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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"

(Doubleday, 1981).

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

openings.

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

students."

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.

Gary Graffman and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra,

Richardson Auditorium, Saturday, March 5. For tickets and information

call 1-800-ALLEGRO.


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