Gary Graffman: I did not allow Lang Lang to enter competitions

February 27, 2018 by norman lebrecht


The former head of Curtis talks to Zsolt Bognar about how to run a music school that nurtures individual talent.

Gary, 90 this year, understands talent from the inside. He was a formidable pianist until a hand injury put paid to his concert career. More than anyone else, he was responsible for the emergence of the young Lang Lang.

‘I was totally against competitions,’ he says. ‘I didn’t allow Lang Lang or Yuja Wang to compete.’


Comments (15)

  1. JoBe says:

    Delightful interview of a delightful man!

  2. Petros Linardos says:

    Thank you very much for bringing this to our attention. The Lang Lang reference in this blog post may trigger more comments, but Graffman has far more interesting things to talk about, and he certainly does. As always, Bognar asks very incisive questions.

    Graffman is one of the last surviving members of a formidable generation of US pianists born in the 20s and 30s. Jerome Lowenthal and Leon Fleisher are still in the spotlight. At 98, Abbey Simon is probably the oldest of them all. Others have died or retired: Kappel, Katchen, Janis… I am very curious about the reasons behind this golden age of American pianism. Any insights?

    1. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Almost all of them were born in the USA of immigrant parents. Most families were Jewish of either Russian or German origin and refugees from the Russian revolution(s) and/or the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Their parents were generally people of culture who encouraged their children to work hard. Gary talks about this phenomenon in his autobiography “I Really should be practicing” where he (through the ghost-writing of his wife Naomi) talks about his development as a piano soloist and life on the road from 1950-1980). The list of teachers included Vengerova (Graffman, Bernstein, etc) and Schnabel (Fleisher, Frank among others). There were concert series in almost every state which sponsored recitals for these young artists immediately after WW II. It was a special era which we are unlikely to experience again. This interview is just a hint of the wealth of piano tradition that Gary Graffman transmits to his students.

    2. steven holloway says:

      It may, of course, just be a statistical cluster, akin to shark attacks. You ask a good question and I must give it thought. The circa 40 years starting in about 1875 that saw the birth of Hoffman, Rubinstein, Serkin, Kempff, Solomon, Cherkassky, the two Fischers, Arrau, Horowitz, Gieseking, Llevinne, Backhaus, Cortot, Moiseiwitsch, Curzon…is truly remarkable. With regard to those, I am inclined to think that the vast difference in education and training in that period may explain it. And the way musicians have been trained since explain why that phenomenon has not recurred. We have had marvels such as Larrocha, Pires, Sokolov, Zimerman, et al., but rather scattered, and what I note about those is their very distinctive casts of mind, distinctive in the sense that those of the pianists listed above were. Unless one thinks that rather strange presentation and either vacuous or perverse performances is in the same category, and I do not, almost all the youngest generation is a very different kettle of fish.

      1. John Kelly says:

        We should perhaps also mention the influence of Olga Samaroff who, while having some Russian heritage was born Lucie Hickenlooper in Texas yet went on to become a great virtuoso pianist (for example played with Tchaikovsky First Concerto under Mahler’s baton) and made many recordings in the 78 era. Married to Stokowski for a while, she injured her arm (unrelated to the marriage) and became a critic and great pedagogue in NY teaching among others William Kappell, Raymond Lewenthal, Rosalind Tureck and Alexis Weissenberg.

        1. steven holloway says:

          And, of course, Isabelle Vengerova — Graffman, Jacob Lateiner, Abbey Simon, Menahem Pressler….

  3. daveferre says:

    Years ago I read his book, “I really should be Practicing” and remember the incident when arriving in Japan for a recital he asked about a practice piano and things got really quiet. Someone then ventured, “are you not ready to play the recital?” I hope this book is still around. A great read!

  4. YoYo Mama says:

    What is perhaps most salient here is the fact that they studied with great pedagogues who were clearly linked to European traditions and cultural milieu. Those two factors are sadly removed now. Graffman did not practice what he preached, as director of the Curtis, hiring “star performers” to teach rather than great pedagogues. And he encouraged the influx of ignorant Asian students with no cultural background. He went with the times instead of standing timeless. And this downward trend to music as business rather than art has only worsened. The baby boomers were the last generation to value art for art’s sake. Now, pedagogues are frowned upon, except as preparatory teachers. And the competitions turn out playing machines, one after another.
    In fact, my teacher, who knew Graffman well, said of him, as a pianist, he’s a very good businessman. And he played that way, very well, very good product. I studied chamber music with him. A congenial presence, with very little to say. His wife, on the other hand, is something of a genius.

    1. Karen says:

      It makes me laugh when I see an American complain about “ignorant Asian students with no cultural background”. Aren’t you the wannabe conductor in the other thread who were refused entry because you can’t play the piano?

    2. boringfileclerk says:

      While I’m not a fan of what Lang Lang has become, he did do much promising work in his youth. To label all Asians as “Having no cultural background” is really uncalled for. They bring a wealth of cultural backgrounds, it just doesn’t happen to be in the Western European tradition. Times and cultural power structures are changing, and as a result, so are our responses to the music of the past.

      As you rightly pointed out, however, much of the fault musically speaking lies with the teachers at top conservatories who are unable, or unwilling to share the Western tradition with their students. Please stop blaming an entire race of people for being something they are not.

      Your point, however, about the decline and disdain for pedagogy is spot on. This is where the problem actually lies, and not with the current cohort of students.

      1. Grazzidad says:

        The phrase “no cultural background” is offensive. But it hints at a larger truth: the most successful conservatory entrants today have started their work on the piano almost from birth, and have practiced madly ever since, working their way through ever more rigorous competitions. What they essentially have is “eventless youths” that instead focus on carefully curated, gradated challenges. Compare that to what, say, Nyiregyhazi went through, not to mention the pianists whose youths were interrupted by the second world war.

        Sitting in a practice room day after day provides a fantastic facility with no broad human experience to call upon.Every now and then a Yuja Wang makes it through, with that special spark. But so many of the others are “merely excellent”.

        1. boringfileclerk says:

          There can only be one Cziffra. All others pale in comparison in their attempts to imitate him.

    3. Fan says:

      Culture is not just background. Culture is inseparable from enculturation. It is not something you are born with: if it is, it will not be “culture” in the first place. Assuming all those Asian students are as “ignorant” as YOYO MAMA says, their attendance of Curtis is part of enculturation process, and that’s part of Curtis’s functions. Culture is much more than antiques and heirlooms for you to put away in your family drawers.

  5. Anonymous says:

    As someone who happens to know this industry from both the performing and management sides, Graffman’s statement confirms:

    1. You must study with a teacher who is influential and have great connections to the managers in order to be signed.
    2. Managers sign artists based on the recommendations of artists they know and value, if it’s not from an engagement deals with competitions.
    3. Stop wasting your time to send promoting materials and emails on your own to the agencies – no one will open or listen to them. The managers are NOT musicians, they do not have the “musical intelligence or ears”.

    It is depressing, but it is the truth. I learned it by watching these people everyday.

  6. Cyril Blair says:

    Interesting insight: how he fears his focal dystonia might have come from playing octaves with the thumb and third finger rather than 1-4 or 1-5.

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