Corrections or additions?
This article was prepared by Elaine Strauss for the March 9, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A One-Handed Pianist, Two-Fisted Artist
By soloing in Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4 for the Left
Hand, Gary Graffman shows more courage than Paul Wittgenstein, the
artist for whom Prokofiev wrote the piece in 1931. After looking over
the score Wittgenstein told the composer, "Thank you for your
concerto, but I do not understand a single note of it and shall not
play it." Graffman performs the piece with the New Jersey Symphony
Orchestra (NJSO) in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium on Friday, March
11. Keri-Lynn Wilson, who last appeared with the NJSO in the 2002-’03
season, conducts. The program includes Felix Mendelssohn’s "Hebrides
Overture" ("Fingal’s Cave") and Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No. 1.
Wittgenstein, who made his debut as a pianist in 1913, fought on the
eastern front during World War I. Severe shrapnel wounds doomed his
right arm, and it was amputated. When he returned to Vienna,
determined to pursue a career as a pianist, he drew on the tiny
repertory of existing pieces for left hand and wrote his own
arrangements of standard works. His cultivated parents, who had
welcomed Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss into
their home, commissioned the leading composers of the time to write
music for their son. The result was an explosion in the extent of the
repertoire for left hand. New pieces by Franz Schmidt, Paul Hindemith,
Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Richard Strauss, and Maurice Ravel, took
their place alongside the existing compositions.
A quarter of a century went by after Wittgenstein rejected the
Prokofiev concerto before it was publicly performed. In 1956, three
years after the composer’s death, Siegfried Rapp, who, like
Wittgenstein, lost his right arm to a war injury, played the concerto
for the first time in West Berlin. Wittgenstein had, by that time,
emigrated to New York, where he died in 1961. NJSO soloist Graffman
lost the use of his right hand in 1979 to a neuromuscular problem and
has performed music for the left hand alone since then.
Is the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 4 different from his other piano
concertos?, I ask Graffman during a telephone interview. "Yes," he
says. "A lot of it is linear." He means that there is a single melodic
line. "It makes you work all over the keyboard. It’s unlike many other
left-hand pieces. In the Ravel, you can’t tell that it’s for one hand.
It sounds like two hands, even four. It’s all over the place with left
hand chords and you have to use the middle pedal." The middle pedal is
a special feature on Steinway pianos; held down after keys are
depressed, the pedal sustains those pitches, while the pianist plays
as he wishes against the background sound.
Six concertos composed for Graffman have expanded the repertoire for
left hand. William Bolcom, Richard Danielpour, Daron Hagen, Luis
Prado, Ned Rorem, and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski have all written pieces
for him. He has recorded the Rorem and Skrowaczewski works, as well as
Richard Strauss’ "Parergon," based on his "Symphonia Domestica." The
word "parergon" means "spin-off," Graffman explains.
Graffman had no input into the pieces written for him. "I didn’t want
to have any," he says. "I don’t like to tell a composer what to do.
All of these pieces worked very well."
Graffman was born in 1928 in New York City. On his father’s side the
family was intensely musical. His father, Vladimir Graffman, a
violinist, studied with the renowned Leopold Auer at the elite
Imperial Conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia. Vladimir’s sister,
Dina, a pianist, and his brother Joseph, a double bassist, also
studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Their youngest sibling,
Sonia, studied piano in Vilna, Lithuania, where she remained with
their mother. After the Russian revolution Vladimir and Dina made
their way to the United States via China over a period of years,
giving concerts along the way. Vladimir eventually taught at New
York’s Mannes College of Music.
When Graffman was three his father attempted to teach him violin. The
project didn’t take. He shifted to piano and made astonishing
progress. By the time he was seven, he successfully auditioned for
Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. One of the judges was the volatile
Isabelle Vengerova, who had been a young faculty member at the St.
Petersburg Conservatory when Vladimir studied there.
Mary Curtis Bok, of the Curtis Publishing Company family, established
the Curtis Institute to train solo performers. Every member of its
small student body receives a full scholarship. Newly-admitted
students must be below the age of 20.
Since Graffman at seven was too young to travel from New York to
Philadelphia alone, and his family was unwilling to move, Curtis
worked out a special arrangement for him. He would have lessons in New
York with Vengerova, who lived in Manhattan a few blocks from his
family. Graffman’s vividly engaging account of his family background
is captured in his book, "I Really Should be Practicing: Reflections
on the Pleasures and Perils of Playing the Piano in Public"
In 1947 Graffman debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1949 he
won the Leventritt Competition, and his career took off on an
international scale. He traveled the world with his wife, Naomi, and
the couple actively collected Chinese antiquities, primarily ceramics.
Disturbingly, after three decades of concertizing, Graffman realized
that his right hand was becoming unreliable. He attempted to overcome
the problem. Finally, diagnosed with focal dystonia, he gave up. "The
brain sends out the wrong signals," he says. "There is no pain. I went
to doctors. But it seemed like a waste of time."
Looking back on becoming a one-handed pianist, Graffman does not sound
rueful. "I was gainfully employed at Curtis," he says. "It was a
full-time job anyhow." Today, he limits his concertizing to the
repertoire for the left hand, and takes no special measures to
maintain his piano skills. "I don’t do anything special to keep my
left hand in shape," he says. "It gets a lot more workout when you
practice for an hour than it would if you were practicing two-handed."
Graffman practices regularly. "Now I’m playing 35 concerts a year
instead of 100," he says. "I’m not away as much as I used to be, but I
have to practice the same amount. The same amount of practice is
required whether you play a piece once or five times."
Graffman’s connections to Curtis have escalated. A member of the
Curtis piano faculty since 1980, he became Curtis’ director in 1986,
and its president in 1995. He summarizes his contributions to Curtis
as "trying to keep it the way it always was. It was always small. We
have about 160 students, and tuition is free. We have to raise money
on an annual basis and maintain the endowment. Until recently, the
endowment paid 99 percent of Curtis’ costs. Now it pays 80 percent.
The costs for heat, light, and insurance keep increasing. We’re not in
danger. But there are more demands on the head of Curtis than there
were before because of the fundraising aspect." Graffman puts Curtis’
annual budget at about $9 million.
About to start auditions for the year 2005- ’06, Curtis continues to
be an elite institution with intensely competitive admissions. This
year, Graffman says, 119 pianists are competing for three or four
Graffman’s hope for Curtis’ future is that it continue doing what it
has done in the past: staying small, staying excellent, and staying
solvent. "I’m at the end of my 19th year at Curtis," he says. "There’s
a search committee to replace me. I’ll probably keep some piano
Graffman spends half of the week in New York and half in Philadelphia.
"I live in a big apartment in New York and a small apartment in
Philadelphia," he says. "I’ve been in New York over 40 years. New
York’s more exciting. There’s more going on. My condo in Philadelphia
is a block and a half from Curtis. After a Curtis concert’s over, the
streets are not full of people, and there are not many places where
you can eat. Philadelphia’s Chinatown is an exception. On other hand,
the streets are picturesque. There are a lot of former carriage houses
where single families live. I like to have a little bit of both."
Graffman foresees making changes in his New York living arrangements
because of the size of his Chinese art collection, which includes
paintings as well as ceramics, and covers a swathe of 12 centuries
from 200 B. C. to 1000
A. D. "It takes up a lot of space," he says. "We’re trying to buy
space adjacent to the apartment where we live. Funerary objects have
become more important. There are horses, camels, dancing girls,
acrobats, and guardian figures. Some of them are two or three feet
high. They’re all over the place in my apartment."
His wife, Naomi, will surely have an opinion about the matter. When I
ask Graffman what she does, he replies, "She criticizes. Rudolf Serkin
[the pianist and former head of Curtis] said that he would rather play
for a full house in Carnegie Hall than for her alone." Besides, as a
serious painter, who studies at New York City’s Art Students League,
she has her own storage problems.
Then, the photography takes space. Graffman is an avid photographer.
He still shoots slides. "When I travel I take two cameras, with
different lenses," he says. "I’ve been to China about 20 times. I was
in Tibet for the first time this year. Mongolia is next."
Graffman is a two-handed photographer. "My right hand is fine for
anything except piano. I can open wine bottles with it. It’s just that
my fourth and fifth fingers close up when they’re extended."
I learn from Graffman that Curtis has no left-hand-only piano
students, and he conjectures that none would be accepted. "The
repertoire is not big enough," he says. Furthermore, he can think of
no advantages in playing piano for left hand alone.
However, he says that Curtis is not fundamentally prejudiced against
one-armed music students. "We have a violinist whose right arm is
missing below the shoulder. That’s how he was born. He has a metal
device that grasps the bow. He passed the audition because everybody
picked him out as outstanding when we played the tapes. He’s half
Thai, and half Chinese, and comes from Canada. His name is Adrian
Anantawan." Maybe it will become as well-known as Graffman’s.
Richardson Auditorium, Saturday, March 5. For tickets and information
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.