Friday, January 14, 2011

Music feature: Pianist Graffman offers left-hand music at Lynn

Gary Graffman.
(Photo by Christian Steiner)

By Greg Stepanich

Sitting down at the Steinway on the stage of the Wold Center,‭ ‬Gary Graffman demonstrates how he tests pianos for the Curtis Institute,‭ ‬which has asked its former director to‭ ‬help‭ ‬choose a new batch of‭ ‬20‭ ‬for the Philadelphia arts school.

Graffman‭’‬s test piece is a‭ ‬slow solo passage‭ ‬from the middle of second movement of the Brahms Second Concerto.‭ ‬And he‭ ‬is playing it with two hands.‭

Not unusual for pianists,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬but it is for this one.

‭“‬The underlying thing is,‭ ‬probably the brain is sending a wrong signal,‭”‬ Graffman said of the right-hand dysfunction he‭’‬s had for more than‭ ‬30‭ ‬years,‭ ‬a problem that interrupted a major career and sent it onto a different,‭ ‬although very rewarding,‭ ‬path.

This weekend,‭ ‬the great American pianist appears‭ ‬at Lynn University for a concert of music for piano,‭ ‬left hand,‭ ‬which since he turned about‭ ‬50‭ ‬has been the only repertoire with which Graffman has been able‭ ‬to concertize.‭ ‬Robbed of the reliable use of the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand by focal dystonia,‭ ‬he has been concentrating on the left hand instead,‭ ‬performing the small literature for the hand and commissioning new works for it while pursuing an august teaching career at Curtis.

On Saturday night at the Wold Center on Lynn‭’‬s Boca Raton campus,‭ ‬Graffman will perform left-hand works by Scriabin‭ (‬including an arrangement of the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬2,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬1‭)‬,‭ ‬the Brahms left-hand arrangement of Bach‭’‬s D minor Chaconne,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬Sonata for the Left Hand Alone‭ (‬in C minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬179‭) ‬of the German late Romantic composer Carl Reinecke.‭

“It‭’‬s a real sonata,‭”‬ he said,‭ ‬adding that Reinecke,‭ ‬who lived a long life‭ (‬1825-1910‭)‬,‭ ‬was heavily influenced by the older Romantics of his time,‭ ‬including Chopin,‭ ‬Schumann and Mendelssohn.

He then‭ ‬will be joined by violinists Elmar Oliveira and Carol Cole,‭ ‬plus cellist David Cole,‭ ‬in the Suite‭ ‬(Op.‭ ‬23‭) ‬for‭ ‬two violins,‭ ‬cello and piano,‭ ‬left hand,‭ ‬by Erich Wolfgang Korngold,‭ ‬once known best for his film scores but whose concert work,‭ ‬including this five-movement piece from‭ ‬1930,‭ ‬is getting increasing attention.‭

“Some of it is quite wild,‭”‬ he said,‭ ‬though not as wild as the composer‭’‬s‭ ‬Concerto for the Left Hand,‭ ‬for which Graffman gave the North American premiere.‭ “‬This has less fantasy,‭ ‬but‭ ‬I think‭ ‬it‭’‬s an interesting piece.‭ ‬The second movement is a beautiful Viennese-type thing.‭ ‬The third movement is very difficult for the cello,‭ ‬especially.‭”

Graffman was born in‭ ‬1928‭ ‬in New York,‭ ‬the son of a Russian violinist who had emigrated to the United States‭ ‬to escape the Russian Revolution.‭ ‬He showed talent early on,‭ ‬entering the Curtis at the tender age of‭ ‬7,‭ ‬where he studied with Isabelle Vengerova.‭ ‬He made his debut in‭ ‬1946‭ ‬with the Philadelphia Orchestra,‭ ‬and was one of the wave of bright young American pianists who emerged onto the scene during the immediate postwar period,‭ ‬joining artists such as‭ ‬Willam Kapell,‭ ‬Claude Frank and Eugene Istomin.

He pursued further‭ ‬informal‭ ‬studies with the legendary Vladimir Horowitz and with Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro‭ ‬Music Festival,‭ ‬but soon had a major career in which he played about‭ ‬100‭ ‬concerts a year and made numerous recordings,‭ ‬including popular accounts of concerti by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev,‭ ‬as well as Gershwin‭’‬s‭ ‬Rhapsody in Blue.‭ ‬Toward the end of the‭ ‬1970s,‭ ‬he began to notice that he couldn‭’‬t play a tricky octaves passage in‭ ‬the Brahms‭ ‬Second Concerto‭ ‬with the same kind of accuracy as before.

‭“‬It‭’‬s a very difficult passage,‭ ‬so it doesn‭’‬t come out exactly the way you want it to‭ ‬100‭ ‬percent of the time.‭ ‬But I‭ ‬figured,‭ ‬80‭ ‬percent of the time,‭ ‬and the other‭ ‬20,‭ ‬it didn‭’‬t fall apart or anything,‭ ‬it just wasn‭’‬t as good,‭”‬ Graffman said.‭ ‬“And then I started having more problems with it.‭ ‬And I‭’‬d practice it more,‭ ‬now not for the‭ ‬80‭ ‬percent,‭ ‬but maybe‭ ‬70‭ ‬percent.‭”‬

Then he started having trouble with pieces that had never been too difficult for him,‭ ‬such as the variation in sixths in the Brahms‭ ‬Handel Variations,‭ ‬and much of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto.‭ ‬Something was clearly wrong.

What was happening was that the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand were involuntarily contracting.‭ ‬He holds up his right hand to demonstrate,‭ ‬and says the problem only occurs when he tries to extend the hand in order to play octaves.

‭ “‬I can‭’‬t control it.‭ ‬As soon as I start to play,‭ ‬it wants to do that,‭”‬ he said,‭ ‬curling the fourth and fifth fingers onto the palm.‭ ‬Not extending the hand meant‭ “‬I could actually play,‭ ‬and play pretty decently,‭”‬ but it severely limited the kind of repertoire he could‭ ‬perform.

Consultations with many doctors followed,‭ ‬the first few of whom‭ ‬“diagnosed me with whatever their specialty was,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬So I really wasn‭’‬t getting anywhere.‭”

Finally,‭ ‬Graffman went to Boston for a year to be a study subject for a team at Massachusetts General Hospital.‭ “‬I took a studio there for one year,‭ ‬and would go there every week for two days,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬Steinway put a piano in the room,‭ ‬and the doctors put a portable biofeedback machine on the piano.‭”

The doctors‭ “‬turned themselves inside out‭”‬ trying to nail down the problem,‭ ‬and included physical therapy in Graffman‭’‬s regimen.‭ ‬But while there were improvements in muscle strength,‭ ‬the pianist has never been able to rely on the hand since.

Still,‭ ‬it could have been worse,‭ ‬Graffman points out.‭ ‬The same thing happened to pianist Leon Fleisher,‭ ‬but at a much earlier stage in his career.‭ “‬I was‭ ‬50‭ ‬when this happened.‭ ‬Leon Fleisher was‭ ‬35.‭ ‬That‭’‬s a huge difference,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬Two,‭ ‬I‭’‬d been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses,‭ ‬but no:‭ ‬It‭’‬s only your hand.‭ ‬And thirdly,‭ ‬I‭ ‬have other interests besides music.‭ ‬I went back to Columbia University and took some graduate courses in Chinese,‭ ‬Japanese and Indian art history.‭”‬

As his concert career went on hiatus,‭ ‬he was offered chances to teach at Curtis and the Manhattan School of‭ ‬Music,‭ ‬which he did beginning in‭ ‬1980.‭ ‬In‭ ‬1986,‭ ‬he was named director of the Curtis Institute and led it for the next‭ ‬20‭ ‬years.

His recent pupils have included some of the leading pianists today,‭ ‬including Lang Lang and Yuja Wang.‭ ‬Other young students include the Cliburn medalist Haochen Zhang,‭ ‬Lydia Artymiw,‭ ‬Di Wu and Ignat Solzhenitsyn.

‭“‬I enjoy teaching,‭ ‬and I think the lack of any formal training in teaching was maybe an advantage,‭ ‬in a certain way,‭ ‬if you have fantastically gifted students,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬Anyone who‭’‬s accepted to Curtis,‭ ‬whether they‭’‬re‭ ‬10‭ ‬years old or‭ ‬20,‭ ‬already play extremely well.‭”

These days,‭ ‬Graffman,‭ ‬who has lived in the same New York apartment building for‭ ‬48‭ ‬years,‭ ‬goes to Curtis twice a month and‭ “‬gives very long lessons‭”‬ to six students.‭

“What I try to do,‭ ‬whether I‭’‬ve been successful or not I don‭’‬t know,‭ ‬is to put myself in the mind of that young person,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬This I learned from Horowitz‭ …‬ What was interesting was that from the very beginning he didn‭’‬t go to the piano and‭ ‬say,‭ ‬‘No,‭ ‬no,‭ ‬I feel it this way‭’‬ … He tried to see what I was striving for,‭ ‬and what he felt I was not succeeding in reaching,‭ ‬on my basis and for what I wanted.‭”‬

Graffman,‭ ‬who turns‭ ‬83‭ ‬in October,‭ ‬says there are opportunities for music school students who want to get jobs in the field,‭ ‬even if most of them don‭’‬t end up having world-class solo careers.‭ “‬The point is,‭ ‬they‭’‬re doing it,‭”‬ said Graffman,‭ ‬who will give two master classes at Lynn in the morning and early afternoon Sunday.

And he doesn‭’‬t see any reason that‭’‬s going to change over the long term.

‭“‬Shakespeare‭ ‬is going to be heard forever while there are human beings on the earth.‭ ‬Beethoven also will be.‭ ‬In order to play a Beethoven symphony,‭ ‬you need an orchestra,‭”‬ Graffman said.‭ “‬There may be one generation where it‭’‬s a slightly larger or slightly smaller minority of the people who will go to it‭ …‬ But to hear a Beethoven symphony,‭ ‬you have to have an orchestra.‭”


Gary Graffman‭ ‬performs at‭ ‬7:‭ ‬30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday at the Wold Performing Arts Center,‭ ‬Lynn University,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$20-$35.‭ ‬Graffman will give master classes at‭ ‬10‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬and‭ ‬1‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday at the Amarnick-Goldstein Concert Hall on the Lynn campus.‭ ‬Admission is free.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬237-9000.

1 comment:

Geraldine said...

Great article! I had major troubles with my right hand for many years, and to this day I prefer to stay away from pieces with too many octaves.
I wrote about my experience here:

The repertoire for left hand is very interesting, and some of it came from after the war, when pianists had actually lost their hand at war.

I wish I were in your area to come see that concert!