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Chang Tou Liang, Artistic Director of the Singapore International Piano Festival, is back in Hong Kong for yet more concerts. The reason? Just for the joy of music

17 December 2006

(above, Gary Graffman with a fan)



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Words by Chang Tou Liang


Breakfast meetings organised by the Chopin Society of Hong Kong are always eventful affairs, not least because it is attended by Hong Kong’s top piano aficionados, pedagogues and a smattering of overseas guests. I know, because, at one such meeting in 2005, I was asked to give a 10-minute impromptu speech on the classical piano scene in Singapore. Spared from boring a polite and always appreciative audience again, I was all ears this time as Guest-of-Honour American pianist GARY GRAFFMAN spoke about his long and illustrious glittering concert career, amongst other things. Modest to a fault, he preferred to concentrate on the “other things”. The rest, you can read all about it in his autobiography I Really Should Be Practising.

From Russia to the West

Although Gary Graffman was born in the USA, both his parents were immigrants from Russia. His father Vladimir (also known as Volodya) was a well-known violinist who was a student of Leopold Auer. His friends and contemporaries included Jascha Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist and Mische Elman. On their way to America via the long trans-Siberian route, they made many, many stops, taking on jobs along the way in Omsk, Harbin, Tianjin and Shanghai. They eventually reached the West via Yokohama and San Francisco.

Early days at Curtis

Gary Graffman (left, speaking) learnt the violin for three years with his father (who was also the teacher of the great violin pedagogue Joseph Gingold). He remembered playing scales and creating “gawd-awful sounds” and was declared to have no talent whatsoever. Naturally he moved on to an “easier” instrument – the piano.  He was later able to accompany his father in the “standard sonatas” and works like the Conus Violin Concerto. He was seven years old when he auditioned for a place in the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He remembered a roomful of adults hearing him perform, including Joseph Hofmann who was the Principal. He did not realise who that was at the time, and addressed him with the familiar “tu” instead of the more formal “vu”!

Consistent with the Russian tradition, less emphasis was placed on chamber music as opposed to solo playing. Graffman was no exception and he offered this anecdote: As a young pianist, he had performed Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Georg Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. As Szell drove him to the train station after the concert, the great conductor asked, “You don’t play much chamber music, do you? It shows!”

All this changed when Rudolf Serkin (from the Austro-German school) became the Principal of Curtis. This same scenario is however repeated today with Chinese conservatories. Many young Chinese pianists come to Curtis without having played the piano part of a single violin sonata. He feels that more attention should be given to chamber music, as an addition to what they are already learning.   

When Gary Graffman entered Curtis, there were at most one or two students from Asia. Today, the majority of students are Asian. He currently has five students, four from China and one from Korea. He is amazed at the number of young Chinese who are musicians or studying to be musicians today, and added this riddle: How do you tell that someone in the city of Chengdu (in Sichuan) is a pianist? By the fact he or she isn’t carrying a violin case.

Once he was asked to recommend a pianist, who had to be an American. He could come up with only one – and his name was Ignat Solzhenitzyn!

Lessons with Horowitz

Gary Graffman initially studied with Isabella Vengerova (a student of Leschetizky) and she recommended him to study with Vladimir Horowitz. Graffman was not new to Horowitz as he heard him play in competitions and broadcasts. He was then offered lessons by the great man. This went on for about three years, starting with weekly lessons, which became monthly lessons, and then later four to five times a year. Horowitz was very much a night person; he slept at 2 or 3 am in the morning till noon. So lessons would take place at 5.05 pm (after the news on radio). Besides hearing a young pianist play, Horowitz was also curious to catch up on the gossip on other pianists!

Horowitz listened from a couch as Gary played. He did not say “I do it this way” but instead tried to see what a pianist was aiming for. When he commented, it was more about how and what he would do differently. He also made sure that Gary did not go off the track. Then it was the turn of the master himself. Often Horowitz would play for long stretches, usually of music he had planned on recording. Gary heard some twenty Clementi Sonata, works by Medtner (a favourite of Horowitz but hardly recorded by him) and many short pieces. And then he would proclaim, “I can’t play the piano anymore!”    

At the first lesson, Horowitz commented that his playing “was not in a singing line”. Horowitz then lent him bel canto recordings by Ettore Bastianini. Thus Horowitz thought of the piano in terms of the human voice, which was in contrast with Rudolf Serkin who thought instrumentally (“This is a horn, this is a bassoon…”)

Coping with disability

Initially, Gary noticed himself playing more wrong notes without quite knowing why. He was beginning to lose control of the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand. He would practise Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto three times more than before, but that work soon became an “iffy proposition”. Many of his colleagues would dismiss his concerns as trivial. “If that was your only problem, then go to hell!” they thought.

He consulted many doctors, all of whom had a different diagnosis, usually one pertaining to their own field of speciality. Some diagnosed life-threatening conditions while others suggested he needed psychiatric help! The condition which affected the control of his right hand was finally diagnosed as “focal dystonia” at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. (His colleague Leon Fleisher had the same condition, but at an even younger age.) There was no pain nor weakness, only “the brain sending wrong information” to the hand, and there was nothing much that could be done. Relieved that only the right hand was affected and with original fears of an altogether more serious illness allayed, life went on for im.

With 200 concerts or two years of engagements cancelled (as estimated by the New York Times), Gary could devote time to teaching. He taught at the Curtis Institute and became its Director (succeeding Jorge Bolet) for twenty years until June 2006. More importantly, he could also indulge in another passion – Asian art.

Allure of the Far East

He studied Asian art history at Columbia University, and began amassing an extensive collection of art pieces and antiques including Chinese and Japanese paintings and Southeast Asian ceramics. He has made 27 trips to China alone, but only three or four were related to music. He has also visited Tibet, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines, the last of which included a digging expedition. Also an amateur photographer, his photographs of the more remote parts of Asia have been displayed in museums and exhibitions. 

Graffman’s most famous student

Gary Graffman – an epitome of musicality – would seem the antithesis of his most famous student, the outlandish and often outrageous Lang Lang. Asked if he would have a word with his former student about his mannerisms, he had this to say: “I would not ask him to change anything. Lang Lang has it all there musically. All the rest are just extras!” 

Transcribed by Chang Tou Liang




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