara Haskil, and
my own teacher at Juilliard, the late Rudolf Firkusny. But
my own approach to the piano and its sounds has been deeply
influenced by flamenco and kabuki dance, the motion pictures
of Kurasawa, Naruse and Charlie Chaplin, the paintings of
Vermeer and Renoir, the writing of J.D. Salinger. Willa
Cather and Shusaku Endo, grand American architecture of
the Art Deco era, the baseball artistry of Jim Palmer, Don
Mattingly, Kei Igawa and Ichiro Suzuki, and even witnessing
the varied religious services of the Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic
and 7th Day Adventist faiths. I’m lucky that in my
life so far I’ve been able to experience this amalgam
of the human experience, to be able to travel and enjoy
other cultures in a way my own parents and grandparents
too many to mention. Separating from a lover at the Gare
Central de Paris would be the most cinematic, perhaps. Standing
amidst the uncountable mass graves in the killing fields
of Okinawa -- five to ten bodies per marker, in all directions
as far as the eye can see -- would be the most chilling.
But I’m lucky in that almost every time I sit at the
piano with a beloved piece of music, it unfolds with great
poignancy for me. And less pain than that evening in Paris,
or that chilly afternoon in Naha, Okinawa.
GENDER CHANGE AND ARTISTRY
is, for me, the 60 Million Dollar Question, and I still
don’t have a definitive reply to it. I find that what
has happened to me as a pianist, since becoming a public
woman in 1998, is simply that I have stopped being afraid
to be me on stage -- wherever that leads. There was a period,
briefly, after the change, when playing very “masculine”
composers such as Beethoven (big and gruff) and Gershwin
(brash and cigar-chompin’) felt strange. But I got
over it fairly quickly. Pretty soon I found myself not hewing
to any traditional definitions of masculine and feminine,
in terms of artistic assumptions at least. Discarding my
former persona enabled me to feel very, very free.
give a very comprehensive list of my teachers! (though Rudolf
Serkin is a typo -- I never studied with him). I was very,
very blessed all of my life to have wonderful teachers,
most of them profoundly great pianists whose own work on
stage was the best lesson of all. I live by the rule of:
demonstrate to the student, and the worthy student will
copy (the opposite of: those who can, do, and those who
can’t, teach!). When I survey that list, I can think
of specific things I gleaned from each... from Reyes, a
theatrical flair for the stage; from Evans, a comprehensive
architectural approach to my scores; from Aide, a systematic
technical regimen; from Firkusny and Janis, the most wonderful
inspiration for phrasing and color imaginable; and so on
and so on. Some of the teachers you list here -- Johansen,
Weiss, Munz -- were pupils of the legendary Ferruccio Busoni,
and I sought them out because of that connection. In Busoni
I saw the highest achievement imaginable for a pianist.
He was much, much more: a composer, a writer, an intellect,
a philosopher. In pianists like Liszt and Busoni we see
people who transcended the instrument itself, to touch the
very source of creative inspiration.
when I arrived in New York City to begin my college studies
at the Juilliard School (I had just turned 17), it became
quickly apparent that I had much to learn in terms of the
piano. Quite aside from my first piano lessons at Juilliard
with Beveridge Webster, I could hear up and down the hallways
of the school the incredible technique and repertoire of
some of the very finest young talents in the world. It is
an experience quite akin, I am sure, to a rookie phenom
coming up to the major leagues and watching batting practice
at Yankee Stadium. You realize very quickly at a place like
Juilliard: it’s sink or swim time. Every minute I
am not practicing, some one else is.
at that time that one of my worst deficiencies was my poor
sight-reading, the ability to look at a score and play it
(hopefully well enough) without practicing for hours. It
is a hard but necessary skill to acquire, like learning
a foreign language for each composer in the classical canon.
Mozart has his way of writing, Haydn his way, Brahms his
way, etc. But I also realized that one of the world’s
great resources also lay before me -- the extensive Juilliard
Library. I resolved to try my best to read through every
volume of piano music in the place, to teach myself the
literature of the piano. There were probably about 12 rows
of piano music in the place. I approached my task quite
methodically, beginning with A (Isidor Achron’s Second
Rhapsody) and ending with Z (the Efrem Zimbalist Piano Concerto).
It took me about two years to accomplish this insane task,
spending most mornings of my life about one to two hours
just reading through piano music, before getting down to
the actual practicing of pieces I was preparing for my lessons,
recitals and competitions. Of course I skipped a lot of
music, too -- mostly repertoire that didn’t fit my
personality or hands very well, like Prokofieff. There are
plenty of pianists who play that already anyway.
the way, of course, I discovered a lot of excellent music
that is, for some inexplicable reason, never played. Sonatas
of Jan Ladislav Dussek and George Frederick Pinto; Danzas
of Mompou, Turina and Gottschalk; virginals music of Bull
and Farnaby; piano music of Ibert, Martinu and Szymanowski.
And this is not even taking into account the vast amount
of repertoire by well-known composers most pianists DO play
-- say, Haydn, Bartok, or Fauré -- or the enormous
amount of contemporary music from every corner of the globe
being composed even as I type this letter. Domenico Scarlatti
alone wrote 555 Sonatas for the keyboard, almost all of
which are excellent. There is really no excuse whatsoever
for any pianist to come of age with a repertoire of just
well-known works by Mozart, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofieff.
Of course that’s great music, and it deserves to be
played. But there is so much out there that goes UNplayed.
And since I know a lot of that music, I feel like it’s
part of my duty to bring it to light.
I think, must must must be curious. They do not enjoy the
luxury of a small repertoire!
said all of that, of course I never learn pieces willy-nilly
because they are unknown. I have my own tastes and distastes,
and generally just follow my nose (or ear, I should say)
in terms of what I learn, commit to memory, and perform.
You list a lot of my recorded repertoire -- Mozart, Turina,
Friml, Lamb, et al. -- and I am as curious as you to divine
any common thread amongst those composers. But I’d
say that, for me, the most important element in music is
color. Of course by that I mean sonic color. When I play,
for example, the “Vintner’s Daughter”
Variations of Miklos Rozsa, I want the listener to experience
the full panoply of emotions inherent in the work. I want
them to SEE the vintner’s daughter falling asleep
in her father’s grape field, and to SEE her dreams
of the handsome Hungarian knights coming to court her. What
is the vintner’s daughter wearing? What is the color
of the sky that afternoon? How brightly burns the sun, or
are there wafting clouds above? How is the green of the
grape fields? What do the knights wear? Are they tall, short,
black-haired, blond? What words do they say to woo her?
And upon waking after her dreams, does the vintner’s
daughter have flecks of teardrops at the corner of her eyes?
All these details are inherent in the music, it is that
rich in color. Miklos Rozsa was a fabulous composer, as
anyone who has heard his scores to such cinematic masterpieces
as “Double Indemnity,” “Ben-Hur”
or “Spellbound” knows. He could see all those
details in the portrait of the Vintner’s Daughter
that he committed to the canvas of his musical score. It’s
my job to bring it to as vivid life as I can.