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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
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
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
Fortunately, Fiorillo could grasp material without having it
His method was to observe what Horowitz did. "I learned more about
production of sound than anything else," Fiorillo says.
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
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
Today, Fiorillo is not quite sure why his lessons with Horowitz were
useful. "You can learn from somebody just because of their
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
in the early 1960s, Fiorillo feared that the military draft would
define his career options. However, he came up with an ingenious
"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
After his discharge in 1965 Fiorillo became artist in
residence and chairman of the piano department at Mount Holyoke
in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Since 1966 he has been a faculty
at Philadelphia’s Temple University. There he met his future wife.
An attorney now, she was Fiorillo’s student in a master’s degree
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
"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
Fiorillo is in demand outside of Philadelphia for his workshops and
master classes. In addition to his academic activities he has
and recorded. For 17 years, with his violinist colleague Helen
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
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
"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.
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
for the participants. It would be beyond his capacities, Horowitz-like
to call the event off because he didn’t feel like teaching. Four
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
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
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
"It’s bad politics to criticize the participants’ teachers,"
he says. "If I did, it could be brutal. It could be an
to both teacher and student. If you attack a participant, it’s a
thing. That’s not the purpose of a master class." When it comes
to sensitivity, Fiorillo has outdistanced Horowitz, his esteemed
— Elaine Strauss
Alexander Fiorillo Master Class, Steinway Society,
Plainsboro, 609-951-9553. Call for location. $15 donation; $5
Sunday, January 18, 5 p.m.
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