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From the hand of Horowitz

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on January 14, 1998. All rights reserved.

When pianist Alexander Fiorillo began his studies with that legend of

the keyboard, Vladimir Horowitz, in 1960, Horowitz was in the midst of

his second retirement from the stage. In all, Horowitz quit performing

four times, giving his fans as much as 12 years at a stretch to

develop the pent-up enthusiasm for his playing that would explode at

each comeback. The basis for that enthusiasm was recognized, even by

his detractors. Everyone agreed that the temperamental Horowitz

possessed a phenomenally powerful technique, that he handled the piano

as if it was an orchestra, and that he could produce sonorities that

ranged from the monumental to the delicate, and from the soulful to

the brilliant. For six decades Horowitz tantalized concertgoers. Born

in 1903 in Kiev, Ukraine, he made his Berlin debut in 1926 and was

active musically until his death in 1989. On tour, he traveled

with a cook who spared him from hotel food, a machine for purifying

water, and his own personal piano to save him from having to perform

on the instruments available in the halls where he played. Such

eccentricities helped make him a celebrity.

During the course of his life, Horowitz had only five or six students,

all duly listed in his New York Times obituary. Alexander Fiorillo,

who gives a master class for the Steinway Society Sunday, January

18, at 5 p.m., at the home of president Mari Molenaar, was included.

Fiorillo says that he learned a great deal from Horowitz. Candidly,

he explains that Horowitz was not a gifted pedagogue, but that he,

Fiorillo, had the determination to extract musical insights from the

notably difficult artist.

Interviewed by telephone from his home in Philadelphia, Fiorillo talks

freely about his studies with Horowitz from 1960 to 1962."When I went

to him," says Fiorillo, "I was 20. I was his only student at that

time. I auditioned. It was arranged through the Steinway Piano

Company."

For the student who worked with Horowitz emotional resilience was

a necessity. "Horowitz was not a teacher," says Fiorillo,

"he was an artist."

Fiorillo maintained his serenity in what might have

been a turbulent relationship. "I had to show restraint,"

he says. "Horowitz was very self-centered. I learned a huge amount

as a pianist and as a musician, but it required patience and an

enormous

amount of fortitude on my part. Sometimes I would come to New York

from Philadelphia and he wouldn’t feel like teaching that day, so

I would go home without a lesson. His criticisms were sometimes very

meaningful, and sometimes inconsistent. He would make a suggestion,

and when I followed it the next week, he would ask where that idea

came from. At that time, you wouldn’t argue with a teacher, so I just

kept quiet."

Fortunately, Fiorillo could grasp material without having it

explained.

His method was to observe what Horowitz did. "I learned more about

production of sound than anything else," Fiorillo says.

"Horowitz

had a wonderful concept of color, of the range of the piano, of how

to orchestrate the instrument, how to produce and project sound. He

had an ability to play work with the awareness of structure, even

though he played spontaneously. One of his first criticisms of my

playing was that I had to learn more about structure and continuity

in romantic music. My first assignment was the first book of Chopin’s

Etudes." This cleverly devised, musically inspired collection

of pianistic challenges offers pianists the opportunity to display

their ability to handle formidable technical difficulties in a context

of musical beauty.

Horowitz made no attempt to cover the literature for the piano, or

to analyze it. "Basically, we avoided the classical and

baroque,"

says Fiorillo, "because those were not his strengths. We worked

in the 19th century. His demonstrations were marvelous. Fortunately,

I had the sensitivity to figure it out. Horowitz was not terribly

analytical. But I was inquisitive, and scholarly enough to take the

information home and figure it out."

A circle of supporters encouraged Fiorillo during his studies with

the titanic Horowitz. "I was warned not to lose my identity,"

he says. "A person of Horowitz’s strength could overwhelm somebody

and lead him to become a clone. I ended up incorporating what Horowitz

offered in my playing, rather than replacing my technique with his.

If you were not advanced enough, studying with him would not be useful

at all."

Today, Fiorillo is not quite sure why his lessons with Horowitz were

useful. "You can learn from somebody just because of their

presence.

Horowitz had unbelievable charisma. My awareness became greater, I

don’t know why. Often, coming home from lessons I would be on a real

high, just from being with him. Sometimes I would be depressed."

Fiorillo attributes the emotional toll that Horowitz exacted to the

genius of the legendary pianist. "You have to give a tremendous

amount when you work with somebody of that magnitude," Fiorillo

says. "It goes with the territory. People of that genius are often

difficult; they have that temperament. I don’t think they really try

to control things, but they do."

A Philadelphia native, Fiorillo was irresistibly drawn to the piano

when, at about eight, he saw the movie about Chopin’s life and death,

"A Song to Remember." He volunteers, almost 50 years after

the event, that it starred Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon. When he

was 11 he auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra. At 12 he made

his debut with the orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from the Philadelphia Musical

Academy

in the early 1960s, Fiorillo feared that the military draft would

define his career options. However, he came up with an ingenious

solution.

"Rather than be drafted, I enlisted," he says. He had the

foresight to audition as pianist for the United States Army Band and

Chorus in Washington, D.C., before joining the service in 1962. "I

did basic training, which is the real army," he says. "After

that, it was professional. I was in the army, but I lived in my own

apartment. My army position was pretty much a part-time thing. I had

a great deal of free time, so I got a master’s degree and taught at

Catholic University while I was in the army. With all of that I was

busy."

After his discharge in 1965 Fiorillo became artist in

residence and chairman of the piano department at Mount Holyoke

College

in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Since 1966 he has been a faculty

member

at Philadelphia’s Temple University. There he met his future wife.

An attorney now, she was Fiorillo’s student in a master’s degree

program.

The couple has three grown sons and a daughter.

Fiorillo’s wife may have turned away from the piano because of what

Fiorillo defines as the main problems of the pianist’s existence.

He starts with the need for lonely perseverance and exacting

discipline.

"You’re sitting in a room six to eight hours a day by yourself.

Then there’s the difficulty of making a career. For some people it

never happens. It’s not like law school or medical school. In law

or medicine you’re pretty sure of being recognized. But there are

a lot of wonderful pianists who never had the opportunity to be

recognized."

Fiorillo is in demand outside of Philadelphia for his workshops and

master classes. In addition to his academic activities he has

concertized

and recorded. For 17 years, with his violinist colleague Helen

Kwalwasser,

he was a member of the Temple Trio, which disbanded three years ago.

"We went through three cellists," Fiorillo says. "Our

last cellist, who was a winner of the Tchaikovsky competition, decided

to go back to Japan."

Recently named Cultural Ambassador to Russia by People to People

International,

Fiorillo will lead a delegation to Moscow and Saint Petersburg in

October. He will give master classes and play recitals in both cities.

The group will consist of 20 to 30 participants whom Fiorillo will

select. The delegation will attend ballet and opera, and visit museums

and musical professionals. Participants are expected to have some

musical background, but will be under no pressure to perform. Those

interested in participating should contact Fiorillo at Rock Hall,

Temple University, Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19144.

Fiorillo’s training at the piano has been in the Russian approach

to the instrument. He advocates slow practice at all stages of working

on a piece. "From the beginning to the finished product,"

he says, "slow practice allows you to think clearly. It allows

your fingers to be even and play to the bottom of the key, eliminating

a superficial approach to playing. That’s very Russian."

Fiorillo’s work habits prevent the boredom that comes from mindless

practicing. "I advocate a great deal of practice away from the

piano, both conceptually and musically," he says, "in order

to have prior knowledge of what I’m going to play before I play it.

To memorize, it’s crucial to spend time away from the piano in order

to understand the printed page." Fiorillo constantly reviews and

re-evaluates what he plays. "When you play a piece for 30 years,

you must look for novel things that are stylistically correct. You

could live with music for a lifetime and not really know it. That’s

the fun of it."

Beyond the piano, Fiorillo’s greatest enthusiasm is golf. He wouldn’t

have minded becoming a professional golfer. "Maybe," he

speculates,

"if I put in as many hours at golf as I did at piano it would

have worked out."

In judging the success of a performance, Fiorillo turns

subjective. "You know from within," he says. "You can’t

hide a bad performance from yourself or the audience." He thinks

that the performer’s evaluation is transparent to his listeners.

"You

can try to be as pleasant to the audience as possible, but they know

if you think it has been a bad performance."

Fiorillo is committed to making his master class a constructive

experience

for the participants. It would be beyond his capacities, Horowitz-like

to call the event off because he didn’t feel like teaching. Four

student

pianists have been selected, after submitting audio tapes, to play

in the class. Pacien Mazzagatti, a former student of Fiorillo’s who

now studies with Constance Keene at the Manhattan School of Music,

plays the Chopin Barcarole. Melissa Falb, former student of

Princeton’s

Phyllis Lehrer, plays the first movement of the Mozart Sonata in C

minor, K. 457. Anita Yu, a Lehrer student, plays Bach’s Chromatic

Fantasy and Karen Chan, a student of Princeton’s Ingrid Clarfield,

plays Haydn’s Sonata No. 52 in E flat major.

Veteran purveyor of master classes that he is, Fiorillo has a thorough

grasp of these public piano lessons as a means to offer instruction

to participants, and entertainment to viewers. "I will make

criticisms

and demonstrate my ideas," says Fiorillo, "from both physical

and musical standpoints. The participants in the master class need

a certain degree of accomplishment to understand what I’m saying.

They have to be at certain level to be able to do things on the spot.

Hopefully they will go home with something new and useful. I don’t

interfere with what the master class participants have been taught;

I add my insights."

Fiorillo is on to both the politics and the psychology of master

classes.

"It’s bad politics to criticize the participants’ teachers,"

he says. "If I did, it could be brutal. It could be an

embarrassment

to both teacher and student. If you attack a participant, it’s a

personal

thing. That’s not the purpose of a master class." When it comes

to sensitivity, Fiorillo has outdistanced Horowitz, his esteemed

mentor,

by far.

— Elaine Strauss

Alexander Fiorillo Master Class, Steinway Society,

Plainsboro, 609-951-9553. Call for location. $15 donation; $5

students.

Sunday, January 18, 5 p.m.


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