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“Fame made me do it!” Perhaps this phrase explains why three of the world’s greatest pianists so mysteriously went from having their names up in lights to having “Do Not Disturb” signs affixed to their doors.
Van Cliburn (born in Texas in 1934) was fortunate to find a first piano teacher in his own mother. After attending the Juilliard School of Music and winning competitions, his career highlight came at the age of 24 when he won the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. The competition, meant to prove the superiority of Russian pianists to the rest of the world, was turned upside down when this long, tall Texan suddenly won!
After his recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became an all-time best seller, Cliburn became an international hit with frequent sold-out concerts. But in 1979, he suddenly retired from public performance for ten years. Upon his return, his playing was consistent with his old style, but his concert appearances are sporadic. It’s still questionable whether or not he will resurrect his once-considerable career.
Canadian-born Glenn Gould (1932-1982) began studying piano at the age of 3. Seven years later, he was accepted to the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. At the age of 14, he was the youngest graduate ever from the Conservatory. He signed a recording contract with Columbia Records shortly after his U.S. debut, and his first recording, The Goldberg Variations, became a landmark. In 1964, feeling like “a vaudeville performer,” he abandoned all live performances and limited his career to recordings, radio, and television. A reputation is hard to hide; although his recordings and radio programs were sensational in both content and number, he is perhaps best remembered today for being eccentric and reclusive.
Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) started performing and recording in his teens, but the recordings of this Russian pianist were not heard in the West until the mid 1950s. They became immediate collector’s items. Known for canceling concerts on a whim and playing brilliant but unusual interpretations of well-known pieces, Richter was quickly labeled a mystery man. Considered a real keyboard maverick, his management went so far as to call him “the pianist of the century.” Now that’s a manager I’d like to have.
Chapter 18: Ten Types of Performers and Their Recordings
Five habits for a promising musical career
Want a recipe for success? Some of the world's greatest pianists have adopted some perplexing, sometimes neurotic, habits over the years:
S Wear gloves at all times when not playing the piano.
S Never open doors or drawers with your hands
S Always wear an overcoat, even in the heat of the summer.
s' Insist on using only your own piano at every concert.
S After you make the big time, cancel engagements, stop returning calls, and drop out of society until the public begs your return ... and I mean begs!
Find a habit that suits your fancy and you, too, may tempt the Fates into bestowing you with a monumental career.
Fortunately, these performers often hid behind the doors of a recording studio, from which they produced these gems:
J’ Van Cliburn: Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1, with Karil Kondrashin and the RCA Symphony (RCA); Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No 3, Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony (RCA).
S Glenn Gould: Bach, The Goldberg Variations (CBS); Hindemith,
3 Sonatas (CBS).
S Sviatoslav Richter: Mozart, 3 Sonatas (Philips); Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 5, with Witold Rowicki and the Warsaw Philharmonic (DG).
Notorious for their stage antics, extroverted personalities, wild costumes, and sometimes even pyrotechnics, these performers have given new meaning to the musical phrase “pulling out all the stops.” (See Chapter 1 to understand the pipe organ term pulling stops.)
Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis (born in Louisiana in 1935) took to the piano at the age of 8. His first public performance was at the age of 14 with a country and western band. Upon arriving in Memphis in 1956, he auditioned for Sam Phillips at
280 Part VII: The Part of Tens
Sun Records. (Sam is also credited with discovering Elvis.) Sam encouraged him to switch to rock ’n’ roll, which led to such classics as “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Never afraid of controversy, Lewis had a style of fast chord slamming, would often set his piano on fire in concert, and even married his 13-year-old cousin.
Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919-1987) moved from Wisconsin to New York in his early twenties, where he frequently performed in clubs and theaters. He moved to Los Angeles and appeared on television in 1951, and a legend was born. His expensive wardrobe, ornate candelabra, toothy smile, and florid piano style was Must See TV and led to a highly successful syndicated program. Always a good sport about being impersonated, he once said of a satirical parody, “I cried all the way to the bank.” His home in Las Vegas is a well-attended museum. Visit the museum in person or on the World Wide Web at www. 1 i berace . org. You’ll be glad you did.