Jerome Lowenthal

Photo by Alex Fedorov

Photo by Alex Fedorov

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A student of William Kapell, Eduard Steuermann, and Alfred Cortot, Jerome Lowenthal made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of thirteen in 1945. Since 1991, Mr. Lowenthal has taught at the Juilliard School, sharing the learned secrets of legitimate music-making with generations of pianists. He has recorded for RCA, Columbia, Bridge Records, and Arabesque. His latest album can be found on the new label, LP Classics. Below is the complete transcript of our August 13, 2012 conversation with Jerome Lowenthal.

EH: I’ve been told that you adore French culture and you actually majored in French literature. What elements of French culture appeal to you, and how difficult was it to manage serious piano-playing at the same time ?

Lowenthal: French literature came as a revelation. You know, I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania and I was not planning to be a music major. I thought vaguely that I would be an English major. But I was taking a course in French, and there was a textbook we used for a course called Contes modernes. It has a story, La Chambre, by Jean-Paul Sartre from the collection, Le mur, an early story of Proust, La confession d’une jeune fille, André Gide’s Le retour de l’enfant prodigue, the first chapter of Malraux’s La condition humaine, and the last chapter of Camus’ L’ étranger. This was in 1950, so those were quite recent things, particularly the Camus and the Sartre. And there were other things in the book also, but those were the ones I remember as having just electrified me. Later, when I asked myself, ‘How did I get myself on this path ?’, well, it was kind of an accident.

I remember - to use somebody else’s phrase - that shock of recognition I had when I read these things. And I immediately decided that I must become a French major. Now once I became a French major, my interest very much expanded. I remained fashionably existentialist, but I came to love Racine, Stendhal, Villon, Marivaux and many other writers. I continue to do a great deal of my reading in French. Of course, I’ve always loved French music, but it wasn’t through the music that I took this path.

As for how I did that, well, you know, that was what I wanted to do! I was not at all unique in the music profession in doing undergraduate studies at a university. I can name a lot of people who did that: Yo-Yo Ma famously went to Harvard, Gary Graffman went to Columbia, my friend Ursula Oppens went to Harvard, and Charles Rosen, I think, has a Ph.D in French literature. Today, I have some brilliant pupils who are Columbia-Juilliard students - that is to say, they have this joint program - and that really is harder than what I did. I did take, in my second year, an elective in Counterpoint, which was actually very meaningful for me. I had studied harmony rather thoroughly in my high-school years and even in my childhood.

EH: Why did all the great musicians of renown consistently emphasize the study of other art forms in order to help the music-making, to reach higher levels of artistic expression and possibility? What is the link between the various art forms ?

Lowenthal: Yes, well, I think something a little bit nuanced on this subject. You see, I don’t think that everybody is helped by knowing other arts. I think you’re helped if you are interested. That’s true of knowledge in general. I also think that the more talent you have, the less knowledge you need – which, however, does not mean that the more talent you have, the less knowledge will be helpful to you.

So let’s say that if you do respond to this kind of knowledge, then you are stimulated by the suggestions and the evocations of it. For me, as I made clear, I am very responsive to literature, and sometimes that relationship between music and literature is quite direct – particularly in playing, say, Romantic piano literature. I find it helpful to have read Senancour in order to play Vallée d'Obermann, or to have read Victor Hugo in order to play Mazeppa or Après une lecture de Dante. But of course, it goes deeper than that. It’s a matter of sensibility.

To talk about direct relationships, Schumann is a case where there is a very direct relationship with literature: German romantic literature. I don’t know much German, but I make an effort to read Jean Paul because that suggests things for me in Schumann. And there are more subtle relationships, of zeitgeist or even of phrasing. One can learn about rhythmic phrasing in Schubert by considering the use of the dactyl in Homer and Virgil. Or Cole Porter as a lyricist: what he does with the phrase ending “Letts do it”, linking it to the phrase opening “Let’s do it” can be helpful in phrasing the second theme of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto.

The visual arts, too, can be helpful to pianists: directly, as with Raphael and Liszt’s Sposalizio or Watteau and Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse, and more subtly, as by the affinities between Kandinsky and Schoenberg. All these relationships, affinities and analogies are stimulating and useful to me, and I use them in my teaching. Bu they only work if they mean something to the performer.

EH: Speaking of performers, the great American pianist, William Kapell, is someone who occupies a very special place in your heart. From hearing and reading descriptions of him, he was a bit of a rough character, but also an artist of great intuition, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness. What was Mr. Kapell like as a man and as a teacher ?

Lowenthal: I’m happy to answer that. Yes, he could be difficult, but he was very, very sweet, and wonderfully generous. If he liked the way I played in lessons, it was just wonderful. If he didn’t, he said so. He was coiled up, like an electric spring. In 1983, I participated in a memorial program put together by his widow, the beautiful and brilliant Anna-Lou De Havenon. (Incidentally, Anna-Lou died recently and there will be a memorial for her on September 27th). But back to 1983, at the end of the program, they showed a kinescope of his 1953 appearance on the TV show, Omnibus. One of the pieces he played on this program was the Chopin opus 55 E flat nocturne. Four measures before the end, there is a 6/4 cadence on which Kapell somewhat incorrectly (forgive me, teacher) lifted the pedal. Immediately, the narrator, Alistair Cooke, rushed in with foolish impetuosity, declaring, “And now, Mr. Kapell will play…” But he got no further. Kapell turned to Cooke with a look of such ferocity that I thought the screen would burn up. And then he finished the Nocturne. When I saw this, I remembered what he was really like – something that I had forgotten or censored out of my memory – how intense a presence he was and how scared I was of him. That extraordinary intensity – it was an intensity of devotion, an intensity of integrity. There was anger, too, but that was only part of Willy Kapell’s spirit – the spirit of a great artist.

As for his sweetness and the seriousness with which he treated other people, I was telling my students, this summer, an anecdote from 1952. They (my students in Santa Barbara) had started calling me Jerry and asked me nervously how I felt about that. So I had to tell them this story. Kapell and his family rented a home in Westwood, California, and his other student, Joel Rice, and I went out to be with him for the summer. We rented a place in Santa Monica. And one weekend, Kapell was about to go to Philadelphia to play the Rachmaninoff Third. It was generally a summer in which he didn’t play - it was sort of a sabbatical - but he did play a couple of concerts. And his wife took that weekend to visit her family in Oregon, left him alone for a day or two. It was just then that the cleaning woman took the opportunity to drink a bottle of wood alcohol and went sort of crazy - picked up a knife and lunged at him. He was, as you can imagine, frightened. He called the police and they took her away. And then he called a friend of his, named Laura, and asked her to come over. She did, and they called us, Joel and me, and asked us to come over. And we spent the night sitting up talking. Now, I wish I could remember what we talked about - I have no idea (laughs). And in the morning, Laura drove us all out to the airport. You came to the plane from the outside, so we said goodbye to him, and he walked with his rather jerky walk, to this step-ladder, up the steps, and disappeared into the plane.

Suddenly, he reemerged, walked down the steps, came over to us, and said, “Don’t call me Mr. Kapell anymore. From now on, it’s Jerry and Joel, and Willy and Laura,”. And then he walked back into the plane. That really was what he was like. Another story, which I recalled a few years ago when I was taking a taxi to the Newark airport - it was the tunnel that reminded me: I had had a long lesson with Willy, but he had to leave for the Newark airport before finishing what he wanted to say to me. So he took me in a taxi to the Newark airport and paid the driver to take me home.

You understand, of course, that he was not paid for lessons. So those were the two faces of his personality: tense and knotted, sweet and generous. He was just as sweet as he could be, and generous. He also had a wonderful smile, which was his mother’s smile; she had a beautiful smile. And I haven’t spoken about him as a teacher, but it was the same personality. He loved to play for me. Literally, sometimes he would play for hours if he had the time. He would go through the whole book of Chopin Mazurkas, Schubert Dances, Bach Partitas. Those are the composers I particularly remember.

EH: We’ve seen Mr. Kapell’s house on 94th street, across the street from another great artist. Did he ever speak with you about Vladimir Horowitz, what he thought of him, or the musical nights they must have had together ?

Lowenthal: Horowitz’ last Carnegie Hall concert (before the second retirement) was in ’53. I went with Willy to hear Horowitz about a year before in Philadelphia. It was the same program, except that it started with the Brahms E-flat Rhapsody, which he made a terrible mess of and took it off the program. So I was with Kapell, and it was the first time I had heard Horowitz. It was an amazing concert. Afterward, we passed somebody who said, “Well, Willy, what did you think ?”. And he said, “Excellent concert,”. And as we left, he turned to me and said, “I used to say ‘wonderful’, now I say ‘excellent’, soon I’ll be saying ‘very good’”. I thought that was a very funny comment. Of course he had the greatest admiration for Horowitz. He adored him, but the great inspiration in his playing was from Rubinstein; Schnabel also had a great influence on him.

EH: Many still consider his recording of the Mefisto Waltz the standard. I’m curious to know, did you ever work with Mr. Kapell on the piece ?

Lowenthal: No, I never worked with him on the Mefisto Waltz, and yes, his recording is magnificent. I have a slight quibble - I don't like the borrowings from the Busoni version. Busoni, of course, thought that the piano transcription of the work had been made by Tausig. But he was wrong. Cortot owned the Liszt manuscript and I believe it is now in the Bibliothèque Nationale. Kapell didn't know the Hungarian edition with its two variant additions. The short one is unimportant but I think that the longer one is absolutely worth doing and gives a lovely feeling to the structure.

EH: Do you remember your last meeting with Mr. Kapell ?

Lowenthal: The last time I saw Kapell was at a party given for him in April (I think) by a neighbor with whom he was friendly. I drank too much and when someone asked me to play (it was a large, noisy party), I sat at the piano and think I played the Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody. Kapell passed by and gave me a cynical grimace. The party was a farewell party, as he was going to Israel and Prades. In Israel, by the way, he was entertained in Haifa by Miriam Amir, my future mother-in-law. I have some photos of that party.

After the guests had left, she took him to see the dawn. As for the party in New York, Joel Ryce was there, too, and when we left, Clifford Odets offered to share his taxi with us. He said that he had once begun a play about a pianist. That was not Golden Boy.

But getting back to Kapell, he returned to New York in the summer but I was in Elizabethtown with Fredric Mann and family. He (Willy) called Elizabethtown but I did not get to speak to him. Then he left for Australia.

EH: How did you come to audition for Alfred Cortot ?

Lowenthal: It was July, 1957, and I had just won Second Prize in the Busoni Competition (the First Prize winner was a magical Argentine girl of sixteen), when one of the judges, Nikita Magaloff, came to me very flatteringly and asked about my plans. I told him that I had been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris. "With whom?" he asked. "Marguerite Long," I answered proudly. He made a face: "What do you want to study with that old bag for? If you come to Geneva, I'll bring you to Cortot - but you must play the Hammerklavier," (which I had played in the competition).

So I was off to Geneva. After coffee with Marta, who was about to win the Geneva Competition, I went to Magaloff's home. He finished giving a lesson to Joaquín Achúcarro - who was playing the Prokofieff Third Sonata - and then drove me to Cortot's home outside Lausanne. And so, on a mediocre Pleyel, I played the complete 106 for Cortot, with Magaloff and Mme. Cortot present. When I finished, Cortot was extremely complimentary. If, he said, I were performing the piece that evening in a concert, he would go with pleasure, but, he added, I should understand that he understood the piece rather differently.

He then sat at the piano and, talking all the time, played through the whole sonata. The first movement was Allegro eroico - half my tempo. Magaloff kept interjecting, "Oui, maitre, oui, mais il y a la question du metronome." (Yes, master, yes, but there is the question of the metronome). Cortot was not amused. "Quel metronome?" (What metronome ?) "Le metronome de Beethove” "Ce n'est pas Beethove qui a ecrit ca, c'est Schnabel." (It was not Beethoven who wrote this, it was Schnabel). At this point, Mme. Cortot leaned over to me and said a bit coquettishly, "Monsieur, ne me dites pas que vous admirez Schnabel." (Mister, do not tell me that you admire Schnabel). Schnabel, of course, had been one of Kapell's gods.

Meanwhile, Magaloff: Ah c'est Schnabel. Mais on dit que c'est Beethove. And so it went through the entire sonata, with Magaloff constantly harking back to the metronome. Cortot's performance was, of course, magnificent. The second movement was a dance of elves, the third, appassionato, and the fugue, again, deliberate and eroico.

EH: In the last two-hundred years, there’s been a trend veering away from the performance of contemporary works. Is there a relatively lesser known composer for the piano who, in your opinion, deserves greater attention from performers ?

Lowenthal: I will be making a CD in June for Bridge, with three works by George Rochberg (The Carnival Music, which was written for me, the Partita Variations and the Nach Bach), 12 Bagatelles written by Paul Chihara for my Juilliard class, short pieces by Ned Rorem - 75 notes for Jerry, written for my 75th birthday - and Michael Brown, who was my student at Juilliard. As you know, Rochberg was for a while immensely famous, but there is greatly diminished interest in his work today and I hope I can make a difference in that situation. Chihara is very well known but perhaps underappreciated. Brown will be known, and Rorem, of course, does not need my help.

EH: In an interview on your website, you talk about percussion and the production of tone. How would you explain Vladimir Horowitz’ production of tone, his use of color at the piano ? Horowitz often stated that he was against percussive playing.

Lowenthal: Percussiveness means a hard, ugly sound, but percussion is a technical component of the sound that we want. I said ‘percussion’ in order to define and limit what we’re talking about. Horowitz’ sound was magnificent. It was the product of voicing plus phrasing. And of course, his voicing was very, very extreme. The reason, I think, why other people didn’t sound like Horowitz - when they did his voicing - was because they weren’t able to play with the same power. And for this, I’d actually like to move from Horowitz to Cortot.

I listened to Cortot’s records, and of course, the right-hand is incredible. But let me start with the left-hand. The left-hand is often very, very soft – pianississimo – a mere murmur. And the right-hand has the most amazing coloristic scope. And I think to myself how loud he must have been playing the right-hand in order to get that scope. And of course, it’s the same with Horowitz. When he was playing piano cantabile, he was playing some notes extremely, extremely loud. And when other people did the same kind of extreme voicing, the playing tended to sound small. But with Horowitz, of course, people sort of remember Horowitz’ basses as booming, but most of the time, as I remember, they were often very soft. Occasionally, he would come down and bang on the bass - the brutality that every now and then surfaced, is what I least like about Horowitz, actually. But I’m just saying that. He was matchlessly great.

But the sound per se was wonderfully beautiful. What I probably intended to say is that there are three elements in sound: the first is voicing, the second is phrasing, and the third is the amount of percussion. At this point, I say that percussion is a necessary factor of playing; that is not to say that the tone should be percussive. There are two ways of controlling the percussion in the sound. One is by not hitting the piano. I know that many people say that it doesn’t matter, that the sound of hitting piano gets absorbed. I don’t know why they say it because the sound certainly doesn’t get absorbed for me. If they say, ‘In Carnegie Hall, it doesn’t matter’, that may be true, but we’re not usually playing in Carnegie Hall, and when I hear people clapping down on the piano, it hits me right in the stomach. The other source of percussion in the sound is, I think, the result of an overly direct stroke on the key, which is how to get the hammer on the string in a particular way. Piano technicians have said this to me, it’s not a mystical idea at all. So it’s not at all true that you can’t make a difference in sound with one note, but it is true that the great differences in sound are the result of what you do with many notes, either vertically or horizontally.

EH: People have remarked that the personalities of the past were larger than life. You’ve heard the great artists before you and the ones who have come after. You’ve also stated that “those good old times never existed”. Has there been a change in the way pianists perceive careers, music-making, and devotion towards music ? Are these responsible for the sound of the current generation ?

Lowenthal: You see, tone is character. Tone is not gravy. And for a good artist, it never was. Of course you want the singing tone, but that’s not something that you get as a product, it’s something in relation to the music. I thought you were going to say, “artists used to sound different from one another”, which is quite a different question. They differed from one another by virtue of many things, one of which was the quality of sound. That doesn’t mean that they all sounded like mushroom soup. It’s quite possible that artists did use to differ more from one another than they do, or than they did for a while.

I think what’s happening is a return of individuality of sound. That’s very hard to quantify, but it’s very tempting to say that the phonograph record has homogenized playing, and I think there’s some truth to that. It’s also provided standards. I’m trying to sit on the fence on this, you see, because the kind of playing that used to be tolerable, perhaps, is not anymore because of these standards provided by recordings. But it certainly is true that a lot of people depend on recordings, and I actually deplore this. It’s a losing battle, but I do try to get my students to do this. When we talk about repertoire and I assign a piece or make a suggestion, what usually happens is the student goes and listens to it. Then they’ll come to me and say, ‘Well, I found it boring’. And I say ‘Of course you did, because records are boring’ – I happen to think that, by the way. I’m bored listening to a record, unless I have a particular interest in listening to it a certain way. That’s not an acoustic phenomenon, but I say ‘don’t listen to the record, take the music and play it for yourself’. That’s a very different process.

So, to answer your question, your double-question, do I think that people don’t care enough about beauty of sound ? No, I don’t think that. I certainly hear it all the time, and I hear it very often as a compliment to myself. People come to me, if I give a masterclass, ‘Why is it that when you play the piano, it sounds so different from even your finest students ?’ – now, to the extent of which that’s true, it has to do not with a quantifiable degree of cantabile but rather, the whole approach to music. That’s what makes the sound, and that’s what I believe. I don’t believe that people are less interested in getting a beautiful sound, but I think that some piano teaching does not dwell on the very features which produce the interesting sound. That is to say, on conceptual matters, matters of voicing and phrasing.

But as I say, I’m trying to say different things. Yes, I hear playing in which I don’t like the sound, it’s because the approach to dynamics, to textures… it’s not because the pianists are not moving enough when they’re playing.

EH: Having known and heard so many artists of the past, is it possible for great performers to surpass the vision of a composer ?

Lowenthal: The music has a life of its own and there is no such thing as an authentic performance. Because once the music has taken form, it becomes something else. It’s no longer as it was in the mind of the composer. The writer I like to quote in this matter is Borges, the author of Pierre Menard, the Author of the Quixote. It’s about the fictional writer at the turn of the century who decides to rewrite two chapters of Don Quixote, without changing anything but giving new meaning to every word. Now, that is what we do as performers. But you see, notice ‘without changing anything’. So I’m not saying, because it’s 2012, we play Chopin differently from the way he wrote it. What I’m saying is that it’s necessarily different, and the closer to the score, the better. Now, two questions - let’s say, qualifications - for that.

I tell students, sometimes, ‘can you do something that’s different from what the composer wrote ?’ My answer is, which is a pragmatic, pedagogical answer, “You can, if what you do is better than what the composer wrote,”. That’s rarely the case. The other thing, of course, has to do with time and meaning. It would not be possible or necessary to play Chopin’s Op. 10 No. 3 at Chopin’s metronome; that would sound too fast because the piece has acquired a meaning of its own – in the same way that Op. 10 No. 2, which in my youth and even for Kapell, was enormously fast at Chopin’s marking: 144. Today, no one would play it at 144; it would sound moderato. Those things change. We can, of course, play Op. 10 No. 3 at its rather fast lento. We can even, if we want to, play it according to the manuscript, in which he wrote Vivace over it.

When I hear Ignaz Friedman’s Mazurkas, he really brutalizes the phrasing, bounces around, adds notes, but you feel that he is so inside the style that you just accept everything. Now, when I hear Samson François’ Ravel and hear lots of mis-readings - sharps that should be natural and so forth (laughs) - I feel a little funny about that. But still, it’s wonderful playing! And of course, I mentioned Cortot earlier. We hear his recordings today and you can’t believe how messy his left-hand is! You just can’t believe it sometimes! Somebody told me that Brendel explains that on 78’s, you didn’t hear with such clarity, so he allowed himself to do those things. Well, that’s very interesting, I like it, but not everybody of his period just threw his left-hand and played whatever they felt like (laughs). Of course, that doesn’t keep us away from his beautiful playing.

EH: A question that I ask every pianist, what is the purpose of performance art ?

Lowenthal: It is a pluralistic function. For one of my teachers, Eduard Steuermann – and I’ve known other musicians who felt this way – communication was not really involved. It was an exploration of self. Now, I don’t feel that way. You know, there was an all-Korean masterclass that I was giving in Honolulu, and never mind how I came to this, but I asked a girl there, ‘Was there ever such a thing as a living composer ?’. The translator, who had introduced herself by giving me a copy of her composition, said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question”. Her English was perfect, but she didn’t understand, because even though she herself was a composer, the composer was defined for her as somebody who was dead. So we know, in fact, that composers are always alive, they’re just alive at different times. Some are alive today, some were alive yesterday. So it is self-knowledge through the art we have, which is then communicated to others. The others, for the performer, are an abstraction. You want to communicate to the real people, but you’re not thinking of them individually, and it’s always a mistake to do so. If you have an imaginary audience, you have this very rewarding experience, sometimes, someone who comes backstage and tells you, ‘there was a moment in the Debussy, the Bartok, where I felt you were this and that’. And this corresponds exactly as you felt, and you realize that we do communicate. Of course, this only works if people listen, and you must assume that everyone is listening. But there is the hypothetical audience to whom we are addressing, and we are communicating ourselves through Beethoven, and are thereby communicating Beethoven and the vision of Beethoven.

EH: Professor Lowenthal, thank you very much for taking the time.

Lowenthal: It was a pleasure speaking with you, Elijah. Thank you.