Gary Graffman

Photo by Carol Rosegg

Photo by Carol Rosegg


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Gary Graffman has been associated with the Curtis Institute since 1936. At the age of seven, he was accepted as a pupil of Isabelle Vengerova. President and director for over two decades, Graffman has taught, amongst others, Yuja Wang, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Haochen Zhang, and of course, Lang Lang. A friend to the late Julius Katchen, Eugene Istomin, and Mstislav Rostropovich, Graffman has seen and heard the likes of Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Kapell, Tatum, and Vladimir Horowitz, who was his teacher. Sony has released the complete recordings of Gary Graffman on the occasion of his 85th birthday. Below is a transcript of our recent conversation with the legendary pianist, Gary Graffman.

EH: With the decline of arts-funding in the United States, how would you describe the importance of the musical traditions from which you come, and immersing one’s life in the arts ?

Graffman: This is one of the most important issues today, especially with the closing of the New York City Opera. My father’s first job in America was being the concertmaster of the Minneapolis Orchestra, so the matter is very dear to my heart. But let’s put things in perspective.

When I was of the age of the kids who are now graduating from Curtis, Juilliard, etc., there was not one orchestra in America that played and was paid 52 weeks a year. Obviously, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York were paid very well, but most orchestras played only 20-24 weeks or so, and thus, players were not paid very much. It was barely enough to get by – you were perhaps lower-middle class or so - and you had to do other things. In New York, if I remember correctly, playing for Broadway shows actually paid more than playing for the orchestra. Nobody remembers this, and it’s not often told!

Gradually, orchestras played more, and then there were pullbacks. But the main problem - and it’s not just in music, it’s in education and all of the arts - is the American public school system. With few exceptions, unless you attend an upscale private school, they really are not very good. Many of the kids read, but they don’t necessarily write very well. They don’t know languages, and the arts are not even mentioned. It’s certainly not their fault that they aren’t exposed to anything. A class might visit a museum for one day and that will be the extent of their exposure to art. Can you imagine what they’re missing ?

I’ve traveled quite a bit in my life, and I’ve been to different parts of China thirty-six times – only twelve of these for concerts or masterclasses. I read in the Financial Times recently that fifty million Chinese children are learning to play the piano, which means another fifty million are probably learning the strings. Another group is learning ballet, singing, the other orchestral instruments, etc. Only a small percentage of these children will ever make a living from any of this. But compare this with many American youths today who’ve never even heard of Haydn.

EH: Speaking of the young, some audiences have noted a uniformity of sound amongst artists of this generation. Can you comment on the sort of intensity and devotion to tonal beauty of your generation? Is what we’re hearing simply where the sound of the piano must go ?

Graffman: In the last few days, I have spoken with or have e-mailed several of my students: there’s been Lang Lang, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Yuja Wang, and Zhang Haochen. These are four very different artists, totally different human beings, great talents, of course, and I know their playing very well. Without looking, if they each played a Beethoven sonata that I’ve never heard them play, I would know exactly who was doing what.

Now, one must not generalize when there are so many areas to consider. We can go back to the idea that the Germans are, theoretically, more interested in the architecture of a piece, that the Russians are more interested in the sound - sound for the sake of sound, etc. – and I imagine there was a big difference until the Russian Revolution.

We know that after the Revolution, after Hitler, there was a great displacement, and a vast majority of these musicians came to the United States. One group settled somewhere between Washington and Boston; the other settled in the Los Angeles area - composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and many others. In L.A., there was a violinist there by the name of Heifetz and a cellist by the name of Piatigorsky; in New York, we had pianists like Schnabel and Serkin, and Horowitz and Rubinstein. One of my best friends was a student of Schnabel, another worked with Serkin, and we would often play for each other, criticizing one another, sharing what we had learned from our teachers, who had very different ideas.

When I was studying at Curtis with Vengerova, a student of Leschetizky – the so-called Russian method – you could play a single note and it could be interpreted as ‘banging’, unless it was Prokofieff or something. It would start with a raised eyebrow, and then she’d start screaming and yelling in Russian, French and English! For her, sound, sound, sound, was number-one. Of course, everything else had to be there too!

You know, I make most of my students sing, especially in lyrical passages, even if I can’t sing (laughs). If you sing it, you can see where you need to breathe, where the main beat is, how to phrase, etc. With the bass figure, I have them think sometimes of a cello or a bassoon, I make them think of orchestral instruments, etc. If you think along these lines, you do get a better sound. Sound is not simply the striking of the note: it’s the relationship with what happens before and after.

When I first started teaching at Curtis – I became the director in 1986 – I found that unlike the orchestra players, who also played in string quartets and quintets, the pianists were sort of left to the background. The piano students were supposed to play at least some chamber music, but many of them would try to get out of this. So I started a piano seminar where they would play, not only for their own teachers, but for other teachers, in order to get a second opinion. There are many instruments and methods to consider, there’s certainly more than one approach, and one cannot generalize and say ‘it must be this way and not another’.

EH: It is the duty of performers to be as faithful to the score as possible: is it possible for great performers – and you’ve heard them all - to surpass the vision of the composer ?

Graffman: That’s a good question. Of course, that depends on the ideas and ideals of the performer. I was brought up and influenced more by Serkin, who I worked with at Marlboro, to respect the score. Now, some people do this to a totally pedantic point; others use it as a guideline, a very strict guideline. If you take the Waldstein or the Appassionata, a work recorded by Horowitz, Rubinstein, Schnabel, and Serkin, they all sound completely different. Beethoven writes pp, they all play pp, and yet, the playing is totally different!

I also learned from Serkin to seek out manuscripts and first editions. Of course, even here you can find differences and errors. When I was studying Chopin, we used the Mikuli and Joseffy (who studied with Liszt) editions. Venegorva preferred the Mikuli, who was a student of Chopin. The Paderewski edition then came out, and there you could find differences in the English, French, and German translations (laughs)! So once the composer’s indications are in front of you, one must use good sense and taste. Horowitz, Rubinstein, Schnabel and Serkin took very minor liberties from the score, and these became very important differences. But they certainly didn’t start by going off into left-field!

EH: On the subject of liberties and differences, it is impossible to be unanimous with audiences and critics. One pianist who seems to take more heat than most is your pupil, Lang Lang. Many people would love to hear your thoughts on his musical development with the public over the years.

Graffman: When Lang Lang was thirteen, he sent me a recording of his playing of the Chopin Second Concerto, with which he had won the Tchaikovsky competition for young artists in Asia. I thought the playing was beautiful, he was very talented, but of course, many, many people send me these sort of things. So I thanked him for the video, told him I enjoyed it, but said it had nothing to do with entering Curtis. I told him he had to come and audition and play the repertoire that was required of everybody else. He responded, saying he had already applied, and included a video of his playing the 24 Chopin Etudes. Now these were quite unbelievable (laughs)!

Some things were unformed then, and some things have developed over time, but nevertheless, this was a super, major talent. You know, when he came to Curtis, within six months, he played a student recital that included the Schumann Fantasy. Now usually, as you know, this is a piece for older folks, and I remember he had some technical problems – it’s incredibly difficult to have a good in-concert batting average with those leaps in the second movement (laughs) – but everything was impeccable and beautiful.

Yes, people can have a difference of opinion. People forget that at the time, when he was simply a very talented kid who may have had a chance at a career, that he had no box-office! Nobody had heard of him, and nobody would have known to attend any his concerts. And yet, every conductor that he played for - from the most flamboyant to the strictest, and everybody else in between – said, ‘My God, this is one of the biggest talents we’ve heard in years!’.

The way it’s been done for years, when conductors hear a young talent they like, they’ll say, ‘I would like to hear them again in a year’ or ‘I’ll put them in a youth-concert’. But that wasn’t the case with Lang Lang. Every one of these people changed their major programs for the following season to get him in. I had never seen a thing like that in my life! Everybody naturally criticized him for this and for that, but in the end, these people could see through it all; they saw what was really there.

Now, I wouldn’t allow Lang Lang to enter competitions, and actually, I told Yuja Wang the same thing: it wasn’t necessary for them. I remember having discussions with Lang Lang’s father about it, and we weren’t always of the same opinion. I told him if things didn’t work out, that he could enter them when he was older.

Lang Lang has received horrible reviews, and in many different cities. I think part of it comes from a bit of jealousy. When people see that he has 150 concerts every year, at a fee that only some opera divas used to get (or now get), they begin to ask questions, ‘why does he deserve it and not others ?’, ‘why is life so unfair ?’. As far as critics are concerned, when I was growing up, there were many newspapers – New York had five or six – and reviews could be read the very next morning. There’d be a fantastic review in one, a terrible one in another, and the rest would voice an opinion somewhere in the middle. It’s worth mentioning that Leonard Bernstein almost never got a good review in New York!

Some critics are very good friends of mine, some are extremely knowledgeable – maybe even more so in this generation – and they have their likes and dislikes. I once performed the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto in Boston, and Walter Piston was in the audience – Leon Kirchner was there premiering a work as well – and instead of avoiding me after the concert, Piston came right up and said, “How can you play such junk ?!”, and walked off (laughs).

EH: Speaking of Rachmaninoff, in your book, I Really Should be Practicing, you mention having heard Rachmaninoff and Josef Hofmann in concert. Do you have vivid memories of these events ?

Graffman: Rachmaninoff, I never met more than backstage, shaking hands. But I did see him a lot because I lived on 92nd and Amsterdam, and he lived not too far away. So I would walk from my house, a few blocks to Riverside, and I might be playing sports with my friends or whatever, and I’d see him walking around there. I admired him tremendously. I was very young when I heard him in concert, too young to remember any details about his playing, unfortunately.

Hofmann was another idol of mine, and he was the director at Curtis at the time. I remember I was seven or so, and not scared of anything. I walked right up to him one day, and said in Russian, “I’m glad to meet you”. Now, like many other languages, Russian has a formal and an informal, and I only knew the familiar. So I basically said, “Hey you!” to Josef Hofmann, and he thought this little twerp was the funniest thing in the world. I never played for him, though (laughs).

EH: Growing up in New York, did you ever have the chance to hear Art Tatum ?

Graffman: Yes, I actually met him once in my life. We shook hands. My goodness, I admired him so much. I used to make copies of his recordings and give them to many of my friends (laughs). Tatum was absolutely incredible. His playing was unbelievable, and I know Horowitz admired him greatly.

EH: On the subject of Horowitz, people often talk of the incredible repertoire he never recorded. I’m curious to know if he played a lot of Medtner for you at your lessons.

Graffman: I played for Horowitz almost every week for a year - so about forty or forty-five times - and then at least once per month for three years after that. We spoke on the phone often in the years after that as well. You know, I just received the latest Carnegie Hall set of his, and it certainly brings back memories. I’ve only had time to listen to one disc so far, but I was physically at most of those concerts!

He played a tremendous amount of Medtner for me. He looked at me in disbelief and said, “You don’t know Medtner ?!(laughs). He played for me parts of all of the concertos, parts of many of the sonatas, and countless, countless short pieces. The only thing I could never figure out was why didn’t he record any of it! He would say “RCA thinks it won’t sell”. The first American performances of the Prokofieff Sonatas, No. 6, 7, and 8, as you know, were done by him at Carnegie Hall, and I was there for those as well. But he only recorded the Seventh, and it’s such a waste! Another composer he promoted and recorded was Scriabin, but many of the pieces that he played for me, fantastically well and beautifully, were never recorded either!

EH: Yes, it hurts just to think of it. If I’m not mistaken, you were actually present at Glenn Gould's Town Hall debut ?

Graffman: I was there! Now, I’ve probably already told every anecdote that I have about Glenn, but we first met after his Town Hall debut. Mrs. Levintritt was sort-of the host of many of these after-concert parties, and she was very much a part of the Serkin, Busch, Szell, Steinberg group. Nobody was more involved than she was in the starting of Marlboro, with Serkin, of course. Now Glenn had a good friend, a musicologist, Harvey Olnick, who also lived in Toronto, and he knew Mrs. Levintritt. He called her and said, “I have a friend here who’s making his debut, but he doesn’t know anyone in New York. Can you do anything for him ?”. So Mrs. Levintritt made a reception for Glenn, who was supposed to be this exceptional Canadian pianist.

So I went to the concert with one of my best friends, Eugene Istomin, and you know, at the time, people still wore clothes for concerts: either white-tie at night, or at least a black tuxedo or something (laughs). But out comes this guy on stage, he wore a business suit, at least, but he had his hands in his pockets. He sits down, plays three notes, and immediately, he had our attention. Everything just made sense! It was absolutely remarkable. Eugene and I looked at each other and knew.

At the reception, Glenn was eventually introduced to us, and he looked at us and said, “You play Chopin!”. I remember he was drinking water from a bottle he had brought from Toronto. He didn't want to drink anyone else's, and we knew then he was a little eccentric (laughs).

Later on, in the late 50s, I was making my debut in Berlin, and he happened to be making his as well. We were both practicing at the Steinway place, and we bonded and had dinner together. Now, Berlin at the time was a destroyed city, divided into Russian, American, French, and English sectors. In the French quarter, I ended up ordering snails. I remember he ordered a well-done steak and vegetables that were boiled to the point of having little or no taste (laughs). They brought me the snails, and I said jokingly, “Glenn, I hope this doesn’t disgust you”, and he replied, in all seriousness, “That’s alright, I won’t look”, and turned away. That’s how he was! I was in Boston being treated for my hand-condition in 1982, and that’s where I heard about his death. I’m sad to say we didn’t see very much of each other in those years.

EH: Many of the great pianists and composers of the past recommended the study of other art forms to help with the music-making. For you, what is the link between the various art forms and how does it help with the music-making ?

Graffman: For Rostropovich, who taught at Curtis and was a friend of mine, it was absolutely necessary for students studying Debussy or Ravel to know the French painters of the time. When Vengerova gave me Debussy’s Estampes, I was fifteen or so, and I learned Pagodes, as you know, the first of the set. But I couldn’t figure out what the word was; I thought it was an Eastern temple or something (laughs). So I learned all the notes and played it, but I didn’t figure it out until I read about what was happening in Paris at the time. Not only had many Chinese and Japanese groups come to Paris, but an Indonesian gamelan orchestra had arrived as well. It was pure gamelan music! And then it totally made sense to me, immediately. I mentioned this piece to a fifteen year-old Indonesian student once, and she said, “Yes, of course that’s what it is!(laughs).

EH: I would love to hear your thoughts on the wonderful, comprehensive recordings of yours that have just been released.

Graffman: You know, Lang Lang was actually in New York a few months ago, and we went for dinner. He says to me, “Isn’t it wonderful?!”, and I said, “Isn’t what wonderful?”. I had no idea they were doing this – nobody had told me! I’m obviously very delighted. Most of my concerto recordings have been available on compact disc, but a lot of the solo stuff has not. Speaking of concertos, I believe at the time, I may have been the only soloist to record with all five of the so-called ‘big orchestras’ – no disrespect intended to San Francisco and Los Angeles. I haven’t had time to listen to all of it – I probably only received it a few days before you did (laughs) – but I’m very, very pleased.

EH: You’ve recommended the study of the Chopin Etudes as early as possible for talented students. I ask every pianist – because every pianist’s hand is a bit different - which Chopin Etude has given yours the most trouble over the years ?

Graffman: Because I don’t have a very large hand, Op. 10 No. 1 and No. 2. Rubinstein, who I know knew everything from Chopin, never recorded these either. But now at Curtis auditions, I hear kids with small hands playing these pieces like it’s Frère Jacques (laughs).

EH: Mr. Graffman, it’s been an honor and a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time.

Graffman: Thank you, Elijah. It was very nice talking with you.